Sunday, 4 April 2010

Buns for tea

It was breakfast time. Mother's face was very bright as she poured the milk and ladled out the porridge.

"I've sold another story, Chickies," she said; "the one about the King of the Mussels, so there'll be buns for tea."

I was misinformed at an impressionable age about the saleability of fiction: I picked up the idea that if you wrote well, you could sell your stories and earn a living, albeit a modest one. I risk your laughter if I tell you that I wrote my first novel, Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation under this misapprehension.

Today I name the two main books that gave me this notion (there were other novels, less memorable, amusingly catalogued under 'Careers' in my school library). All that can be said in their defence is that they're pretty ancient, and were even when I read them as a child; it probably was possible to eke out a living by your pen back then.

  • Little Women. Jo March, every reader's favourite among the four sisters, hating housework and loving books, getting inky fingers from her writing and making her first sale to an editor before she was out of her teens. Also, poor soul, being expected to forgive Amy for burning the only copy of her manuscript. Darned if I would.

  • The Railway Children. There are no fewer than EIGHT references to 'buns for tea' - which is how Mother celebrated with the children whenever an editor was sensible and accepted one of her stories for publication. Editors are a good deal less sensible and much harder to impress these days, alas.
Today, I guess it's not fictional heroines who promote the dream. It's JK Rowling, and the vast fortune she earned from her imagination.


  1. Happy Easter Lexi!!!

    Not quite a heroine but the male one I suppose: David Copperfield, penning his tome and of course getting it accepted just like that...

    There's also a story on the BBC about a writer, who happen to give her MS to a passing Richard Madeley (as you do and as these things happen on a daily basis) who loved it so much, he passed it on to an editor and.. well the rest as they say is history:

    Of course stories like the above never help boost confidence or do very little to keep one going do they really?!?!? LOL! Not me anyway. Hey I'm only human!

    Anyway, maybe I ought to re-read my Little Women!

    take care

  2. Ah yes, David Copperfield - with Dora making herself useful by holding his pens... (When I was young and ruthless I used to despise drippy Dora. But nowadays, I can see why Dickens got fond of her and didn't want to kill her off.)

    Re your link - I can imagine how I'd cringe if a friend pressed my novel on a passing Richard Madeley. But she was right to be importunate, wasn't she? Maybe we need to be pushier...

  3. will have to re-read Little Women, though I never quite like it as much as Jane Eyre which is completely different, will also have to check out The Railway Children, keep hearing about it but didn't quite thought of reading it

    I've never read JK Rowling, though I did see some of the Harry Potter movies, I just think the popularity of Harry Potter is more popular because of the movies rather than the books

    there's my 2cents

  4. The experience of Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was much like what we experience today. I'm not sure there's ever been a time when, "things were better," as many people seem to think.

    Which still doesn't stop someone from becoming the next Jane or Arthur.

  5. Gary, thanks for looking in.

    I'm going to disagree with you. I think that what has made it much more difficult to break through in recent years is the advent of the personal computer and Word, which enables anyone to turn out something that looks like a book. Then off it goes to swell the slush piles.

    Not so long ago, it took enormous perseverance not just to write a book, but to produce a presentable typescript. Anyone who managed this feat would get serious consideration by publishers, and if rejected, a letter telling him/her why.

    I'd hate to do without Word and the internet - but if they didn't exist, I'd be far more likely to be published right now.

  6. Lissa, do not underestimate the power of the written word!

    I remember how I came across Harry Potter. My daughter, aged eight or nine, was a great reader. Her teacher told me I must get her a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, so I did. (I can remember reading the first few Dursley chapters, and thinking, Huh? Then I got to Hagrid...) The first print run of HP was 500; it sold purely by word of mouth. The publishers had no idea it would be the phenomenon it became.

    And going back to what I was saying, with that rather dull first chapter, I doubt JKR would get an agent or publisher today.

  7. Hi Lexi,

    I absolutely agree with you about Jo in 'Little Women' - I remember thinking 'that's the life for me' as a child and being very envious of her ability to devote herself to writing.

    Re. 'Harry Potter' - when I worked in a library 10+ years ago we got the first book in stock. No-one was interested and it sat on the shelves for months until JK Rowling wrote the second one and the media furore kicked off. Not to say the first book was no good, but there was a definite marketing push for the second one that sealed her popularity.

  8. Yes - Jo didn't have to go to school, so could read all she liked. I was always being told off for reading.

    Re your library copy of HP, my first thought was, could that have been a first edition?

  9. Hi Lexi
    I tried to reread some of Little Women recently and couldn't get past the first page. This may have been because I was trying it out on an e-reader and the whizzy technology led me to expect a whizzy opening. I seem to remember loving it as a girl. I still love buns for tea. Quite partial to a scone too. Guess I should keep turning up at an office occasionally in order to have funds to pay for them...

  10. K, it must have been the e-reader. I've just reread the first chapter of Little Women (see handy link above) and it's a masterclass in how to get your characters established fast - with four of them introduced at once, which is really difficult to pull off.

    It's the sequels I don't like, with poor Jo married off to an elderly German and being a wife and foster mother instead of pursuing her career.

  11. Hi Lexi

    For a long time I too laboured under the illusion that good writing alone could get you published.

    Now I realise that a book deemed to be 'marketable' (whatever that means) which is nevertheless terribly written is more likely to succeed than a book that is beautifully written but without an obvious selling angle. What a sad inditement that is of publishing... but then I've lost count of the books I've read which I thought were just plain old rubbish (on a technical level) that got deals.

    I certainly think the JK Rowling myth is resonsible for lots of people thinking they can solve all their problems by writing a book - which is bad news for serious writers as they have to compete on slush piles. Then again, maybe it was ever thus.

    I used to know the children's editor at Faber (this before Harry Potter) and she would say that around the end of August she always got deluged by books written by teachers - all hoping to get published and not have to return to work in September. I never knew what was worst about that story. The hubris, or the fact said teachers thought the turn around in publishing was so fast!

    Thanks for another thought provoking post...

  12. Yes...I agree. Of course, publishers must make money; but I sometimes think they underestimate the book-buying public.

    The only mistakes they acknowledge are the books they publish that don't sell, but this is only half the story. What about all the excellent novels languishing on hard drives? It can't be proved they would have succeeded given the chance, thus allowing publishers an undue complacency.

  13. The Railway Children certainly has a lot to answer for! (I never did read Little Women.

    But I'm sure I can't be the only writer to know that I'm an amateur and haven't got a hope of getting published unless I up my game considerably.

  14. Hi fairyhedgehog!

    You must read Little Women immediately. Follow the link in my post to read it online for free. It's enjoyable in many ways, some unintended.

    We are all amateurs until we are published. Say not the struggle naught availeth...