Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Flash Frontier - send us your science-themed flash stories by Aug 31st!

A little last-minute reminding that I am a guest editor, along with the wonderful Kathy Fish for the September issue of New Zealand flash fiction online journal Flash Frontier, and we want your flash stories, up to 250 words, in some way using or inspired by science. We are open to all sorts and flavours of story, in any shape or form, so let your imaginations lead the way! Deadline is Aug 31st.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Something I Never Thought I'd Say: Meet My Agent

I gave up on literary agents a few years ago. I did have an agent interested, a lovely person, when I was doing an MA in Creative Writing in 2004 and my first story was published- actually broadcast, on Radio 4. She was so nice, she and her assistant even came to my MA graduation ceremony, I was very surprised, I thought this meant I'd made it. This was it! But I lived abroad and although whenever I came back to London we met for a chat, she never seemed to want to talk about my writing. 

I was very naive, it took me a while to realise this was odd. For an agent. When I asked her if she'd talked to any publishers, she said she had but they all said, Come back when she's got a novel. Right. OK. No novel planned so me and Lovely Agent went our separate ways. I sent three stories to Salt Publishing, who were then accepting submissions direct from authors, and in 2007 got the incredible news that they wanted to published my first collection, The White Road and Other Stories. Life-changing. 

Well, then I thought, when TWR was, shockingly, commended by the judges of the Orange Award for New Writers (as it was then, sadly no more) in 2009 that this would mean agents would be if not clamouring (I am a short story writer, I am not entirely deluded) but at least open to suggestion. So I met with a few, and that was fairly terrifying, especially for this introverted writer who is better in writing, not so good at blind dates, especially the literary kind. Well, they mumbled similar things about novels - but added, Could you maybe write longer stories, at least? (Half the stories in the collection were flash fictions, a page or less). 

Well, no, not really. I didn't want to be told what to write.

The thing is, when I didn't think about this side of things, the 'business' aspect, I was really happy with what I was doing. I was writing mostly flash fictions, I'd found homes for many of the stories in lit mags that liked the weird and the surreal - which I had thought no-one outside my head would get let alone want to publish. But there was a part of me that was still sad - I'll admit it, it was hard to see friends getting agents themselves - that at least partly, it seemed, because of the length of what I wrote, the mainstream just wasn't interested. I knew my writing was odd, wasn't the kind of thing that had mass appeal, but I still thought maybe there was a place for me. 

A friend came up with a great analogy: department stores want items, she said, that they can mass produce, sell huge quantities. Every now and then they'll take a specialised, hand-crafted, one-off, a limited edition. But that's not what they want, not what they sell. You and I, she said, write hand-crafted, artisan belts. Yup. 

Still, I tried a few more times, writing to agents who represented friends of mine. But - and of this I am truly ashamed! - I started my letters with "You probably don't want to hear this but I write short stories." OH DEAR! They didn't reply. Who would, given an opening like that! If you're not your own champion, why should someone else be?

So, after that, I stopped. My second collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, made up entirely of very short fictions, was published in 2012 by the wonderful Tangent Books, based in Bristol, where I had moved to by then. And having not just one book - my lifelong dream - but TWO seemed miraculous, more than I'd wished for. I was happy. I was writing. What else mattered?

When 18 months ago I was researching for the section on the history of the short story for the book I co-authored, with Courttia Newland, on writing short stories, I started to read a lot about the short story being a "marginalised form", and, as such, a place where writers could experiment, could express themselves more freely because they were not being watched. And it hit me: because I'm not working on a novel, the dominant form in this country, at least, and because no-one's been waiting for me to produce anything - I have been free, I really can write whatever I like! And I am. I've reached a point, after writing fiction for 18 years, where I feel pretty much uninhibited - free to write about whatever I want, in whatever style I want. This is a great feeling!

When I began writing poetry, a few years ago, it did feel like "starting again", slipping down the snake and trying to pull myself back up the ladder. There were technical things to learn, and at first I was very conservative, nervous that the outside world wouldn't consider what I was doing to be "poetry". This is what it's like, I remember - you've got to learn certain rules and then, only then, can you break them, imaginatively, wildly. I was worried, for a bit, that while I felt totally unconstrained in fiction, my "voice" in poetry was different, traditional, didn't quite feel like me. But over the past 6 months something clicked, and I've felt able to let go in poems too, to start to taste that freedom here, boosted immensely by having poems accepted for publication and recognised in competitions, which is what has always helped me with short stories too - I write to connect, with even just one stranger, and when that happens, especially with the oddest of my pieces, it gives me permission, to carry on and to take it even further. Permission has become something I talk about a lot. 

So, now, with two collections published, a book on writing co-authored, and a poetry pamphlet due out in February, all thoughts of agents had vanished. I just felt - and feel - very grateful. And that's when Kate turned up. Literally. She is from the US, she is an agent with Wolf Literary Services in Brooklyn, and she recently moved here, to Bristol, because of her husband's job. Right here. She got in touch, to chat - I thought - about Bristol, about books etc... and we met for a coffee. Honestly, I had no thought about talking to her about my work. I was planning on recommending other writers she might like to check out. But as we talked we discovered we loved the same writers (Aimee Bender, Maggie Nelson) and disliked the same books (not going to tell you those). She also told me she'd happened to read a few years ago one of my short stories, The Special Advisor, that was published in Five Dials, and the way she talked about it was the way every writer dreams that someone will talk about their work. I then told her about the book I was working on for my PhD, a hybrid book that I am aiming to be Uncommercial and Pretty Damn Weird. 

When I got home, I had a think and realised that here was an opportunity it would be silly for me to let pass by. So I got together all the newer short stories, plus some poems, whacked them into some kind of order, and sent them to her. I really wanted to say, Don't worry if you don't like them, let's just be friends! But I stayed professional. I said there was no rush, and really I didn't imagine anything would happen. I thought I was not a very attractive prospect: not a debut author, not under 35, short story writer, weird stuff.

But then, two weeks ago (on my birthday!) I got an email from Kate which said, "I LOVE YOUR WRITING" (in CAPS, yup). It said some more lovely stuff, the main part of which was "I would love to represent you, for this book, your PhD book and beyond". And all the nonsense that had been in my head about not needing this, not wanting this, melted in an instant. I have been so fortunate that people have said wonderful things about my writing over the years, utterly delightful and unexpected things, things they didn't need to get in touch and say. Somehow this was different, this was someone - who had met me in person, too -  saying, I will be your champion. I believe in you, not just for what you've done, but for what you will do too. I want to see that happen, I want to help you continue to flourish.

Kate and I met a few days ago to talk more, to try not to gush as much as both of us wanted to, we later confessed - and now agreements have been signed. So, meet my agent: Kate Johnson, of Wolf Literary Services. Had I been trying to write the sorts of things I thought an agent or editor would want, she and I may never have met. Had I kept on thinking after I'd met her that I wasn't the sort of writer who needed/deserved an agent, and not taken that risk, not sent her anything, nothing would have happened.

We are now trying to mould those short stories and prose poems into something collection-shaped, and see what occurs. Nothing is certain, of course. But having Kate on my side has already had an effect on me: the day after receiving her email, I sat down and wrote for 3 hours, I re-started my PhD book, and this time I truly let myself go. I let myself play, be as weird and odd as I love to be, and enjoyed myself immensely. It was only then that I realised how I'd been holding back, not wanting to really experiment. Kate gave me permission to do that. Sometimes, it seems, we don't realise we need that permission until it's been given, until we're released, liberated. Thank you, Kate, you've already changed everything. I look forward to seeing what happens next!