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‘Hope’ is an invigorating word that should be high in every writer’s lexicon. Hope that an agent, then a publisher, then the reading public will like their story. ‘Belief’ is another sustaining word. Belief that after countless hours at a desk that same agent, publisher, and public will indeed revel in the story woven from the writer’s research and imagination.

I have been working on a novel which was to be the first of a trilogy – the second and third are written and published – Fireburn and Transfer. Thank you, OC Publishing, and thank you for believing in me enough to agree to publish the next – with a working title of Emancipation. A hopeful title. It was only later, when I envisaged three spines standing side by side that I realised they would read EFT which, depending on how one’s mind works, could be either a juvenile newt or an electronic funds transfer. Neither very catchy for a boxed set, but I hoped readers would get over that.

Emancipation started with the Portuguese royal family’s arrival in Brazil after fleeing Napoleon’s encroaching army. It told how Anna Clausen’s grandfather accompanied the Prince Regent to Rio and how, as a consequence, he came into his fortune which, in turn, lead to Anna’s Fancy, his sugar plantation on St Croix in the Danish West Indies. It was a hopeful book because it revolved around the ‘rightness’ of emancipation. On reflection, I should have called the book Manumission. I don’t think there is an anagram for MFT.

The title is however a moot point.

I knew I could write about freedom. I know I can write about violence. What I hadn’t realised was that I would struggle to write about sustained cruelty. Graham Greene said that in order to write dispassionately, “A writer must be able to retain a splinter of ice in the heart.” Barry Unsworth in Sacred Hunger was able to delve into the tragedy of slavery and write a riveting book. Marlon James did the same in The Book of Night Women. Whilst not putting myself into the same lofty realms of either author, I have found that Apple Gidley cannot retain that splinter on certain subjects. Part of me is pleased. I don’t want to become inured to horror.

My books are character driven. As I research, characters form. Their backstory becomes part of the plot in minute ways. For example, Anna’s favourite colour is yellow because it reminds her of the glow of the Caribbean sun, or the centre of a white frangipani, and it brings her joy. The character’s foibles, their idiosyncrasies, make them real to me and, hopefully, the reader.

Every story needs tension, so not all characters have to be likable but I have to care about the majority of them. The coffee mat on my desk, courtesy of my son, reads, “Please do not annoy the writer, she may put you in a book and kill you.” It’s true. I had great pleasure killing off Anna’s husband, Carl, in Fireburn, but I can’t murder everybody – I’d be writing slasher novels and not historical fiction. 

And that brings me back to hope. Emancipation was truly a time of hope but the more I wrote the less hopeful I felt. That could be a product of what is happening in America today. I’ve been immersed in writing about the issues of racial inequality 200 years ago, and here we are in 2020 seeing how relatively little has changed and it has made me sick to my stomach. I am well aware I’m not alone in that feeling. An email from an African American friend has been churning in my head the last couple of days. After the outrage in Minneapolis he asked, “Where is God when you need him?” He then asked me to excuse his rage. He is indeed a gracious man, always, but particularly in the face of current events when hope seems hard to come by.

That all sounds pretentious. I don’t mean to be. The Swiss-born, British philosopher, Alain de Botton, says “The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.” I was at the despair stage.

So, this morning I wrote to my publisher and said Emancipation is no more. Then I filed all my research notes and put away reference books that have been stacked on my desk, sticky tags in varying colours forming a frill on each book. Usually the process makes me a little sad. A year invested in my characters, my imagination, shelved, but today I felt relief. 

I have failed in a way but hope is once again returning to my lexicon because now, as I think of Langston Hughes’ words, I am smiling at the thought of the next book to be written.

"Hold fast to dreams, 
For if dreams die 
Life is a broken-winged bird, 
That cannot fly.” 

Words we should hold close in these seemingly hopeless and difficult times.

Writing is a lonely business.

A thick outer skin must be ordered – I believe they are available online – and worn so the writer doesn’t disappear into a tightly wrapped ball of fibres, which can later unravel into the distance hauling away what little snippets of self-confidence have been painstakingly garnered through the occasional success.

Pitching brilliant ideas to magazines is a thankless task often shot down by breathtaking silence from editors. We shake our phone, switch our computer on and off, in the vain hope the longed for acceptance and promise of small monetary gain has merely disappeared into that great universe called the ether. But no, the phone is working, so too the computer – every email from that online site from which you so rashly bought two years ago is managing to escape the junk box.

For those of us trying our hands at longer pieces – a book for instance – rejection from literary agents becomes a way of life and we really do grow an extra epidermis. We nod and smile wanly when our well-meaning friends trot out J K Rowling, again.

In need of moral support recently, I wasted hours but eventually came across a wonderful piece which cheered me no end. Did you know, for instance, that Agatha Christie had five years of rejection? The Da Vinci Code, two years. Fireburn, my manuscript is not a thriller, but I found the following critique of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold of utmost comfort, “He hasn’t got any future.” Mary Higgins Clark, J G Ballard, Stephen King and many other now respected authors have received numerous dismissals. And whilst I don’t put myself in their elevated ranks, their perseverance and self-belief does provide an inkling of hope.

Why do I need hope? Well, I almost blew it. Only time will tell. An email arrived from a relatively new, small press chosen because it was young and, I hoped, hungry. Keen to make a name. Eager to do the best for both me and themselves. I read those magic words – we want more. And then seven – count them – seven days later another email appeared saying they were interested. A flurry of further communication, culminating in a phone call, and then, and then, the moment when the contract lands with a ping.

The cork is popped. Texts to loyal readers of both early and later versions of my book, three years in the making, are sent with exultant responses of the ‘told you so’ type. And then, and then, you actually open the contractual attachment and the fizz goes flat.

Having been verbally assured of the stringency of editing – both content and copy – you find the contract is full of typos and inconsistencies. A cobbled together document, which would ensure any lawyer worth his fee slit his throat rather than let out it the door.

The bubbles have truly fizzled. And those little inconsistencies tamped down during the phone call merge to create a cacophonous roar. You have been seduced.

No, let’s be honest! I was seduced. Seduced by the thought of a publisher who promised marketing to all and sundry – here and abroad. Foreign rights – no problem. Film rights – of course. I was already sashaying along the red carpet – a yellow dress, I thought – as actors clamored to praise the role I had written for them.

The harsh hand of reality grabbed my throat on the seventh or eighth reading of the contract. How could I sign with a company who didn’t care about their own words, let alone mine? So yesterday I wrote thanking them for their interest and time, and closed that portal.

Now, I shall pull on my newly-bought skin and head back to the computer screen to scroll through pages of literary agents and publishers.

There must be one out there who might be interested in a book called Fireburn!