Will Argo sail again? (Part 2)
2012 was an eventful year but it was the London Olympics that seemed to account for the lion's share of it. For a few months that summer, rest days were a very precious commodity. Sadly, however, nothing came of The Consul's Daughter that year. Nor indeed the next. Or the next. In fact, it wasn't until 2017 that Ian suggested sending the script to a small but fast-growing digital-first publishing house based in London called Endeavour Press (now Lume Books).
I'd never really stopped tinkering with the story and thought it was by this stage in pretty good shape, so I followed his advice in January 2017. A day after submitting the basic details, the then publishing director Amy Durrant requested the full manuscript.
MONDAY 13th MARCH 2017
An email notification flashed on my mobile phone, being used as a SatNav en route to a post-PGCE training day with a colleague. I'd changed careers two years previously, leaving policing (and London) after a decade in the service to take up a Classics teaching job. When I saw the first few words of that message, I nearly shunted a car park wall:
Dear Mr. Knowles,
I am pleased to inform you that we would like to publish The Consul’s Daughter.
Attached is a contract for you to look over, for world-wide English-language digital rights. I have also included clauses for a print-on-demand edition, and a special sales clause for a potential print run, though we are happy to just do a contract for the eBook version, if you would like to retain your print rights...
For the first part of that training session, I wasn't really paying much attention. I just wanted the first coffee break to arrive so I could read the email and have a good look at the contract. It looked solid enough and I already knew that most digital publishing houses offer royalties to authors but not advances. The notes were sensible as well, suggesting the script had been ready very closely. I was over the moon but would have to wait until October for the book to go live on Amazon (after eleventh-hour edits and digging in my heels against the cover design initially suggested!). All those years of scribing had finally been rewarded! But, going back to a point made in the first part of this post, did I feel that the itch had been scratched?
The Consul's Daughter would have its moments on the Amazon charts (and the 100+ reviews/ ratings there and on Goodreads are very positive) but some part of me was still unsatisfied. We all have our own reasons for writing, and not everybody's is solely to make buckets of money. I think the human condition's a bit more complex than that. I have a screenwriter friend who admitted to feeling very uncomfortable when he was in a room with his agent after a frantic round of interviews and pitches with various major film companies in LA. He was just about to leave and pack his bags for the flight home when his agent took a call on his cell phone. Whilst he was speaking, he saw that another caller was waiting. Then an assistant popped in the room to tell him that there was another executive on the landline. The room became hot with offers and counter-offers. As the numbers began to soar and his agent went about his business like a broker on the trading floor, my friend admitted to feeling very worried that he'd lose any semblance of control over his work, as if custody of his baby was up to the highest bidder. In the end, he went for the company that he thought would be most sympathetic to his project, not the one with the most generous offer.
I can only imagine what that must have felt like. I must say, when I first heard about it I did think that it'd be a fantastic problem to have! How to choose between a list of world-renowned motion picture houses desperate to option your film... Nevertheless, some of my own doubts, albeit on a much less grand scale, were similarly centred upon whether or not my publisher would have as much enthusiasm about my novel as I did. It seems like a very naïve thing to say, in retrospect. Of course they couldn't. Theirs is a business with a sizable number of other clients craving exactly the same level of attention. Or more.
So, whilst I also did my best to market my book - including leaving matchbox sized promotional cards in cafes and libraries and various other places I can't admit to - to supplement what Endeavour was already doing, my thoughts turned to writing something else; a novel that might silence whatever it was that was nagging at the back of my mind.
WEDNESDAY 9th JANUARY 2019
Fast forward to a couple of days after tentatively forwarding that sample of the work-in-progress, The Voyage of Argo. An email arrived from Ian:
It's a pleasure to hear from you, and a very Happy New Year to you too.
I love the sample and would be very interested in seeing this developed into a full script.
How long do you think this will take to complete?
Maths was never my strongest suit. I had worked out that, at the rate I was going, I could be finished in three or four months, and that's how long I told him it would take. It's not such a bad idea to give yourself a tight writing deadline: it sharpens the mind. But what's good for a first draft usually isn't for a polished manuscript. As it happened, there was another (artificial) backstop I'd set for myself and it was that one that I met by a whisker.
WEDNESDAY 10th JULY 2019
I sent the novel late in the evening because I needed the next couple of days clear to pack. Every two years, my school sent students - and some fortunate staff - on a three week expedition to Malawi in collaboration with the superb charity 'Open Arms Malawi'. The students had worked hard for the past couple of years raising funds to bolster the efforts of the charity in building orphanages and nursing centres at strategic sites across the country, the poorest in the world in terms of GDP.
We were due to depart on the Saturday and I had resolved to get the script off before then. You'd think I might have learned not to rush this, given my experiences with Shadows in The Tiber, a decade earlier. But, no, I went ahead despite certain misgivings.
The thinking was that there really wouldn't be much time after I returned to pick up the reins and crack on with more editing before our baby was due. And once that happened, there'd be no time for writing between changing nappies and tidying up after a (possibly jealous) toddler. I've already mentioned my worry that somebody else was writing the same book. Would it be Madeline Miller? Pat Barker or Natalie Haynes? What about a talented unknown waiting to burst onto the scene? Obsessive and self-indulgent...
It was, by turns, a joyous and heart-rending trip. Beneath the poverty and ubiquitous destitution beats a warm and proud African heart. It was refreshing to have no contact with the outside world as well. Internet access is scarce and mobile calls expensive, so the infrequent check-ins were all the more precious. I knew it was entirely unreasonable to expect comment on a script that I'd only just sent but I was certainly keeping an eye out for it on the few occasions I managed to hook up to WiFi and emails flooded the inbox (the vast majority of them junk).
Curiosity got the better of me a couple of months later and, mid-September, I sent Ian an email asking how he was faring. I got a reply a couple of days later:
I read it on holiday in Turkey. Sad to say, I think it needs a re-think. For me it was just too linear a narrative. The beginning and the set up are excellent, really setting the scene and capturing the feel of the period. All very Mary Renault. But about a third of the way in I started to have second thoughts. Lots of named characters turned up, one after another, and not all sufficiently distinctive...
These observations - and more - gave voice to the misgivings I'd had but rashly ignored, thinking that the good would somehow overcome the indifferent. Naïve. Also, I think it's worth saying if you're ever tempted similarly to fool yourself, more time-consuming than spending the additional months honing the script until it is stripped of all fat, like a prize-fighter on the eve of a title shot. Not a handy slugger carrying a few extra pounds into a charity bout .
Receiving constructive criticism, absorbing it, acting upon it, re-reading many times over before re-submitting takes a long time. A very long time. Busy agents have scores of scripts filling their inboxes, taking up desk space, imploring someone to read them. And this is just the slush pile, which nobody is paying them to read. The scripts that will likely bring home the bacon - those from authors already under contract - must take primacy. So you absolutely have to be confident that your work, when you're the next cab off the rank, grabs and holds their attention. I gave myself a huge kick up the backside and got on with the more pressing business of changing nappies.
SATURDAY 21st MARCH 2020
A former Met Police colleague and sometime boss of mine, Martin Epps, contacted me out of the blue to ask if I had written anything else as he was looking for something to read. By this point, I'd made quite a few changes to Argo and was considering re-submitting it, so it was a timely email. I sent him the latest script. After a couple of progress reports - positive ones too - he sent a very detailed email three weeks later sharing his final thoughts.
Martin was an Inspector in the final third of his policing career when I worked with him. He had the experienced copper's dry humour, which is always welcome - some might say necessary - in a custody suite during night duty. What I had no idea about, however, was his love of books. His comments about target audience, characterisation, plot and pacing, couched in a self-effacing 'but what would I know' sort of way, were some of the best notes I've ever read. He absolutely nailed some of my lingering reservations and fed them back to me in a way which suddenly made it clear where I'd missed a trick. There was still some of the linearity of Ian's earlier comments because the sub-plots weren't sufficiently developed. He also made me reconsider one of the key rowing set-pieces, the journey through The Clashing Rocks but, most importantly, he zeroed in on Jason himself. Quite simply, he still didn't work.
I can't recommend selecting a trusted beta reader highly enough. Personally, I'd avoid giving your script to a close friend or family member. They tend to pull punches and inevitably feel obliged just to get to the end of it with something encouraging to say. Martin filled the role admirably, especially since I wasn't sending it to him with any expectations at all.
It's not easy swallowing criticism, however constructive and well-intentioned, but I was very grateful for it, even though I knew there were still months of work ahead. Several lightbulbs had lit up, however, and I knew exactly what I needed to do.
I'd long conceded that the gods had to play some sort of role in the story: you can hardly keep them out of Greek historical fiction! However, I'd thought of a way to play them out that didn't run counter to my initial desire to keep the story realistic.
20th SEPTEMBER 2020
I'd submitted the first 700 words of Argo (under the experimental title of To the stables of The Sun) a month or so earlier to Litopia, a YouTube channel showcasing 'pop-up submissions' from aspiring authors. Today it was my turn, along with four other authors. I thought the live feedback, from guest writers and agent Peter Cox, as well as subscribers in the chat room, might be quite instructive, and so it proved. After all, we're constantly reminded that people browsing books, whether online or in bookshops, will make a decision about whether to purchase or not in the first three seconds. The principle's the same for busy publishing editors in receipt of scripts from agents (or the slush pile). In the event, pseudo Argo came first and drew some positive comments from guests and the chat room, though Mr Cox himself seemed to take particular issue with retellings of ancient stories ("Stephen Fry could write on toilet roll and people would still buy it!")
I forwarded all of this to Ian, who said that there was never an issue with the opening, which was very strong. He was, as it happened, at that very stage of the book where - twelve months earlier - he had begun to have second thoughts and said that he would get back to me.
24th SEPTEMBER 2020
I'd just put the key in the front door when the phone buzzed:
You've cracked it! What a terrific story -- I've just finished it, and will send you a few editorial notes tomorrow, but just wanted to let you know that I think this is pretty much ready for market, and I look forward to pitching to editors.
Very best wishes,
So much for the resolution of 'no drinking during the school week'...
The suggested edits arrived next day and were eminently sensible. They didn't take long and the script was back with him a week later. Just like that, a couple of years' worth of writing - stewed in a lifetime of swords-and-sandals flicks - was committed to the ether.
Which, at the time of writing, is precisely where it remains.
I've had no further feedback beyond there being some nice reactions from a couple of editors but this means nothing until they've actually read it. Even this isn't a given, of course. I suppose there's marginally more likelihood of a script getting some sort of feedback - however brief - from a publishing editor at this stage than there is from an agent rejecting it from the slush pile at the very outset. I recently read somewhere that, out of twenty scripts notionally being received by an editor in any given week, one might make it to the acquisitions meeting. Even if that editor raves about it, he or she must still convince several other key decision makers, particularly the sales and marketing leads, before it gets the green light. If five or six scripts have made it to this critical stage, a couple might get the nod.
Taken together, the stats of passing SAS selection seem more favourable...
The good news, reader, is that there's very little more you can do if you've made it this far. Good news for anyone who's ever started to write a novel because, until it's done, it can sometimes feel like you've yoked yourself to a millstone. And yet, the feeling of writing 'The end' after months, years of effort... well, I can only compare it to running a marathon (and I've only done one!). The training sucks, especially in winter. The race itself - particularly the end - is excruciatingly painful but, crossing the line, now that's a rush!
Which seems a fitting point to quote the logo of a well-known sports brand. If you want to write a novel, just do it. It's worth it.