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Meggosaurus Rex – Megg Jensen and the Jurassic Park Agents

Day Twelve

So what is it about agents these days? Anyone would think they were an endangered species.

In fact I was going to open with that observation even before Anne R Allen’s latest post Literary Agents: An Endangered Species? went live at the weekend and really put the cat among the industry’s pigeons.

Simple fact is, of course, they are. The days of the agent we knew and loved / hated are coming to an end.

That’s not to say they will all become extinct. Just that those that survive the e-publishing revolution will have evolved into some entirely new creature from the agents that, along with the Big Six, reigned supreme over the publishing world until incredibly recently.

The e-publishing revolution is the equivalent of the giant meteorite strike that caused the mass extinction in a bygone era. Except this time it’s just Planet Publishing that is being hit.

Is that a good or bad thing? It certainly seems good for readers and writers so far. But who’s to say? The only certainties just now are first that nothing is certain, and second that some agents are a lot more clued up than others.

As Anne explains in her post (see link above) some agents are turning predator. And it’s not  a pretty sight. Others are turning to new business models. Most just seem like startled rabbits in the headlights of the oncoming truck.

David Gaughran

For anyone still chasing agents, Anne’s post is  a must-read and has numerous links to other must-read posts. To those I would add David Gaughran and Joe Konrath. David is fast becoming the most significant industry commentator this side of the pond. Anyone not yet following his blog is missing out on some serious and valuable debate.

The other JK

Joe, of course, is known to everyone, and it seems loved / hated in equal measure. But one thing you can’t do is ignore him.

Not here to go over the issues they cover. Just to say those sites are where you should be if you’re still hankering for an agent, or even just wondering what the future holds. Joe’s latest has some useful insights from Barry Eisler too.

Two agents sites I must mention here though, as fine examples of likely survivor and definite dinosaur.

One is Rachelle Gardner. She did a great post entitled Will Self-Pubbing Hurt My Chances, and came out with a resounding NO!

Read it and rejoice. There is a voice of reason among all the vested self-interest clinging to the old model.

And speaking of which…

Another agent (NOT Rachelle!) ran a post this week on criticism, critiques and editing, which basically was the same hoary old urban myths about how agents are the gatekeepers that ensure quality, and that without agents and editors the cultural world is doomed. Needless to say I disagreed. I’m not going to dignify the site with a link here, just to say she began her post,

Do you take criticism well? I don’t, really.

Well, fair enough she did warn me!

But I posted a comment anyway, as one does (isn’t that what blogs are for?) and another reader debated my comment. I responded. But apparently this particular agent doesn’t want debate. It seems anything except hero-worship is unacceptable.

Comments regarding the usefulness of editors, agents, and other publishing professionals, when posted on a literary agent’s blog, cross a line. My blog is not your soapbox. Future comments that seem deliberately malicious or provocative will be deleted.

As I say, she did warn me with her opener. 🙂

Those of you who follow MWi will know provocative is my middle name.

If we don’t debate and argue, how will we ever get to the truth? 

But as for being malicious… Not that is offensive.

Why does a literary agent run a blog if they don’t want anyone to disagree with them? Stick to a standard website.

And I love the way this literary agent proclaims to the world her role and who she works for, and then says all opinions are her own. If her opinions are her own, why make a big fuss about who she works for at the top of the site? Would she tell us that if she was stacking shelves at Wal-Mart?

I’d like to ask her, but that would be malicious and just get deleted. 🙂

But it comes back the the issue of old-school agent dinosaurs. If this agent doesn’t understand that a blog that invites comments is a place of public interaction then what hope her understanding the needs of her clients in the new world of e-publishing?

Late edit extra: Prue Batten over at Mesmered has just run a post on Rachelle Gardner’s latest blog on what a Big Six marketing team can offer. Rachelle  Gardner is the sensible one of the two agents referred to above, I hasten to add. 

But Prue’s response is provacative to say the least. Rachelle lists an impressive array of things the Big Six might (note the might) do for an author. Indie author Prue is already doing most of them. And as Prue says,

if I can do a good proportion of the above, plus help run a farming business, look after acres of garden and write other books, I wonder if that raises issues about the efficiency and efficacy of what a publisher’s sales team actually does.

Now that’s what blogs are for.

Provocative, but not malicious. I’m sure Rachelle Gardner would be happy to debate that. The other agent would probably be on the phone to the thought police.

~

But now, back to today’s guest, Megg Jensen. Back in May Megg ran a lovely little post about her desire for an agent. That isn’t her guest post (that’s further down), but it seemed appropriate to steal part of the earlier post and reproduce it here, just because of the self-portrait. Don’t tell her!

In 2010 when I was searching for an agent that was me:

<———-

That’s how I looked at agents. Me, a respected freelance journalist who dealt with editors on a regular basis under a purely formal guise. Those magazine editors were my employers, not objects of desire.

Yet for some reason when I began to query, I got all foamy at the mouth, googly-eyed, and starstruck. I look back at myself and I get embarrassed, for me and for the agents.

Since I told myself last December that I would no longer query and I would take my career into my own hands, I’ve mellowed, A LOT, when it comes to agents. Do I still want one? OF COURSE. What self-respecting writer wouldn’t? Yes, it’s awesome to be an indie writer, but there are things we just can’t do. Who’s going to show your book to the movie execs? Who’s going to sell it to other countries? Who’s going to help you move up the ladder? Even Joe Konrath has an agent. Authors may be turning away from traditional publishing, but they aren’t, and shouldn’t be, turning away from agents

Megg’s last point is interesting. A lot has happened since early May. Perhaps Megg can let us know if she still feels that way after reading some of the posts mentioned above.

BTW, for those following Saffi and my own dealings with agencies, we reported a month or so back how we were approached by one of the planet’s most prestigious agencies over in New York. Just to say here we are still in discussions with said agency and we will make a formal statement next month on our position.

Meanwhile we would urge everyone to read the posts referred to above, and not to rush into anything, no matter how tempting it may seem at first glance.

Back to Megg:

First, Jurassic Park. OMG, I was in high school when this came out and I saw it in the theater three times. Can you say LOVE?! Before I saw it, I wanted to become an archaeologist. After I saw it, I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist. I’m not, but I did graduate with a minor in anthropology!!!!

Relevance? Well, a tenuous link with Anne R Allen’s post, as above, of course. But actually Megg just happened to do  a post on Jurassic Park and I happen to be a huge fan of Ariana Richards and Stephen Mazzello, the two child actors who upstaged both the adults and the dinosaurs, and made Jurassic Park a true classic of cinema.

And yes, I’m a fanatical about children in the cinema, as past posts testify. Any suggestions that I’m just trying to get in Spielberg’s good books, on the off chance he’s in need of an e-book to turn into a film, are totally without foundation. Steven my email address is on the site. And yes, I can cause my co-author to mysteriously disappear, but not until after the next book is finished.

No, the reason I dragged Megg here was to talk about finding reviewers – a subject dear to all indie-publishers’ hearts. After all, getting our books reviewed is key to finding an audience and hopefully a market.

When I first approached her I had no idea Megg would have her new book out this week. A happy coincidence for all, but honestly, it wasn’t planned that way.

Anyway, here’s Megg again:

Megg Jensen - definitely not a dinosaur

When Mark asked me to guest blog, I was totally surprised. I’m still not sure where he picked me from, but perhaps it’s better not to know his stalking methods. No matter, I was pleased. Stalker, fellow writer, fan – whatever I’ll take it.

Mark asked me to blog about review sites since, as he put it, I “mastered that aspect of the game well.” I laughed when I read his email because up until a couple months ago I had review sites all wrong. When Anathema (February 2011, DarkSide Publishing) debuted I sent out zero book blogger requests.

I didn’t know I could request a review. I didn’t know bloggers might be interested in Anathema. I didn’t know because I made an assumption and never checked out how it worked. I thought bloggers randomly reviewed whatever book they felt like reading. Was I wrong!

What every indie author needs to know is that there are book bloggers out there who will happily read your novel and review it. Let’s forget the frightening aspect of a potentially horrid review and focus on finding a reviewer.

I found most of mine on Twitter through other tweeps. I didn’t request reviews immediately. I wanted to get to know them so when I did send Anathema out, I knew I’d be sending it to a reviewer who not only liked YA fantasy, but also was a fair judge of books. If you troll reviewer sites you’ll find they run the gamut from snarky and mean to overenthusiastic. I wanted a good match for Anathema and I hand-picked each potential reviewer.

As a plus, I’ve now become friends with some of these bloggers. Many of them are writers too and we have a lot in common. My hope is that they remain impartial on future reviews because the last thing I want is for a reader to think, “Well, they’re friends with Megg so of course they’re going to like her book.” That’s not really fair to the reviewer or me.

Since then I have received reviews from people who’ve bought Anathema and from bloggers who’ve requested a copy. The vast majority of them are great reviews, and even the reviewers who gave me lower ratings had good reasons for it. Reading is a very personal experience and no author can expect everyone to love their book. Talk about unrealistic!

I’m still seeking out reviewers for Anathema, but now I’m switching to offering a free copy of both Anathema and Oubliette (coming June 2011, DarkSide Publishing) in exchange for a review of Oubliette. With nearly 60 Goodreads reviews under my belt, I’m now tackling some of the larger review sites. They don’t always take self-published books, but my hope is that with a positive track record I’ll be able to break into them as well.

I’m not Amanda Hocking, but I’m still able to slip my books into every review site that will have me. It’s great publicity and I’m meeting amazing people along the way!

Mark asked me to add a little about me. Well, Megg Jensen is a pen name. Why? I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. There’s a small chance it could be because in real life I’m a journalist and I don’t want the two careers to mix. But that’s boring so let’s just say I’m with a secret division of the U.S. government that does NOT exist.

Anathema is my first novel, Oubliette has just been released, and the third book in the Cloud Prophet Trilogy will drop this fall. I have releases lined up for the next three years. Prolific is a bad word to describe my work ethic; manic might be better.

I live in Chicago with my husband, two kids, and insane schnauzer, Ace. Yes, I named a character after him. If you knew my dog, you’d know why.

Thanks, Megg. And you’re right. It is better not to know my stalking methods.

Megg refers to two books there, Anathema and Oubliette. Click here to go to Megg’s site with full links for both e-book and paper versions. I’ve just bought Oubliette and its on my Kindle top-list. The reason being I have read the previous book of Megg’s, Anathema (hence my inviting her here) and was very impressed.

Regular visitors will recall I was host to Michelle Brooks at the beginning of the month and praised most highly her debut YA novel Bone Dressing. I said then that Bone Dressing and Megg’s Anathema were two of the best YA books I’d ever read.

I stand by that. Two superb examples of indie-published YA. Neither anything like the other.  Both unbelievably good.

As this is Megg’s guest post I’ll end with Megg’s own summary of Anathema.

Reychel is a slave girl surrounded by magic, lies and manipulation. Her best friend disappears in the middle of the night leaving Reychel to face her fifteenth birthday, the day her master burns his brand into the back of her bald head, alone. She’s sheltered from the outside world and doesn’t have any hope for escape, but when people desperate for freedom ask for her help can Reychel learn to believe in herself?

Irresistable or what?

To close, back over to you. What’s your experience of agents? Of getting reviews? Of reading YA?

Feel free to be provocative! Malicious? Go on, I can handle it. Unlike the agent above, I take criticism well. Sadly I’m used to it.

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Euro vision?

This just in (our out) from the noisy half of the Saffina Desforges writing team, namely Saffi herself, lamenting the slow progress with Sugar & Spice across the pond.

Apologies to those of you who subscribe to both MWi and Saffi’s blog.

But for those who do not, check out what she had to say by clicking on the link below.

Euro vision?.

An American Werewolf Re-Visits London

Well, in the unlikely event you somehow missed Saffi shouting it from the rooftops, Sugar & Spice reached the coveted #2 spot on Kindle UK yesterday.

Which finally gives me the excuse I’ve been looking for to palm off this shameless plug for our newly launched Sugar & Spice: US Edition as a bona fide blog discussion.

Because yes, there is a legitimate writers’ debate here, which is why I’m opening with Mark Edwards, who regular readers will know to be the noisy half of the rival thriller writer partnership behind Killing Cupid, currently bounding up the Kindle UK charts.

Mark has a great little blog going, called Indie IQ, and recently interviewed Victorine Lieske, whose novel Not What She Seems is selling a thousand copies a day.

At the time of writing, Not What She Seems is #158 on Kindle US and #580 on Kindle UK.

Sugar & Spice is at #2 on Kindle UK and a paltry #3550 on Kindle US.

The point to note is that here in the UK we are selling less, at #2, than Victoria is selling at #158 in the States. Possibly some of Victoria’s sales are on B&N, which is pretty much a no-go are for us in the UK (B&N believe only fellow Americans are worthy to buy from them). But clearly the American market is a different world. Our sales of Sugar & Spice in the US are a fraction of our UK sales.

And something Victoria said in her Indie IQ interview brought home one reason why.

“My friends and family are all very supportive of me. I couldn’t ask for a better support system. And my kids think it’s cool that I’ve been on television. They were kind of bummed when they found out the news camera was coming while they were at school.”

Now American readers will be looking at that paragraph utterly mystified. What’s the problem?

British readers will be quietly smirking to themselves. Of course we Brits are by now so at-one with American culture here that we know exactly what Victoria means, but never in a million years would we Brits say that our kids “were kind of bummed when…”

Not here to go into lengthy explanations for our American readers still struggling. Let’s just say that, if we ever did use that expression here, our kids would be in the care of Social Services later the same day…

What’s this got to do with Sugar & Spice? Well, a month or two ago we received the following review on Smashwords:

“Well-written mystery/thriller. Only complaint is that there were a lot of Britishisms that are not understandable to non-British English speakers.”

The reviewer nevertheless dished out five beautifully polished stars, so we were not complaining. But the sentiments were not without merit. What follows is a rehash of an earlier blog on this subject, updated to show how we used the new world of e-publishing to deal with the problem.

~

Sugar & Spice is a British crime-thriller set in the UK. It has British policemen, the British justice system, British prisons and British locations. And it’s written in British English. Or as we like to call it, English.

Unfortunately this is proving heavy going for some readers overseas, notably in the US. And not just that they can’t understand why there’s an “a” in paedophile!

The British prison slang for a sex offender, “nonce”, has apparently left many struggling, and they are at a loss as to the role of a solicitor or barrister. As for the CID?  The Met? An Inspector? A Superintendent? It’s a foreign language to these guys!

And where are the FBI? The cavalry? Superman?

What happened to CSI? The guys in Miami would have had this case solved in fifty minutes, on the dot!

Come to that, why didn’t the mother just shoot the guy? Don’t they have guns in the UK?

With so much American art, literature and cinema dealt out to us on a daily basis we tend to have no problems understanding what an attorney is, or a sidewalk, or why someone is eating biscuits and gravy, or that chips are actually crisps. We understand that a fat ass is not an overweight donkey.

American hush-puppies

Occasionally it can still leave one struggling. John Grisham delights in leaving British readers stunned by people tucking into a plate of hush-puppies. (For American readers, hush puppies in the UK are only a naff brand of footwear.)

Lord Justice Judge . Real name! Real outfit!

It got us wondering how many British books make it on the other side of the pond. And it soon became clear, especially in the crime realm, that few do, precisely because our legal, criminal and justice systems are so different.

Not for nothing do the Americans remake all our successful TV shows and films and serials, with American settings, American actors and American English.

The respective sales figures for our e-book in the US and UK reflect the problem.

In Sweden they hedge their bets.

So my co-author Saffi and I put our heads together (figuratively speaking, obviously, as we live on different continents) and decided to try a bold / fool-hardy / completely crazy (delete as appropriate) experiment.

Supposing we produced an American version of Sugar & Spice for the American market?

Same compelling story, same characters, same controversial subject matter.

But American locations, American characters, American police, legal and justice system, etc. And of course American English.

It all seemed so easy!

Global edit paedophile to pedophile, solicitor to attorney, inspector to lieutenant, superintendant to captain, biscuit to cookie, make London New York, and all done!

If only…

It soon becomes apparent just why the reviewer struggled!

Mickey Mouse English...

Words like trousers and knickers are pretty much meaningless to the average American. British brands, shops and stores mean nothing to them. Roads in the UK have names, not numbers.

Americans still use gallons, but not even our old gallons, should we remember pre-decimal. Tell an American you weigh thirteen stone and they’ll look at you like you’ve just told them you weigh thirteen pebbles. (A stone is a unit of weight equivalent to fourteen pounds, or about six kilo.)

Milk in tea? Fish and chips? Yorkshire pud? Eastenders? Corrie? Lord Sugar?

We live in a different world. Or as Oscar Wilde may once have put it, two nations, divided by a common language.

We’re not the first to ponder this question.

It’s worth noting that JK Rowling’s publishers took a slightly similar approach with Harry Potter, changing spellings for the American release of the books, and changing words like Quidditch Pitch to Field. And of course the movie makers felt “the Philosopher’s Stone” was quite inappropriate for the US audience and it became “the Sorcerer’s Stone.

We went much further, relocating the entire story to the US. But at least we have elected to give the US audience the choice of the original and the US-rewritten version.

Same great story either way. But if you’re comfortable with New York state and the FBI, and have never heard of the CID and don’t know what a pair of knickers are, then we’re pleased to say there’s now an app for that!

Last week we slipped out Sugar & Spice: US Edition into the murky waters of the Kindle charts. Needless to say it hasn’t been seen since.

But early days…

Who knows, it’s such a ludicrous idea it might just work.

No, seriously!  Stranger things have happened!

Did you hear the one about the unknown wannabe thriller writer and the unknown wannabe dark fantasy writer who live on different continents, have only ever met twice, and between them wrote a novel under a name no-one had ever heard of, and that the agents said was unsellable?

Six months on the poor buggers still haven’t got an agent, let alone a publisher…

As for the unsellable novel?  Last we heard it was the second best-selling e-book in the UK.

You just couldn’t make it up…

Fellowship of Kindle Writers: Ann Swinfen

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling book We Are Not Alone – The Writer’s Guide To Social Media makes the point that, in this new bright new world of e-publishing, we are not alone.

As writers we can use social media platforms like blogs, facebook, twitter, etc, to promote our own work and that of fellow writers to our mutual benefit.

It obviously works, because here I am plugging Kristen’s book on my blog. Again!

Given our ground-breaking novel  Sugar & Spice is now in the Amazon UK Kindle Top Five, it’s the least I could do.

Sure having a great story helps, but without Saffy’s tireless social networking (using Kristen’s methods!) to make sure the world knew it existed, it’s meteoric rise to the top could never have happened so quickly.

But the main purpose of the Monday blog is to highlight a fellow Kindle writers’ work, in the we-are-not-alone spirit Kristen advocates.

So say hello to Ann Swinfen.

Ann is actually an old hand at this writing lark, with four highly acclaimed books under her belt and with experience across the publishing range, from traditional (Random House, no less!) through self-publishing to e-publishing on Kindle.

Here’s Ann’s thoughts on the rapidly changing world of publishing in her own words:

Comparing my experience of publishing with a big international commercial publisher (Random House) and independent publishing? There were some good things about the RH experience – a lovely editor, the interest of working with the design department who actually listened to my ideas, hefty five-figure advances, and the glamour of being taken out to lunch by the divisional head, my editor, and so on. Where the experience was not so good was the fine print of the contract, which gave me very poor royalties if RH decided to sell my books to bookshops at 50% or more discount (which they did). I’m wiser now and would spot that. The other major disappointment was the marketing. Review copies were sent out and did attract some very good reviews, but very little else was done to promote my books and at the time I had no idea how to do more myself.

Things have changed so much in the last few years. My literary agent wasn’t able to place my latest novel, The Testament of Mariam, with a publisher, despite huge enthusiasm from editors. This was right at the height of the recession and the money men were running scared. I didn’t want to give up on this novel, as I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. I don’t think I would have opted for the kind of self-publishing which requires a huge cash outlay up-front. However, when I discovered the Arts Council supported YWO, which only required an outlay of around £50 plus the cost of a cover design (£130), I decided it was worth trying this route.

The experience has been almost entirely positive. The physical books are well produced. Royalties are good. Author discounts are not so good (RH gave authors 50% off, whatever the size of order) and shipping costs are high – I actually made a loss per book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as I had to give them a 50% discount (greater than I received) and paid the shipping charge from the printer.

On the other hand, I really enjoy being in charge. I enjoy the speed with which everything can be carried out, instead of the two years or so with a conventional publisher. I enjoy the camaraderie between indie authors. After my experience with The Testament of Mariam, I decided to produce a second edition of my third novel A Running Tide, as no more copies of it were available. A few copies of my first two novels, The Anniversary and The Travellers, can still be obtained through my website.

As an interesting experiment, I decided to produce a Kindle edition of The Anniversary, which has found a whole new group of readers as a consequence. It bobs about in the bestseller charts on Amazon UK, usually in the top 10 in Russian Revolution (which is a very small part of the story!) and somewhere in the top 30 or 40 for Literary Fiction. It was even in the top 100 of Literary Fiction for all Amazon titles, hardback, paperback and Kindle. It’s a rollercoaster, though, depending on how many sales you’ve made in a particular day.

The big problem, though, is MARKETING. As independent authors we don’t have the resources of marketing and sales departments. The major newspapers and magazines will rarely look at review copies if they don’t come from a major publisher. And major attention and sales become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the London Underground is plastered with posters for The Next Blockbuster, the papers will review it, bookshops will stock it, libraries will buy it, posters will be displayed in Waterstone’s windows all over the country, bungs will be paid by the publisher to bookshops so they will display it prominently by their front doors . . . and, hey presto! It becomes a bestseller.

How can we compete with that?

How, indeed? Bottom line is, as indie authors, we simply cannot compete at that level. To conquer the High Street stores requires a dead-tree publisher to produce a dead-tree version of your work. And it they cannot see a profit in doing so then friends, it ain’t gonna happen. No matter how enthusiastic an agent or editor may be about your work, the bottom line is the cash register.

But as we’ve shown with Sugar & Spice, a new and unknown author can compete in the e-book market, where the rules of engagement are slightly less biased against us. And of course Amanda Hocking in the US has shown that serious money can be made that way too.

But back to Ann.

Her first book, The Anniversary, has drawn wide praise, as we see here:

A gem of a book, involving the reader at every stage with each well-drawn character.

The Good Book Guide

Evocative.

Woman’s Journal

The Anniversary has a special touch of warmth.

Choice

A poignant tapestry of loves, losses, confrontations and family relationships in this warm, penetrating portrait of an era.

Woman’s Realm

Skilfully done.

Home & Country


Ann’s second novel, The Travellers, was equally well received

An original and compelling novel from the author of the highly praised The Anniversary.

Publishing News

I read and enjoyed Ann Swinfen’s first novel, The Anniversary, and was delighted when this new one [The Travellers] arrived. And I wasn’t disappointed, for here is another absorbing, deftly interwoven story which keeps the reader intrigued and interested from beginning to end…Swinfen is a skilled writer, creating living, breathing characters that leap off the page. A highly satisfying read.

Sandra Dyson, Hull Daily

Pity, remorse and embarrassment are common reactions in sensitive Western Europeans who visit the countries which used to be cut off by the Iron Curtain. How lucky we were in comparison to the deprived and oppressed people who emerged into a kind of freedom so few years ago. What a weight of terrible history bears down on those who live in the lands of concentration camps and communism. Did we deserve our good fortune, or must we take responsibility for failing to rescue Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968? Ann Swinfen has used all these complicated emotions in a novel with parallel strands of place (Hungary and provincial England) and of periods (wartime, revolution and the present-day)…I enjoyed this serious, scrupulous novel, especially the informative Hungarian sections…a novel of character…[and] a suspense story in which present and past mysteries are gradually explained.

Jessica Mann, Sunday Telegraph


Not satisfied with this, Ann gets further adulation for her third novel, A Running Tide.

The author of The Anniversary and The Travellers has written a powerful new tale of passion and heartbreak…What a marvellous storyteller Ann Swinfen is – she has a wonderful ear for dialogue and she brings her characters vividly to life.

Publishing News

This new book is remarkable in its description of places, particularly the long-ago farming & fishing life in Maine.

Penelope Fitzgerald

An exceptional novel…The details of life in Maine I found fascinating, and the whole story ran together so well.

Rosamunde Pilcher

A strong, engrossing read.

The Bookseller

Yet despite all this, and huge enthusiasm from editors, as Ann explained above, her fourth novel, The Testament of Mariam, has not found a main-stream publisher to back it.

Which seems to me to be a travesty of justice.  The premise of this novel is simply stunning, and Ann has proven herself a writer of ability many times over. So why the reluctance?

Not for want of praise, that’s for sure!

Compelling story, beautifully told

Hauntingly beautiful in both story and delivery, The Testament of Miriam will remain in your thoughts long after your first reading. Swinfen presents the Roman world of the 1st century with imagery and lyricism so compelling you are swept headlong into a closely plotted revelation of mysteries central to Western culture.

As Miriam nears the end of her life far from her native land, she reviews her early years in Judea, where determined loyalty to family and friends pulled her into events that changed the history of the world. Swinfen’s unique interpretation of these events is so plausible, so logical, that the reader is forced to consider them and, perhaps, to see the early years of Christianity in a new light.

The Testament of Miriam is a book to mull over, to read again, and to embrace for its fine writing as well as its clever and thought-provoking story. It is a book to treasure.

Janemac (Maryland, USA), Online Review

All that is wrong with the traditional publishing industry model, surely, is exemplified in this decision not to publish this book.

Ann’s agent loves it.

Ann’s editors love it.

Ann’s established readership will almost certainly love it.

But someone somewhere in the dead-tree world has decided we will be deprived of it.

Thank goodness technology is slowly removing that power from a handful of decision makers and is giving control to the reader.

For my money, this latest novel looks to be Ann’s piece de resistance, and I can’t wait to see it on Kindle so I can download a copy here on the African coast, where things we take for granted back in the UK,  like running water, electricity and a door-to-door postal service, are still aspirations rather than reality.

I leave you with this interview Ann did with Maria Grazia discussing this work in detail.

First of all, Ann, I want to congratulate you on writing such a wonderful novel : poetic, gripping, touching and at the same time so credible. How did you come to the brave decision of writing such a risky story? It wasn’t so much a decision as a compulsion. I suppose for many years there has been at the back of my mind the feeling that there was a real man, Yeshûa ben Yosef, a peasant from Galilee, behind the figure which is clothed in 2,000 years of theology and entrenched church doctrine. So many things have been done in the name of Christian orthodoxy, like religious wars, the Inquisition and the burning of heretics, which seem to me totally at odds with that real man’s intentions. However, I had never gone further than a vague unease until one day Mariam walked into my head and began to talk. After that, there was no going back, as she simply would not leave me alone until I wrote her story down. It is a common experience for writers to find that their invented characters take on a life of their own, but I did not invent Mariam. She simply appeared, fully formed, speaking to me both in her voice as an old woman and then reverting to the voice of the child and girl she had been. There was no escape!

Sorry for this blunt one, Ann, but …didn’t you think your version of Jesus (Yeshûa) could anyhow be considered “offensive” by the rather  conservative Christian world?

Yes, I was worried. Really very worried. I’m not a religious person, though I believe there is more to life than crude materialism. However, I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But here is the really strange thing. Some of the warmest praise I have received has come not only from serious practicing Christians but from men of the cloth. Here is an example, from an Anglican vicar:

“I valued the way you allowed your novelist’s imagination to be controlled by respect for the sources – and for Jesus himself. I have been given a number of books recently about Mary Magdalene and early Christian origins whose failure to do so and ignorance of the historical development of the tradition infuriated me. The Qumran influence seems not unlikely since clearly Jesus had some Biblical – and ascetic? – training which enabled him to make such a radical re-interpretation of the Law and the Prophets…The long friendship with Judas Iscariot is an intriguing idea. Is there any suggestion of it in the apocryphal writings? The tradition behind the gospels cannot find a good word to say for him but I am puzzled about his motivation. Did you know that the Ethiopian Church has made him a Saint because he did God’s will in bringing about the crucifixion? Thank you too for showing the importance of women in the Jesus movement. It must have caused considerable scandal when even respectable women went off and used family money to support him. I am sure that women did occupy positions of influence and authority in the early church.“

I’ve been both astonished and gratified by many comments like these.

How long did you research on the historical, cultural and geographical contexts?

Altogether, the book took about a year to write. I didn’t spend a separate period researching and then a separate period writing. I did quite a lot of general background research, both in the New Testament and in modern studies of the period, and then, as I was writing and needed information on some particular topic, I would hunt it out. For example, what was the diet of peasants in Galilee? At what time in the year were the various agricultural activities carried out? What route would Yeshûa and the others have followed from Capernaum to Tyre, and what would the terrain have been like? I always had a map open beside me. (I tend to have a very strong sense of place.) I loved the research. Until I started, I had no idea that we knew so much, that modern scholarship had enhanced our knowledge of the period to such a great extent. As a former classicist, the background on the Roman Empire was very familiar to me, but – for example – the complex politics in the Roman province of Palestine were new to me, as were all the fascinating details of the practices of the Essenes, their medical knowledge, their philosophical and religious outlook, and their rituals.

Mariam is such an admirable female figure! So modern but living in such a distant time, so brave in a male-oriented society.  Was she inspired by other heroines you read about or to a great woman you met in your life?

As I’ve said elsewhere, Mariam appeared as a fully realised person. However, I was struck by all the women who followed Yeshûa. At the time, a woman in this culture was expected to remain at home, under the total control of her father, until handed over to the power of her husband. Yet these women left home, wandered about the countryside, some even bringing money to support the mission. They must have been regarded as scandalous according to the conventional views of the time (as my correspondent above observed). This is why I have Ya‘aqôb accuse Mariam of being a whore. That is how these women must have appeared. I think they were all extraordinarily courageous.

Your Yeshûa is very human and little divine.  A visionary  rebel, a dreamer, a healer,  a charismatic leader  with a mission: to radically change the world at any cost.  Where did the inspiration for such a fascinating credible character come from?

It perhaps sounds a little simplistic to say so, but if you go back to the sources, isn’t that the man who comes alive for us? He must have been quite extraordinary, with great charisma. We know that he was a healer and modern research suggests that he could well have spent time amongst the Essenes and learned their skills, though their intolerance of those outside their sect would surely have been anathema to him. He must have been not only literate but learned, considering the detailed knowledge he displayed of the religious texts. Interestingly, I discovered that Galilee had been for a couple of generations a hotbed of rebellion, producing earlier leaders who fought against the Romans and those of the Jews they regarded as collaborators. And if you read the New Testament attentively, you can see that Yeshûa often showed very human characteristics – he could lose his temper, become impatient or irritated or depressed, and, at the end, he experienced terror at the thought of crucifixion and death. As for his divinity, remember that we see him through Mariam’s eyes. One of the ideas I was addressing was: What would it have been like to be the sister of such a man? Could you believe that he was divine? Wouldn’t that be very difficult to accept? Mariam knows that her brother is exceptional, but . . . divine? At one point she becomes quite angry with him when he says his father is in Heaven. She points out that their shared father is in his workshop. It’s akin to the anger his fellow villagers feel when he tries to explain his message to them. “Who does he think he is, this carpenter’s son?” A very natural human reaction. Mariam keeps trying to rationalise his “miracles”. When she can’t quite explain things away, she edges away from the thought of them.

Another character I like much is Yehûdâ. You redeemed him as a friend and as a human being. His apparent betrayal was inevitable, he accepted to love his best friend until the extreme act of loyalty and obedience. He will be forever  “the traitor”  to accomplish Yeshûa’s will. What are your sources in his case?

I was aware of the tradition of the Coptic church, that Yehûdâ was carrying out God’s will, and I had read the recently discovered and translated Gospel of Judas, in which Yehûdâ is not a traitor, but Yeshûa‘s dearest friend, carrying out his wishes. Above all, I’ve always felt that the traditional story doesn’t make sense. I tried to understand how the “betrayal” might have come about in reality, through a promise unwisely made and unwillingly fulfilled. By going to Jerusalem at Passover and deliberately drawing attention to himself, Yeshûa must have been knowingly courting disaster. As I’ve said, Galilee had already produced a number of rebel leaders. Passover was a time when Jerusalem was packed with excitable crowds and the Roman authorities always took the precaution of bringing in extra troops. An outspoken preacher, from the Galilee, leading a crowd of followers, and being proclaimed by some as “king of the Jews” would instantly have been seen as highly dangerous. I think Yeshûa was deliberately setting himself up for crucifixion.

The love bonds in your story are exceptional and lead to extreme sacrifice. Do you think real love  always implies  longing and sacrifice?

Fortunately, perhaps, most bonds of love are not tested to the point of sacrifice, but there are certainly situations where people will sacrifice much, even life itself, for those they love. Think of a mother confronted with choosing to save either her own life or her child’s. In most cases, she will save the child. Think of those who will give one of their own kidneys to someone they love, although it is likely to mean impaired health for themselves. In war, many men have died to save their comrades. Secret agents working in occupied Europe died under Nazi torture rather than betray their friends. So although most of us are not put to the ultimate test, I do believe that people will and do sacrifice themselves for others they love.

Something I couldn’t totally understand was… Mariam’s choices in her adult life. Her married life. She seemed to have led a totally different life, almost betraying her ideals. Why? (Is it just my own impression, Ann?)

Mariam has been so traumatised by her experiences, particularly seeing her brother crucified and being torn away from Yehûdâ and her homeland, that she just needs to smother the memories of her past life. She arrives in Gaul as a destitute refugee and settles for a quiet, kindly husband. She loves her sons and is content on the farm. Many people who have suffered greatly in their youth want to blot out that period of their lives. For example, men who fought in the first World War almost never spoke about it afterwards to their families. As for betraying her ideals, she has seen what happened to her brother. And she is not altogether happy with the path the new church is taking. She is horrified that the cross – which to her is an instrument of torture – should be set up as some kind of emblem to be worshipped. For someone who was present at the crucifixion, it would have quite different and appalling connotations.

I think you’ve done an excellent job at coping with such delicate themes and events. Did you receive much criticism from religious people? How would you convince a non-religious person ( I am not, actually) to read your book?

This really links up with your second question. No, I’ve actually not received any criticism from religious people. As for the non-religious, I would say that this is not a “religious” book. It does not preach. It does not try to convert anybody. It is an attempt to explore the historical events and the real people who lived through those events, to understand the human man who was a son, brother and friend to ordinary Jewish people living uneasily under Roman occupation.

What’s your next adventure in the publishing world? Are you working on a new project?I never talk about the work-in-progress – too risky! When a new book is still in that tenuous, fragile state, talking about it might just destroy it. Call me superstitious if you like!

Maria Grazia Interview

Of Mice And Men…

Whether you’re a John Steinbeck fan, or can trace affiliation back to Robbie Burns himself, you’ll be familiar with the frustration of seeing your carefully laid schedule ripped into pieces and tossed to the far winds by “events.”

Thus is it with the blog re-launch.

There I was, living a life of blissful ignorance in the glorious sunshine here on the Smiling Coast, supping an ice-cold Sprite, pondering what direction to take our new Snow White crime thriller series, when my co-author Saffina emails the news that we’ve made the top ten on Amazon!

Sure enough, when eventually I managed to log on (The Gambia is still very much a third-world country where IT is concerned) our ground-breaking thriller Sugar & Spice is indeed in at number ten in the thriller genre and, perhaps even more remarkably, in the top forty on the overall Amazon Kindle chart, competing against star names like James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell et al.

Oh for an ice-cold beer to celebrate! But alcohol in this largely Muslim country is to be found only in the tourist areas, where I venture only when necessary. Maybe tomorrow!

Meanwhile, back to reality.

Tomorrow shall see my revival of the ones-to-watch-on-youwriteon, as part of our commitment to building a platform for new writing and writers, beginning with a WIP from Anthony C Green by the curious title of Spiritual Philosophy: The Novel, which deserves a wider audience.

Peer-group-review sites like youwriteon, authonomy, etc, enjoy mixed reputations in the writing community, but for many new writers they are the only place where they can get independent and (hopefully) honest feedback about works in progress, from absolute beginners through to accomplished authors. Certainly for youwriteon it is the case that many established writers trial new material on the site to test audience reaction.

With so much material on both sites it’s quite impossible to keep track of everything, so if anyone has seen something special on a peer-review site recently, or just something that shows real promise, even if still in the very early stages, please let me know.

Good new writers both need and deserve every break they can get, and as the tsunami that is the e-book revolution continues to rewrite the rule book on how writers, agents, publishers and readers interact, there has never been a better time for wannabe writers to get their works before the reading public, and for the best among them to rise to well-deserved fame and fortune.

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