YA literature – where are the boys?

This weekend I took my 11yo and 15yo sons to @YALC. Actually, that’s not really true. My sons took me to Comic Con and in between forking out a small fortune for Dragon Ball-Z figures and watching them play ‘retro’ arcade games I managed to persuade them to accompany me to @YALC on the second floor every now and then.

I write YA. I read YA. Some of my best twitter buddies and heroes are YA authors, so @YALC is perfect for me. A room full of YA books, friends and writers – what’s not to like? In the post-conference wave of love and euphoria, it seems churlish to focus on a negative but the reaction of my 15-year-old son to the conference kept me awake last night like a piece of Scrooge’s badly-digested cheese.

First, let me establish my son’s credentials. He read The Hobbit aged six and by the time he was seven my bedtime reading skills were redundant as he worked his way through the Harry Potter series. As he grew older, he became the literary equivalent of the Hungry Caterpillar consuming at least three novels a week. He read his first ‘YA’ novel aged ten (Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman), read all of John Green’s novels when he was twelve and last year polished off the entire Game of Thrones series in a single summer.

But then he stopped. At first, I thought it was just a GoT book hang over. George R Martin is a tough act to follow. I bought him other fantasy books but they languished unfinished by his bed. He did have some success with Stephen King but then homework and mock GCSE’s kicked in, leaving little time or inclination for reading. I read that this was common: that the pressure of school work makes once prolific readers fall off the book wagon in their mid-teens but that they generally rediscover their love of reading in their early twenties. Maybe like the hungry caterpillar he had consumed too much and needed some time in his cocoon before emerging as a literary butterfly.

I think I was secretly hoping that @YALC would entice him back into YA books. With so much of his life taken up with friends, school, sport, sport and sport, books were the one thing we had in common. But within minutes of entering the second floor where @YALC was held I could feel his hackles rising. We circled the venue searching for people I knew and books to buy. Or at least I did. My oldest son grew tense, prickly and moody. ‘Can we go now?’ is all he kept saying.

After a bad-tempered exchange and some flippant remarks on both sides, we eventually had a calmer discussion over lunch. Initially dismissive of his criticisms of my beloved YA community, I was struck by one observation he made. ‘YA is not a genre,’ he said. ‘It is a marketing category. The key thing the readers have in common isn’t their age but the fact that they are all women.’

What my 15-year-old-son saw when he visited @YALC was a room full of young girls and middle-aged women like his mum selling, buying and talking about books. What he didn’t see was himself. I argued with him (as I often do) that he shouldn’t let that bother him, that he should just care about the books. But the books, he argued, are all about women too. Look at the covers, the titles, the lead characters. It is all about love triangles and endless internal monologues. Why aren’t they selling more fantasy books, he asked, gesturing to the (mostly male) fantasy community around us. Why aren’t they trying to get any of these (boys) upstairs? Then he dismissed his own question and returned to his food with the damning fact that ‘none of my friends read, anyway Mum. None.’

I am not saying my son is right (that’s my job, after all). But he has made me think. I worry, as I often do, about his concept of masculinity, about whether he has absorbed the subtle culture of misogyny that makes men dismissive of female dominated activities. I worry that he lacks the confidence to follow his own interests regardless of what his friends think and fret that my 11yo son (currently oblivious to gender) will soon follow the same sheep-trodden path. I worry that I expect too much of him, who at fifteen is desperately trying to understand what it means to be a man and negotiate a path towards it.

I worry.

I am sure there are lots of great books out there for young men that I simply haven’t found yet. And I am sure there were other young men at @YALC who had a great time. But still. His comments have stuck with me as the truth often does. I am currently writing a YA thriller and although I am trying to make it appeal to both sexes (and my 15-year-old son claims to like it), it has a female protagonist and star-crossed lovers and I suspect if it ever finds readers they too will be women. As the mother of two sons who worries about the (lack of) boys reading, I sometimes think I should write a book that would appeal to them. But I can only write the stories I want to read.

And perhaps therein lies the problem. The majority of YA authors are women. The majority of our agents, publishers and booksellers are women, so we get excited about the same kind of books. Is it any wonder then that the majority of our readers are women too? Are we in danger of creating a self-perpetuating echo chamber where we only speak to ourselves? I have not touched on other equally important aspects of diversity as others are more qualified to comment but these thoughts apply across the board.

This post is not a criticism of YA literature in general or @YALC in particular. It was a fantastic weekend and the people who worked so hard to make it happen have given so many people so much pleasure. YA literature is one of the most exciting and vibrant categories of fiction today. It is more than a genre: it is a community. But a healthy community questions and challenges itself. A healthy community looks at not just whom it includes but whom it (unintentionally) excludes and whether there is more that we can and should do to welcome others.

For once, I am not pretending to have all of the answers. But I think my fifteen-year-old son was right to ask these questions.

 

 

 

 

Why my 77-year-old dad loves Middle Grade fiction.

MG booksOn the outside, the council house we grew up in looked just like everybody else’s: we all had the same colour door (green), with black slate tiles and beige, narrow bricks. But inside, our house was different. Inside, we had books. Not a huge amount by today’s standards, and with the exception of my dad’s prized Reader’s Digest collection, most were borrowed from (and promptly returned to) the library. But we were a family of readers, with my dad the most passionate reader of all.

It wasn’t the books per se that he loved, but the landscape of dreams within them. Our meagre bookshelves were eclectic: Austen and Wilbur Smith sat alongside Shakespeare and James Clavell, vying for space with the histories of ancient civilisations and guides to mushroom picking, bird spotting and wine making. We had a respectable dictionary and Thesaurus collection for the daily crossword competitions and in the days before google, friends would knock our door to borrow them.

Our little oasis of books helped lead me to university, where I read what the English Literature course told me to, and in the holidays, my dad would share with me his latest book haul from charity shops and car boot sales. I fell in love and eventually had children, so I saw my dad less as I got older, but when we did meet up, ‘What are you reading?’ became our instant re-connection.

I have told you all this in order to establish my dad’s credentials as a reader, because I am about to tell you that this 77-year-old man loves Middle Grade fiction. I absolutely shouldn’t have to do this, but there is such ignorance about children’s literature, that I feel it’s necessary to clarify that my dad still has all of his mental faculties and is a prolific and discerning reader.

When my mum – his wife of 47 years – died a couple of years ago, books became even more important to my dad. Books are now his companions, his heart-salve and distraction. My brother and I take turns to visit him every weekend, and so, once a fortnight I take my dad out for lunch, and whilst he eats his gammon, egg and chips, we swap and discuss books. Some of his favourites this year have been All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon.

Every fortnight, my then ten-year-old and fourteen-year-old sons nodded politely away at my dad whilst they guzzled their coke. Then last year, my youngest brought along Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, a fantastic and moving series set in prehistoric times, seeped in magic and survivalist skills. My dad’s eyes lit up when he described it, so my son gave him the book. And oh, he loved it. My dad devoured the whole series, and for months, he and my son had long and gorgeous conversations about wolves, woods and magic.

When the series ended, my dad pined for more. We gave him Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, which he wept over, Varjak’s Paw by SF Said, which he (and my son) raved about, and Holes by Louis Sacher. He adored In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll and Rooftoppers and Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. Time after time he has met us with tears in his eyes as he discussed the books with my son, wondering why they have been restricted to the ‘children’s’ category when they were such sophisticated, well-written and moving stories. He still reads ‘adult’ literature (he is currently reading – and loving – Himself, a stunning soon-to-be-published debut by Jess Kidd), but he also loves the Middle Grade books that my son gives him. In fact, he makes no distinction between the two: all he wants is a compelling and well-written story that touches him in some way.

Watching my dad – a prolific reader – discover a whole world of books he knew nothing about made me realise how many adults are missing out on tremendous stories just because they are categorised as ‘children’s’. Yet the potential for ‘cross over’ between grandparents and grandchildren must be huge: both are at the vulnerable extremes of life, with an empathy and emotional accord that unites rather than divides them.

But the best thing about my dad reading ‘Middle Grade’ books isn’t just that he was exposed to great literature: they reminded him of the child he used to be, and despite an age gap of sixty-five years and an increasing digital divide, they’ve helped create and develop a genuine connection between my father and my son.

Next week my son will give my dad his latest favourite book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. And my dad won’t ask him whether it is ‘adult’, or ‘YA’, or ‘Middle Grade’. All he wants to know is, ‘Is it any good?’

Like so much ‘Middle Grade’ literature, the answer – of course – is yes, it’s brilliant, and my 11-year-old son can’t wait to share it with his 77-year-old grandad.

An interview with author Antonia Honeywell

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The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is a first for me. It was the first book I ever discussed in a book club, the first book I ever reviewed, and now I am delighted to say that Antonia is the first author I have ever interviewed. She very kindly agreed to answer all of my nosy questions about writing in general, The Ship in particular, and the balancing the creative with the personal…

The Ship was your debut novel, but like most writers, your journey to publication was not a short or simple one. Could you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer, and what kept you going?

I always wanted to write – I always wrote. But for a long, long time there was no one in my life who believed I could do it. And because I was rather a strange teenager who only read books by dead people, it took me a while to understand that writers were just ordinary people, and that it wasn’t preposterous to aspire to be one. When I wrote my first novel and began to submit it, I had another set of false impressions to overcome. I sent it to six agents who all rejected it and thought I’d given it a good go. It was only when I began to talk to other writers that I began to understand that six rejections is nothing – by which time, I was knee-deep in another novel. All this time, of course, I was also earning a living. As for what kept me going – I’m still not sure about that. I think it’s simply this – that if I don’t write my stories, no one else will. And I’ll never know what might have happened. I need to know what’s going to happen next, and writing is the only way I can find out.

It has been over a year since I read The Ship, and yet the atmosphere and themes of the book are still very vivid in my mind. Re-reading the reviews, nearly everyone comments on how much the story stayed with them long after they put it down and how thought-provoking it was. Was this an effect you deliberately tried to achieve, and HOW did you do it?

It’s an effect I dreamed of achieving and I’m so grateful to those reviewers (including you, of course!) I started by trying to make Lalla’s sheltered world a recognizable place, and to show the reader why her parents make the decisions they do. The desire to protect our children is universal, so I hoped that readers would identify with that part of the story. Then I pushed that natural human instinct to its limits to work out what it costs. For me, the engagement lies in the question, ‘What would I do in those circumstances?’ And because I didn’t invent any of the features that brought the world of the novel to collapse, I think that readers come to realise that the question’s not as far removed from reality as we’d like to imagine. The reader exists right there, in the pages of the novel.

You manage to conjure up a dystopian London not that different from our own, yet chillingly realistic in just a few pages. Did you know it was a dystopian novel when you set out to write it? (Very interesting to see on Amazon that most readers of The Ship also bought Station Eleven, btw, which is another fantastic, literary dystopian novel that haunts you long after reading).

I didn’t set out to write a dystopia, but I did want to create a world that Michael Paul, the father, would want to escape, and it didn’t take me long to realise that I was writing one whether I intended to or not! I had to be efficient in creating that world, because the main thrust of the story lies in the life on the ship itself, which is about as far from dystopian as it’s possible to get, and the sense of the horror and desperation beyond it is essential in the creation of tension.

I was desperate to read The Ship as soon as I first saw it on twitter – it was such a compelling cover and concept. It’s really interesting to see the new cover for the paperback version – just as beautiful but very different. Can you tell us about the thinking/strategy behind these different covers?

The hardback cover took a few drafts to get right, but the moment my agent and editor saw this one, they knew it was right. I think the two covers make a perfect pairing. The hardback has stronger colours and sharper outlines – it reflects the adventure and suspense of the novel. The paperback is softer and more impressionistic, which reflects the more thoughtful, meditative aspects. I couldn’t choose if I had to. Fortunately I have both!

When I first read The Ship, I assumed it was a YA book because the protagonist, Lalla, is sixteen, but I think it was marketed for adults. What is your view on the distinction between YA and adult books and have you had many teen readers?

The Ship wasn’t written as a YA book or marketed as one. But the responses of readers show that it resonated with the YA market, as well as with readers of literary fiction. I think there are lots of books which occupy this space – Nineteen Eighty Four, for example, which I read for the first time when I was thirteen and thought had been written for me personally. It’s the age for questions of identity and place in the world – and for rebellion, too. I think the rise in YA in recent years is something to celebrate, and novels like The Ship benefit from the engagement and enthusiasm of that wonderful community of writers and readers. I’m not at the centre of it – but glad and grateful to have been given a seat on the side.

As well as being an author, you are a mum to four children, a wife and a daughter; you read a lot and are active and generous on twitter. When do you make the time to write, and how do you cope with the guilt and (presumably) not doing it all?

Yes, I’ve got four, all quite close in age – my eldest is ten now. Time is my biggest issue. There’s never, ever enough of it. I look at writer friends whose children are older, or who are child-free, and yearn for the time and space that they supposedly have. But every writer has things that drain their time, and the children are growing up so fast. I tend not to waste time wishing I had more time. I multitask – bake while helping with homework, play board games with one hand whilst making notes with the other, get tea together at the same time as I’m making breakfast. I also (don’t tell my husband) hide behind a cushion at one end of the sofa while we’re meant to be watching films together. I accept every atom of help I can get. And I take my laptop everywhere and write anywhere.

What gives you energy as a writer? i.e. what makes you want to sit down and write and feel enthused about it? (I am interested in this because some people find reading and/or twitter a distraction, whereas I find them both energising. I am intrigued by what gives/depletes energy in different writers and what we can do to respect/nourish that.

Writing is such a solitary occupation. On the whole, I find Twitter a genuinely restorative place. As for reading – it’s the reason I write. It’s as simple as that. Other people’s success is a harder one – we’ve all seen a writer go a little over the top on the self-promotion side – but on the whole it doesn’t last long. The wheel turns again and it’s someone else’s chance. It’s up to you whether you look at someone else’s good news and feel crushed, or whether you look at it and go, ‘Wow, so it IS possible!’ Everyone has to allow themselves that little grip of envy – but I don’t buy the whole Gore Vidal death-every-time-a-friend-succeeds thing. This industry is hard. Let’s celebrate everything we can.

What advice would you give to people who have been writing for a few years but have yet to secure an agent or book deal? 

Red wine and perseverance, with or without the red wine.

Now that you do have an agent and a debut novel, what are your ambitions for yourself as a writer?

I’d like to stay published. That’s all. Of course I’d love to win a prize and get a foreign deal and travel with my book and all that kind of thing. But really, I’d just like to stay published and to know that people are reading my books. That’s ambition enough.

Last year was an amazing year for you with the publication of The Ship, an awful lot of things  – both good and bad, personal and professional seemed to happen to you all at once. What do you remember most about that year, and what will you treasure?

There are so many things to remember – Jake Arnott’s face when I started singing at my book launch, the first time I saw The Ship in a real bookshop, the writers I’ve met, GollanzFest, all the incredible book people I’ve made friends with. But Jo – this is the real heart of everything – I’m here, with James and the children, and everyone’s still alive and nothing’s broken, and there’s a book on the shelf that proves that writing isn’t only for dead people sitting on clouds. Whatever happens next, The Ship has become a part of the story.

The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell, is published in paperback by W&N and is out now http://amzn.to/1K7sAtQ

 

 

 

HIMSELF by Jess Kidd

I don’t normally review books that aren’t yet published, because it seems mean to tantalise you with something that you can’t yet buy. But HIMSELF is such an extraordinary novel, that I feel I have to write about it.

When a nun from the orphanage dies, 26-year-old Mahony is given an envelope. Inside is a photograph of a young girl, and on the back, someone has written:

Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.’

So begins the story as we follow Mahony back to Mulderrig – ‘a benign speck of a place…pretending to be harmless’ – to find out what happened to his mum. And what a story it is. Jess Kidd is not just a gifted writer: she is a storyteller who has created a cast of characters worthy of Dickens. Mahoney himself is so handsome, that as one man says, ‘with looks like that, the fella is either a poet or a gobshite, with the long hair and the leather jacket and the walk on it.’ And Mrs. Cauley – an 80-year-old woman who lives in a lair of dusty books – hoists her ‘Harvest Festivals’ out of the window when she wants her friend to call. (‘Me knickers, boy. Harvest Festivals: all is safely gathered in.’)

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in this book, but it is also dark, violent and at times genuinely creepy. For alongside the living, Mulderrig is full of the dead. ‘For the dead are always close by in a life like Mahony’s. The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales which the dead just yearn to fill.’

And this is what makes HIMSELF such an extraordinary novel. Not only do the dead drift amongst the living, but there are elements of magical realism, as portents strike the town: soot in the fireplaces, armies of spiders and clans of badgers marching down the road. It’s as if Jess Kid is the Heston Blumenthal of literature, kicking down the doors between genres, mixing ingredients that couldn’t and shouldn’t work. Yet they do. HIMSELF is at once thrilling and heart-breaking, tender and vicious, funny and creepy, brilliant and bonkers.

Mulderrig, we are told, is a place like no other. People don’t want to leave. ‘Why would they, when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?’ This is exactly how I felt when I finished the book. I didn’t want to leave Mulderrig or Mrs. Cauley, her pal Bridget or Mahony himself.

I’m sorry that you’ll have to wait till October to meet them all yourself, but I promise you, it will be worth the wait.

 

 

Book launch: In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings

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I was starting to feel a bit like Cinderella: always reading about book launches, but never actually receiving an invitation to one, so when Amanda Jennings invited me to the launch of In Her Wake, I can’t tell you how excited I was. Not just because In Her Wake is one of the most skilful and moving psychological thrillers I have ever read, (you can read my review of it here: http://tinyurl.com/zgro8pv), but because Amanda Jennings is one of the warmest, funniest and self-depreciating writers on twitter.

But after the initial excitement wore off, I soon found plenty to fret about. What should I wear? What if I didn’t know anyone? And what do you actually do at a book launch anyway? Feeling a bit nervous, I left work early and headed over to central London, where just off St Martin’s Lane, there’s a narrow little street called St Cecil’s Court. I am ashamed to say that I must have walked past this street thousands of times in total ignorance of this hidden gem: crammed full of beautiful little bookshops like Goldsboro Books, where the launch was held.Blog

 

I was worried I might be the first to arrive, but I was surprised to find the bookshop absolutely rammed with people, and delighted to see @JaneIsaacAuthor, whom I had met at a recent writers’ lunch organised by the infamous @debrabrown_. Jane gave me some great advice  – ‘go and get a glass of wine’ –  and on the way to and from the bar I met so many lovely people I ‘knew’ from twitter we didn’t get to speak again!

It was lovely to meet @Matineegirl, hairdresser to top authors like Joanna Cannon and a great book reviewer herself, as well as prolific blogger @annecater. Kerry Fisher, author of The School Gate Survival Guide and one of the friendliest and most helpful sources of advice for writers, was kind enough to introduce me to @Jenny_Ashcroft, whose debut, Under a Burning Sky, comes out in November.

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It was so brilliant to talk to other writers about the drafting, the waiting, the revisions, the waiting, the editing and the waiting. (Did I mention the waiting?) And all the time, we were surrounded by other people talking about books, writing and how much they loved In Her Wake and the woman who wrote it.

Eventually, someone dragged Amanda Jennings away from book signing and insisted that she gave a speech. Explaining that she was terrified she might cry, Amanda asked us all to jeer or cheer whenever she got choked, to help her get to the end of what she wanted to say. And then this lovely, funny lady told us how she first queried her agent @brooDoherty with a version of this story back in 2007, who said she would be interested if she ever rewrote it. With characteristic determination, Amanda spent the next two months re-writing (‘Stalking!’ heckled Broo), until she was ready to submit again. This time, of course, she signed, and the book that finally became In Her Wake went through 11 or 12 drafts. ‘The lesson being,’ said Amanda, ‘Never, ever, give up.’ Hearing those words, and the shaky, heartfelt way she delivered them, brought tears to my own eyes, because it was so lovely to see an author on HER day, thinking about the other aspiring writers in the room.

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After thanking the ‘force of nature’ otherwise known as Karen Sullivan @OrendaBooks, Amanda Jennings thanked the wider writing community, ‘because only other neurotic, angst-ridden writers can support other neurotic, angst-ridden writers’. Several of them, like @Iona_Grey had read and commented on earlier drafts, and reviewers and bloggers like @hannahbeckerman were thanked for helping to raise the profile of this brilliant book. By the time she thanked her family and husband, we were all crying anyway, so it didn’t matter that Amanda was too. There was just enough time to say a quick hello to the lovely @Iona_Grey, author of Letters to the Lost and @Hannahbeckerman, author of The Dead Wife’s Handbook (two excellent tear-jerkers, by the way), before I had to run and get a train back to Birmingham.

Back home, I tried to explain to my partner why the book launch had been so brilliant. It wasn’t just that I’d got to meet and talk with so many fabulous people, or that I now have a personally signed book from Amanda Jennings, or even that there was lots of free wine (all of which are fine and important things). This will sound clichéd, but that small beautiful bookshop in London was absolutely brimming with love. The bonds of friendship and mutual support between the people I met that night were tangible, and I could see the hundreds of loving hands reaching out to help Amanda bring her story into the world. It was a very special feeling for a very special author and book.

I am so glad that I attended the launch of In Her Wake. It was a genuine honour and privilege to feel part of Amanda Jennings’s writing community, and a powerful reminder that writers and the people who support them, are lovely.

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In Her Wake, by Amanda Jennings – a writer’s writer.

You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that In Her Wake will be one of the hit psychological thrillers of 2016. The reaction of early readers and reviewers to the initial e-book is stunning, as people quite rightly praise this twisty page-turning story about a woman who discovers a dark family secret and her quest for the shocking truth. But In Her Wake is so much more than a thrilling read: it is one of the most subtle and skilfully told novels I have ever read in this genre. Tonight, I have sat down and tried to figure out exactly how Amanda Jennings has managed to write something so effective and effecting, and to explain why you absolutely must read this book.

If this story had been written in a simple, linear timeframe and from just one point of view (POV), then In Her Wake would have been a good book. But Jennings goes from good to great by playing around with the timeline and POV, so that the reader sees fragments of the story told from the perspective of Bella and her parents, using a skilful combination of both present and past tense, flashbacks, dreams and letters. In this way, we learn that every single character in this novel is a victim – a shadow of what they could and should have been – were it not for the tragic events at the heart of the story.

We learn about each character as the author goes beyond mere ‘show don’t tell’, managing instead to hint and suggest, using the power of the white spaces between her cleverly chosen words. We know that Bella’s husband is controlling not because she tells us he is, but because everything he says is a statement. The one time he does ask his wife a question, he – shockingly and casually – ignores her answer. We know that another character is broken by grief, not because there are pages of weeping, but because his cardigan is no longer buttoned up properly.

Jennings is not a showy writer: there are no flowery paragraphs of description or flights of purple prose. Her writing is lean and sparse, the kind that is deceptively easy to read but oh so hard to write. I suspect that this is because Amanda Jennings’s super power is her ability to see people as they really are, in all their beautiful and tragic complexity. She displays this most powerfully in the way that she exposes the hidden role of carers, with an unflinching eye (and nose) for detail such as the tedious humility of weeing in front of somebody else, the cloying stench of tinned soup and the constant acts of nobility punctured by human frailty.

She also has a great ear for dialogue. Scenes that in a lesser writer could have been cheesy or over dramatic are brutally honest and believable. One of my all-time favourite lines is when one character screams: ‘I’ve looked after her for years and got nothing from her. You come back and within weeks she smiles and talks and eats f***ing rice.

And as if that weren’t enough, Amanda Jennings manages to interweave legends of the sea and mermaids amongst this most contemporary of novels, with ghosts and imaginary friends, dreams and forgotten memories drifting like smoke from the pores of this book. These scenes are not self-indulgent darlings, but echoes from the very heart of a deeply layered story that resonate throughout the novel. It is only when you finish the book and go back to the beginning (and I strongly recommend that you do this), that you realise just how deep and tragic this story is, and the skill and care that Amanda Jennings has taken to tell it.

I am so grateful to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for responding to my shameless begging on twitter and sending me an e-version. Having read The Judas Scar, I was desperate to read this – so much so that I finally overcame my technophobia and downloaded a kindle app. I urge you to buy In Her Wake in whatever format you can, but please resist gulping this novel down (as I initially did), and instead take the time to savour the depth and skill with which it has been written. Amanda Jennings is a writer’s writer, and as an astute and compassionate observer of the human heart, has much to teach us all.

 

 

 

Six years, three-and-a-half books and one bruised heart: how I (finally) found my agent

 

I’ve been staring at this title for about ten minutes now, still unable to believe that I’m lucky enough to be working with Susan Armstrong, a leading literary agent with Conville and Walsh. Before I explain how my dream (finally) came true, there are two things I want to say: first, if you’re reading this, then chances are you don’t yet have an agent. I’ve read and enjoyed these kinds of posts for years, so I know that on a bad day, reading about someone else’s success can sometimes make you feel like a ‘failure’. Well you’re not, and I hope that reading this post will give you more, not less hope.

My second piece of advice is to pull up a chair: my journey to representation was not a short one, so I’m going to describe each of the ten agonising steps that (eventually) got me there:

Step one: remembering I was supposed to write

A lot of authors talk about when they started to write, but I think the real question is, when did we stop? Most of us loved writing when we were young: it’s what we were praised for at school, the thing that defined us. But once I graduated and started working, I stopped writing – or at least, I stopped writing fiction. It was all bullet points and headings, introductions and conclusions with footnotes and annexes to persuade and explain. I enjoyed it, I was good at it, and my career quickly progressed, until one day in my early thirties I met up with an old school friend. We hadn’t seen each other since we were teenagers, and I was looking forward to impressing him with my Big Important Job. But when we met, all he wanted to know was, was I still writing? And the disappointment on his face when I said ‘no’ made me feel like I’d not just failed, but betrayed a younger, truer version of myself. I was a writer – how and when had I forgotten that?

Step two: realising I had to make the time to write

But I was also a new mother, so although I’d made the mental decision to start writing again, I decided to ‘wait until I had more time’. I wasted years waiting for one of those little parachutes in the Hunger Games to arrive, carrying the gift of extra time. Then when I was 39, my dad celebrated his 70th birthday and I wrote a poem for him. Of course, it was awful – the first one I’d written in twenty years – but even as I stared at the raw, ragged thing, I was proud that it existed. Two hours before, I’d had a blank sheet of paper: now I had a poem. It was created on a busy Saturday morning whilst I got the kids’ breakfasts together, wrapped my dad’s presents and got everyone dressed. But I did it, and it was a revelation: I had created the time, and more importantly, a piece of writing.

Step three: learning the habit of writing

So for my 40th birthday, I asked for – and was lucky enough to receive – a laptop from my family. This was it: I was going to write a novel! I spent the months in the run up to my birthday jotting ideas and scenes down into a note pad, so now I ‘just’ had to write it up, right? I figured it would take me a year (tops) to finish it and get a book deal. I wasn’t totally naïve. I bought several ‘how to’ books, and worked hard at learning the basics of punctuation, how to write dialogue, plot a novel, write in double-spaced lines and Times Roman 12. I thought I was learning the craft of writing, but actually, what I learned in that first year was the habit of writing: the habit of coming in from work, and after doing the kids’ baths and beds, not watching telly or having a bath or a drink, but switching my computer on and putting my bum in that seat.

Step four: learning about rejection

OK, this is the embarrassing bit. My birthday was in September, and by the following summer, I’d written a couple of drafts of a MG time-travel novel. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but surely an agent would see the potential because the world needed my book NOW. I bought the Writers and Artists Year Book – the first of many – and bashed out query letters to five agents and…

Nothing. Some didn’t reply; others gave form rejections. Cue big crash. I pulled myself together for another batch of queries – maybe I’d just picked the wrong agents – but I received the same response. I’d read enough about writing and submitting by now to realise that if I was getting ten form rejections then something was wrong. But what could it be? I was a writer – all my teachers at school had said so – and I’d finally made the time, so WHAT WAS THE PROBLEM? I found this part of my writing journey the hardest, because in every other sphere of my life, I’d learned that if I tried hard enough at something, then I almost always succeeded. But now I’d tried really hard at something I secretly thought I was good at, and yet I’d Failed with a capital ‘F’.

Step five: give up or get better – learning the craft of writing

At this stage, we all face a choice: give up or get better. I decided that I needed to get better, but I needed professional help to do so. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford a critique from Cornerstones, and I don’t want to swallow the importance of this point. Unfortunately, there is an increasing cost to attending writing conferences and courses and I know that I’ve benefited from having access to services that not everyone can afford. It was expensive – about £800 – but it was the best money I have ever spent. An experienced, published author read the whole of my MS, providing me with a written report, line edits and a one-hour consultation by phone. By this time, I had read and acquired an extensive collection of ‘how to write’ books, but having someone point out the flaws in your own work is invaluable. My professional reader told me that I could write, but that my MS mixed up two books: a sci-fi time-travel story and a straight historical novel. She advised me to write a historical romance novel, make it darker and aim it at a YA audience. I thought about it for one day, then rolled up my sleeves, attacked the MS and hacked out a new novel (this is the half referred to in the title). I sent it back to the same author/reader for review, and she loved it – it made her cry. And the knowledge that another published author actually thought I could write kept me going through the wintery years of rejection ahead.

Step six: repeat steps four and five several times

I submitted my revised historical novel to just one agent. After many months, she replied saying she didn’t connect strongly enough with the character and that historical fiction was a tough sell. I was disappointed, but also pleased that I had a personal rejection. Progress! I didn’t submit that MS to any other agents – partly because I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a historical fiction writer – but mostly because I was buzzing with a whole new idea for a YA thriller. This was The One.

I went back to the beginning, applying all the knowledge I’d learned by writing my one and a half books, taking on board the advice from Cornerstones and uncovering ideas and themes that had been fermenting in my head since I was a teenager. I can’t tell you how excited, how certain I was about that MS. I worked quickly, and even though I was working full time and it was an incredibly complex novel, I produced six drafts in less than a year. Once again, it was summer, and – I thought – time to send it out.

By now, I understood the importance of opening chapters and query letters, so I spent weeks crafting my query package. Because my story was pretty unique and a bit of a genre-mash up, I had one agent in mind who I hoped would be drawn to the ideas in my novel. I sent it to him, and five days later he asked for a full. My first full request! At last, this was it! Cue an agonising wait whilst he went on his summer holiday, only to return saying that although he had loved the beginning, he thought there were too many coincidences in the plot.

I was gutted. Reluctantly, I submitted it to four more agents, and although they sent personal, positive rejections, there were no more requests for fulls. I didn’t exactly lose faith in the book, but all the energy and excitement that had fuelled me through the writing of it fell out of me. I suspected that the first agent was right – I needed to look at the plot again – but I was too close to it. And by now I was fizzing with the idea for another novel: a YA epic love story. Surely this was The One? So I put away the YA thriller and for the fourth time, I began to write a novel.

Back to step five: learning the craft of writing

Whilst I wrote this MS, I joined an on-line writing course (The Writers’ Academy run by Penguin Random House). Again, this cost several hundred pounds and took up a fair bit of time, but the advice and encouragement from my fellow students and fabulous teacher/author Bea Davenport was invaluable, and it gave me the confidence to finish this huge, ambitious MS in the autumn of 2014. I had the first few chapters critiqued by agents at the York Festival of Writing, and although I didn’t get any requests for fulls, they were complementary about my writing, and gave me feedback on how to improve it further.

Back to step four: learning about rejection

By November 2014 I was (I thought) ready to submit to five agents. Even though at 117k words it was way over industry guidelines for a YA novel – I told myself that it was ‘epic’, spanning two time-lines in two different centuries, and to be honest, I loved it so much, I hoped that my novel could overcome industry norms. So when my submissions were met with silence, I was hurt and puzzled. Eventually, I got some rejections, and two full requests – one of whom said it was a very close call – but by the New Year, I realised that once again it wasn’t going to happen.

I was heart-broken. Soul-sick. I had poured everything I knew and cared about into that book, writing late into the night whilst my family slept, getting up for work after little more than four hours sleep. I suspected that the beginning was wrong, and clearly it was too long, but I was too close to see how to fix it, and beginning to doubt whether the continued neglect of my family was worth it.

For the first time, I seriously considered giving up writing. By this point, I had been trying for over five years – maybe it was time to accept that I wasn’t ever going to get published.

Step seven: discovering twitter and the writing community

Luckily, I had just joined twitter. I started following authors, bloggers and aspiring writers, people like me struggling to work and write whilst being a parent and a partner, driven by irrational hope against a wall of rejection. I will write another post about this soon, but far from being a drain on my creative time, twitter energised and encouraged me. I am certain that without twitter, and the friends and support I found there (you know who you are) I would not have stayed the course or found my agent. I started a blog, made a New Year’s resolution to review every book I read, and joined the on-line Curtis Brown Book Club, enabling me to read the most amazing debuts. I read as a writer, realising just how very high the bar is right now, and once again made a choice: I wasn’t going to give up – I was going to get better.

Back to step five: learning the craft of writing.

I decided to ‘rest’ the epic love story for a few months and revisit my YA thriller. My plan was to rewrite it, mainly as a mental palette cleanser so that I could go back to my love story with fresh eyes. I hadn’t read the YA thriller in over a year, so I was surprised that the writing was actually OK, but the plot and the characters weren’t quite right. The MS was sitting on lots of fences and it lacked an internal conviction. So instead of rushing the rewrite, I spent three months re-reading all of my research books, revisiting my character profiles going back (and I mean way back – thirteen thousand years back) to the beginning of my story, trying to figure out who knew what, when and why. By this time, I genuinely wasn’t thinking about getting published. These were ideas that had niggled at me for over thirty years, like the pea in the proverbial bed, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I thrashed it out in my head with post-its, charts, questionnaires and long, frowny walks: what was I really trying to say?

I waited until I had a solid golden line of history and plot, then I revisited my character profiles and brought them to life. Once my characters were breathing, I put the two together, asking myself how my characters would really react if they were confronted with X,Y or Z. And this character-driven approach, underpinned by a deep understanding of my own themes and story, helped me to rewrite the plot. This whole process took three months – during which time I didn’t write a single word of the MS. Then I began The Rewrite – and I mean a rewrite. Practically every single word I wrote was new, as I struggled to turn a complex and outlandish plot spanning the entire history of human civilisation into something that was plausible and readable, completing it just before my 46th birthday, 6 years after I began to write.

Back to step four…

Like a bruised fighter, I was reluctant to get back into the ring, so I decided to test the YA thriller out at the York Festival of Writing in September 2015. I got some great feedback, and both agents I met requested a full. I was two-thirds of the way through a re-draft of the re-write, and their comments gave me the courage to enter the Mslexia novel competition. By the end of the month, I discovered I was long-listed! This gave me the deadline I needed to finish the MS, and I sent it off by October 31st.

The following week, I agonised. I had a completed MS. Should I submit it to agents, or just wait for the results of the competition? I wasn’t sure I could take any more rejection, but eventually I sent it to the two agents from York who had asked for a full, plus three agents who had given me positive feedback before. One of these agents was Susan Armstrong, from Conville and Walsh, as although she’d rejected the epic love story, her email was so lovely and encouraging that she was top of my list for sending a re-written version to. I very nearly didn’t – she represented the highly-acclaimed James Hannah (The A-Z of Me and You) and Joanna Cannon, who has written one of the most anticipated debuts of 2016, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep. Could she possibly be interested in my YA thriller?

Step eight: learning about luck

I sent off a full to one of the agents I met in York (the other was now closed to submissions) and three new queries. A few days later, on Saturday, I had a request for a full from an agent. Cue excitement! I dropped Susan an email to let her know, and on the Sunday night at 11pm she replied promising to ‘get her skates on’. At 11.30pm, she emailed to say that she had read the first three chapters and thought they were ‘brilliant’, and would I send her the full please? (I didn’t see this email until Monday morning, btw – I never would have slept otherwise). I sent her the full just before going to work. The following morning (Tuesday), I checked my emails and saw there was a message from Susan. Here we go, I thought, fully expecting to see the usual, ‘it was good but’. Except it didn’t. She said lots of incredibly nice things about my MS, and then offered to represent me! Just like that – no phone call, no meeting, no caveats.

I could not believe it. Seriously. I could barely breathe when I rang my long-suffering partner to tell him what had happened, and my thumbs shook as I DM’d my talented and supportive CP. It was the most surreal moment of my life. After six years of trying, within twenty-four hours of reading my query, an agent – a brilliant agent – had offered to represent me!

The following week was very strange as I had another request for a full, and I had to let the other agents know that I had an offer, and after researching how to handle this, I followed the advice and gave them a week to get back to me. But I hated that week. It didn’t sit right with me, as my heart and my gut told me I should work with Sue, and I didn’t like putting the other agents under yet more pressure. But I won’t lie: it was lovely to see my inbox suddenly full of personal emails from agents – talk about buses all arriving at once.

I arranged to meet with Sue, and after an initial scare (she was very sick, so unfortunately had to cancel – cue paranoia: she’s changed her mind! It Was All A Dream etc.), but eventually we met in her offices in London. And after the email offering representation, that was the second most surreal moment of my life: me sitting in her (very tidy) office, surrounded by great books by authors such as James Hannah, Joanna Cannon and Simon Slyvester, whilst she talked about my MS: the story and characters that until now had existed only in my head. And she was so lovely, sharing with me her thoughts of what she liked and which bits might need more work. She kept offering to give me more time to think about whether I ‘really’ wanted her to represent me (!) and I didn’t even pretend to be cool about it. Yes, yes, yes, I said, just about resisting the urge to kiss her feet. Because apart from the fact that she works for an internationally renowned agency, has over ten-years-experience and represents award-winning authors, the key thing about Sue was that she loved my book – I mean really loved it. I have read so many times that you need an agent who loves your story, but now, after getting that 24-hour-this-is-for-me-email – now I finally get it.

Step nine: learning to do it all over again – but with an agent

I have no illusions about what happens next: I know I that I am heading straight back to steps four and five where I will have to learn more about writing and re-writing and editing, before hopefully submitting to – and no doubt being rejected by – publishers. But this time I will be doing it with the support and advice of an industry professional, someone who believes in me and my book, and more importantly, someone who can help me make it be the very best it can be.

Step ten: learning about persistence

But if there is one thing you take away from this (very long) post, it is that you shouldn’t, mustn’t ever give up writing. It is a tough, soul-destroying, sleep-stealing and subjective business. Shortly after I signed with Sue, I found out that I hadn’t been shortlisted by Mslexia – and do you know what? It still hurt. Rejection always hurts. But just because your work has been rejected, it doesn’t mean it isn’t good enough: it could be that it’s not good enough yet, and/or that you haven’t found the right agent or publisher who connects with it. For me, I think I made a breakthrough when I stopped trying to get published, when I slammed the door shut and sucked on my pen and asked myself honestly: what I am really trying to say, before trying my absolute best to express it – not for an agent or the market or a publisher – but for myself.

I hope one day you will get to read my MS (actually no, that’s a lie – the thought makes me feel slightly sick). But thank you, twitter writers and friends for all your support and kind thoughts, and I wish you well in your writing journey, whichever of the ten agonising steps you are currently on. Many of you are amazing writers, and I know I will be reading your ‘how I got my agent’ post very soon indeed – although hopefully your story will be shorter than mine…