The Blackbird Effect – guest post by John Taylor

Every so often we invite a WW client to give us a “My Path to Publication” type post – in order to make the point that everyone’s path is different and those paths are normally long.

Our current invitee, John Taylor, hasn’t yet been published, but he does have very enthusiastic representation from Juliet Mushens at PFD, who is currently plotting an aggressive sales campaign for John’s book, The Blackbird Effect, at the London Book Fair. Because John’s journey has been a long and interesting one, we thought it would make sense for him to share his experiences so far. Here he is:

From the party that broke out on the Word Cloud community last week, you would think my book had been published, but all that happened was that an agent agreed to represent me. The Word Cloud are a supportive group of writers, and we do celebrate each other’s successes. Rivalry just isn’t the way we work.

My novel The Blackbird Effect does still have a journey to travel. At every step of the way so far, I have felt the support of people who know how hard it is to get a novel into a publishable state. Writing is by nature a solitary profession, and support from people who know the issues a writer can face is invaluable.

But to get a book even this far requires collaboration as well as support. I once heard the storyteller Taffy Thomas say, ‘If speaking was more important than listening, we’d all have two tongues and one ear.’ The same applies to writing. A story is just words without a reader, and to communicate effectively, we need to know what a reader makes of our attempts at prose, and listen to criticism. Something that makes sense to me may be nonsense to most people, and quality feedback is like gold dust.

I’m going to try and outline the journey my novel has taken, and try to give an idea of just how many people have been involved so far.

The Blackbird Effect grew out of the ashes of two previous novels in 2007, retaining two characters who became the narrators, after an Arvon Foundation course with Jane Harris and Richard Baird showed me new ways forward and persuaded me to start again and treat those novels as my apprenticeship. I needed more of a challenge, and focussed on the relationship between two sisters.

In 2008, another Arvon course with Kamila Shamsie confirmed that I was onto something, but that the problems I had set myself were immense: two first-person narrators, unreliable in different ways, one past-tense, one present tense, and a cyclical structure that borrowed more from musical form than anything resembling a traditional plot.

That summer, after years of cuts in the service we could provide for adults with learning disabilities through the county council, I finally decided that enough was enough, and after 24 years, I couldn’t be part of such a service. I left, and gave myself, optimistically, a year to write my book. It was great fun: I did a lot of research and went through three drafts in six months. Key advice came from workshops with poet Glyn Maxwell and two workshops with the lovely, supportive Tiffany Murray. For the first time, I began to believe that this wasn’t just me following my dream, but a book with a serious chance of success. However.

That was the however moment. To stand any chance of getting published, I would have to stop playing around with an experimental novel, and give it a traditional structure. I looked around for help and found a friendly inviting website called The Writers’ Workshop [Is he talking about us? Ed.] offering a self-editing workshop in the Oxford Union in February 2009 – not as an add-on to a literary festival, but as an intensive day’s work. This was midway through my year of writing, and so the timing was perfect.

I booked up, and found two extraordinary tutors, Harry Bingham and Emma Darwin. They sent my confidence sky-high by loving the voices I had created. But voices have never been my problem, and I left knowing that I still had a long way to go with structure and plot. I had a string of great scenes that didn’t have much cumulative effect when added together. Support and encouragement came now not just from local friends, but from the Word Cloud community, which I joined after the workshop. Here were a bunch of writers going through the same agonies as me!

I felt I needed more specific help, however, and was slightly surprised when my wife agreed to me paying for a full Writers’ Workshop critique.

The result was a bit of a shock, because for the first time I met an editor who didn’t really ‘get’ my main characters. But that didn’t matter: Daren King gave me some most helpful guidance on creating a progressive plot through the book. Maybe it was a bit much to ask a young contemporary novelist to enjoy my purposely insecure and ‘soft’ characters. His review and many further comments from Harry helped me shape the material in a completely different way. Essentially, this was a new book.

In mid 2009, I launched myself as a professional storyteller, and so much less writing happened in the second half of the year. 2010 was the year of the first York Festival of Writing: a true festival FOR writers, rather than a literary festival that tolerates writers. I met many of my Word Cloud friends for the first time, and it was the first time I met a fiery-haired writer called Debi Alper who had been a source of wisdom and encouragement long before we met. Late in the festival, I managed to combine my love of storytelling and writing by reading a passage to a big, slightly sozzled audience in a literary death match, notable for Harry Bingham taking black humour into a morgue and treating my storytelling puppet despicably. I would say she has been traumatized ever since, but certain infants classes can be more deadly than any author.

Meetings with agents at York suggested that yes, I was a good writer, but my ‘son of’ book wasn’t yet polished enough.

I left York with a plan of action for a project that had stagnated for six months. Later that year was Harry’s Getting Published day, to celebrate the launch of the wonderful book of the same name. It is also the funniest ‘how to’ book I have ever read, and crammed with useful information. (Notably, telling me everything I needed to know about the interview I had last week!) At that day, a ten-minute session with Debi Alper confirmed that now The Blackbird Effect was really getting there, with a much-improved opening chapter. ‘Be ultra persistent,’  she said.

I sent that draft out to agents, with a mixed response: one positive, helpful rejection, six refusals and several no-replies.

I let it lie for a few months while I began a new writing project, taking the manuscript to York 2011, with the intention of focussing on small publishers and forgetting any grand designs. But lots of people still commented on how individual the book was.

Julie Cohen gave me some great advice on pacing. In my attempts to make my project into something like a conventional novel, I had given my narrators alternating chapters to avoid confusion. But now my writing had evolved, and she suggested I go back to my original plan of intercutting the voices to speed up the pace, and see if it worked. Bingo! What I couldn’t manage before was now easy. The icing on the cake was winning a free editorial review as one of the most promising manuscripts at the festival.

All of a sudden I had two editors! Jill Foulson carried out my winnings: a rigorous critique, instructed to look at it clinically as a commercial proposition. And I also began exchanging manuscripts with another Word Cloud member, ‘Skylark’, finding the sharing of material with a trusted friend incredibly valuable. The two editorial processes dovetailed. Skylark’s many smiley faces on passages that worked for her – not to mention her rude comments when my character simply couldn’t see that she was hopelessly in love, or trust her own feelings, were an amazing confidence booster. And Jill’s comments were easy to work with. I took out a character who largely duplicated another role, and drastically cut down another.

Again, I didn’t take all Jill’s comments at face value, but took the criticism and found solutions that worked for me.

I felt quite smug when I showed the manuscript to Harry Bingham in December. Until it came back with three points to look for in the easiest edit I have ever done. Another pair of eyes again. The edit took less than three weeks and trimmed 5,000 words-worth of baggage off the book.

Harry suggested that Juliet Mushens at PFD might like to see the book less than two weeks ago. Juliet read the book cover-to-cover (not that it has covers yet) that evening, and now I have an agent. Their foreign rights agent was caught shedding a tear over the book (hopefully for a good reason) and then their receptionist cried so much over it that she couldn’t answer the phone! I feel that sponsorship from Kleenex could be a real possibility. But still, as ever, Juliet has shown me that there is just a little more work to do to the manuscript… And she’s right.

All those people named above have contributed to The Blackbird Effect, and so have many others.

The novel began with a representative voice that I wanted to put in the public domain. Every Wednesday, I have a storytelling session with a friend. She can’t read more than her own name, but if this book gets as far as publication, her name will be on the dedication page, and she and her friends give me plenty of reasons to keep on writing.

If you have a manuscript that seems to be taking a long and winding road, I would suggest that it could just be the one that works for you.

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  • Accordionist

    Thank you so, so much for telling us your ‘other’ story, the road to representation one. It is truly inspirational and hats off to you for your persistance with a work you believed in. All the very best from hereon in!


  • Alanboy

    Your patience and perseverence is an inspiration, and the support you have received from WW is a testament to their professionalism. I am at a point you passed in 2009, and somewhere in the near future I hope to be where you are now.

    I would also like to confirm that having a fellow or fellowess Cloudie do a full novel review is invaluable.

  • Vanessa

    Hi John,
    Great post – I love reading about other writers’ journeys and I look forward to reading your book. I’m with the lovely Juliet at PFD too, hoping that this year is the year my debut novel gets a deal… Fingers crossed for both of us!