Childhood Reading

‘What did you read as a child?’ Writers often get asked this, and it is a valid and interesting question, touching as it does on matters such as influences and inspiration. So – what did I read in my formative years?

There were very few books in our house when I was a small child. Consequently, they all left a lasting impression on me. And none Every Day With Which Is Incorporated Sunday - Cover Mediumres 1024x768more so than the very first book I was given – a present from an eccentric aunt. I don’t think it was newly bought; I think it had probably been one of her own childhood books. It was a children’s annual, published some time in the nineteen-teens, called Everyday With Which Is Incorporated Sunday. It had a very colourful cover, divided into seven sections, with illustrations of activities for each of the seven days of the week. Monday – washing day; Tuesday – ironing; Wednesday – playing tennis; Thursday – fishing; Friday – having tea; Saturday – punting on a river; Sunday – going to church. Inside, it was densely packed with stories, poems, pictures, puzzles and informative articles.

I was very young when my aunt gave it to me – too young really – and so the task of reading it aloud fell to my father. The title, he told me, meant that we could read it every dayEvery Day With Which Is Incorporated Sunday - Title 160x126 of the week except Sunday. (I still can’t decide whether this was a ruse on his part so that he could have Sundays off, or whether he genuinely thought that this was what it meant!)

The aforementioned articles, poems, puzzles, etc. left no lasting impression. One story, however, most certainly did. This was a long one – a  mini novel – presented in serial form. At the end of each of its chapters it would say (Continued on p. –) and that was the cue for my father to close the book and announce that it was bedtime.

I can’t imagine what I made of it at first reading. Probably very little, seeing that it was set in a world so unlike my own. But when I was old enough to read it for myself I returned to it again and again, which explains how it came to be so deeply etched in my memory. Together with The Archers (required listening in our house), it probably accounts for my lifelong love of serials of all kinds.

It was called The Twins.

Trixie and Robin (Beatrix and Robinetta) were about eleven or twelve years old and had been sent to live with their Aunt and Uncle Joe, somewhere in what I now recognise as the Home Counties, their parents being in India (I had no idea why). Aunt – who was nameless – was a severe, disapproving woman who was just as dismayed with this arrangement as her nieces were. Uncle Joe, a loveable but ineffectual man, was always getting on the wrong side of her. As too were the twins – especially Trixie, who was the naughty one.

The story was generously illustrated with black and white drawings, many of them full page. I can still remember many of them, for example the one where Trixie has spilled ink on the schoolroom carpet and both girls and their governess (!) are gazing at the stain with alarmed looks on their faces. And the one where Trixie and Robin are at the post box in the village, posting a letter to their parents – a letter telling them how unhappy they are living with Aunt.

But my very favourite illustration, the one I’ve recalled with great fondness – and frequency – over the years, was the one where Uncle Joe takes the girls out in a rowing boat on the lake in the garden. (Yes, I know! In the garden!) In the middle of this lake is an island of water lilies. Uncle Joe’s rowing is obviously no better than any of his other life skills and the boat is clearly heading for this beautiful water feature. Aunt is standing on the bank in all her formidable Edwardian glory, the look of agitation on her face matching those on the faces of the boat’s occupants. Underneath the picture, the caption reads:

‘Joe! Joe!’ cried Aunt, running along the bank. ‘My water lilies! My water lilies!’

Oh, how my little self thrilled to that. ‘Read it again, Daddy.’ I said. And he did – with gusto. On subsequent readings, I would pore over every detail of this illustration and read the caption out loud myself. (And to this day, whenever I’m in the proximity of water lilies, I am more than likely to exclaim: ‘Joe! Joe! . . . My water lilies! My water lilies!’)

Towards the end of the story, Trixie succumbed to one of those life-threatening childhood illnesses that were a staple part of pre-second world war children’s literature. As the hours turned into days, Aunt’s stony heart began to soften. It was an extremely anxious time. And not only for Aunt, Uncle Joe and Robin but for my dad and me, too. A telegram was sent to India – that’s how bad it was. And then . . . (Continued on p. –). Oh no! The suspense!

Of course, I can’t remember now which day of the week it was when we first read this, but if it was on a Saturday we would have had to wait until Monday to learn that Trixie had turned a corner and was on the road to recovery. (I think Mother might have arrived by then, too, but I’m not sure of my facts here.)

I don’t know what happened to this book after I stopped reading it; it doesn’t seem to have survived my childhood. Several times, over the years, I’ve tried to track it down on the internet, but without success. And then, while I was thinking about writing this post, I had one more go. Imagine my delight when up it came on Amazon, the front cover exactly as I remembered it. Everyday With Which Is Incorporated Sunday. With One Click it was mine.

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It isn’t quite the same as mine, though. It’s a different volume, and the serial is a boys’ school story (‘I say! What rot!’). It has an inscription at the front: ‘Miss Ada Dinsdale’ (followed by an address in Burnley), ‘From Aunty Jane, Xmas 1920.’

I hope this wasn’t the only volume Ada ever received. I don’t like to think that she might have missed out on The Twins.







Self Publish and be Damned – Part Two

You can expect to wait anything up to eight weeks for a reply from a literary agency. This is why you really must do multiple submissions.

Some years ago now, after the very first batch of submissions I sent out, I got a very fast and favourable (and exciting) response from a reader at one of the top literary agencies. She liked what she’d read; she requested more of the novel; she liked that too. However . . . she was unable to get any of the agents to take it on. Well, it was disappointing, but it was promising.

Sadly, though, that promise faded in the face of the rejections that followed. Some of these arrived fairly quickly, others only came in after the next batch of submissions had been sent out. If the correspondence was conducted by letter, the rejections tended to be polite if somewhat generic. Email responses seemed briefer and less polite. And despite the obviously pro forma nature of these rejections – despite the fact I felt sure that no-one had really looked at my work – each one was painful. So, times were hard in publishing, agents were taking on very few new authors.

What to do next? Well, I decided to put my novel aside and start another one – possibly a more commercially oriented one this time. I also decided to do the six months Faber Novel Writing course. At the end of this, an Anthology is produced and there is nerve-wracking reading event in front of agents. As a result of all this, two agents showed an interest in my novel. Great!

But it wasn’t finished yet so it was a few months before I was able to send it to them, after first checking that they were still interested. They assured me they were, but one of them must have been lying because after an ‘excited’ acknowledgment of its receipt I never heard from her again.

The other one liked the book but thought it needed some more work. We had a very amicable and productive meeting and I went away to do the revisions. She asked me not to send it to other agents until she’d had another look at it. I didn’t, and when it was finished I sent it back to her. She was, she said, really looking to forward to reading it again. I waited . . . and waited.

Eventually, I sent a gentle inquiry asking whether she’d had time to look at it. She apologised; she hadn’t but would very shortly. I waited again. And waited. By now, the message was becoming very clear; she’d lost interest.

So now, once more, I was faced with the task of sending it out to other agents – with all the accompanying palaver of covering letters and synopses. This time round though, I could say in that pesky covering letter that I had been on the Faber course. And, mindful of the success of S.J. Watson and Rachel Joyce, it did make a difference. This time the responses were much less pro forma. My submission was ‘read with interest’. They enjoyed reading it. They praised its ‘fluid, witty style’. According to one, it ‘stood out from the many [they] received.’

Nevertheless, none felt able to take it on. Some mentioned the difficulties they had getting publishers to consider first time authors. Fair enough. But some sounded somewhat over-wrought. One said she would need to feel ‘absolutely passionate’ about it – and she obviously didn’t. Another hadn’t ‘fallen in love with it as much as she’d need to’! Someone else hadn’t quite ‘fallen under its spell.’ (I couldn’t help wondering whether all those middling books out there that have been published managed to meet such amorous requirements.)

I began to notice that these rejections weren’t painful anymore. My expectations, it would seem, were now pretty much non-existent.

So, I had two options – give up or self publish. The latter had always seemed like a last resort, a kind of consolation prize, but suddenly it felt right. It would put me in control. No need for more covering letters and synopses (hurray!); no more long delays; no more uncertainty. I did some research and decided to go ahead because I feel that both my novels are worthy of publication, and to have some readers has to be better than having none.

The publishing part is relatively easy (I can say that now!) The marketing, though, is another matter. But I’m giving it a go.






Self Publish and be Damned – Part One

I would like to tell you why I decided to self publish my novel?

Once the novel was written, and it had been edited and revised, and then edited over and over again until it was as finished as any novel can claim to be, the obvious next step was to try and get it published the conventional way. But ‘step’ isn’t the right word here. For most first-time authors this endeavour isn’t a step but a seemingly endless trek.

To get published one needs an agent. Which, it turns out, is not easy. Agents, we are told, are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts. They take on very few, if any, new authors. How, therefore, do you go about becoming one of those few? How do you make yourself and your novel stand out from the thousands of other hopefuls? Well, there is no shortage of advice out there on how to go about securing an agent. There are courses, and chunks of creative writing courses, dedicated to teaching us the art of the perfect submission. And all the visitor-speaking agents who attend these creative writing courses assure us that all such correctly crafted submissions are given careful consideration. (And oh, how we long to believe them!)

Three things are necessary for the perfect submission: a covering letter; a synopsis; and the first three chapters or so of the novel.

OK – the covering letter

This is the first thing that is looked at, so it needs to grab the attention of whoever it is who deals with these submissions. (This might be a reader, an assistant or an agent.) It should contain details about your novel – genre, word length, a summary of the plot, target audience – and about yourself. Is there anything interesting/unusual about you? Probably not much, to be honest. (Although you should definitely mention here that you’ve done the Faber Academy Novel Writing course. While S.J. Watson and Rachel Joyce are still fresh in the memory it’s as good an attention grabber as any.)

You should also mention your influences (these will probably include authors who you know are represented by this agency; you’ve done your homework) but not in such a big-headed way as to imply that you think you are the next Margaret Atwood, Joanna Trollope – or Virginia Woolf even!

All of this should be captivating – but brief. Anything much more than a page might prove too demanding for your reader.

Next – the synopsis

This, we are told, is the last thing the agent will look at. In other words, s(he)’ll probably never look at it at all. But you have to include one, and it has to be brilliant.

And writing it – I’m sure you’ll all agree – is a nightmare!

How long should it be? Opinions vary here. Some say one or two sides, others several pages.

It should provide a brief, factual outline of your plot. Or conversely, a detailed chapter by chapter breakdown.

Do you or don’t you mention sub-plots? Say how the novel ends? How to know? Help!

And however you write it, it always sounds silly. (But then, try thinking about a synopsis of any great novel and it’ll probably sound even sillier.)

Now – the opening chapters

The issue here is the opening paragraph – the opening sentence, even. This, like everything else, has to grab and hold the attention of the reader, otherwise s(he) will instantly lose interest and put your submission aside. (Who are these people who seem to have the attention span of a gnat, you might ask?)

So, how do you ensure that your first sentences are super, super interesting and original? Do you go for a Four Weddings and a Funeral opening? No, because that sort of thing has probably been done to death by now. As will have any outrageous, self-consciously clever opening that you can think of. Just get stuck into your story. No long boring descriptions. And be careful about mentioning the weather, because there’s a good chance this too will irritate your reader.

After mauling and unmauling your opening paragraph, and proof-reading the rest for the umpteenth time, you’re ready to go.

And finally, because you are doing multiple submissions, you need to go back to your covering letter and adjust it slightly so that it doesn’t sound generic – which, of course it is.

Now the waiting begins.