Life is a Creative Process: Provenance and Value in Art

“…Is there ever such a thing as a whole story, or an artist’s triumph, a right way to look through the glass? It all depends on where the light falls.”

Jessie Burton, The Muse

I love it when I come across a book I’d forgotten about. I purchased The Muse by Jessie Burton a few years ago, and as is my tendency, addiction even, to hoard books and novels, I added it to my ‘to read and ongoing’ piles around the house. Somehow it got buried.

As I’ve been decluttering and reorganising I came across it, just at the moment I decided I needed a break from research and non-fiction.

Jessie Burton is now my muse! It’s a fantastic novel, it stimulated my creativity and motivation in many ways, which is auspicious with #NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) coming up in November, where writers aim to get 50,000 words onto paper or screen.

I ended up studying it anyway, a masterclass in historical, literary fiction, I couldn’t put it down.

The lives of two young women, thirty years apart and from different cultures are juxtaposed and intertwined in a riveting way, all connected to a work of art: Rufina and the Lion.

Maybe I loved it so much because the main protagonist is a writer, and the pivotal character a painter.

Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, struggles to find fulfilling work in 1960s London. The story begins with her getting a new job at a respected London art gallery, The Skelton Institute.

Odelle writes in her spare time and works for the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, bearing witness to her descent into a destructive, downward spiral when Lawrie Scott, (Odelle’s boyfriend), brings a mysterious painting to the gallery for valuation; the only thing left to him by his late mother after her un-timely death. Odelle is determined to get to the bottom of Quick’s secrets.

In a parallel story the novel then jumps back to the past, and the life of the Schloss family who have just moved from London to Andalusia in January 1936. They are renting a large finca in Arazuelo, a village near Malaga.

This image captures how I imagined the Schloss’s rented finca to look.

The father, Harold Schloss, a renowned Jewish Viennese art dealer with a gallery in Paris, becomes obsessed by what he thinks is a work of art by a promising local Spanish artist, Isaac Robles. His wife Sarah is a spoilt and unstable English condiment heiress, and their daughter, Olive, a painter, is coming to terms with her formidable artistic ability.

To her surprise, Olive finds the rural Spanish setting and the presence of their close neighbours, Isaac and Teresa Robles inspires her to express her authentic self. Olive has a letter from the Slade art school in her possession, but she has not shown it to her father, fearing his lack of approval, but also she does not wish to leave Spain and her lover, who also happens to be her muse…

Olive paints in secret, only Teresa is party to her acts of creation. Teresa burns with indignation for her friend’s anonymity – that her talent goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. Her subversive actions on Olive’s behalf are the crucible of how events unfold, of the inevitable apocryphal attributions.  

Olive has a hard time persuading her reluctant muse to take the credit for her art.

“‘Why do you and your sister think I’m so stupid? Do you know how many artists my father sells? Twenty-six, last time I counted. Do you know how many of them of them are women, Isaac? None. Not one. Women can’t do it, you see. They haven’t got the vision, although last time I checked they had eyes, and hands, and hearts and souls. I’d have lost before I’d even had a chance.

‘But you made that painting-’

‘So what? My father would never have got on a plane to Paris with a painting he thought was mine…’”

Jessie Burton, The Muse

Harold Schloss entices Peggy Guggenheim in Venice (a real person and collector) to view the works that he believes are by Isaac Robles.

As Isaac and his younger sister Teresa become deeply involved in the complex dynamics of the Schloss family, they are all ultimately drawn into the Spanish civil war with devastating consequences.

Apart from being a brilliant and beautifully written story, The Muse subtly revealed and revelled in the themes of identity, provenance, the restitution of valuable paintings suspected of being stolen by the Nazis, the circumstances surrounding the creation of art and the cult of the artist.

Saints Justa and Rufina by Murillo

Very often an artist’s appeal and allure increases after their death, although some are fortunate to become legends in their own lifetime. Death certainly creates and intensifies icons…

I’d like to think I’d hang a piece of art mainly because I loved to look at it, not because of who painted it, but very often the two are not mutually exclusive. Rarity adds value, as does sentimental attachment.

The Muse makes you think about what art’s intrinsic value is: the actual work of art itself, which once completed stands independent from the artist, or whether that value should be tied to the person who made it; their story and the ‘journey’ of the work post creation.   

The idea of provenance isn’t unique to the art world, but is also applied in literature, music composition and the purchase of instruments. I readily admit that given the choice, I would love to own a violin made by Stradivarius or Guarneri rather than one produced by an unknown luthier. Their quality has been proven over the centuries.

Maybe time is a factor in how we appreciate art. Trends and tastes change, but geniuses never go out of fashion.

Can we really separate a purely aesthetic desire from financial value?

Any creative endeavour, whether we like it or not, is bound by some degree to the person who originated it.

“I’m doing the absolute opposite of giving myself away. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll be completely visible. If the painting sells, I’ll be in Paris, hanging on a wall. If anything, I’m being selfish. It’s perfect; all the freedom of creation, with none of the fuss.”

Jessie Burton, The muse

Romantic notions tend to creep in when purchasing art and sculpture. We are naturally attracted to the story behind a work of art, it heightens our understanding of it, gives us context to value and appreciate it. Is it right that there may come a point when the provenance or story behind a work is perceived as more important and valuable than the work itself?

Provenance is solely a human benchmark.

I think Banksy was very astute to keep his identity a secret. It’s his trademark signature next to street art that has popped up on a wall or tube train overnight that almost seems to excite people as much as his original pictures…

And what about the artist? What value do they imbibe from their creative efforts?

View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by Hubert Robert, c.1796

Certainly they deserve financial remuneration, admiration and respect. Some of these external blessings never flow to an artist. So in many cases the inner joy of creating is paramount. Nothing is certain.

It’s hard to believe that Vincent van Gogh only sold a handful of art works in his life, but now his colourful and distinctive oeuvre is one of the most sought after and popular in the world. How much value did he place in his own ability versus other people’s opinions? Vincent struggled with his mental health, but he was compelled to paint regardless.

Real life scenarios in the art world where a lost masterpiece has been found, and subsequently authenticated, demonstrate how excitement builds and a bidding frenzy usually ensues…

Some amazing stories about lost and recovered masterpieces. And who wishes they had a Renaissance masterpiece hanging on the wall?

For various reasons authors sometimes choose to write under a pseudonym. J.K. Rowling penned the Cormoran Strike crime novels as Robert Galbraith, with modest sales. But once her true identity became public knowledge sales took a startling upward trajectory.

Like writing, art is highly subjective, and we each look at a work of art through our own prism or perceptive lens. Picasso is a big deal, but I don’t personally gravitate to his work. But I love the likes of Monet, Pissarro, van Gogh, Klimt, Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse, and well, I could go on.

In The Muse, Odelle becomes choked up about not being good enough. And who hasn’t experienced Imposter Syndrome to some extent at least once in their life?

Jessie Burton summed up these feelings that can capture and anchor a creative soul on the seabed of writer’s block.

“She had told me that the approval of other people should never be my goal.”

“You’re not walking around with a golden halo beaming out of you depending on the power of your paragraph. You don’t come into it, once someone else is reading. It stands apart from you. Don’t let your ability drag you down, don’t hang it round your neck like an albatross.”

“Like most artists, everything I produced was connected to who I was – and so I suffered according to how my work was received. The idea that anyone might be able to detach their personal value from their public output was revolutionary. I didn’t know if it was possible, even desirable. Surely it would affect the quality of the work? Still, I knew I’d gone too far in the opposite direction, and something had to change. Ever since I could pick up a pen, other people’s pleasure was how I’d garnered attention and defined success. When I began receiving public acknowledgement for a private act, something was essentially lost. My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged. It was not outward-looking, a self-conscious performance. I was asked to repeat the pleasure for people, again and again, until the facsimile of my act became the act itself.”

“…I’d been writing so long for the particular purpose of being approved that I’d forgotten the genesis of my impulse; unbothered, pure creation, existing outside the parameters of success and failure. And somewhere along the line, this being ‘good’ had come to paralyse my belief that I could write at all.”

Jessie Burton, The Muse

My takeaways are that we have to get out of our own way, have faith in our abilities, try to learn from the creative process and above all, enjoy it.

If every artist, writer or musician had decided to quit their projects out of fear of rejection or lack of recognition there would be no culture for us to enjoy, no legacy of human creative expression, no muses to inspire future generations.

“Although any collective answer to my question remains to be seen, personally I feel quite certain of it. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: in the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being. Odelle”

Jessie burton, the muse

Project ‘She Shed’ Comes to Fruition!

“We shape our buildings: Thereafter, they shape us.”
~ Winston Churchill

The rise of the She Shed…

The rise of the #SheShed is no surprise to me! Mothers who have typically sacrificed either their time, money, career, space, privacy, sanity – or even all of these, are now claiming back some much needed space for their own projects.

Like other women, I have reached a point in my life where I feel justified in being a little bit selfish. It’s hard to feel good about being selfish, because I’m used to putting my children’s needs first. I love them unconditionally, but selfishness is a necessity that enables me to continue giving most of my energy, (and pretty much everything I have) to my family.

In my case, selfishness comes in the form of a dedicated garden office to write, study and hold meetings in.

Except, oh, wait a minute – my son beat me to it!!!

My perfect offspring, who walks around with a bright halo gleaming above his head most of the time, suddenly threw me the biggest curve-ball of his life two weeks ago.

I had not long sorted out an ongoing situation and emergency for my eldest son in New Zealand, and then the builders had a quiet week, so our bathroom and water damaged ceiling were ripped out and our home resembled a building site.

Chaos reigned.

I had been busy organising new furniture and moving my files, books and stationary across to the garden, looking forward to the peace and tranquillity it would afford; when he chose his moment to strike.

It is just as well the cabin was built, or I would be even more stressed than I am right now. For reasons which I won’t go into, I will have to wait until the summer to move in full-time.

On the plus side it also means my daughter has her birthday/early Christmas present – a new piano to practice on when she comes home from school. She is preparing for her ABRSM Grade 1 exam.


Project She Shed began in the summer, with clearing the overgrown area at the bottom of our garden. I am grateful that we do have a relatively long, flat garden in the first place, otherwise a She Shed wouldn’t have been an option.

Once the land was cleared by my step father and step brother the builders created a base and built the structure (which was delivered mostly in planks of varying sizes and thicknesses, except for the windows and roof panels), like giant Ikea furniture.

I opted for extra insulation knowing that I’m prone to feeling the cold, and I’m glad I did now. My next novel definitely won’t get written with icicles hanging off my nose and my teeth chattering. My dad supplied two heaters which will keep out the chill this winter.

I spent many hours in the late summer and early autumn coating the cabin with protective undercoat and paint.

A local electrician updated the main electrics board of our 1930 built house and wired a Cat5 cable down the garden – then I had power and broadband. He even fixed motion sensor lights outside should inspiration strike in the middle of the night. But, I fully admit that’s unlikely to occur in the middle of winter!

The oak wood floor was laid and my anticipation grew…

I had visions of meditating, journaling, planning, reading, writing and placing mind-maps around the walls, spreading out scene cards and getting stuck into my next novel.

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Even the cats were keen to join me and test out my plush new seating arrangements with their muddy paws.

Sammy boldly ventures into the unpacking labyrinth…

Waiting to be admitted

Simba gives the sofa his seal of approval

However, in the tradition of being stoical, I have deferred to my family once again. I just hope there are no more curve-balls waiting to knock me sideways before Christmas.

The festive season gets pretty crazy chez Burges.

I don’t mean to come across as whingeing when there are so many people suffering in the world.  I am learning to embrace challenges and be thankful for my many blessings. My mother admonishes me whenever she senses a whiff of a moan, pointing out that there are plenty of people worse off.

And she is right.

A close relative is battling an extremely aggressive form of cancer and we thought we might lose her a few months ago.

Thanks to a stent she has been able to go home – hospital was not helping her – the machine she was hooked up to bleeped incessantly and so she rarely slept. To our horror she appeared to be wasting away over the weeks she was confined to a hospital bed.

But with the help of her iron will, nutritionally therapeutic supplements, a loving, supportive family and ongoing care, she is getting stronger and showing us all what grace under pressure looks like.

We are grateful and overjoyed to have her with us still, and hopefully for Christmas.

Despite life’s challenges, if we have our health, that, in my opinion, will always be the greatest wealth.

I love and appreciate my family for everything they have done to make this project happen. I feel what’s needed at this point is a hefty dose of patience rather than increased productivity.

I visited Dylan Thomas’s writing shed a couple of years ago whilst on  a trip to Laugharne with my family, and it has the most stunning view out over the estuary. I think I would just sit and stare out the window all day…

I am fortunate to have my new She Shed sanctuary, (the place where my creativity will be unleashed and future novels will be written) waiting for me, one day…

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” ~ Franz Kafka

#TuesdayBookBlog – How to Make an Author Insanely Happy

“A page-turner and moving journey filled with romance, Burges’s novel shows the possibilities of moving on beyond tragedy.” ~ Publishers Weekly

We authors are a sensitive breed. At least, I know am. Perhaps it’s because of my creative and open nature. Writers live in a world of words and pictures, with scenes floating around and playing out in our heads. Premises come and go; only the most compelling that take root in the depths of our imagination will be used for that next novel. Our heads are full of images: faces, voices, characters, traits, plots, places, descriptions, all coalescing and escalating to a breathtaking climax before breakfast. No, not that sort!


As Ernest Hemingway said with a hint of satire: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Not literally I hope, but sometimes it feels like my head will explode. You craft your stories as best you can, edit them, get them read, incorporate feedback, edit and rewrite, get more feedback and go on until you’ve reached the end of your tether and just want to get the darn thing published.

You’ve probably gathered I don’t possess the patience of a saint!


Some writers are blessed with quick minds, maybe if they have no other work or family commitments they can churn out a book every year. It took me five to finally publish my debut novel, The Virtuoso. It was a labour of love. But that doesn’t mean to say I don’t care about its journey out into the big, wide, literary world.

With upwards of a million books on Amazon and the empowerment Indie publishing brings to many aspiring writers, it’s tougher than ever to stand out among the noise as a first time author.


I know if I could just get The Virtuoso featured on Classic FM or BBC Radio 3 I’d be in with a fighting chance of reaching many of my potential readers through the medium of music. After all, music is at the core of my novel, and so is an irresistible story. Sadly, I don’t have a large marketing budget to afford the advertising and an unknown author is a bit of a risk for the big radio stations.

And now to the question of how to make an author insanely happy: it’s twofold really, read their book and write an honest, constructive review. Social proof is the best way for a fledgling author to win new readers and build up a fan base so that they can hit the ground running with their next novel. Writers spend many hours obsessing over their ‘babies’ and want nothing more than to enrich readers’ lives with their work.


I haven’t found the process of marketing my book entirely comfortable, I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, but it is certainly easier to sound off someone else’s!

Hence my unashamed promotion of my first major book review; an awesome endorsement from industry giant, Publishers Weekly. When I submitted The Virtuoso for a review on their BookLife platform I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it. It was highlighted that many, many books were sent to them and only a select few would be chosen for a review.


Imagine my delight when I received this email from BookLife yesterday!

Dear Ms. Burges,

The Publishers Weekly review for your book, The Virtuoso, ran on Nov. 14th:

Thank you for submitting your book for review to Publishers Weekly. Of the hundreds of self-published titles received each month, only a handful of the very best are selected for review.

Thank you also for being a part of the BookLife community. We hope you will continue to use all of the resources at to support your work as an author.


Here it is:


Dare I finish by saying that the thing that would send this particular author into the stratosphere, would be to have a film adaptation made of The Virtuoso.

My dream cast

My readers tell me they think it would make a fantastic film. My dream cast would be Keira Knighly in the main role as Isabelle Bryant, the heroine of my novel. She has the perfect blend of spirit, talent, vulnerability, courage and beauty, (both inner and outer) to play the beleaguered violinist. her Her box office appeal doesn’t hurt either!

Sharon D. Clarke is the only woman I can visualise as the larger than life jazz singer, Hortense Lafayette. I think Damian Lewis could bring the right amount of the narcissist and tortured soul to conductor Howard Miller’s character. I’m not sure about Daniel Carter. Maybe someone like Hugh Grant could fill his shoes.

There are some wonderful locations as well, such as Madeira, New York, Vienna and London.


If you’ve read The Virtuoso, thank you, and if you’ve left me a review on Amazon or Goodreads, thank you from the bottom of my heart! Do feel free to share your ideal cast for the film adaptation, I’m open to suggestions…

I can always dream can’t I!?

At least the music soundtrack has already been recorded!

How to be More Motivated and Successful After Rejection

“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” ~ Isaac Asimov

You may ask, what can an author who’s sold more than 450 million books, as well as providing the content and inspiration for the behemoth that is the blockbuster series of Harry Potter movies, teach me about being rejected?

I would venture to say quite a bit actually. JK Rowling certainly inspired me to keep going, albeit not down the same path, but you’d imagine because of her stellar success she wouldn’t know anything about rejection – but you’d be wrong.

Rowling was rejected numerous times when she began approaching literary agents with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’ll bet they’re kicking themselves now.


The Christopher Little Literary Agency agreed to represent her, a decision which has more than paid off! The rest, as they say, is history.

Rejections under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith

Many of us are aware that JK Rowling didn’t have immediate success when she approached agents and publishers with her first Harry Potter adventure.

Despite those rejections, the best-selling author of the Harry Potter fantasy series and her first adult novel, The Casual vacancy, decided to go incognito for her first foray into crime fiction.

I recently read a newspaper article that highlighted her rejections when she was looking to become published as crime thriller author, Robert Galbraith. When she sent off The Cuckoo’s Calling she came up against the same response as before, and probably some of what you and I have also experienced.

At the request of a fan, only for inspiration purposes and not revenge, JK Rowling revealed some of the responses she received as Robert Galbraith. Here is the reply from publisher Constable and Robinson:

Dear Robert Galbraith,

Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to consider your novel, which we have looked at with interest. However, I regret that we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we could not publish it with commercial success.

At the risk of ‘teaching my grandmother to suck eggs’, may I respectfully suggest the following: Double check in a helpful bookshop, on Amazon or in the twice yearly ‘Buyer’s Guide’ of the Bookseller magazine…who are the publishers now of your fiction category/genre. Call the publishers to obtain the name of the relevant editor…then send to each editor an alluring 200-word blurb (as on book jackets; don’t give away the ending!)…

Owing to pressure of submissions, I regret we cannot reply individually or provide constructive criticism. (A writers’ group/writing course may help with the latter.) May I wish you every success in placing your work elsewhere.

So why would an author who is reportedly worth £580 million put herself through that kind of torment? Rowling states: ‘I had nothing to lose and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try.’

It’s thought that twelve publishers turned down Harry Potter in 1996 until Bloomsbury took it on. Rowling pointed out that the same publisher who first rejected Harry Potter had sent the ‘rudest’ response to The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Eventually it was published by Sphere, the same publisher who accepted The Casual Vacancy in 2012. It was released in April 2013 and sold around 450 copies in Britain and a further 1,000 worldwide before the author’s true identity was made public.


Rowling has penned two further novels under the Galbraith pen name: The Silkworm and Career of Evil. So even one of the most successful authors of all-time continues to be rejected!

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” ~ Ray Bradbury

Most authors have suffered many rejections. Rejection is part of a writer’s life; it’s how you deal with it that matters.

Rejection - HG Wells

So if you’ve been rejected you’re in great company!

Having been told by an editor that he couldn’t write about women, Stephen King set about penning his grisly epistolary tale of a lonely teenager, Carrie, a vilified misfit with telekinetic powers. King actually rejected himself by binning his first few pages of Carrie, (his fourth novel but first to be published), but his wife Tabitha rescued the pages from his waste paper bin!

Margaret Mitchell had Gone with the Wind rejected 38 times before it was published and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937. The movie of ‘Gone with the Wind’ became the most successful film ever made up to that point, and remained the highest earning film for a further 25 years after it was released in December 1939. It won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress.

It’s still the most successful film in box-office history after monetary inflation has been taken into consideration.

Other celebrated and successful authors that were rejected include: Mark Twain, DH Lawrence, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Dan Brown, Beatrix Potter, Agatha Christie, James Redfield, William Golding, George Orwell, John le Carré and Rudyard Kipling to name but a few.


Although it’s unpleasant, it seems par for the course that at some point you’ll be rejected, either as a writer, or in any other endeavour you undertake.  If you have the right attitude about it, rejection can inject you with the essential determination and strength of character needed to succeed, as well as helping to hone your skills where appropriate.

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”  ~ Neil Gaiman

When I was ready to put my debut novel, The Virtuoso out there, it was a nerve wracking time. I was a first time author, my confidence was growing but I felt vulnerable and self-conscious. I didn’t know if I had it in me to become a published author or if people would enjoy my book.

Virtuoso-Kindle-no-bleed (2)

These fears have been banished since publication and the growing body of healthy reviews.

Needless to say I had many ‘thanks, but no thanks’ type of replies to my submissions, and some didn’t even bother to respond. After a few months of this soul destroying process I decided to self-publish. Independent authors comprise a significant share of the publishing industry. In this 2015 article, The Bookseller attempts to highlight the size of the self-publishing sector within the industry.

John Lock was the first author to sell over a million ebooks on Amazon. It can be done. There are many avenues an author can pursue, which I’m not going to go into here.

Rejection - JD Rockerfeller

Once I took my future into my own hands I felt better about myself. I was no longer at the mercy of literary agents; I could determine my own path.

The key point is to take positive action and don’t stop believing in yourself. Reading is highly subjective, and as Stephen King rightly pointed out, you can’t please all of the readers all of the time, you can’t even please some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.

If you can do that, you’re up there with the best of them.

I spent years working on my manuscript alongside working and raising a large family, I wasn’t about to ditch my dream because an agent or publisher didn’t feel my work was quite right for them at the time.

In fact, some of my rejection responses spurred me on. I’ll share a couple with you but I won’t say which agents they came from:

Thank you for bearing with me while I took a read of this. The Virtuoso is a window into a fascinating world, and you obviously know your subject very well. I’m afraid I don’t think it’s one for my list – I have to be very selective about what I take on, and to me the focus on relationships and dialogue just felt a little far towards the commercial end of the market for my tastes. Do keep trying it with agents – perhaps have a look in the acknowledgements sections of books that you think are for a similar readership, and see who represents them?

Very best of luck with it.

Dear Ginny,

Thank you for sending me THE VIRTUOSO and for giving me the opportunity to consider your work.

Unfortunately I am not able to offer you representation for your work. Although I thought the premise of the story was engaging, I’m afraid I did not fall in love with the writing, itself, the way I would need to in order to take it on in today’s tough non-fiction marketplace. I am sorry for this response but I feel that an agent must be wholeheartedly and unreservedly behind a book if she hopes to sell it to publishers. These judgements are always subjective and you may well find someone who feels very differently.

Thank you for giving me the chance to consider your work and I wish you luck in your search for a suitable agent to assist you.

Dear Ginny,

Many thanks for sending us this proposal, which I read with interest. I considered it carefully but I’m afraid on balance it just doesn’t quite grab my imagination in the way that it must for me to offer to represent you. So I must follow my instinct and pass on this occasion. I’m really sorry to be so disappointing, but thanks for thinking of us. Of course this is a totally subjective judgement, so do try other agents and I wish you every success.

Dear Ginny,

Thank you for sending in your material to us. We have read and considered your proposal carefully but do not feel it is something we could place successfully in the current publishing climate. Please bear in mind that this is the opinion of one agency alone and that others may feel differently.

We are extremely sorry to disappoint you but we wish you the very best of luck with your future writing.

Dear Virginia

Thank you for sending me your submission. I found your writing engaging, as you do write with real energy and imagination.

Having said that, I am afraid it wasn’t really something that I am currently looking for but I do wish you every success with your submission.

You may be reading this and thinking, ‘But I’m not an author so this isn’t relevant to me.’ However you can still apply the principles of not giving up, determination, re-evaluation and persistence to whatever project you’re working on.

Here’s a great motivational video by Prince Ea if you need help in that department!

We can all take a leaf out of Scarlett O’Hara’s book – after all, tomorrow is another day!

“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’“ ~ Saul Bellow

The Art of Storytelling

“If a story is in you, it has got to come out.” ~ William Faulkner

Once upon a time there was a riveting story waiting to be told; a tale so compelling that it would change multitudinous lives forever. That story could be your story. There is a story in all of us. It’s the telling of it that makes the difference.

Will it be a page turner, will it suck them in to your world and spit them out at the end thinking about it for weeks, or maybe even years to come?

I love it when authors write books that do that to me. More often than not, it’s the writers with extensive life experience that can encapsulate universal emotions on the pages of their books.

CS Lewis writing-quote

The title of this blog post is suggestive of a broad and in-depth subject, and I feel that perhaps I have bitten off more than I can chew. It will be tough to do justice to in around a thousand words, so forgive me if I exceed my usual post length. Here go the basics!

Just like painting, drawing and composing music, writing is an art form. Crafting a compelling story takes time and skill. When writers have ideas, they work to express and articulate them in a way which will draw readers into their imagination using their own unique voice. They have to craft their story into something that will take their readers on a journey, and nothing less than transformation will do…

Why is it certain stories are considered classics, being read and retold through the ages?

There’s a reason Shakespeare has endured for 392 years since the first folios of his plays were published. They have captured our collective imagination in some measure because their themes hold as true today as they did in the Tudor period. Love, hate, jealousy, passion, ambition, religion and power struggles are every bit as evident in the world we now live in. Just watch the news.

The human family may have broadly evolved a bit since then – or maybe not – but there’s nothing interesting about a perfect family. Give us a contentious, dysfunctional family and you have the basis for a story. A querulous quarrel kicks off a family feud and hey presto, a story is underway…

writing quotes

What makes a good story?

Conflict is one of the key ingredients. So is a quest of some kind, such as defeating the nefarious wizard that murdered your parents when you were a baby, or indeed any kind of pathos and unfulfilled desire. Desire and resistance push and pull at us all, shaping our experience of life, unless we are enlightened enough to practise the Buddhist ethos of detachment. But detachment doesn’t work in fiction. Engagement does.

The full answer to this question is probably going to be different for each of us, depending on our personal preferences, but here is a list of what works for me:

  • Robert Harris quoteAn interesting or unusual opening with a hook to draw me in early on, but nothing too gimmicky. Novelty stimulates the brain.
  • A likeable, relatable protagonist to care about, facing a disaster or an unavoidable calling and orientation into his/her environment to place me at the heart of the action. Their unmet desire (either for their situation to return to normal, or for their situation to be different from the one they find themselves in is the platform for the choices they will make and the changes they will go through.
  • A mixture of three main types of struggle and conflict: internal, external and interpersonal.
  • Interesting characters that behave in accordance with their history and their unique personality traits, not acting in an incongruous manner just for the sake of a pre-determined plot.
  • A plot that is believable and makes sense (genre withstanding), where the scenes follow on logically and give me, as a reader what I want: both the familiar and the unexpected.
  • Enough tension and escalation to keep me interested in what happens next. That is not necessarily more action, but ramping up the tension in the form of not getting what they want and raising the stakes.
  • Well thought out descriptions to enhance the sense of place, not too much that will take me away from the story, but enough for me to visualise the scene and or the characters.
  • Pacing that naturally flows with the tension and action of the story, giving passages of intense action and also moments of perceived relief, building up to the climax of the story.
  • ‘Show don’t tell’ epitomised by Anton Chekhov’s quote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • A theme that makes me question what I think I know; a quandary or moral dilemma that engages me and puts me in the characters’ shoes. I want to learn something about another world or about myself.
  • Clear language and a consistent voice that lacks verbosity but contains enough words to convey the story in a way that flows naturally. Words that are beautiful when read aloud, that perfectly fit the genre and story. It annoys me if a writer is using a daedalean word or phrase as if they are attempting to show how clever they are. I’m not averse to looking in the dictionary – in fact I spend much of my time there and chez Thesaurus – but misused vocabulary is amaroidal in the extreme!

Once you come up with the premise there is a certain amount of planning to do, however; I believe a writer’s imagination and creativity can be stifled by too much detailed outlining and deciding how it will end before you begin writing. Planning to the nth degree will kill off whole areas of undiscovered story because you are blinkered by following a set path.

Truman Capote writing-quote

I like to meander a bit. A trail that branches off from the main walkway can lead you to all sorts of terrain and unexpected views, ones that you wouldn’t have set eyes on had you not strayed a little. Maybe it’s because I’m quite a spontaneous person. New characters suddenly come to life, different settings appear, sub plots and possible outcomes fill your mind. The story emerges rather than suffocates.

Storytelling should be an organic activity. Sometimes ideas need time to incubate. You flesh them out, go back to them, change them and improve them. Characters take time to get to know; how they speak, how they react, what they want, what they desire and fear.

Robert Frost quote_writingThe best stories aren’t planned ­- they evolve. Writers could be likened to sculptors, carving their masterpieces out of rock, only we are carving out of words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. And as the body of the work starts to take shape we see new curves and angles that we didn’t notice when we started with a solid block of stone. Grafting our material in this way will hopefully avoid writer’s block and allow us to transfer our creations from the depths of our grey matter into the hearts and minds of our readers.

By allowing free reign (within reason), to your creative process, you can lull your readers into a fictive dream that they won’t want to wake up from. You’ll all be on that winding, dangerous path together, maybe scared, excited or angry about what’s around the corner, but unable to stop yourselves from following it to its ultimate destination, instead of plodding along the yellow brick road to boredomville.

“Writing effective fiction requires being aware of the interplay of the unfolding narrative and your evolving ideas as you watch and respond to how everything merges and reforms itself into the final product. It’s a dance, and we’re just here to help introduce two partners – character and unmet desire – and then listen to the music and watch them take it from there within the constraints of our art form.” ~ Steven James (Story Trumps Structure).

The only formula you really need to know is: there are no formulas. Just considerations, such as: genre, setting, point of view, tension, believability, escalation, reader empathy, character intention, causality, twists & turns, and of course reader expectations.

Questions to ask

Steven James (author of the successful Patrick Bower thriller series) has come to the conclusion that he writes best when he asks himself these questions:

  1. What would this character naturally do in this situation? This is where the saying “truth is stranger than fiction” applies. Fiction has to be believable.
  2. How can I make things worse? This is where the increasing escalation and tension keep the story moving forward.
  3. How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable? Readers want a great ending that both surprises them and gives them what they want at the same time.

By continually asking these questions you can avoid taking a detour down a dead end, whilst keeping all the key elements of your story on the right track.

“You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.” ~ Stephen King (On Writing).

A satisfying climax

In words, as in love, the climax is the pinnacle of the exercise! But getting there can be a lot of fun. Well, maybe not for your protagonist. Generally, they are going through hell. As a writer you want your readers to become so engrossed in your story that they will make it to the grand finale. They will be rooting for your protagonist, and when they arrive at the denouement, you don’t want the last act to leave them cold. You want to bid farewell to your story by giving them the ending they want, but not necessarily expected.

There’s plenty of advice out there. Stephen King in his book, On Writing states, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

A brilliant presentation and discussion about writing, linguistics and prose with Professor Steven Pinker and novelist Ian McEwan, from a recent gathering at the Royal Geographical Society:

I agree with Ian, please don’t take away the pause comma! Even Jane Austen isn’t free from criticism.

Useful Resources:

  • How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Story Trumps Structure by Steven James
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White
  • The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
  • From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake
  • The Naked Author by Alison Baverstock
  • Getting Published by Harry Bingham
  • The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook
  • Blogs: Nathan Bransford, Joanna Penn, Catherine Ryan Howard

To become an artist takes faith in your own intuitive abilities. Trust your instincts and support them with intelligent review throughout the project. Let your voice be heard. I’d like to read your story someday…

 “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible” ~ Vladimir Nabokov