Prize-winning Author of Historical Fiction

How to Launch ‘The Great Novel’… Or Not?


At the age of 40, having tried what many might call a curious variety of occupations – as an repertory actor, a suited adman and a muddy dairy farmer – I became a ‘published author’. I was gobsmacked! A novel I’d submitted as an outline and two chapters, had been accepted by no lesser publisher than William Heinemann; the house who’d counted Henry James and Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and my own relative John Masefield amongst their famous authors. They liked my writing style, they said, they liked my Edwardian and First War story, Chalkhill Blue. They slapped two thousand quid down on the table – and I was off!

The novel took two years to write and when I finished it was a success – was printed twice in hardback and four more times in paperback for Pan. It sold an option for a TV mini-series and even won a literary award. My new agent was delighted. So was I.

“So do another one,” the editor at Heinemann advised, “something similar if you can manage it.”
I couldn’t actually, or didn’t want to. But what I managed was an eighteenth century smuggling story, Brimstone, which also went down well. “So do another one,” they said. The third novel, Painted Lady, involved an energetic prostitute in in Regency Brighton. (“Jane Austen below the waist”, as one slightly shocked reviewer described it.) The research, as you may imagine, was quite fascinating.

By then, with three books in the bag, my agent was becoming quite excited. She took me out to lunch and suggested it was time for me to write The Great Novel. “We call it break-out,” she explained, “and with any luck it’ll make us pots of money! Choose a subject and research it, write an outline, and leave the rest to me.”

I should have known, I really should, that life is never quite that simple.

But off I went to take a dozen history books out of The London Library and write a lengthy outline for a great big medieval novel, The White Cross – a stirring story of the Third Crusade in which a militant young knight is traumatised by war and a famous hero shown to be a monster. The agent loved it, seized it and went on to auction it for a stupendous sum. Commissioning editors from Simon & Schuster and The Bodley Head bid against each other to push up the price to an eye-watering £70,000! I signed the contract with a shaking hand. They paid me the advance.

The Great Novel was on its way! Or was it?

I laboured long and hard to write the first third of the epic. The editor was very pleased (she called it ‘great’) and paid me for it on the nail. Encouraged mightily, I laboured on to write another third. The editor was pleased with that as well, and I was paid. But then a little hitch. The Bodley Head was sold to Random House and with it all its authors. “But not to worry,” said my editor. ‘They love your book, they really do, can’t wait to see it finished.’

By then two more years had passed and I’d been paid just over half of the advance. But when the book was finished, another hitch – and this time not so little.

“Random House don’t like it,” the editor informed me. “It isn’t what they want”. To say my heart sank to my boots would be the understatement of the century. It went on sinking through the carpet, through the floorboards of her office to embed itself in London clay!

“But you said you liked the first two thirds and paid me for them.” (I hope I didn’t wail.)

“Well we can only tell you that it’s not for Random House,” the editor said crisply, “and they won’t publish it.”

Nor would they, not in any shape or form.

I offered to rewrite the thing. But no one at the publisher’s would meet me or discuss the book in any kind detail. It’s time had passed. It wasn’t The Great Novel after all. The thing The Bodley Head had loved, Random House had little time for and no more cash to spend on. The agent who’d sold it for so much, gave up on it as well. She obtained the rights back for me, then told me in the nicest way, to please get lost. The bubble it was clear had burst, for me and many other authors. Publishers on every side avoided me and my enormous script.

At which point I said, “Sod it! Sod all publishers and agents!” and went off to work instead for a famous and fantastic special needs school near Haywards Heath in Sussex – a place where I felt needed too and was clearly useful. I worked there for another 20 years.

But if you are creative you can’t stop creating, and if you are a writer – well, you tend to go on writing. So by the time that I was ready to retire, I’d virtually rewritten my big medieval story, and in a way that I thought worked. It may not have been The Great Novel that my agent was so set on. But I was pleased with it. It resonated with our current problems in the Middle East, it used a second colour in the type – and I knew it was the best thing by a long mile that I had ever written.

So I took it back to my old agent – who refused to read it, wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot barge pole (what would you expect?). I took it back to William Heinemann, now linked ironically to Random House. But they told me that it was “unsuitable for our small and overcrowded list”. So I took it to another agent. Then another. Then five more. None of them would read it. At 70 I was too old, they said, had been out of the business for too long. They couldn’t think that I would have enough books in me still to be remotely worth their while. Which left me where?

I have heard recently of a desperate American author who hired a 40-foot advertising van, pasted a picture of his book on it and parked it outside an agent’s office as a means of focussing her attention. But, come on! How much humiliation can one old writer be expected to endure?

I knew that Mark Twain self-published Huckleberry Finn, that Jane Austen paid for the first print run of Sense and Sensibility, as Beatrix Potter did for Peter Rabbit. So off I went to find someone to help me publish my own lesser work – a new publisher offering a selective self-publishing service and experienced, hands-on advice – someone who could show me how to cut the costs of digitalising all my novels and of selling them through Amazon as paperbacks and ebooks. Someone who’d help me launch my great big medieval novel in just the way I wanted.

So here I am, no longer in the world of generous advances. My book will have to work quite hard to earn its keep. But at least it’s out there. Amazon is criticised for undermining bookshops. But if more novels see the light of day and more readers get to read them, that surely has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, it seems I’m not too old to write another story. I’m busy with it now.
The Great Novel? Well, not if I can help it!