When asked I always find it so difficult to answer that question. I certainly do not write genre fiction, even though my books contain elements of many genres; notably mystery and comedy. So, because I do not write genre fiction I guess I class myself as literary, but that conveys nothing other than my writing not being genre. So let us try and break out of this denominational straight jacket. I have, in the past, been labelled as a magic realist and I can accept that – I mean why shouldn’t my village live under a bowl of cold stars; be peopled (or is it dogged) with three-legged dogs pissing up against old fashioned lamp-posts, and why shouldn’t the leggy lamp lighter stride in with his long pole to flare up each gas lamp with a bang, so chasing the hobbling dogs away – and all enacted beside a river teeming with dead, pink-bellied fish floating on their backs upon its surface. So now I suppose I will have to tell you about the dead fish, and that’s political because the local dyeworks has been dumping in the river again, and most of us are dependant on the fish we catch from that particular stretch of water. But when the naked body of the factory manager was seen floating pink-belly up on the river, things took a serious turn for the worse. The banner I have chosen to head my blog is neither representative of the way I live, nor of the way I should want to live; but it is representative of my mind. (And yes the banner is no longer there since I changed my theme, that is my presentational style). A long picture gallery is exactly how my mind might appear if by some magic one could see inside. I amble through, slowly inspecting and describing the detail I see in one painting after another. Noting connections. Yet the pictures in my gallery are more than paintings, much more, they are able to arouse all the senses; smell, touch, hearing. I can put my hand within the frame and they come alive. Speak to me. Ken McLeish wrote in his Sunday Times review of The Brightside Dinosaur ‘(he) brilliantly keeps up his balancing act between harshness, fantasy and wit. He belongs to the tradition of the story-teller as magician; he unpicks the patterns of ordinary lives and shows us wonders.’ If that is true then I have succeeded in developing the writing style I set out to achieve. And if my writing entertains, for that is what I want more than anything, then I have succeeded at that level too, producing a fusion of the literary and the genre.
Telling it like it is; a significant line of duty for the literary agent.
Your literary agent ought to be your biggest fan. I mean why should she choose to represent someone whose writing she is not keen on? And conversely, if she has no enthusiasm for your work then why have her in your team. To be fair to agents, they have the pick of a very large crop these days, but that is not to say there has been an increase in the number of manuscripts worthy of publication. Who knows, maybe the number of good apples received has reduced as both agents who farm them, and the daily intake of rotten ones (apples not agents) has increased. What I am saying is if you have an agent, and you choose to peel away from her for some reason, then you might not so easily find another. Bird in the hand.. and all that! Think hard before you cast anyone aside. Nevertheless, she should be a fan, shouting your name from the proverbial rooftops. I’m not sure what you can do about it if she doesn’t feel that way, but my advice would be not to leave the agency for reasons already mentioned. In my last post I mentioned how my supports were eroded, one by one, as individual tragedies befell them, and how I hadn’t the sense to replace them, even though there were chances to do so. I think, at the very least I can be accused of complacency. But in this post I wish to speak of those two allies of the complacent; smugness and conceit. My agent at A.P.Watt was Clarissa Rushdie, and she was a huge fan of my work. But Clarissa was to demonstrate to me what I came to believe to be the most important mission of the agent, once you are signed up to her. And that role is ‘to tell it like it is’, simply because, as a fan, they have a right to do so. In fact I believe they may be contracted to do so, for to ‘tell it as it is’, is not merely their mission as agent, but also their role as true friend. Amongst all the other functions an agent has; selling your work, getting the best deal possible for you, holding your hand through interviews and bad reviews, seeing that the cheques drop through your letterbox on time, and so much more, the most important thing they can do for you when the occasion arises is to let you know when you are writing crap. Now I have to say that I used to be a lazy writer, conceited enough to send sloppy manuscripts to my agent; manuscripts, to my shame, I knew to have their faults. The lesson I am trying to drive home here is for you writers out there to draft and redraft your manuscript as many times as it takes, to hone it to be the very best you can do, and if it takes a year, or even five years, then so be it. When you can place hand on heart and swear it is the best you can do, then send it in. It has taken me many years to learn that lesson, and it all started with Clarissa. I had sent her the manuscript for ‘The Brightside Dinosaur’, the final book in my trilogy, mentioned in my last blog. I was smug; I had completed my trilogy and happy with what I had produced, despite the flaws I knew to exist in the final volume. She quickly returned it to me with a note to say that I could do better than what I had given her. And I returned the revised manuscript within a week, surprising her by the speed of my response. Of course, I was able to act as quickly as I had simply because I knew exactly what was wrong with the book. Chapters had been in the wrong place, and the writing was generally inconsistent. But I was lazy enough, and conceited enough, to believe that I could have got away with what I had supplied. She was amazed how the novel read so differently, and so well; and it went forward for publication by Constable, in my view the best of the Brightside novels. Clarissa had proved to be a great friend in ‘telling me how it is’. Had she not moved on, left agency work for the Arts Council, I know my career would have remained on track. She would, I am sure, have ironed out my tendency to sloppiness, knocked the conceit out of me. It has taken me an awful long time to learn the lesson, but I can honestly say that any work I send to an agent in the future will be, hand on heart, the best I can do. The agent is in an uncomfortable place, unable to begin her friendship until contracts are signed. But she has dealings with her potential clients prior to that, and I believe at least the semblance of a smile (or a frown) should appear long before the signing up. It is the system which is wrong. The standard rejection letter is cold and meaningless. The current vogue of not responding to those whose work is unacceptable is worse. ‘If you don’t hear from us within 6 weeks then accept that we don’t want it’ is callous. There is a growing need for the agency to present a human face to the legion of wanabee writers, most of whom are doomed to permanent failure anyway. Let me be clear: I am not asking the agency to dispense advice, or to express sympathy, or elation, or anything else, but as in the exam system, some kind of grading would at least tell us how we are doing. An honest B grade, and appropriate comment like ‘keep up the good work’ or an E grade and ‘don’t give up the day job’, would at least inform us where we stand in the queue – and the size of the hill yet to climb.
Whatever happened to G. H. Morris?
My writing career began with a bang. In 1985 my first novel ‘Doves and Silk Handkerchiefs’ was awarded the Constable Prize for the best first novel from the North of England, being judged from 400+ entrants. The decision was unanimous. Chairman of the judges was Kenneth McLeish who, besides writing them, then reviewed books I think for the Telegraph, and then for the Sunday Times. I can’t recall how many judges there were, but I do remember they were all writers and included Pat Barker, a subsequent winner of the Booker Prize. Ken McLeish told me that the judges, in discussion, had likened the book to Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. Heady stuff. He also introduced me to his agents, A.P.Watt Ltd., the oldest literary agency in the world. Clarissa Rushdie was my agent, Salmon Rushdie’s first wife. I was up and flying.
The Editorial Director at Constable, Robin Baird Smith, loved my work. Two more novels appeared quickly, ‘Grandmother, Grandmother, Come and See’ and ‘The Brightside Dinosaur’. By 1991 I was in paperback, all three novels published by Penguin in one volume under the title ‘Brightside’, commonly known as the Brightside Trilogy. I wasn’t just a published writer, but I also faced a writer’s future, didn’t I?
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! A great support team had slotted in around me, and I took it all for granted. That is not how it is supposed to happen in this industry. It might have happened to me, but to me and few others. I was about to write that I had taken my eye off the ball, but I didn’t even know there was a ball there to be watching. I had no idea what I was looking at. That triumvirate of, agent, publisher and publicist is what every writer worth his salt should strive to build and maintain, and I had received the lot without the effort of having tried my hand at the construction. I had never received a rejection letter in my life. I had never had to write a synopsis. My books generally received super reviews. And in the midst of my sunny success tragedy and death removed my supports, one by one, and I didn’t have the common sense to even attempt to replace them. After all I was G.H. Morris, winner of the Constable….blah! blah! blah!
And nobody came. And why should they have come? Who on earth was I expecting?