Finding a publisher – how did the Brontes do it?

You’ve finished the first draft and maybe the second of your novel, so the chances are, you’ve sent it out to a publisher or agent. Good for you – it’s a sign of your confidence in your talent, so why not?

You’ve heard nothing back yet? Or the news has not been encouraging?

It’s time to remember Charlotte Bronte’s experiences. Every time a rejection comes, I recommend a look through her Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, written in 1850 as a preface to her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. We are indebted to Mick Armitage who has given us the full text online .

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Anne, Emily and Charlotte (right) are above in their brother Bramwell’s famous painting. His attempts to convert himself into a post, in the middle, still manage to dominate the canvas.

Charlotte’s main purpose was to give herself and her sisters their real names as authors of their works, especially their poetry: ‘This notice has been written, because I felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil.’ In the process, she describes situations that writers, especially those from outside the traditional canon, still know all too well.

‘We did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality and, for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.’ Step forward please, JK Rowling, PD James, Al Kennedy, AM Homes, Lionel Shriver who have hidden their genders in neutral or masculine names today. How many others can you name who are still skirting around this truth?

‘The bringing out of our little book (of poetry) was hard work.’ Well, yes. ‘As was to be expected, neither we nor our poems were at all wanted … The great puzzle lay in the difficulty of getting answers of any kind from the publishers to whom we applied.’ The bluebottle stage where our confidence feels like a fly bashing its head against solid glass searching for any gap to fly though.

She goes on: ‘Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued.’ And there lies the biggest ingredient (it seems to me) in success. Not only talent but faith in that talent and the courage to persist. ‘The fixed conviction (Charlotte) held, and hold, of the worth of these poems has not indeed received the confirmation of much favourable criticism; but I must retain it notwithstanding.’

Charlotte describes how, notwithstanding the initial reception given to their poetry, they set about writing a story each: Wuthering Heights (Emily), Agnes Grey (Anne) and a ‘narrative in one volume’ of her own. ‘These MSS,’ she wrote, ‘were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.’ The perfect word: obtruded.

I met an agent once who had turned up on her first day of work at a new agency. A post-it was stuck to a huge tatty typescript on top of a vast pile; it read, ‘Please don’t ignore this’. Up to her eyes in pressure, she didn’t get around to it – to discover later that it was an early draft of the first Harry Potter book.

Charlotte goes on: ‘At last “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey” were accepted on terms somewhat impoverishing to the two authors.’ Such a familiar situation today. ‘Currer Bell’s (Charlotte’s) book found acceptance nowhere,’ she says with heartbreak in every word, ‘nor any acknowledgement of merit, so that something like the chill of despair began to invade (her) heart.’

Finally, a letter came. Charlotte opened it trembling ‘in dreary expectation of finding two hard, hopeless lines, intimating that [publisher X] were not disposed to publish.’

Her next lines should be engraved in gold on the desk of any writer who wishes to follow this traditional route. The letter ‘declined, indeed, to publish that tale, for business reasons, but it discussed its merits and demerits so courteously, so considerately, in a spirit so rational, with a discrimination so enlightened, that this very refusal cheered the author better than a vulgarly expressed acceptance would have done. It was added that a work in three volumes would meet with careful attention.’

Business reasons. If only that publisher could turn back time. But if a good agent or publisher replies, spelling your name correctly and giving detailed feedback on what you’ve written, give yourself a great big pat on the back. It’s a vast step forward. You can get so deeply used to receiving rejections, as Charlotte did, that you miss this but it’s big. Your calling card has worked and they want more.

It’s also worth noting that the three-book deal was alive and well even then. Meanwhile Charlotte’s one-volume tale (The Professor) was still, as she said, ‘plodding its weary round in London’ until eventually ‘friendly and skilful hands took it in’. The three sisters’ books ‘lingered’ in the press for months (I know this feeling so well) while the publisher changed management. When publication day did arrive, ‘critics failed to do them justice’.

Charlotte wrote this after a dreadful time in which consumption (tuberculosis) had taken the lives of Bramwell, Emily and Anne within eighteen months. It is difficult to read the words without tears.

At each setback, they worked to make their writing better. It’s what we all do: revise, edit, rewrite it again. Improve and improve again so that the next setback won’t happen. Over the coming weeks, we’ll look here at the tidying revisions most drafts need – about calendars and timelines (they sometimes go astray after a round of edits), plot arcs and slack passages, looking again at your structure, and working on your best beginning and end. Let’s take the pain out of these bluebottle times by making your draft the very best it can be.

In the mean time, let’s have another go at the mountainside exercise, reminding ourselves far we’ve come.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

 

Old friends

‘You can’t make old friends’, said the late Christopher Hitchens. Romantic love can come and go but a really solid friendship year after year, there’s no treasure like it.

Whenever we’re writing fiction, there’s pressure to edit out everything that doesn’t propel the story along, so a main character can have just a friend or two, or none. In reality, most of us gather friends through every phase of our lives.

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SHORTCUT

You can save first draft time, once you know your characters well, if you give some thought to what binds friends together. Stand back from your main story and plot their friendship over the years like a love story: how do they meet, what obstacles does their relationship face, how do they stay together, or not? In the usual scribble-chat way, ask each of them separately to answer these questions for you, taking as long as they like:

  • How did they meet?
  • How are they together when they’ve only known each other a short time?
  • What do they have in common at the start?
  • How does their warmth develop?
  • What is in it for each of them?
  • Where are the tests in their bond? What difficulties have they recovered from, or not?
  • How do they work things through together?
  • How are they when they’ve known each other ten or more years?
  • What secrets do they have from each other?
  • What do other people think of them and their friendship?

Not all of this needs to go into your draft but you may well discover useful things that give you the nuance and plausibility you’re after. Old friends’ answers don’t necessarily match of course.

Some of the most memorable stories have friendship at their centre, dating right back to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, written around 2000 BCE. It’s often opposites who attract, not just because it makes the story bubble but because it happens in life. That’s why we believe Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are great mates, Horatio and Hamlet, Frodo and Sam, Ratty and Mole. Jane Austen uses the friendship between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas brilliantly to point up the economic crises they both face in Pride and Prejudice, and solve differently. Jane Eyre and Helen Burns bring Bronte’s particular palette to Jane’s story from its outset.

My favourite of all is the exquisitely written friendship between Jack Aubry and Stephen Maturin in the Master and Commander series, that survies war, poverty and wealth, even their being in love with the same woman.

What are the things to avoid whenever we’re writing close friends?

  • No exposition please or dumps of backstory where they tell one another things they already know. Sometimes we do this with each other as a rove down memory lane but swathes of dialogue where they tell each other how they met and who their girlfriends are? Just delete it, your readers will catch up.
  • Friends have familiar or code words that mean more to the two of them than to anyone else. Watson understands who Holmes means when he refers to ‘the Woman’, for example.
  • They are likely to have usual places where they eat, drink, laugh, maybe described with a code or nickname.

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Friendship doesn’t always go well of course. Banquo could tell you that, after his old friend Macbeth has him and his son Fleance killed. Shakespeare allows Banquo some wonderful supernatural – or is it psychological? – revenge.

Sometimes friendlessness is the point: Ralph is a decent soul in Golding’s Lord of the Flies so his isolation in the face of appalling bullying is all the more heart-wrenching.

We writers are always snappers up of life’s unconsidered trifles so next time you’re with your dearest friends, take a close look at how you are together. What are the traces of your friendship that anybody can see from across a room? Where are your depths, how the two of you hide them from the world? I’m not suggesting for a second that you betray your friends, just study how you are together. Your fictional friends will benefit.

FICTION’S BIGGEST TRICK

and how we play it

Story-writers have a trick that people in films, television drama and theatre can only envy. We can take our readers into the minds of our characters and deep inside their emotions. While you’re reading a story or novel, you are not just walking a mile in those characters’ shoes, you’re with them every step of their biggest crises, maybe their whole lives, living and breathing it sometimes from behind their eyes. This trick happens so lightly that readers maybe aren’t even aware of the miracle but it has changed the world.

Drama on screen or in a theatre can move us very deeply but the best it can do is show us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard at helping us know what those characters are going through, and it can feel genuine. Film directors often fill the gap with swathes of music. But do we really know what the characters feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters talk to each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue to talk to us direct what they’re up to. But it’s always at a remove – we are watching it, not living it.

From the first word of a novel we are invited deep inside a character’s internal essence. Why are the Game of Thrones novels so clever? Because George RR Martin writes each chapter from the mind of a single character so, whatever horrors are going on, we live those events through that person.

Why was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre so revolutionary when it was finally published in 1847? From the beginning, we are inside the formidably honest, rebellious mind of Jane growing up and it’s a thrilling place to be.

Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) broke boundaries too in bringing truths about marriage to an alcoholic into the daylight, beautifully written and from his wife’s point of view.

It’s hard these days to understand the impact of something like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in its day (1877) about the life of a working horse in Victorian society. It has sold 50 million copies (so far) and brought animal welfare changes all over the world. At the core of the book’s success is that the story is told by the horse himself.

SHORTCUT

Whenever we have our scribble-chats with our characters, do your best to let them tell the story for you. In their own voices.

Too many first drafts have characters who all speak in the same voice. This tends to be because the writer is ‘designing’ the characters from the outside without getting inside their heads. These writers are more likely to tell us what a character is wearing than thinking or feeling.

Readers want their interior worlds. If you work through scribble-chats at letting your characters speak to you, each in their own way from their own lives and hearts, you will jump past that first draft error and find yourself in a much more vibrant fictional world with more realistic characters around you.

EXERCISE

Think of a character, just one. Ask him how old he is and be aware of his reactions while he’s telling you. How does he feel about his age? Let him keep talking about it while you catch it on your page or screen. Stay inside his thoughts and voice. When is his birthday? How does he feel about birthdays? How did his last one go? Any plans for the next one?

You are mining for depths you never would have thought of if your character summary stopped at ‘Age: 26’.

Have a happy time!

 

Incidentally, I said last week that we’d be with the Churchill Writers this weekend. I got ahead of myself – that’s not until next month. We’ll do it then …