Friday, March 14, 2008

Easter 2008

For eight months now I’ve been living on Plymouth Hoe, starting each morning by looking out across the Sound. It’s always striking to see the larger vessels including giant submarines running the deep channel that runs parallel and close to the shoreline as they head in and out of port. I watch the white Brittany Ferries ships head to and fro between Plymouth and Roscoff, and store my own excitement. Tonight that excitement gets released. The 11pm ferry will carry me with it.
We’re off to France for the Easter break. It’s my favourite time of year, tucking ourselves back into the Pyrenean hills while nature wakes up. Easter’s early this year. Will the cherries be in blossom yet and the nightingales singing? Every stirring of spring comes as a wonder. We’ll go on orchid hunts through the hills, and picnic by the riverside ruins of Felicity’s chapel.
I’m used to tucking myself into our house down there to write. Not this time. A stack of books is going with me, ones which count as pleasure-reading rather than research. An adult and a children’s novel are going out into the world from my respective agents, so I’m ready for some fallow time. Unlike the message reported from Allan Guthrie below, I’ve learned from my children’s agent Lucy Juckes that children’s publishers do buy a series rather than individual titles. The second in that particular quartet is playing through my head so I’ll let my imagination gather round it. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll stroke out a few pages before heading back to Britain. The first novel was born and then completed in that Pyrenean retreat, and I suspect this second book wants to go the same way.
At the beginning of April I’ve chosen a daytime journey back from Roscoff (on the coast of Brittany), so I can make the most of the fun of being at sea. Oddly I look forward to returning to Plymouth too. It seems my life’s in fair order just now.

Lucia de Lammermoor and my PLR returns

My PLR money [public lending right, paid out to authors in the UK in honour of library loans on their books] hit a dizzying three figures for the first time this year, £100 and a few pence. I've decided to take the money as a boost to creativity. This time around that meant two tickets to the ENO's Lucia de Lammermoor, with an interval drink to boot.
I've known the opera for years in the Callas and di Stefano version, but never seen it and never really known what it was about. This production (by David Alden, in English) was thrilling and terrifying. I was still quietly weeping through the interval, beautifully upset through the second half, and still so disturbed in retelling the story over dinner the next day I smashed a glass of red wine over the white tablecloth. "The blood, the blood, that's what it was like," I declaimed. "Imagine this doll-like girl, forced into a marriage she could not abide, dressed in white against the black of other others, the white smothered in the red of her new husband's blood, wrapping those dead arms around herself in the notion that these are the arms of her true beloved."
It was an astonishing performance by the American soprano Anna Christy. It's challenging enough for divas to be required to sing sitting down. Christy was hauled all over the place without missing a note or a warble, sang from her knees, from her back, even lying flat with her head hanging upside down off the edge of a table.
It was stunning through and through ... and that quintet, what fabulous theatre it provides!
Next year my new Haldane bio is added to my library earnings ... I doubt the next creative boost can beat this year's one even with the extra funds, but I look forward to trying.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

'How to approach an agent' and Allan Guthrie

Allan Guthrie flew in from Edinburgh for a talk to our creative writing students here at Plymouth University on Monday. His first novel Two Way Split is the current Theakston's crime novel of the year - and we managed our own two-way split with Alan. In the morning session he was giving our MA Creative Writing students the insider scoops on the industry and how to approach agents. In the afternoon we opened a session to the public and our undergraduate students, a Q&A with myself on Allan's writing side.
Allan's an agent with Jenny Brown Associates. He gave good detail on how to manage that increasingly vital relationship with a literary agent. Some material was off the record so I won't spoil the game and air it here (signing up for our MA brings many bonuses!), but I did manage to learn a few things myself. One was the term 'platform' ... that unique public role you have that gives authority to your book (so a detective writes a detective novel, for example). For some years now I've been aware of having to create such a 'platform' for myself without knowing the term. It's become a primary obsession in publishing marketing departments.
I did already work on the assumption that you don't try and sell a novel as the first in a series, you simply sell it as a novel. It was made clearer that you don't start writing the sequel until some success for the first one is guaranteed. That might be from sales figures, or from earlier enthusiasm in the publishing house. Having just sent out the first novel in a planned quartet, it's sage advice that I don't just ride the momentum and carry on with the second.
The final piece of advice was one I hadn't heard an agent give before. One glaring mistake many writers make, in Allan's opinion, is to start their book too soon. Begin the book when the action has already kicked in. That's especially important when you only have two chapters in which to grab the agent's attention. Once you've got the contract, Allan suggests, you can do what you like, but make sure you grab that attention at the beginning.
Allan's my own fiction agent. My new novel Playing Dead on Live TV is going out from him in the next week or two. He didn't ask for a lot of editing - but posed so many questions about the opening chapter I realized the simplest thing was to remove it. It was remarkable how well the book survived without all that early exposition.