Sunday, August 2, 2015


Immigration is on my mind. After an eventful year and a half - relocating to Vermont, buying a house, breaking my neck, relearning how to walk, drafting my second novel - I have returned to Frogsbone, and it seems my world is suddenly filled with news stories and conversations about immigration.

Frogsbone is a celebration of the ways in which immigration has forged New York City, and America more widely. In many ways the book is a love letter to the city, a billet doux to the country I now call home.
My novel explores immigration in the context of the early twentieth century, but I am an immigrant too and I share many of my characters' desires to contribute to the life of my new community. Although I am not allowed to engage in paid work, I support a regular community meal, volunteer at the local food shelf, and foster local children in need, and I also strive to bring some of own cultural heritage to the community in which we now live. Last month I hosted a 'Very English Tea Party' for forty local neighbors, introducing them to the glories of English lemonade, sausage rolls, fairy cakes, and a well-made cup of tea.
Elsewhere I've blogged extensively about some of the linguistic challenges of speaking 'English' English rather than 'American' English (and while I like to think I have gained a degree of bilingualism, there continue to be moments when my attempt to explain something is met with blank stares), but my major challenges as an immigrant are bureaucratic. Susanna - the main character in Frogsbone - passes through Ellis Island on her journey into America. There she is scrutinized by doctors and, because of her facial scarring, is remanded for several days before a specialist committee review her case. Inspired by the real-life diaries of Maud Mosher, the Chief Matron of Ellis Island, I explore many of the contemporaneous debates and concerns associated with immigration. More than a hundred years later, I have been medically examined by a civil surgeon who was, I suspect, far more civilized than those Ellis Island doctors who would hook back immigrants' eyes to check for trachoma and chalk letters on people's coats to record their observations. While that part of the process has improved, however, the bureaucracy of immigration has grown exponentially. My partner and I have filled out numerous forms which have been checked and rechecked by ourselves and two different legal teams prior to their submission. I have had my retinas photographed, my finger prints recorded, my own background and that of family members scrutinized in case of possible misdemeanors in our pasts. I have supplied the addresses of six previous houses I have called home and the contact details of numerous employers. Despite my doctorate in Education and the fact I am a native English speaker, I have often felt helpless and overwhelmed. Only imagine how this process must seem to someone for whom English is not a native tongue!
For the past month I have been travelling through Europe: beginning my journey in Italy, riding trains through Germany, the Netherlands and France, and concluding my vacation in London. According to the most widely read of the English newspapers, England faces a 'migrant crisis' with thousands of foreigners 'swarming' through the Channel Tunnel each night. Yesterday, French riot police sprayed immigrants with tear gas in an attempt to subdue them and David Cameron, the English Prime Minister, plans to send English security forces to France to help prevent migrants from crossing the challenge onto English soil.
The determination to prevent people from entering England makes a mockery of the country's history. England has always been a country of immigrants - from the Romans, who built many of the roads which still shape the landscape; the Saxons and Vikings, who have left a legacy of place names; the Normans, who built castles and left behind an aristocracy; the 1950s' Windrush generation who took the jobs no-one else wanted and expanded the Underground railway system upon which London still depends. More recently, England has been shaped (and, I would argue, improved) by skilled migrants from Poland, young people from Spain, and many more. This continuous shift and evolution is a key ingredient in that which makes countries great; it is the dynamic I celebrate in Frogsbone.
The migrants trapped in Calais are desperate to begin their new lives in England. They share the same dreams which all migrants have: the dream of a new life, the hope for something better, the belief that they can build a better world for themselves and their families and their communities if they can have a fresh start. Even Jeb Bush acknowledges the attempt to cross borders into a new country as an 'act of love'. But these people - most of them from war torn African countries where their life chances are limited - are crammed into camps where fresh water is scarce, food is limited, housing is temporary, and resources are absent. This is not a 'migrant crisis', it is an 'humanitarian crisis' and the journey migrants made through Ellis Island in the early 1900s appears civilized and welcoming in comparison.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Contacting Agents

Finishing my manuscript is merely the start of a longer journey. This past week my attention has been focused upon contacting agents.

Janice Hussein's chapter in the 2013 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market advises the hopeful novelist to treat the query as a business proposal. Her advice is pragmatic and precise, stipulating even the recommended weight of paper that one should use if posting the query letter. She outlines the key content of the query: the 'hook' which details what makes your book exciting, different or unusual for the agent; the 'details' which cover the genre, title and setting; the 'overview' summarizing the book's plot; and biographical information relating to the author. It seems that the query is a tool for potentially leveraging the agents' interest.

But agents receive tens, if not hundreds, of queries each day, and case studies of debut authors suggest there are many other factors at play in attracting the attention of an agent: introductions to the agent facilitated by other authors; conference networking and meetings; requests from agents following the publication of earlier writings in well-regarded journals. Without any of these additional influences, query letters are little different from cold-calling.

A good friend of mine, also an aspiring writer, suggested that I should send out the same email to 70 agents in the hope that just one might respond. My optimism and integrity won't allow me to do that. I am meticulously researching each of the agents I approach. I read interviews they have given to various publications, cross-reference their postings on Poets and Writers, Publishers' Marketplace, and other websites, scrutinize every word on their agencies' websites. In particular, I am tailoring my queries towards those agents who have identified an interest in literary fiction and historical fiction, with a strong voice and a narrative drive; preferring to approach agents who already have relationships with writers I admire or with whom I compare my own writing. It's time-consuming work but it feels right for me and for my book.

Of course, there is a suitably meteorological resonance between my sense of 'cold-calling' and the risk that my queries will end up on a 'slush' pile: it's possible that it will be a long, cold winter. But, come the spring, I'll be heading out to meet agents and publishers face-to-face and forging new opportunities for myself. Until then, I'll continue with my researching, I'll optimistically check my email inbox far too frequently, and when the telephone rings at 6pm, as it does most evenings, and the cold caller asks me about my insurance policy or double glazing or willingness to contribute to a dozen nameless charities, I'll remember we're not all that different after all and I'll make sure that I have a smile in my voice when I answer.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The road most traveled

It has been an eventful summer. I have completed the writing of my novel and I have withdrawn from the writing competition which initially prompted this blog.

There is something inherently selfish in completing a novel. I have created a book filled with imagined characters: a scarred girl from Northern England with a fiery temper and a story-teller's tongue; an abandoned young boy who lives in a world filled with polar bears and ice-caps, motor cars and flying machines; a middle-aged Irish cook with a lust for good food and tasty men; a Liverpudlian giantess who thaws the heart of a frozen Slavic serving maid; an eccentric Russian doctor who is the founding member of the New York Optimists' Society. It is a book about immigration and story-telling, a book about how we fictionalize history as a route towards imagining an alternative future, a book about how far we can escape from the truth before it catches hold of us once more.

Alongside the final stages of my writing, I was also imagining my own future: I thought I was destined to take part in a reality television show in which I could showcase my story, improve my craft, and explore ways of marketing my book. I imagined myself as an apprentice to the publishing world, learning valuable lessons from a wide-ranging panel of literary experts. Imagination can be a valuable asset in dreaming of one's possible future, but it is not a reliable planning tool when one is dependent upon the whims of other people. Since May, the competition has changed dramatically: it will no longer be filmed for television, the competition winner will be awarded a prize which has shrunk considerably over the past four months, the format of the show has shifted, and the financial costs of involvement have increased exponentially. Whereas I imagined something akin to American Idol where the judges would coach contestants, it now seems (although it has been difficult to gain any clear information regarding the actual format of the show) that the judges will have little impact upon participants' professional development.

Participation in this competition demands a significant investment of my time and money, and it no longer represents the best possible investment for my own writing career. I don't doubt that this remains a good opportunity for the right person - the winner is guaranteed publication and a national book launch -  but it is no longer the kind of opportunity I want. If I was a successful contestant on American Idol I would be a better singer by the end of the show because of the judges' expert input, I wouldn't only build a brand for a song I could already sing.

I wish the remaining four contestants the best of luck, and I know all their books will be well worth reading. In contrast, it is possible that I am taking the road most traveled: over the coming months I will be following in the footsteps of the majority of first-time novelists, many of whom never reach publication. I will be attending conferences, meeting with agents, and sending out my manuscript (knowing the statistical likelihood of it ending up in a slush pile). I'm one among many, but I have imagination, a hunger to learn, a good tale wrapped up in the pages of my book, and the same degree of optimism as the characters in my novel. This blog will continue to tell the story of that journey: it might be another path, but I'm continuing to move forwards.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lesson Two: The challenges of defining my project

I want to define my project - I need to define my project so that I can articulate well what it is that I am attempting to do - but my project is not an easy one to explain. I have explored the purposes of writing per se in a recent guest blog for Cafe Aphra, but the blog on this page explores in more detail my purposes in writing Frogsbone.

How to explain writing a novel? As I redraft and rework Frogsbone's final chapters, I find myself pulled in different directions. On the one hand, I find myself driven by the valid concerns of my intended audience (represented by the show's judges, reviews of contemporary literature, and feedback from the writing groups I engage with), but, on the other hand, I am being led (astray?) by my 'muse' (who appears to answer, rather defiantly, solely to the world of my book and the possibility of a bit of beauty).

I am sure life would be simpler if I allowed myself to be driven solely by the needs and expectations of my intended reader. I can imagine, for example, a person who consciously decides to write a 'best-seller'. They would research the things that book reviewers will acclaim, read-up on the similarities between books that are best-sellers, and carry out focus group research with book groups; following this research they would compile a checklist of things that their book must cover and check-off each feature as their writing progresses. Their book would be well-researched, well-managed, and would probably sell extremely well. I can imagine that person, because when I wrote as an academic, I knew how to do this: tailoring my writing (and sometimes my research findings) to meet the expectations and requirements of different academic journals and conference audiences. It's commonly done - it's what most people need to do if they are to be successful within the Academy - but it doesn't feed the soul and, I would argue, it's not what good writers do.

In fact, over one hundred years ago, Oscar Wilde was explicitly cautioning against this kind of an approach to writing (and thanks to Niall Griffiths for directing me towards Wilde's essay, 'Soul of Man Under Socialism'):

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman.

I don't want to be a 'craftsman' anymore. I have been a competent academic, a competent horse-riding instructor, a competent English teacher (with moments of excellence in the latter), but I do not want to be a 'competent' writer. Something bigger has me in its thrall.

I am hesitant to use the word 'muse', but I trust that the artists who have come before me understand this process far better than I, and if the word 'muse' is good enough for them then who am I to quibble? When I write something snatches hold of my thoughts. I reemerge hours later, blinking like a miner who has been laboring underground. My novel has themes about truth and story; about the power struggles involved in building a new life in a new country; about learning what we aren't, what we never were, and what we might yet be. At the end of a day's writing, these themes spill off the page and provoke me to reflect upon my life in new ways. Then, the next day, these reflections and themes and experiences stoke the fire of my inspiration, they shoulder themselves back into the world of my book and drive my characters into scenarios for which I have not yet planned.

Writing in this way is challenging, unexpected, obsessive: it's a jazz improvisation where the tune twists and jumps and slips between the notes. It escapes the structures for which I have planned, and expands beyond the horizons I know. I find myself forced to look into new places - within the real world, within the imagined world, within myself.

Perhaps it is with the final editing that I will be able to better define the nature of my project. It is then that I might find myself able to tease the fragments of music back into the body of the main melody, to balance the improvisation against a more controlled beat. It takes courage to believe that this might be possible and I have always been a person who plans for every scenario and compulsively controls the details. But, it takes courage to write a book and I need to learn to trust that only by letting go might I get to where I want to arrive.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lesson One: Defining my audience

Zoe Fowler,
interviewed at When Words Count Retreat
I was interviewed about my book. I like talking about my novel and will happily chat away forever about my characters, my choice of city and location, moments of drama and suspense, motivations and epiphanies... But the question which I stumbled over in this interview was 'Who do you want to read your book?'

As a novice, the simple unconsidered answer would have been to say 'anyone'; but that is as arrogant as it is unlikely. My grandfather used to say, 'You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time; but you can't please all of the people all of the time'. My book has no high-speed car chases, unsolved murders, explicit sex scenes, or lengthy factually accurate descriptions of war ships; therefore, I have lost the potential interest of at least half of my family members already. My mother will probably read my book, but that is most likely to be as a consequence of the name inscribed on the book's jacket!

Who do I want to read my book? It's a good question. Who reads any books? We live in a changing world. A few years ago there were dire predictions that no-one would read books in the future because the advent of new technologies. While those predictions haven't been realized, new technologies continue to change the publishing world and the ways we experience the books we read. Sales of e-books, for example, accounted for 11% of sales in 2012, and Generation Y (those born between 1979 and 1989) now consume the greatest amount of books (Bowker report). But most books are published in hard and digital versions, and I would intend my book to be distributed via both media. The question is, to whom do I want my book to appeal?

Despite my best Google-sleuthing, I've struggled to find statistical evidence about what kinds of people read what kinds of books: the markets are fluid and subjective. So, when I consider who I want to read my book, perhaps I need to align myself with other books that people are already reading. This is an easier task than trying to pin down abstract readers through a collation of statistical reports.

I want my book to appeal to people who enjoy reading Kate Atkinson's joy of story-telling; Jeanette Winterson's experimentation with language; Margaret Atwood's enthusiasm for developing character; E.L. Doctorow's exploration of historical accuracy and magic realism. I want to build a world which is as credible to the reader as A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book and as compelling as Sarah Waters' Fingersmith.

With the exception of Winterson, each of these authors have written historical fiction, in the sense that their books take place within an accurately rendered historical context. I've set my ambitions high: I consider these books to be some of the best novels ever written. But ambition is no bad thing if it will encourage me to strive to be the best writer that I can be and, even if I don't achieve the heights attained by these novelists, perhaps their readers will also find moments of pleasure, intrigue and entertainment in the company of my book.

So, in answer to the question of who I want to read my books, I want the readers of the other books listed here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

An Introduction

I am part of a reality television show in which six contestants compete for a publishing contract, agent representation and marketing of their first book. I'm not a person for whom reality television holds a great deal of allure, but I see this show as a fantastic opportunity to learn about how to move from writing to publication. I've been working on my first novel for about two years. It's a book about story-telling set in New York in 1908. I love writing and my ability to craft words and characters has increased immeasurably over the past two years: the more you do something, the better you get. But I know very little about book publishing. I see my involvement in the show to be that of an apprentice: I'm listening to the judges, reflecting upon and researching around the advice that they give me, and stepping up to each new challenge.

This blog is my way of 'giving back': the lessons that I'm learning and the issues that I'm facing are not unique to me. In many ways, I'm a typical first time author. I've got a pretty good book on my hands, and I'm trying to understand and manage what comes next. Hopefully, my experiences can help people map out their own paths towards publication.