Implicit or explicit?

Writing a trilogy is trickier than I thought: I’ve written the three novels ┬áin ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ as three ‘episodes’ set ten years apart, but readers may not tackle them in chronological order. No matter how much you want her to start at the beginning, every reader may start wherever she wants. As a consequence, I can make no assumptions about what the reader already knows about previous events or understands about the characters.

Other series I’ve read with pleasure, notably the Patrick O’Brian ‘Aubrey and Maturin’ stories, make very few concessions to the reader: if you’re lost, that’s your problem. But I have tried to be a little more accommodating, and there’s the rub. For the ‘experienced’ reader I can afford to be implicit, letting them fill in the gaps from what they already know. For the ‘novice’ reader however, implicit is harder: it may drive them back into the previous episodes for greater understanding, or it might drive them away altogether. More details and back stories sometimes need to be provided, which could threaten the flow of the plot and risk annoying those for whom the repetition is unnecessary.

On the whole I think explicitness has won out, but while writing recently the final stages of Part 3 ‘Fallout’ I’ve tipped towards ‘less is more’. The main thread of the story is the one that really matters, to me at least, and is reasonably well tied together at the end. I had planned to have a big ‘set piece’ as a penultimate chapter, to update the wider cast of characters and make their futures more explicit, but when I got to that stage the big scene lost its appeal. I knew I was done when I started to cry, and didn’t want to dilute the final impact by writing more.

So the ms of ‘Fallout feels almost complete. It will have to be read out loud and crafted more thoughtfully, sentence by sentence, but the main work is done, a couple of weeks before my self-imposed deadline. Is that a good sign I wonder? After the protracted agonies of the first novel this has felt alarmingly straight-forward. If there’s something seriously awry I’m counting on my wonderful editor Charlotte to find it. Mick, my partner, has been reading as the draft has unfolded and his feedback has been invaluable, but he may be too close to see the faults clearly, as I am myself.

I recall this feeling of anti-climax: restlessness, uncertainty, desperate for feedback. The urge is to start on the next stage in self-publishing, the nightmare of promotion and ‘marketing, but I’m trying to be patient – not my strong suit. By next week I may know more and feel differently. Watch this space.

Do I really want – or need – an agent?

Some years ago, even before I’d finished my first novel, I began to think about getting it published. All the advice said, you need an agent, and I dutifully bought the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook and trawled through it for those interested in my ‘genre’, although I wasn’t altogether certain (then or now) what my ‘genre’ really is. Is my work ‘commercial fiction, or ‘women’s’ or ‘literary’ or ‘historical’? I picked out a dozen agents – all based in London, I noticed – studied the various labyrinthine submission requirements, followed them scrupulously, and waited. Suffice to say, all that transpired after many weeks was a series of generically worded negative responses. After a while I found this so discouraging, not to mention the waste of time and money, that I carried on writing, finished the first novel, decided it was the first of a trilogy, and started the second. Should I try again to find an agent? I thought not.

Self-publishing to my own high standard was an enjoyable project. The resulting two books, professionally edited and designed, look good and sell well. I’m proud of them both as ‘objects of desire’, moderately pleased with the content of the first, and much more pleased with the content of the second. But the hardest part of self-publishing has been promotion and marketing. I am an outsider in the book business: looking at the potential avenues for getting my books to a wider audience I now realise how many of them are blocked simply because I published myself.

Many of the fiction awards and competitions do not allow self-published books; it’s almost impossible to get a review; booksellers can be sniffy and suspicious; requests to be part of literary festivals are brushed off. Everyone in the publishing and book business seems to assume that self-published books are vanity projects of questionable merit, which should be kept at arm’s length.

So I return to the issue of whether I want, or need, an agent, not to find me a publisher but to help me promote and market the books I publish myself. Published writers I have asked about this can’t help me as they have never had to think about it. There are occasional examples of successful self-published writers who have been approached by agents, but this is to get them a ‘proper’ publishing deal, not to help them move forward without one. Maybe it’s just not possible: I don’t know enough about it, and wish I understood more.

I wonder this would be easier if I lived in London or a major conurbation. In the rural fastness of West Cumbria it’s hard to find a ‘writerly’ community with advice and experience to offer. And so for the time being I shall finish Part 3 of my trilogy, carry on doing what I’ve done so far, and see what happens. Patience, Ruth, patience.