Thursday, 10 April 2014

Thanks for having a look at my blog! I stopped writing it a while ago (when I got published), but I see there are some fine folk still passing on through, so if you haven't come across it and are interested in having a look or even grabbing a copy, here's the link to my *#1 Amazon best-seller* book ($2.99 or £3.59):

If you are interested enough to actually read it, I would be extremely grateful if you could write an honest line or two as a review on Amazon and Goodreads!

Here's my Goodreads page, on which I'm going to be blogging more, my website address, and twitter handle.


Thursday, 25 July 2013

  If Everyone Knew Every Plant And Tree to be published...

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):]

Dazed and confused by the keen interest/not-interested-at-all-any-more attention from two lovely successful literary agents, I went and won a competition, the prize for which was to have my book published! Couldn't believe it. The opening of the email which flashed up was, 'Congratulations!' I took it to be an annoying lie, finger thus poised to delete, when I realised it was a bone fide good news missive. Result.

The competition was judged by the editor of Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, Alysoun Owen, so, thrilled was I indeed.

My first novel, If Everyone Knew Every Plant And Tree, is to be published by Createspace, owned by Amazon, and the prize package (sounds like a bull's bits in tight trunks) includes professional cover design, edit, some marketing etc.

It will be on sale via Amazon and through American bookshops as a paperback within a month, and will be available on Kindle three weeks after that.

A bit weird that my book will suddenly be buyable in the US, but not here... My hope is that, if it does well, there might be a possibility of being picked up by a British publisher; some refer to Amazon as the 'annotated slushpile'. In the meantime, at least it can be read by anyone interested.

I am utterly aware of the unrelationship between bookshops and Amazon, but it still surprised me that my local (award-winning) bookshop in Falmouth is less than keen to sell it there. I had thought the whole 'local writer wins international competition to have book published' angle might swing it for me, since it sits comfortably with other news items from the area such as, 'man sets fire to tree stump', but it seems, not. Publishing through Createspace is classed as self-publishing anyway so I reckon they ought to let little old me have me book displayed in the window/back shelf/toilet. Makes me feel like I still won't be classed as a proper author, book in hand and all. I am not for the demise of book shops in any shape or form and my book might have even dragged a few more punters through the door, but, hey, I no make de rules...

And as for securing a literary agent... it's on hold for the time being while I bask in the certainty that at least one respected writing person has endorsed my book (yes-- I can finally say 'book' without feeling like a fraud!)

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):]

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Coming soon to a screen near you...!

A proper website/blog with video and everything, like!

All this and more in November 2013.

Update -

Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):

If you are interested enough to actually read it, I would be extremely grateful if you could write an honest line or two as a review on Amazon and Goodreads!

And here's my Goodreads page, on which I'm going to be blogging more, my website address, and twitter handle.


Rewrite for Literary Agent

(following requests for manuscript!)

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):]

Yipsville! After a few more submission rejections (the Felicity Bryan one being printed without even addressing me by name, on a ‘compliment’ slip—ha!), more requests for the whole shebang!

Two more literary agents were interested enough to want to read the full MS of If Everyone Knew Every Plant and Tree so, up I chugged on the confidence roller coaster.

I found myself in the peculiar and lucky position of two agents giving both positive feedback and much valued suggestions for changes at the same time. Huge learning leap: assessing which content I was attached to versus content I’d be willing to revise/let go and coming to terms with the realisation that some of the advice was conflicting.

Agent numero uno questioned the inclusion of a ‘horticultural’ theme: ‘With the objective of Oliver being relatable to the target audience, I’m afraid I did question his interest in horticulture.’ She advised me that her problem was that we don’t actually see that much of it going on. She did say, ‘I know the horticulture element gives you this brilliant title, but I’m afraid I do worry about it’.

Agent numero due had suggested I add in more gardening scenes, so that seemed to be a consensus—make sure this theme runs throughout. Wonderful to have two excellent literary agents offering similar suggestions.

Uno asked that I work exclusively with her—‘If you want to revise the novel along the lines I have suggested, then, I might suggest you pull it from other agents now.’
She assured me that, although there was no guarantee of being taken on, it meant she was ‘very interested.’ She hoped I understood and explained that there were novels with her title and her opening line out there, for which she was given no credit as the writer had gone with another agent. I agreed to put on hold any communications with other agents and take some time to make revisions, after which she would decide the next move. Exciting times, full of promise...

I rocked back and forwards for weeks, assimilating her notes, mulling it all over, planning mentally how to implement changes. Some were smallish like the proposal for the MC to show anger derived from his ill little sister getting so much attention. One of them was a pretty big ask—to change the age of the protagonist from twelve to fifteen, which was hilarious because (whether she believed me or not I don’t know) I had already changed him from fifteen to twelve, following the advice of another professional! I more or less took on board everything she suggested, but asked, ‘Now that I'm making Oliver fifteen again, would it be okay with you, in the first instance, if I kept the horticultural angle?’  

The rewrite was no mean feat. Changing the age of any character affects everything: language, predilections, relationships, emotions etc. You have to more or less start again.

After several weeks tackling the editing, I sent it, with racing heart, to Uno.

Two months later, I heard back.

She said she had read half of it, and didn’t think it was, ‘working quite right.’ I had been so dying for her to read the new version. I can't pretend I wasn't upset that there was not one positive comment in her rejection email, though she did thank me and apologise for giving me bad news. Almost six months had elapsed between my initial submission and the email turning me down. And I don’t imagine that’s out of the ordinary. Of the three sentences she wrote in the body of the email, one of them was, ‘I’m afraid I still don’t really think the horticulture aspect is going to be interesting enough to the audience, also, I’m afraid I found Joe a bit whingey in this version.’ Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that she’d recommended I ditch the MC’s name as she thought Oliver/Ollie was too middle class.

I truly do appreciate the job of literary agents, though, and I am most grateful for the time and valuable advice form Uno. And I do quite get that rejecting writers, even ones with whom they’ve helped to make changes, is par for the course. But my troubled main character, whom I’d grown to know and care about over the years, she casually described as ‘whingey’... Ouch of ouches. Say it as it is, I suppose. Thick skin needed. I desperately hope he's not whingey, but I have to accept that a person who absolutely knows what they're talking about deemed him to be, so there's bound to be some truth in it.

I’d say I was a pretty tough person who certainly doesn’t expect to be treated with kid gloves, but, if I were an agent, after a six-month bout of communication with a writer, I would hope I would not add insult to injury, especially at the byebye stage, by slagging off the MC (see how personally I took it—well, after all it’s ME really she’s slagging off, since I wrote the bloody thing. Oooh, there’s me whingeing now!). I just wonder how she thought (if she thought) I’d react to that—give up maybe? I very nearly did. She managed to get to my soft bit inside that got all squidged up and stabbed and the roller coaster more or less buckled and flung me into nettle world. But again, I do (half) get it. And that experience pushed me to 'grow' as a writer in a commercial world.

Enter Agent Due, stage left. No, she didn’t snap me up, but wrote a candid and caring email. I agonised over why I hadn’t found myself able to drop the plant/flower/tree theme, telling myself that perhaps that was the true reason Uno hadn’t taken me on and please God I wasn't being precious about it, was I?? But probably, I decided, it was my reluctance to play ball, Uno-style, that I wasn't signed up. After all, she had said, ‘…if you want to revise the novel along the lines I have suggested...’

What Due wrote is, I hope, enlightening for any would-be-author at the stage of working alongside a literary agent.

Dear Julia

I think with changes you have to remember that this is your book – if something feels wrong, don’t think that just because someone else suggests something that it’s automatically right; we’re just another opinion (hopefully informed by the market, but ultimately still just a person with personal tastes). Books about children dealing with [themes] are out there so you need to make yours stand out – the most convincing way to do this is the voice of the main character through your writing, and if Oliver’s plant and tree interest gives him something unique then my advice would be to keep it.

All best
Agent Due

Anyway, I do truly appreciate the invaluable assessment and suggestions from both the above agents. In effect, they spent precious time on my novel with no reward, so for that, I am grateful.

Would love to hear other stories of being led up the garden path only to be flung into nettles. Fly farther off, wretched horticultural theme…!

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):]

Friday, 10 May 2013

Encouraging words from literary agents... sent to tickle us
Conflicting words from literary agents... sent to prickle us

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):

Like I said, it weren’t all bad, the literary agents’ responses to my If Everyone Knew Every Plant and Tree submissions (first three chaps, synopsis, and letter). And, in case you don’t know, the agencies mentioned here, in previous posts, and subsequent ones, are top well-respected, well-established British literary agencies. Contrary to former musings, I’m not gonna lay out agents’ comments anonymously, coz there’s no point. After all, none of them wrote anything scurrilous like, ‘You’re shit; get a life’ (wouldn’t have wasted a semi-colon on me) or, ‘You’ll amount to nothing… except perhaps a notch on my bedpost – fancy a drink some time?' I just hope the comments will be of interest to would-be-published authors.

Aitken Alexander agency gave positive feedback:

‘We really liked the imagination that went into your story – the emotion library in particular – but unfortunately, we don’t feel able to represent you.’

It seems that so commonplace is it to receive standard, computer generated rejection responses, that such comments are to be treasured – actual personally directed words, from an actual pen. Anything written individually to you about your own individual work, should be taken as encouragement, as an agent wouldn’t bother to take the time to  convey these sentiments unless they thought there existed some promise… I believe.

Darley Anderson sent even more actual words from an actual pen, providing a boost to the ol’ rollercoaster confidence:

‘While your book is not commercial enough for our agency, I do hope another agent will take it on. I thought Oliver was a likeable and unusual character. As the mum of a [young] girl, I found the hospital scenes rather harrowing. You write well and I wish you luck in finding an agent.’

In this last one, you see, call me deluded, but I detect a sort of, “I wish it wasn’t all about money because I reckon lots of folk would enjoy your novel… just not enough to make us a reasonable amount of dosh and, like it or lump it, that’s the game we’re in.’  ‘Commercial enough’ means ‘enough like other books which have already made money.’ To me, there’s even a soupçon of guilt  (delusions of grandeur now?) – ‘I do hope another agent will take you on… I wish you luck in finding an agent.’  Whatever the words truly ‘mean’, the Darley Anderson agent gave me hope and an iota of belief that maybe I had something and I’m grateful for that. And of course, I very much get that agents need to sell a product and if they can’t perceive an obvious ‘hook’,  they won’t have much chance of selling it.

In relation to the first Aitken Alexander quote, it may be of import to a few that another highly regarded literary professional had the opposite opinion: ‘I think the Emotion Library theme doesn’t work. I really don’t. Thing is, O is very capable of explaining his feelings, and he really doesn’t need this concept. As I say, it was a sweet idea but it’s not strong enough for the amount of air-space it gets.’

For what it’s worth, the emotion library gets very little airspace in my view, and appears in the prologue as an example of Oliver’s quirky cogitations. Nevertheless, I accepted the criticism and agonised over whether to ditch the idea or even the entire prologue. People seem to view prologues like weeds – inherently bad and in need of exterminating without a second thought. I don’t agree.

Since If Everyone Knew Every Plant and Tree is written in the first person, I found the prologue a useful tool: Ollie could speak directly to the reader who, with any luck, would gain an early insight into who he was before the story began and learn of upcoming characters and conflicts.
Another instance of two experienced and discerning professionals offering conflicting advice was indeed  re the prologue.  One suggestion was,

The beginning – it’s weak. I don’t think your prologue works. Why not just start right in at Chapter 1? I know you are setting the scene and voice but you do too much scene-setting and digression into whimsy.’

This contrasts thoroughly with the words,

‘I have to say that I love the prologue.  Short, pithy.  The way it introduces four main characters in just a few short lines is great and it promises humour and intrigue.’

Again, for what it’s worth and at the risk of sounding narkily defensive, the MC is indeed whimsical and I wanted to show this. Yet I accept the validity of the comment.

As a writer receiving eagerly awaited feedback, you have to look inside yourself and decide which suggestions reflect intrinsic flaws in the work, and which are down to personal predilections. More importantly, you must decide, in your heart, which aspects of the work you are attached to and will not part with, and which you don’t feel that strongly about. These editing decisions are weighty, as their outcome could be the difference between gaining an agent or not.

It gets to be a real mine field, deciding which advice to take and which to ignore (more of that in the next post…).

Anyone else have examples of tantalisingly positive comments in the form of a rejection? Or conflicting advice from agents and the like?

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):]

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

 Literary Agents and a wee sample of my writing from 'If Everyone Knew Every Plant and Tree'

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):]

Sooooo, as the Americans start sentences—I was on about literary agents and publishers and that...

Just after I’d sent my novel off to the first few agents, the very talented and mucha intelligenta Nicola Morgan (author of ninety books and avid blogger/tweeter ) critiqued my novel. It was a wonderfully useful and highly recommended exercise, though when I first read her notes, I felt like giving up. To my amazement, she initially said, ‘I was really taken by the original and clever voice and very competent writing. I was actually quite blown away.’  But... you have to sustain the voice and the readers’ interest, and she questioned (somewhat firmly) whether I had managed that. Well, cards on table, she didn’t think I’d managed it at all. It’s vital to develop a thick skin at this point as it’s givvy-uppy time.

Her detailed analysis was like a mini course in creative writing, so there was a lot to take in/take on. After bolstering my self-esteem with a few black Russians (of the cocktail kind, you understand—vodka, kahlua & coke) and squeezing my head over how I’d tackle a rewrite, I got down to business after a week or so and edited away.

Before I had been sent the critique from Nicola, I had a request for the full manuscript from David Higham Associates, so I was able to incorporate some of the suggestions before I sent it out. They didn’t take me on, more or less echoing what Nicola had said—that the initial sample was ‘very promising’ and that they were interested, but I hadn’t sustained the voice well enough or kept up the pace. Dem and blarst. BUT, I had only incorporated a fraction of the proposed amendments at that point.

Of the thirteen submissions I sent out, mostly over a six-month period, I was asked for the full manuscript from four different agencies. Apart from these, I experienced the full gamut of responses. Mulcahy Conway took over a year to get back to me as I waited on tenterhooks for their response: ‘Sorry for the delay—another Johnston confused the two submissions.’ Ah, right, nee probs, ta very much. And Eve White won the prize for the speediest reply, which was an automatic email rejection. I had hardly stepped away from the computer screen when their email yanked me back and socked me one. Whoa, ouch, okay then, cheers. It did say, "I do assure you that we have considered your work carefully," so maybe the agency is just super efficient. All part ut game. Actually… I shouldn’t count that one, should I? Sooooo, I sent twelve submissions out, not unlucky thirteen.

Will tell more riveting rejection tales in the next instalment, but for the moment, why don’t I let you read a snippet for yourgoodselves?

If Everyone Knew Every Plant And Tree
 Julia Johnston

Excerpt from Chapter six, 'Saved by Lily' Main character fourteen-year-old Oliver Campbell is fretful; his little sister, Lily, is ill in hospital and now his older brother, Nathan, has gone missing. Ollie and his best friend, Kamal, plot the next move...

‘Dead Man Walking’ appeared from nowhere looking grey and severe, his murky fish-eyes trained on us.
“You’re late for assembly. Thought I’d scoop up some deadwood out here. Always some dozy floaters lurking round reception.”
He managed to say all this without moving his mouth. He was an experiment gone horribly wrong: a ventriloquist’s dummy crossed with a serial killer.
“Hop it!” he shrieked.
We ran to the hall, which was only about ten seconds away. We were just taking our seats on the ‘late row’ at the back of the hall, when assembly began. It was exciting in a way, going to the latecomers’ row. I would say it’s actually the best place to sit. You had to sneak in through a door at the top of the slopey seat section—raked seating, it’s called—so you were at the back, higher up than anyone else. It was definitely a top spot for spying. Once sitting down, I was completely distracted by this sea of fidgeting in front of me. I went to a play with school once where they had binoculars behind every chair. Well that wouldn’t be a bad idea in schools, for when you’re not interested in the assembly, which is about 99.9 per cent of the time. I had just spotted Bill Owusu rolling a cigarette two rows in front of me, when the proceedings kicked off. Usually all the teachers sat on chairs on the stage, but Thursday was ‘performance assembly’, so we had some sort of show or short play or something to look forward to (not).
Kamal nudged me and pointed out Poppy. The boy to her right whispered something and she turned, slow motion, towards him, her hair snaking round. Her fringe was in her eyes, brushing her eyelashes that were caked up with thick black gunge and it sounds rude but her upturned nose reminded me of a pig just then, or, I suppose a piglet. Not that she wasn’t pretty, by the way. I wanted her to continue turning her head so that her gaze would fall on me and she’d wave, as if she somehow knew where I was, but all that happened was she shoved the boy’s shoulder and turned back to the front.
My attention shifted to ‘Dead Man Walking’, who had spookily materialised on the stage, even though we’d just seen him in reception. His real name was Dr Spark, deputy head and Chemistry teacher, nickname chosen because he never changed his facial expression from one of gloom. My dad told me he wasn’t a medical doctor (thank God—he’d probably end up poisoning his patients), but one with a PHD. To become one, I think you’ve got to learn a heap of stuff about one massively particular area, like ‘How an Ant carries a Crumb’ or, ‘The Use of the Word ‘the’ in the Works of Shakespeare’ and write a humongously long essay-type thing about it. He stood in front of the microphone-stand and started,
“Notices first:
·        Tonight’s Year Nine Girls’ hockey match cancelled
            [I hadn’t rung Mum! She was going to be sick with worry.]
·        First Eleven Football Team lost thirteen-nil
            [Should I pretend I’d seen Nathan? No, stupid. Bonkers idea.]
·      says here ‘Danielle Bell who left last year has given birth to triplets — Chanelle, Sherelle and Rochelle. There’s a card to sign in the sixth form common room. Only sixth-formers to sign.’ I don’t want to see anyone else hanging about over there. You’ve been warned.
            [Should I go looking for Nathan? He would have come looking for me.]
·        from now on, anyone caught smoking behind the bike shed will report immediately to the headteacher, Mr Hickey.
            [Yes, I would bunk off school and go looking for Nathan. He couldn’t have gone far, but he did have that naïve side to him. What if some weirdo had lured him off somewhere?]
Now all eyes to the front to watch a number from Year Ten’s new show, ‘Killer’. I said all eyes to the front! ”           
            [Oh my God, he could be dead. My Mum and Dad would lose it completely!]
“What an inspiration this man is!” said Kamal. “I wonder what his second choice of job would have been? Someone high up in chemical warfare maybe?”
I just wanted to leave immediately, but I had to sit through this whacky show that I didn’t get whatsoever. I would ring Sam. He was always ultra sensible in panic situations.
I wasn’t in the mood for Kamal’s banter:
“Lucy Pool’s got socks down her bra! It’s a dead cert. Look at—”
“Shush for once, will you?”
“Ooh! What’s up with you today? Sorry, I know. Look, he won’t have gone far. Probably at Manchester skate park.”
He was right. Kamal always sussed things out really quickly.
When Mr Hickey got up afterwards, praising Year Ten’s efforts and gushing how proud he was of them, I wondered if he’d seen a different show. At least he was a positive kind of person, I suppose.
 I had to text Mum and Dad. That way, one of them could go looking for Nathan too. As we walked out of assembly, I told Kamal what I thought. He said,
“Yes of course we’ll leave school together. Better that more of us are looking, Olvo.”

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):

Monday, 14 January 2013

Submitting to a Literary Agent

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):]

In this new era of ‘Do you really need a publisher?’ and ‘Is it really worth securing a literary agent?’ where do I stand? That was a rhetorical question by the way. Do I personally actually have a personal actual literary agent yet? Am I, by some miracle of fate, properly traditionally published now by a proper traditional publishing house?

Call it a hunch, but I think my blog posts, at a stretch, could feasibly be considered a tad gappy. So, here I am, fully present, trying, from now, to be more regular, commas and all: tabula rasa, fresh start, square one and all that. I even plan to start tweeting (“Big deal,” I hear you say. Well I’m going to do it anyway, you know short pithy laugh-out-loud soundbites type stuff.) Watch this space…

Now then, down to business… I have, since the commencement of this blog, which, let’s face it, does claim to be ‘ready to be read’, sent out my work to some literary agents. I will be quoting (anonymously) the broad range of responses I received, so you know what to expect if you’re about to embark on the road to publication. I learnt that mostly, you cannot approach a publisher directly, and that only a literary agent can recommend your novel to a publisher. I dutifully bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and the Writers’ Handbook. Then, together with t’internet, I compiled a list of agents I might approach. It’s important to research literary agents so you know their background and the type of person they are but, crucially, the sort of manuscripts and writers they take on and ultimately, novels they've taken on which they have subsequently been published.

When you have selected a handful (or two) of agents to approach, you must send a covering letter, a one-page synopsis, and a sample of your work (usually the first three chapters). Would-be published authors know all this as it’s squirted in our eyes from all directions, as is the assertion that we should expect nowt. Every book and website and blog you read tells you to look forward to a nice little pile of politely-worded rejection letters, but you gotta cling onto some hope innit? So you post or email your submissions to carefully selected, gorgeous, hugely discerning literary agents. Then you wait… and wait… and wait… And just when you’ve convinced yourself that you weren’t even worth the time or effort to be formally rejected, you start hearing back.

In the end I received a reply from all those I’d approached (two took over A YEAR to reply). It’s a bit of a catch 22 as agents do not like you to make multiple submissions but they are so busy, they don’t have time to read yours for months. But at least it weren’t all bad news… update in next blog post.

I will finally live up to my blog name and post a wee sample of my novel very soon too…

My lovely and clever Mslexia diary includes a section called ‘Submissions Diary’, to facilitate keeping track of everything you send in; column headings are ‘what’, ‘where to’, ‘when’ sent and returned, ‘feedback’ and (the touchingly optimistic) ‘payment’. The diary includes supportive messages, reading suggestions and… wait for it… a menstrual calendar which charts cycles of the moon! Ooooh. It’s been fascinating to observe the two interweaving – ‘Ah that’s why I feel even weirder than usual today.’

I recommend Here’s an extract from their website, so you know what you can expect from Mslexia… ‘Welcome to the website for Mslexia, the magazine for women who write. Mslexia is an independent publishing company that provides information and (we hope) inspiration for published and unpublished women in the UK and beyond. In addition to our quarterly magazine and Writer’s Diary, Mslexia runs workshops and events, and a series of high-profile competitions for poets, novelists and short-story writers. We welcome submissions for every part of the magazine (apart from the Editor’s letter). Explore the website to submit to the magazine, enter our competitions, sample past and current issues – and generally join in with the Mslexia conversation. We look forward to hearing from you.’

Be back soon (a promise and a command… please, then)

[Here's the link to my *top ten Amazon best-seller* book (grab a copy for just £2.99!):]