Allan Mayer’s Weblog

Archive for May 2008



2007 was an annus horribilis…

Things just seemed to go wrong. I actually put a blog on my MySpace page entitled ‘Victor Meldrew Week,’ because of the number of times in one week I said the words ‘I don’t believe it!’

People I cared for died. I was in a car accident which wrote off my car and left me with whiplash. My wife had to leave her Primary School Headship due to ill health. My hobby of amateur dramatics had for one reason or another stopped being fun, and I seemed to be getting nowhere in my quest to publish ‘Tasting the Wind.’

I felt a need to make changes, to regenerate, but didn’t know where the energy to do so was going to come from. I haven’t mentioned yet a sad fact about my life which is my obsession with the T.V. programme Dr. Who. I find the idea of regeneration fascinating, and think of it as a modern myth representing the changes that we all need to make at points in our lives in order not just to stay alive but to really live.

The other thing I haven’t mentioned is that some years ago I was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder. I don’t know if it was anything to do with the fact that the Summer of that year had failed to happen, but when it got to October my SAD symptoms kicked in with a vengeance- tiredness, low mood, anxiety. It’s like watching twenty four hour reruns of ‘Eastenders.’

It was sometime in November when I was checking my emails that I found that someone had sent me a message through MySpace.

It was entitled ‘Can we join forces?’

The message claimed to be from someone called Lynn, who went to the same school as me, and now wanted to be my friend on MySpace. l wasn’t in the mood for making friends with anyone. I remembered David Tennant’s Doctor, grieving after leaving Rose in a parallel universe, (non-afficianados please bear with me) then suddenly finding that there was a strange mad woman in his Tardis.

That’s all I need- a stalker.

I popped downstairs to refill my glass, and mentioned the message to my wife. She suggested it might be someone after money.

Of course! The profile mentioned fundraising.

Then I saw it. This lynn was not only a fundraiser, she was a public speaker. And not only that. She was an author. A published one. Someone who had been published was trying to contact me…
TO BE CONTINUED…

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I referred previously to Johnboy and his unwitting stumble into vanity publishing. I won’t be dealing with that subject here- just Google ‘Vanity Press’ and you will find endless websites and blogs with a message which can be summed up in three words: don’t do it!
What I’m more interested in here are the ways in which the internet has created a new environment for people to make money from the writer’s desire to get published.

The first rule to apply is never to part with money. Not that all services that ask for money are disreputable- some will provide you with a professional critique at a cost, with no catches. I myself paid for one from Golganooza, and from frontlist (My experiences are chronicled elsewhere in this blog.)

The internet has also opened the way for print on demand (POD.) What POD does is cut out the need for expensive print runs, as a book is only printed when someone orders it. Your book is stored electronically. Publication: guaranteed, no cost: guaranteed, sales… well.

One criticism of POD is that if you look at what is available in this format you will not have heard the names of any of the writers. Although sites may promote your book, they do not have behind them the vast marketing resources of the big Publishing houses.

But it does mean that you could publish now, even if it means that your only readers are your friends. A very popular site is ‘Lulu.’ You can also upload your work to Amazon Kindle. This is a new e-book reader which promises to be as easy on the eye as paper. We have yet to see if readers will embrace this over the centuries-old paper book. In my opinion I don’t think that we should underestimate the sensory satisfaction gained from the feel and the smell of a book.

In an episode of Star Trek, when Captain Jean Luc Picard was on leave, he sat reading a book. The creative minds behind the series obviously felt that whatever the technological advances we will still be reading books made of paper. And It looked sort of right.

Continuing my quest for an agent over the internet I came across what looked like a promising company calling themselves the ‘Writers Book Agency.’

They said that they were different to other agents in that they worked closely with promising writers, giving support and feedback which would get their work to a publishable standard.

I sent my letter, synopsis and opening chapters and, whoopy-do, they were interested.

They said things to allay my fears, like not asking for the whole book. They said that they had got four books published- surely, I thought, if this were a scam they would not claim such a modest number.

So I applied one of my tests- I googled ‘Writers Book Agency review.’ What it brought up was an interesting debate- one in which the Writers Book Agency were taking part- about the integrity of the company.

The question was raised as to why the WBA never revealed the identities of those they had taken to publication. It also emerged that after a series of very wordy emails the WBA suggested that writers pay for an independent reading of their work. The implication was that the ‘independent’ readers recommended were actually WBA by another name.

I will withold judgement, but we have here an agent who won’t tell you which published authors they represent (the agents in the writers and artist’s yearbook list their clients) and which inevitably asks you to part with money. They even implied that unwillingness to spend some money on the process indicated lack of belief.

This exploitation of the needs and insecurities of the unpublished writer doesn’t seem that far removed from the methods of the Vanity Press.

And yes, I got my email, saying that they wished to take me on, and recommending people who would, at a price, read my work. I ignored it. Who knows- this may be a genuine outfit which has helped four people achieve their dream. But if it is not a scam, why doesn’t it realise that it is going around around dressed as one?

After a chance encounter in the Apocalyptic wastelands of Golganooza, I went to the highly recommended ‘Frontlist.’

Now this is kosher- it even got a mention in the ‘Writers’ and artists’ yearbook.

You upload your synopsis and sample chapters. These are reviewed by others who have sent in their work.

In return, you have to review the contributions of five other writers. This involves commenting on aspects such as idea, characterisation and appeal. You then score them on each of the selected areas, and if you get above a certain mark your work is then passed on to a publisher. You get sent your result, and the only time you have to part with money (£10) is if you want to view your critiques.

The up side is that you get to see the work of other people who are trying to get their novels published, and they get to see and comment on yours.

The down side… is exactly the same as the up side.

I received one piece which I thought might have appeal. The other four were of very poor quality.

Nevertheless, I tried to empathise (after all, we all have the same dream,) and started, as you should, with picking out the positives. For one of them, all I managed was ‘I will never forget the scene where the main character sat, wearing a gas mask, enjoying the mass suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.’

I also gave some advice on which authors I thought might provide good models. Having done that I was disappointed to find that not all of the other reviewers had taken the same amount of trouble. Although I had made some naive mistakes (like submitting too short a synopsis and two chapters which were too far apart in the book to make sense in isolation) I did not think that my submission warranted the comment made by one ‘reviewer’ in the ‘appeal’ column, where he wrote ‘none at all.’ I consoled myself with the thought that he was the author of the dross to which I had given my lowest score.

I am not averse to criticism, but I did wonder if some of the writers hadn’t quite entered into the spirit of things, and just wanted to get their own reviews without contributing much to the Frontlist community.

Otherwise, I must admit, I sort of like the ‘Frontlist’ idea. That is why I rewrote my synopsis, and submitted it with the first two chapters. You don’t have to pay anything if you don’t want to, and I still like the idea of writers helping oneanother out by passing on advice from wherever they are in the learning curve.

But… whereas before I started to receive my pieces to review almost immediately, this time they didn’t arrive. I went back to the site, and found a note which said that due to a backlog of reviews they were not presently accepting any more submissions.

I gathered when I first used Frontlist that often reviews had to be chased up, so can’t help but wonder if the tardiness of contributors has caused the process to grind to a halt.
After my experiences with the Golganooza site I sincerely hope that this is just a blip, and not the beginning of the end of another worthy internet publishing experiment.

Check it out at: http://www.thefrontlist.com/

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These days, thanks to technology, there are lots of things a writer can do when the constant round of sending out manuscripts and getting them returned with rejection slips is starting to become tedious.

At one time if you couldn’t get published conventionally there was either self- publishing (which is by no means a modern phenomenon*) or the Vanity Press.
Anyone remember Johnboy, his look of pride as he unpacked boxes of hardbound books with his name on the spine- until he realised that he had to foot the bill?

Of course, we’re too sophisticated to fall for something like that, aren’t we? The problem these days is that there are other traps for the unwary- but also more opportunities in an alternative publishing world which is still in its infancy.

I will chronicle my forages into cyberspace publishing chronologically, and where possible leave you to make your own judgements.

Occasionally I will rant. Sometimes it takes me that way.

One of the first things I did was enter a competition in the Writers and Artists’ yearbook. The prize was publication. I never heard anything, so I didn’t win.

More recently I sent my novel to ‘Macmillan New Writers.’ The advantage of this is that you can upload your entire novel (which they promise to delete from their files if you are unsuccessful.) They say that if you’ve not heard from them within twelve weeks… now how long ago was that?

One of my earliest attempts to publish via an unconventional route was through a site called ‘Golganooza.’

Golganooza came up when I typed something like ‘new author wants to get published’ into a search engine.

What Golgonooza offered to do was read a large portion of my novel (I think it was something like 25,000 words,) my covering letter and synopsis, and to provide me with a critique from an unnamed professional- who worked in publishing or the media.

It came at a cost,of course, but there was a reward. If your work was deemed eligible for their ‘Gold Medal,’ Golgonooza would approach publishers on your behalf and represent you.

I next did what I always do when I come across this type of site- I Googled its name. It’s always a good idea to do this when you come across any site which seems to be offering a shortcut to publication. Even better, Google its name with the word ‘review’ attached. There are a lot of helpful people out there, some of whom have successfully used internet services, some of whom have been bitten by them, who have reviewed them for those who follow.

For ‘Golgonooza’ I was glad to find press releases praising the innovative nature of the scheme.

Another thing to do, especially if a site claims that its methods have led to booksales, is to look for that book on Amazon. In this case I found a genuine bestseller which had been a Golganooza Gold Medal Winner.

So far so good.

To use Golgonooza’s service was going to cost about £75.00. For that I would get a professional critique (far cheaper than any comparable service) and possible recommendations to publishers. The idea- and it was a good one- was that if Golgonooza considered something worthy of publishing they would approach publishers and save them from having to wade any longer than necessary to discover your gem in the midst of the ‘slush pile.’

(The slush pile, by the way, is a derogatory term in publishing, given to works which stand no chance of ever hitting the shelves. I wonder if this also includes the odd work of rare genius which publishers won’t touch because They won’t be able to ‘move’ enough ‘units’?) 

So I sent off my submission- through the website- and looked every day to see if the ‘pending’ icon had changed to ‘reviewed.’

About one month later, it had.

I found the review quite balanced, encouraging, and professional. But I didn’t get a Gold Medal.

After another year of revision I had incorporated all of the Golgonooza suggestions and decided to submit it again.

I uploaded to the site, paid my money, and waited… and waited.

After about two months I sent an email, asking where my revew was. No reply. I emailed again. No answer.

I then had the bright idea of writing on one of their forums. Again, no answer. So I wrote messages under each separate forum discussion, asking if anyone else had not received their review. Eventually I wrote warning people not to subscribe, just to see if this would provoke a response. It didn’t.
Then I saw it. The last contribution to be made to the site before mine had been… exactly one year before.

I suddenly felt like a character in one of those ‘last man in the world’ movies- ‘the Omega Man,’ or ‘I am Legend.’
My words seemed to echo back from the screen as I wandered empty cyberspace corridors.
I went back each day, the loneliness turning to mania. I left posting after posting like some demented graffiti artist:

there’s no one there, is there? And I’m going to prove it: I’m going to write ****, and ****, and **** on your website, and you won’t take it off, because you never look do you?

And they didn’t. Obviously the experiment hadn’t worked- either there were not enough people wanting to pay for reviews- or not enough were achieving publication. I don’t know, and there was nothing on the website to explain.

But then came the day that I went on to the site… and someone else was there. I felt a rush of incredulity and exctement, like Robinson Crusoe finding Friday’s footprints on the beach.

It was a guy called Rory. He thanked me for alerting him to the fact that this was a dead website before he parted with his money. We wished each other well with our books, and went our separate ways.
I continued to leave threats of small claims courts. My friend, Darren, who is a debt collecter offered to track the owners down, but we decided it was too much trouble over £75.

I was about to leave my lonely island forever when someone else left a message. He recommended a new thing called the ‘Frontllist.’ Another way of getting to a publisher.

So, a little bit wiser and a lot more wary, I set sail for the new site.

About a year later, out of interest, I tried to find Golganooza again. It no longer exists.

* The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield was self published, as were Eragon by Christopher Paolini and The Storms of Acias by Dominic Took. Other well-known self-publishers include: Stephen Crane, E. E. Cummings, Deepak Chopra, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Paine, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain.

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I remember watching as John Walton Junior struggled to become a published author.

‘I’ve had so many rejection slips,’ he remonstrated, ‘that I could paper my room with them.’

Now considering that Johnboy grew up during the Great Depression, using rejection slips in this way sounds like a great enrepreneurial idea. So, as we face recession, here is how you too can cut down on the cost of decorating.

Firstly- you need the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.’ There’s a new one out every year, and its articles do reflect changing trends. I’m still using the 2007 edition. I have a pact with it: when it helps me to sell my book, I will use some of the money to buy another one- and not before.

Writers and Artists has articles not only advising you on how to submit your work to agents and publishers, but also contains information on alternative forms of publishing such as self-publishing and print on demand.

But if we’re honest, I suppose the overriding attraction is the information and addresses of agents and publishers.

It is generally recommended that you get an agent. Avoid anyone who asks for payment before you publish because real agents never do this. They will cream off about 15% of what your book earns, but because they live and breathe the world of publishing they will negotiate for far more than you ever could and save you from the pitfalls.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The downside is that agents and publishers’ prime concern is not purely to promote quality- it is to promote what will sell.
There is a clear preference these days for the single genre high concept novel, typified by Dan Brown, and a whole range of clones.

But… people get published- why shouldn’t it be you?

Agents requirements vary. They will ask for about two chapters, a synopsis, and a covering letter- I won’t go into any more detail here because the Year Book covers that. Just make sure that you give exactly what each agent asks for- not a page more or a page less.

Don’t be fooled like I was into sending your submissions out one at a time. It can take weeks to return. I always send them in threes now. And you’re better assuming that ‘it’ (that is your A4 stamped, self- addressed envelope) will return. It stops your heart from sinking too far when you hear it land on your mat- your returned extract, and more wallpaper.

The annoying thing about agents’ letters is that they are standard. You don’t know if your work just isn’t what they are looking for, if it’s almost good enough- or if it’s irredeamable slush.
One agent’s letter said that they received 300 submissions per week and only took on three writers… PER YEAR.

But they do take them on. So why shoudn’t it be you?

One of the key characteristics at this point is tenacity. Believe in your work. Never give up. And remember-



a book is not just for bedtime: it’s for life.

And if it takes you years to get published, just think of all that free wallpaper.
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So you are sure of who you are, and what you want to do. You know there’s nothing wrong with it- you’ve been doing it for years for God’s sake. All you have to do now is to tell someone.

You go over the scene so many times. You are in that familiar living room but the walls seem to press in and each breath feels like you are aspirating in a pool of warm sweat.

You practice the words, imagining the gasps, the incredulity… the laughter.

‘Mum… Dad… Sweetheart… I’ve something to tell you: I’m… I’m… AN AUTHOR!

It’s time to unleash your creation upon your first readership- your friends and family, which is not an easy thing to. You have laboured long and hard on this, it is your baby, you’ve grown attached, and will be upset if anyone tells you it’s ugly. But be brave- better a friend tells you than a publisher.

So ask them to be honest, and to make any marks on the manuscript in a different colour to what has been used by previous readers. Ask them to comment on the plot, characters, anything they liked or didn’t like. Ask them if they feel that it reads like something they would buy from a book shop, and if it doesn’t, why not.

You will be surprised, regardless of how thoroughly you have revised and proof read your work, just how many typos and spelling mistakes will still be found. A spell checker will pass ‘there’ or ‘their’ as correct, regardless of its context.

I even say to people that if they get so far in and think that it’s drivel to stop and give it back. LIFE IS TOO SHORT.

Fortunately, so far, no one has done that. Remarks have tended to be very encouraging. As I sat watching a football match at the city of Manchester Stadium I got a series of texts from someone who just had to know that her favourite character would survive. As it turned out, Manchester City lost and the texts turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the afternoon.

(Here’s an old football joke for you:
Football fan 1: City lost today.
Football fan 2: How do you know?
Football fan 1: It’s Saturday…)

Don’t feel obliged to make every change suggested by your readers. They, like you, bring their own presuppositions to the piece. But if several people make the same point this probably is a big indication that you need to rethink.

So go through it, making the alterations you agree with, remembering that each one may be keeping you that little bit further away from a publisher’s rejection pile. If you think this sounds tedious, how must it have been before the invenion of the word processor?

When you eventually get published (oh yes, positive thinking is essential,) you might want to give the people who helped you a credit.

My book is a thriller, of sorts, so I made a point at first of only asking people who I knew read that genre. After all, they were doing me a service, so I wanted them to at least get some enjoyment out of it.I asked my Wife, my Father and Brother to read it, but not my Mother, as she wouldn’t have got past the (necessary and appropriate) strong language. Which brings me onto another difficulty which you might find in sharing your work with people who know you…

What you consider to be your well-written and objective exploration of a neglected corner of the human condition may to someone who knows you come as an appalling revelation that you are a disgusting pervert with a mind like Satan’s sewer.Don’t laugh- it came as a great shock to Iris Murdoch’s nearest and dearest that some of her subject matter was in her head, so it does happen, even to the best of them. I once told a colleague who had read my novel that a great deal of it was based upon real events. She laughed and asked me if I was referring to the scene in the factory toilet (at the beginning of Chapter 3, which you can hear on YouTube.)

So think carefully- is your work a processing of reality through your imagination, or is it a confession of your warped psyche and a series of clues about where the bodies are buried?

Depending on your answer, your next step will be to send a sample of your work to an agent (in the first case literary, in the second, government.)

And you though it had been hard getting to this point…

So, you’ve got something which looks like a novel. Well it’s a big bulky wad of paper with words on it

(should be no less than 80,000 of those.)

Once you’ve worked out that what you’re waving around isn’t a phonebook, chances are you’ve got the first draft of your novel. But is it literature? And… will it sell?

Although you will be itching to get your masterpiece into the hands of a publisher, it can pay to put your work away in a drawer for a while before you commence revision. This way you can come to it with fresh eyes.

Approach it like it’s someone else’s work and be brutal.

This scene which took you months to write, does it move the story on, or develop your characters? If it wasn’t there would anyone notice? You may just need to ditch it and not look back.

Is a passage economical?

Sometimes it helps to slow down the pace, to have a brief meditation or ‘set piece.’ Sometimes the information imparted could be passed on in a line of dialogue.

Does your prose flow? Does it have a natural rhythm? When characters speak,

is it believable that someone would talk like that?

Read your work out aloud. If you find you get tongue tied over a phrase, maybe it needs changing, shortening, or to have the order of words altered. Any sections about which you have doubts, try recording them, or get someone else to look. (Not that I could do that- I can never show my work to anyone until it’s as good as I can get it.)

How many times do you revise? I’m with Hemingway on that one-

you revise until the day you go through it and you can find nothing else to change.

I think that this is a common trait of all successful writers, but how they approach this can vary from one to another. Rather than writing a novel then going through it and through it, Dean Koontz writes one page at a time. He will then revise that page thirty or forty times, before he is happy to move on.

I found a real difficulty with my revisions in that some chapters just didn’t work in the person in which I had written them. I once turned the entire book from a first to a third person narrative. It didn’t work, because my aim in having a first person was for him to be an everyman with whom the reader could identify in an unfamiliar world. I eventually decided to mix the voices. A common criticism of this is that it ‘jars.’ But several people have now read my text and not one of them- even the most critical readers- has even mentioned this.

A good example of the use of multiple voices is ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.’ There the change of voice is well indicated by section headings. If you are not going to do this you need to

make sure that the voices are sufficiently distinct,

so that from the first line of the new passage or chapter the reader is left in no doubt as to who is speaking.

In ‘Tasting the Wind’ I have attempted to do this by making Martin’s narration a little more colloquial, and having him always speak in the present tense. Have a listen to the Prologue, which I added to the first posting on this blog, followed by the opening of Chapter One (below) and judge for yourself whether or not it works.


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