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  • Marc Hamer

Updated: May 20, 2021



You might have seen my previous two books ‘How to Catch a Mole’ or ‘Seed to Dust’ described by my publisher or in reviews as Autobiographical, or Narrative Non-fiction, or Literary Non-fiction. But are they really?

In this blog I want to talk about how I write this kind of work.

The two books are above all stories, they have a beginning, a middle and an end - there is a particular story to tell. As it happens they are both love stories. They are stories of the same life, they overlap in time but they are completely different tales from each other.

Writing this kind of work is often about deciding what to leave out, what to say and how to say it. The things that happen should on the whole be truthful, but when and where and who they happened too can be a little more flexible. The work needs to be intrinsically honest, just as a work of fiction does, but if you want a true story to be readable or meaningful in any way, then you need to leave some things out, particularly boring things, that are irrelevant to the story you want to tell. But when you do that you also have to start messing with timelines, because time telescopes where events and characters have been removed.

Things might need to be written out of sequence so that relationships between people and between events are not fragmented and spread all over the place as they are in 'real life'. A pure biography would not do this, it would be a historically accurate telling of the sequence of events between point A and point B and for me, a person who is essentially interested in rhythm and poetry, words and light and shade, it would be horribly boring both to write and to read. There are two kinds of reading, one type is to take you out of yourself and experience a different life, the other is to search for facts and I am all about the first kind.

I approach this work much as one might approach the telling of a tale of something that happened to you, as if sitting around the camp fire; I’m going to tell you the tale of when ‘this happened to me’. But beyond that, I want to tell you is the tale of what I learned from this event, or how it changed me and so some things irrelevant to that particular story are left out and some things are moved from one place to another so the whole thing makes sense and the story can unfold in a logical way with events that build on what happened previously instead of jumping backward and forward in time.

Personalities change over time in response to events and so the character at the end is not the same character you started with. That for me is the essence and purpose of story telling.

In How to Catch a Mole I wanted to tell a story about being isolated, an outsider alone in nature for a long period of time, through the seasons and years, and I particularly wanted to write about the awakening of a deep and abiding spiritual life in response to that. The spiritual awaking was the core thing. I wanted to make it interesting on another level with lots of nuggets of information about, in this instance the life of moles and the weird story of how to catch them, these were kind of anchors to bring the reader back to a 'safe place'. I also illustrated each section with a piece of poetry whose function was to show something of the inner life. Facts and events and feelings kind of ran through the work.

I was clear that I did not want to make a pure memoir, or a nature book, I have lived in nature but have not studied the literture on it, I am not a collector of facts, or anything else really. I wanted to write something about being a human, about resilience and growth and love, so the events and facts that supported this particular story were brought into focus and irrelevances to those parts of the story were pushed back or left out completely. Had I put them in it could have become something about rural homelessness or child abuse. I did not want to do this, there is enough of that kind of stuff out there already and ‘poverty porn’, or ‘misery memoir’ does not appeal to me. Creativity can spring from neurosis, anxiety and fear or it can spring from a deep sense of connectedness and love, I am more driven by the latter, I wanted to tell a positive story that added more love and pleasure to the world along with a few pointers about how to find it. The love and pleasure found through self-awareness are the true ‘Mole’ of the title and that is the essence of the story, that is the mole I was hunting for and caught.

So the story and the structure are everything. There is no fiction in the book as far as I can remember I don’t think in the end I made anything up out of thin air. I did wonder about whether I would need to do this in order to make it flow and be enjoyable to read but was resistant - the sheer fact of organising the events and expressing some of them with more clarity than others was enough in the end.

So the question remains about what to call this kind of work. The works of Knausgard and Proust are shelved in the fiction categories as are Kerouak's 'On the Road' and 'Dharma Bums' and Bukowski's 'Post Office' and Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' - all of them Autobiographical novels. I think in America they understand this kind of work more than they do in the UK. My work is usually shelved in ‘Nature’ or ‘Autobiography’ neither of which are ideal, my books are certainly not nature writing and anybody who goes there looking for it may well be disappointed, the straight autobiography of a gardener or a molecatcher would be of limited interest perhaps, but the books have to go somewhere. I have been told they are ‘self-help’ books but don’t fit there at all comfortably either. I like the word ‘Autofiction’ this is a category that has been very popular in France for many years, stories about the author and their search for meaning or truth rather than biographical data. The writing of the book itself may appear in the book and I feel this may make appearance in the next book.


The first use of the word occurred in a blurb on the back of the French novelist Serge Doubrovsky’s book Fils in the late 1970s:


‘Autobiography? No, that is a privilege reserved for the important people of this world, at the end of their lives, in a refined style. Fiction, of events and facts strictly real; autofiction, if you will, to have entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, outside of the wisdom and the syntax of the novel, traditional or new. Interactions, threads of words, alliterations, assonances, dissonances, writing before or after literature, concrete, as we say, music.’


As for the book I am writing at the moment, it most decidedly is autofiction. It’s a new story that begins precisely where the last one ended but timescales are seriously and obviously distorted and it has some aspects of a time travel. I’m 20,000 words in and things are developing well. I need a bit of a break now while it all percolates through and I have some research to do, so days are spent with about 40 minutes of yoga in the morning then about an hour or two writing and then lots of reading and walking and in the evenings chatting to Kate about how our work is going. She has just submitted to her publisher the MS of a sequel to her very first novel, so she is feeling light and tired and wanting to rest and have fun. That is how submission gets you, there is fear and relief to deal with and a sense of ending and emptiness, but also feeling that you need to take advantage of the break before the editing starts.


Please feel free to leave comments or to ask questions if you have any.



Marc

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  • Marc Hamer

Updated: May 6, 2021

Work begins on the new book. I know the book in the amorphous way a father knows a secretive child, mostly. It is latent. I wake up 4am, with an idea for a passage that develops as I lie there so I jump out of bed, rush to my desk and get it down. As I am writing the blackbird starts to sing, it is still pitch black. I write for 45 minutes then back to bed for an hour or two. This will happen time and time again as my subconscious turns over all the fragments of what I am working on. Already the book is twice as long as it needs to be but most of it is notes and 90% of it will be cut and maybe turned into something else.


When I was young I started keeping sketchbooks because I was good at drawing back then, but I got seduced by conceptual art, John Lathams burning towers of books and Keith Arnatt’s invisible sculptures and ‘art and language’s language as art, and over time I ended up writing more than I was drawing. Eventually my sketchbooks became notebooks full of words and ideas for artworks that never become solid because once I’d had the idea, actually making the thing and using up space and materials and further polluting the earth and the visual landscape with yet more crap that somebody would have to deal with became meaningless. So I was pulled by gravity back to my first love, words. I write far too many of them, I write the same thing over and over again in different ways just as I drew the same faces over and over again from different angles. It works in art, it doesn’t work in a book, or at least I have tried to make it work but it confuses readers and I get called repetitive. So I’m giving that up because a writer needs happy readers or he hasn’t got any and has to find another job or starve.


My clock is set for 0730 but I will wake well before that and lie there then sit at my desk for a while and read what I’ve written and write some more, then yoga for half an hour to get rid of the writers hump and meditation to tune myself into the day, shower, dressing, breakfast, back to the desk for an hour or two, walk for an hour, eating, reading, to slow myself down get in the zone and build the focus. Then writing, writing at all hours. Going to bed at all hours, in the afternoon, after dinner, after breakfast, getting up and writing or reading or cooking or walking, meditating, yoga. All these things every day, nothing else. I am going to get lonely and probably end up oversharing on twitter because of it, then deleting, I delete a lot.


But first I must ‘clear the decks’, clear the desk, clear my desktop of everything that I have been reading recently, tidy the pens, find somewhere to put all the other junk that collects there, photographs, cameras, I have far too many cameras - and line up my all my notebooks. Easy.


Then I get am email from a literary magazine who published some of my poems a couple of years ago, could I write a piece about landscape, 500 - 2000 words. They are doing a feature and I would be ideal, they say nice things about my work and although it is unpaid I do not feel that I can refuse, we have a relationship. I see it as an opportunity to support them as they have supported me but also it is an opportunity to get my work in front of a few more people and maybe find a few more readers. I’ll be able to use the article in a collection of essays and photographs I’m planning to put together at some time. So I say yes, it takes me four days to write the piece, I experiment with different angles and eventually, inspired by Richard Long I write about how walking can be an art. I send it off and they say excellent, thank you so much! Just as I am finishing the piece I get another email. This time from Canada, a newspaper wants a piece about how my social class has affected my relationship with the landscape. ‘Seed to Dust’ comes out there in May and the piece would coincide with publication. Of course I say yes. 850 words. I do like to write essays and perhaps eventually I will revert to only writing essays. I think it is a fine literary form that should be more widely read. This one says there is a small honorarium, it doesn’t say how much. I don’t ask. I’ll write for anybody, well nearly anybody, if they pay me.

Marketing your work as a writer is massively important. The market is so crowded these days as it is in every other walk of life, life is more competitive than it has been at any time in the past. So as a writer you have to do your bit to support your own work. From live events at book fairs and bookshops and festivals and social media. For my last book there were no events because of lockdown so I gave away packets of seed I collected from flowers in my garden to readers on Twitter. I wanted to say thank you for reading my work, just as I would have done had I met them in a writers tent or indie bookshop. Thank you, I miss you.

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  • Marc Hamer

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

I said in my last post about how my agent helps me in my work and how he works with publishers. Perhaps I need to say more about the relationship between writers and agents. If you haven't read it and you are interested in how he works with me on a proposal, go there first. The post is called 'A Deal is Struck', the link is down at the bottom of the page.


Yesterday a phone call with my agent Robert, to iron out the details of the new book contract. The contract is on its way and my advance will be paid in four stages, at signing the contract, at delivery of a satisfactory manuscript a year later, at publication of the hardback a year after that and at publication of the paperback a year after that. Also there are audiobook rights and other bits and pieces to do with foreign rights. My agent has negotiated me a good deal that we are all happy with, he has pushed and looked at every angle. You need an agent to do all this stuff, it is complex and filled with legalese and tradition, he is worth every penny of his commission and more. Now this is done he will begin, when the time is right to look to sell the foreign rights. 'How to Catch a Mole' went on to sell in 16 different languages, so far Seed to Dust, launched in a pandemic when nobody is buying anything has done less well.


About forty years ago I wrote a novel which I sent to a well known agent. I typed it on a tiny children’s typewriter, this was before computers, I posted it to her in a brown envelope. Three months later she sent me a very long, very lovely letter saying that she loved my work and thought it was very profound but could not see how it could fit into the market, she told me to keep on writing. She was right, it was very derivative but I wish I still had that novel, I would rewrite it and submit it again now. Being something of a wanderer who doesn’t hold onto things, it has gone the way of all things. On and off I did keep on writing though, but did not submit again for years, instead I served my apprenticeship, writing short stories and poetry and stuff for employers, marketing my own gardening business, leaflets and operational manuals, essays and the odd magazine piece.


To a writer who wants to be published by a traditional publisher, an agent is vital. It is no longer an option. So the first job for any writer if they want to get their work in the bookshops and to earn any money at all, is to get an agent. This is tricky. I have seen rants on social media from writers who thought that any agent should be glad to have them, who have become angry when an agent turns them down as if the agent is there to do their bidding. Such writers fail. This is a hard and cruel business but it is polite. Writers are not special, there are millions of us, and there are many millions more who want to be writers, and there are billions of people who think they could write a book if only they had the time. Writers are ten a penny and agents have their pick of people they feel can make money, or can add something worthwhile and different to the literature that is already available. Agents are literary people who read an awful lot and if you can make one sit up and take notice then you have got something original or engaging to say.


It all goes in fashions that respond to what is going on in the world, angry young men is old hat, angry young women is a wonderful new hat with feathers on, politics is current, coronavirus is a no-no, post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is a definite ‘no thanks, not for us at this time’. They always say ‘not at this time’, I don’t know why, are they hedging their bets for when the dystopian future fails to arrive and we can read about it happily again? Happy old men? Well that’s my thing, it’s not a thing yet but I’m working on it.


It takes about two years or more for a book to hit the shelves and publishers are always looking ahead to imagine what might be fashionable by then. So if you want to get famous, start a #movement, be ahead of the curve or at the very least on it, and as good as anything else that is coming. Above all write your own thing in your own voice. But that is for another blog.


To find your agent do your research, find an agent who represents people like you or better still, read between the lines and find an agent who wants to be seduced by your work, but doesn’t know it yet. Then get out there and enchant them. After I wrote ‘How to Catch a Mole’, I started to look for an agent. I looked specifically at people who were interested in nature issues or biographies or growing old, maturing or better still, deeper subjects like who and what we are, and why we are here, and what we are supposed to do with our life, because that is what my work is really about when you scratch away the story. I looked for people who were looking for something different and perhaps a bit literary. I avoided people who liked mass market fiction, who wanted thrillers, or books for bird spotters and so on because I am not interested in that kind of stuff and more importantly they would not be interested in me.


Every agent has a website, on their website they tell you who they represent, what kind of work they are looking for and if they are open for submissions. I found three agents who might fit the bill and I targeted them, I had a first choice and two second choices. My first choice was a top literary agent based in Soho, his website said very clearly that he was looking for non-fiction work that introduced him to a different world. So I emailed him and the other two a polite covering letter saying that I had written something that I thought he might like and had taken the liberty of attaching an outline (one page) and the first couple of chapters, about five pages altogether. I was in a freezing house in the North of France, the cows in the field were leaning against the walls to protect themselves from the hailstones, the heating was a log fire and the log pile was diminishing and I was an unemployed writer looking for a break.


Now it usually takes about three months for an agent to reply because they get inundated with books from people who want to be writers, and if the book looks promising they read it, and sometimes their co-agents will read it too, and they will discuss it. Other writers are going to hate me when I say this but, I had an email back in about half an hour, asking me to send more, so I sent him what I had which was what I thought was a finished piece of work, a short snappy book of about 50,000 words. Then he emailed and asked can we talk on the phone, so the rain having stopped I wander round the field outside talking to him on the phone. A few weeks later I was back in Wales and we were hugging in my kitchen after drinking too many Negronis in a cafe in the village. It was fast. I emailed the two other agents who had not got back to me or sent an acknowledgement, one of them replied with a congratulations and thanks for letting me know, the other I never heard from.


An agent has a deep connection with people in the publishing houses, they know each other, often for years, they have a track record together, a relationship. Your agent will look at your work and think about who in the business you will be a good match for, he or she will be thinking of individual editors. They will identify an individual they think might be good fit for you and will start to probe; ‘what are they looking for? Are they interested in this or that? What about this really interesting book that has just come in, it’s fresh, nobody else has seen it yet, it is a real goer and I think it fits your list perfectly, would you like to have a look at it?’ And so the book is read by an editor who will either say maybe or no. If it is ‘no’ your agent will look for other matches who might be in the right place to be looking for something like what you have written, and so on until one of them says, ‘I like it! Maybe, let’s take it to the team and see what they think’. At that point I always feel ‘the game is afoot’ as Sherlock would say and it may get to the next stage or it may be turned down and move onto another editor. There are many reasons it may be a ‘no’. Not all of them are to do with whether you have got a future as a writer or not.


At events writers are always asked by somebody in the audience if not the chair, ‘what was your journey to publication?’ and every time the story is different. Having been to many literary parties and events as audience and participant, I have heard hundreds of these stories. So, find your agent and seduce them with fabulous writing that floats their boat. I think I have the best agent I have come across. That is because we work well together, we understand each other, we have similar philosophies, we are honest with each other and I love him as a person. At every writer event, especially if the booze is flowing you will crash into dozens of boring conversations between authors who are staggering about saying how rubbish their agent is or how crap their publisher is. This little world is full to the gunwales with dissatisfied writers. I am not one of them. I see myself as part of a team which includes my agent, my editor and publisher, the designers, the marketing and sales people and the booksellers. If any one of those falls down, your book dies and you become one of the many hundreds of authors who disappear every year.


So the next thing for this new book of mine is that the contract will arrive by email, I’ll sign it and email it back, keep my copy and get on with writing the first draft. I have until the end of March 2022 to submit.


When I think I have finished it and that I can do no more, when I am exhausted and sick to death of it, when I am wondering why I ever got into this stupid business, and want to find proper job that pays me enough money to live on, my wife will read it and make suggestions, then it will go to my agent who will read it and send me back to work on it some more and I will go back to work. Quality feedback from my agent is vital. Agents all work in different ways, some very rare agents will take on a writer that they think shows promise and will work with them to develop an idea for many months and through loads of drafts. Others will just give the barest minimum of feedback. Mine is just right for me, he will tell me in the nicest possible way what I need to hear, then I’ll go back and fix it and he’ll read it again. That will be the first edit. Before that will come a lot of hard work, heartbreak, terror, joy, worry and sleepless nights.


My home is my office and I am on duty 24 hours a day. I wake in the early hours and my wife often hears me typing at 3am. Before I start on this book I have to clear my decks and my desk. For my North American publisher I have a book review to write - so I need to read it first, and a newspaper article and a video to make thanking some booksellers and a book to finish editing for another writer. When I have done all that I will be free to fully immerse myself in the new book.


The title? Oh I won’t be telling you that until much later in the day, there are many writers who are desperately sniffing about for material, and they will steal your ideas and your title and pretend they are they own, with less guilt than they would feel at taking a chocolate biscuit off the pile on your plate. Never trust a writer, some of them are desperate and immoral creatures.


Ta ta for now!

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