Kathleen Jones: A Fictional Dilemma

A couple of years ago I wrote a novel. Nothing remarkable about that. But when I told my (then) agent, it seemed a species of crime - a biographer writing a novel? Apparently it wasn’t what people wanted from me. But it was a book I loved writing and felt very comfortable with.

The novel is set in the 1930s and is about two girls, displaced by the political and economic shifts that preceded World War 2. Anna Weissmann is the daughter of a Bavarian hotelier and his English wife; Tamar Fell’s mother is the feckless, good-time-girl Sadie and a father who [Tamar’s been told] died before she was born. Both girls arrive in the north of England, with their mothers, at the same time and, although very different personalities, they become friends. Tamar loves books and escapes her dreadful home-life by spending time in the Carnegie library; Anna is determined to become a painter and fights stereotypes and lack of money to get the training she needs. The outbreak of war in 1939 alters their plans and sends them in unexpected directions, Anna into the secret services via an internment camp and Tamar into the Land Army. The novel follows their relationship for about six years, until Tamar’s marriage in 1942.

Cover Idea - working title only

The elevator pitch goes something like this- ‘Two girls exiled from their homes overcome the dislocations and tragedies of war by a friendship that will last all their lives and replace the families they have lost.’

When I wrote it I felt rather unsure about how others would view the style and content - I felt utterly confident about my narrative technique in biography but wasn’t so confident in fiction. So I sent it to a good editorial agency used by my own agent and others as a reader and literary scout. I got a glowing report and very few edits were suggested, which pleased me a great deal. Friends and family who read the book were equally enthusiastic. My agent less so. It was, apparently, between genres - too well written (I quote) for a saga, and too saga-ish for literary fiction. Not having a great deal of confidence in my own abilities as a novelist I simply accepted her verdict, though it was a huge dent in my writerly ego. Then my agent went on maternity leave, I changed agents and everything got shelved while I finished another biography.

Earlier this year I took the novel out of its box and had another look. And I still liked what I read. Could my former agent have been wrong? The peer review site ‘You Write On’ was having a big trawl called ‘The Next Big Author’ promising referral to publishers for the best novels and I decided to expose my book to readers - anonymously - on the You Write On site.

The result was very interesting. I had to read an enormous number of novel chapters and stories (some absolutely dreadful) by other people in order to earn credits to get reviews of my own first three chapters, but it began to be worth it as I got more and more five star, rave reviews for them, many of which ended with a request to read the whole thing. At the end of the month it was in the top five of You Write On’s ‘bestseller’ chart - which included two other novels (one of them for children) and two short stories - and it's still number four in their saga chart. I qualified for a critique by Orion which I had hoped might be helpful, but it simply said, great story, very well written, good luck with this.

So where do I go now? Do I take my manuscript and my courage in both hands and send it to my current agent? Or do I simply bypass the process and publish myself on Kindle? That’s the dilemma!


Other books on Kindle by Kathleen Jones
A Passionate Sisterhood:  The Sisters, Wives and Daughter of the Lake Poets

Christina Rossetti:  Learning Not to be First

Three and Other Stories


I hope you do publish on Kindle and Smashwords and prove your agent wrong! Good luck.
Anonymous said…
Just publish it yourself. The effort involved in overcoming most publishers' sales/categorisation inertia is better spent on doing your own marketing.
Linda Gillard said…
I've tried to post a long comment twice, but Blogger wouldn't let me. Grrr!!

Trying again... I'm in total agreement with Simon. I spent 4 years waiting for mainstream publishing to reject 2 novels that are now earning me money and critical success. Why wait for them to learn that just because something is hard to market, it doesn't mean it's uncommercial?

Good luck with whatever you decide to do.
Linda Gillard said…
PS - If you Kindle your novel and it's a success, it can still be picked up by a mainstream publisher. Ebooks are the new slush pile.
I'm another 'go for it' vote, Kathleen. My novel voyaged from editor's desk to editor's desk, championed by an agent. The rejections came back with rave feedback - the only problem was my novel's originality.
Finally I decided I'd publish it myself. Now I have a novel to my name rather than a manuscript in limbo. And as Linda says, it's earning money and getting great reviews.
BTW, I critique for an editorial consultancy... I wonder if it's the one you used?
Linda Gillard said…
Trying to see the other side...

I do miss being able to enter my books for awards. It's a useful hook for PR if you get listed and rightly or wrongly, people take you more seriously. I also get cheesed off with how hard it is to get reviews for indie e-books compared with pbs. (A hard copy sitting on the TBR pile will get noticed sooner than something on a Kindle.)

But I think in time things might change. Boundaries will become blurred. Maybe there will be special awards for us one day. Amazon has already recognised Indie Authors in its "Best of 2011" round-up.

But at the moment we're pioneers. :-)
Debbie Bennett said…
I'm with the rest. Publish and be damned!
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks for all your support everyone. My instinct is to put it on Kindle, but don't want to offend my current agent, who is wonderful.

Incidentally, for DWC, I used two editors, Hilary Johnson and Lisanne Radice.
I'd go for it too, Kathleen. I'm going for it myself, having had similar experiences to you and Linda. I've also been told that a novel was too well written to be genre but 'not experimental enough to be literary'! If these gatekeepers were so right, publishing and bookselling would be in a better state than it is. Have the courage of your own talents. Why don't you talk to your agent about this if you don't want to offend. But on the other hand, our agents are meant to work for us - all too often, it seems to me, we feel as though we need to cajole them. We have to become more businesslike - in a polite way. I've had a few road to Damascus moments recently, and reading a piece by Dean Wesley Smith was one of the most recent: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=5997
He's very much a genre writer,and a highly successful one but I see many similarities between his analysis of the state of play in the US and what is happening here.
Speaking personally, I gave myself a deadline (last October to be precise.) This was because of a combination of things, but my own advancing years contributed in no small way. I don't feel elderly yet, but I'm no spring chicken, and it struck me very forcibly that I simply can't hang around any longer, with work that is acknowledged to be good - but is doing nothing - waiting for a waning industry to make up its mind. It was quite literally making me ill - and also making me feel 'stuck' as a writer. I couldn't carry on with new work. Now that I've made some fairly drastic decisions, and taken control, I can't begin to tell you how much better I feel. In many ways, it doesn't matter whether or not it's a success - at least I'm in charge now!
I agree with Catherine. I also got "stuck" with a YA manuscript (still not published) that several agents and editors thought was fairly good, but couldn't see a market for. I rewrote it over about 3 years, restructured it several times, had it rejected several more times, spent yet more months trying to get it "right", and in the end had to move on to something else for the sake of my sanity and my bank balance.

One day when I can afford to pay an editor, that manuscript might end up as an ebook original, which makes me a bit sad - but I now realise it's not commercial enough to publish traditionally. Or maybe I'll just have it buried with me? I could have it engraved on my tombstone... "the book that killed me".

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