Novel gets catapulted (at long last) onto slush pile

Yes, dear agent, this is the novel you are waiting for. Isn't it?

Yes, dear agent, this is the novel you are waiting for. Isn’t it?

I made a decision early in the year to get this novel finished. Before it finished me.

I had to put whatever time and energy I had into doing just that. Which meant, among other things, not going to any more writing events, entering any novel competitions, limiting writers’ groups and, for that matter, blogging. I had to grit my teeth and drive on, just like Popeye in the deliciously unhinged car chase scene in The French Connection.

Finishing the God-damn novel, Gene Hackman-style. Courtesy

Finishing the God-damn novel, Gene Hackman-style. Courtesy

Okay, it has taken an awful lot longer than expected, but I have done it. Some five years after I started, I have finished my novel, with a capital F. And done by the end of September – as I had set myself in July.

It went through a final – and significant – structural edit/edits during July and August. This followed a reading by a friend and literary guru (my words, not his). He rated it, but was quite clear certain work had to be done to maximise my chances of attracting an agent/publisher. At the same time I had two ghost readers – both writers – go through the entire thing. They came back very positive about it. Which, a la Fast Show, was nice.

Finally finishing it was like a weight off my shoulders, even if I had to do several proof reads (the seemingly endless mistakes were a tester) and make little changes (which could go on forever if I wanted to).

I had to brush off an old synopsis and rewrite and tighten it. After that, was the covering letter, which I had not done before. This was quite a bit of work, but enjoyable.

I deliberately had not spent time on literary agents until I was finished. I had little or no idea how to go about this. I sought some advice and perused the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and spent some time looking up websites, agents and submission guidelines. Note: Being crystal clear on submission guidelines is crucial – and following them.

Then came the moment of truth. Sending off submissions. This was exciting, but also a bit nerve-wracking. It was either I did it, or my long-suffering wife would.

The agencies had different requirements – the first three chapters, the first 10 pages, the first 5/10,000 words, first 50 pages, etc, etc. Same with covering letters. I quadruple-checked the attachments and then (half-cracked by this stage) hit send. Bang. They were gone. (One of the submissions I sent off was by post).  Sending the submissions was an even bigger relief, and release, than finishing the book. No more polishing or fretting or pulling hairs or barking. They were catapulted onto the (mainly digital) slush pile.

Much to my amazement, I got one response very quickly, within days, looking for the full manuscript. After that came my first rejection (which was actually an encouraging rejection). That was followed by another request for the full manuscript.

I have wires strapping down any Walter Mitty flights of fancy and have read enough/talked enough to writers to know this is just the beginning. It may go somewhere, but also may not (and the odds are very long). And, I’m not forgetting what my son wrote on a post-it (at right of image) as I scoured for agents…

Does my son know something I don't?

Does my son know something I don’t?

Posted in My Novel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

It ain’t done, till it’s done

So, this was the opening line in my last post: That’s it. No more excuses. Finish this novel and send it out by year’s end.

Well, what can I say? Other than: That’s not it. I have more excuses. I won’t be finished my novel by year’s end and it won’t be visiting a post box anytime soon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a bit disappointed, not least because my previous post was written three whole months ago!

But, I’m not disheartened. I have done a huge amount of work and the novel is significantly better. And, after a round of consultation in recent weeks with key people, it will be better still.

An essential part of this draft was going through some 130 printed pages of notes relating to my writing. I assembled those notes together by topic (characters, plots, setting, dialogue, etc), identified where they should go and stitched them into the novel.

I have done that. And it was a lot more work than I thought it would be. It was painstaking, with ripple effects all around, compounded by tangents, digressions and holes of the plot and character kind.

Another thing I’ve done in the last weeks was meet three key people: two experienced detectives and one drug worker (who has read the first half of an earlier draft). They were very generous with their time and insight. This advice is going to make a big difference for many reasons. One or two significant issues were raised, which I will have to put a lot of thought into, possibly requiring considerable rewriting. That is the next draft.

My schedule is off and I don’t have an obvious deadline now to aim for, which I am concerned about.

But, as an agent told me – it ain’t done, till it’s done.


Posted in My Novel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

No more excuses

That’s it. No more excuses. Finish this novel and send it out by year’s end.

Given my last post was mid May, you might wonder what have I been doing. I have asked myself the same question, but just get hmms and ahhs.

Pintrest BookI do have a good excuse, though. The kids. Off school. Rampaging and pillaging for two months solid.

School has restarted (hurray!) and they are back in State care now. So no one to blame.

I need to up my game big time: get up early and do a couple of hours before work, say three days a week.

I have recently given four people – a detective, a drug worker and two journalistic colleagues – the first half of the novel.

My next stage now is to go through my notes. I have more than 120 pages of notes typed up from my notepads I carry around. They contain everything from ideas and changes about my novel – regarding the characters or the plot, etc – as well as incidents, colour that would enrich it. I am finishing going through the notes and identifying where in the novel they go could go in.

Soon, I’ll start doing the actual changes. The more I look at them, the more I realise there are quite a lot of alterations. This, of course, can be tricky, with ripple effects throughout the novel.

Once this process is done and taking into account possible recommendations, I will then set about a last draft and edit.

Then, print the baby out for a final, final proofread and check.

That’s the plan.

No excuses..

Posted in My Novel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dating an Agent

Pintrest Book in YouI got a bit of a start when I took my seat at the Dublin Writers’ Week Date with an Agent last Saturday and took a sheet up, entitled Coping with Rejection. It wasn’t an auspicious start!

But things went uphill from there. Assembled before a packed room of circa 75 aspiring writers/writers was a panel of five agents: Simon Trewin, WME (; Polly Nolan, Greenhouse (; Sallyanne Sweeney, Mulcahy Associates (; Madeline Milburn (; and Faith O’Grady, Lisa Richards (

It was an interesting chat, hosted by a fireball of energy and chat Vanessa O’Loughlin of Inkwell ( and, with a good Q&A session.

At one stage, regarding submissions, Polly Nolan said Greenhouse only took the first five pages of the novel, no more. They make their judgment on that, plus synopsis. She said it had been said to her this was very little – and it does seem so. But she, and most of the others, pointed out that when a reader is in a shop they look at the cover, the blurbs at the back and the first few pars, maybe the first page or two, and then decide. And they’re right. But it’s a sobering thought and one to digest.

Vanessa agreed and urged people to start just before the action, not three or four chapters and then the action.

Simon mentioned a phrase which I liked: a quartet of books. That must be the new thing, not a trilogy or series, but a quartet. Has a refined, classical ring to it.

While we were all in and out of adjoining rooms with our respective agents in waiting (more of that anon), Vanessa filled the silence (an extraordinary achievement, given it continued well into the afternoon) with endless bits of advice, tips and little tests.

A selection of her tips included:

*Submissions: Read the guidelines on agent’s/publisher’s sites

*Agents: Look up Agent Hunter (online list of all agents in UK

*Cover Letter: Have Pitch Line (Couple of sentences), paragraph on the novel and a par on your good self

*Manuscript: Put contact email on header, along with your name and book title

*Strategy: Have A list and B list of agents, start with B and get their reaction before moving to A list

*Positive: Be positive about yourself (yes, we all squirmed and laughed at the thought) – because they are looking for marketing angles to go with book

*Blogs: Have your contact info in it (an X for me); Keep it updated (huge X for me); Use humour (eh, pass); Ensure the target market for your book should be the target market for your blog (not sure)

*Self-Publishing. Check out and

On the date bit, well is was good, but very quick. Apparently, it was ten minutes. Maybe it was, but it zipped by at a ferocious speed and ended the date abruptly! That caveat aside, I met Faith O’Grady and it went really well. She was very amiable and interested. Looking back, it was a bit of a blur, but I got a lot of positive feedback.

Oh, there was a guest speech by Jax Miller, the New York born Irish resident whose writing career was catapulted after Simon Trewin took her on (following an email and attachment from Vanessa). Her novel Freedom’s Child was signed in crazy time by Harper Collins. A fellow member of the Irish Crime Fiction Facebook group, it is great to see her progress. For more see @JaxMillerAuthor.

For more on Dublin Writers’ Week see

Posted in My Novel, Writing Advice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Thing about Donal Ryan

It’s great when you meet someone you admire and they don’t let you down. Not only did Donal Ryan not let people down when he spoke at the last Saturday, but he came across as such a normal, nice person, unburdened by ego and affectation.

donal ryan 2

The author of The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December was an entertaining and informative speaker. He read extracts from both books and the first thing that struck me was how good they would be as audio books. (Afterwards he told me that this was happening in the US and had worked out really well.)

The story of his rejection letters is the stuff of legend now and was an obvious thing he talked about and was questioned on. He said it was easy to buckle under the weight of rejections. He said publishers have a fixed criteria for what they want. He said every writer will face an “infinity of rejections” and that a “whole world is out there waiting to say No”. Great!

He said he and his wife (Ann Marie) used to have a good laugh at the rejections, which he has kept in a folder and which he will eventually sell (Hang on to them rejections!). His work was famously found in a slush pile, an unfortunate term he said for what is “a mountain of people’s efforts…a mountain of love”.

Amazingly for such a talented writer, he said it took him 20 years to have confidence in his work. He credits his wife for this, who supported him and pushed him. He said the longest road for a writer was “finding your voice”.

Donal said he was still working as a labour inspector, although he is due to quit next month to write full time. He has a three-book deal with Random House. Sounds great. It is. But he said this places a new kind of pressure on him. He negotiated the contract himself (he has legal training) and said it was an ordeal. He was speaking at an event organised by the Irish Writers’ Union,, which, among other things, provides advice to members about contracts. He hung around for ages afterwards and was very approachable and friendly to everyone and anyone, including aspiring writers.

Asked in his talk what books had an impact on him, he mentioned Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. He said a great writer is one who can create an image that won’t leave your mind. On that note, I can’t resist quoting his opening two sentences in The Spinning Heart….

“My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.”

My review of The Spinning Heart

Posted in Fiction Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Selfish Giant


Arbor and Swifty

My wife picked out a DVD recently called The Selfish Giant. I thought it sounded familiar but it wasn’t until the closing credits that I copped it was the name of Oscar Wilde’s famous children’s story.

This is a modern take on that. The setting is the grim and gritty estates and wastelands of Bradford, north England. The story is of two boys – each with their own crippling personal and family problems – who struggle and battle for purpose.

The youngest boy is Arbor, a feral child, brilliantly captured by Conner Chapman. His quieter and more sensitive friend is Swifty, also excellently played by Shaun Thomas. They get expelled from school after they protect each other from bullies.  Like so many such boys they have qualities – not least entrepreneurship, loyalty, and, in Swifty’s case, a gift with horses. One of the reasons the story appealed to me was that it is similar to the story I am writing.

clio barnard

Clio Barnard

The boys get involved with a shady, and violent, local scrap dealer and criminal, Kitten, played by Sean Gilder. All the acting is superb in this, including the boys’ parents and siblings. It has all the social realism of a Mike Leigh production. The writer and director by the way is Clio Barnard. Hats off to her.

It is a powerful piece of art. It is moving, visually beautiful at times, endearing, gripping and painfully sad. It’s maybe not a Friday night film. More of a Saturday/Sunday night one. Well, well worth it.

See review here in the telegraph

Posted in Films | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Solace in 2013

I envy people who fly through books, devouring them in digestion-inducing feasts. SolaceSome clock up a small library in a year. I’m a slow reader, I am. Part of the problem with this is that novels need to be read consistently and in large helpings to appreciate them fully. That caveat aside, here are the books I read in 2013. Funnily enough, the one I thought was my book of the year I didn’t do a review of….

First off was Broken Harbour, by Tana French, which, the more I look back on, I read way too slowly. During it I re-read some of Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales after The Hobbit movie came out. The way you do.

I really liked Broken Harbour, but would have even more if I read it faster. The descriptions and emotional power of the writing are what stayed with me most. Full review here

I never got to read John McGahern over the years, but one day, browsing in a second-hand book shop, the striking cover of The Dark kind-of grabbed me. A brilliant read, although difficult at times, not because of the style (which is envy-inducing), but the content. Click here for more

I really enjoyed Louise Phillip’s debut, Red Ribbons. I flew through it. She places a huge emphasis on pace and emotional punch. I also read her spooky follow-up, The Doll’s House, later in the year, and enjoyed that too. Some reviewers rated that better than Red Ribbons and it did go on to win the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Book of the Year, but for me, mainly because of one of the main characters in Red Ribbons, I thought it was even better. For more

I’m not sure which crime fiction book I preferred more this year – Red Ribbons or Crocodile Tears by Mark O’Sullivan. Like Tana French, I loved this author’s descriptive abilities and I enjoyed his main character as well as the plot. Looking forward to more from him. My thoughts

This next one, a slim fella, was a cracker. But most of you already know how good the award-winning The Spinning Heart is, so no need to say that much. But here’s my review

It’s hard to think what might better Donal Ryan’s debut. spinning heartBut, for me, Belinda McKeon nips it at the line, just, with Solace, a book published a few years ago.

It was so good I never even did a review! Not sure what that means. Maybe I was busy writing at the time (yes, that small matter). It was beautifully written, with engrossing main characters and a great plot. I still remember the power of the writing, particularly in relation to the dad and the bang (literally) in the middle of the book, and its aftermath.

Posted in Fiction Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments