Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Jen Black: Early writing

I wasn’t the kind of child who wrote stories. I kept a little book with a list of the books I’d read, which may have been a pointer to my later career of librarianship or perhaps it points to all sorts of other quirks of character we’d better not go into! My writing began shortly after I did A-level English, read about the real MacBeth and found Shakespeare had done him no favours when he wrote his play.

History spoke of 17 happy years under MacBeth’s rule. I began reading around the time, and grew interested in the culture of the tenth century – herbs, buildings, religion, clothes –right down to belt buckles and buttons. Ships, swords – you can get lost in the detail of how Viking ships were built and swords were made. Then I started thinking about the power of love in such a brutal and unforgiving world, and because there isn’t much written detail of the tenth century, and even less about the people who lived then, the facts I had slowly morphed into a character I called Finlay of Alba. Once I had his story, other characters popped up and I started writing Banners of Alba in the late 70s – on a typewriter.

Then I went to university as a mature student and abandoned the book, but I couldn’t wait to sign up for Art and Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England!

Once university was finished and I had a job, I went on writing but life kept intervening and I’d forget about the book for long stretches of time, but I gradually amassed a pile of typewritten pages that often got glued together with my over liberal use of sno-pak…and then in the nineties I met the man who is now my husband, and he volunteered to scan those pages onto computer for me.

Once the work was on computer, I couldn’t believe how much easier it all became. The book came in at around 150,000 words, but I cut it down a little and then offered it around to agents picked out of the Writers& Artists Yearbook.

I had more rejections than I wanted from agents in this country, so I thought I’d try America. Because I baulked at paying postage on a paper ms across the Atlantic, I tried e-publishers, and the first one accepted me. Perhaps this should have told me something, but I was so pleased I just went along for the ride. I learned a lot about editing, promotion and networking with Novelbooks and “met” my first authors there. My work was duly published, and the same day, the publisher announced bankruptcy. Except that she didn’t exactly call it that, and she didn’t follow the rules about doing it. I learned a lot about how Americans handle themselves in tight spots over the next few months.

I got my rights back for Banners of Alba, sold it again, and soon had another version of it available as both Print and e-book. It is still available today, with that same e-publisher, along with the sequel, Dark Pool. If I edited the book today, I think the word count would go down considerably! I’ve learned so much in the decade since Banners was first published, and sometimes I think I ought to re-edit them anyway.

So here's an excerpt from Banners :

Shells, rattling together in the weak undertow, mocked them and the sun finally dipped below the sea. Ratagan shivered and pulled the edges of her cloak together.

'It never really began, did it?' Hundi said. 'Nothing more than a little amusement, a little diversion; that's all it was for you.'

'And for you it was love straight out of the sagas?'

'And how would you know? Are you so all-knowing that you know my feelings better than I do?'

The dim light lit the planes of his face as his head turned towards her. She drew a quick breath. 'No,' she said, and guilt flickered and died. 'But it's clear you are not going to believe me, whatever I say.' He turned away from her, back towards the sea. 'We knew it would be difficult.'

'Taking a slave as your lover?' His snort of laughter was brief and sour. 'No one suspects us because our relationship is unthinkable. The urge I had to knock that man down last night because he dared to hold you - and I was that far away from doing it,' he said, measuring a small distance between finger and thumb. 'Do you know what stopped me?' His voice vibrated with pent up anger. 'You might have tried to protect me, and then our friendship - hah! Friendship! - would become known. That stopped me, Rada. I've always known I couldn't defend you openly, but I never thought I might harm you. Since knowing you, what little freedom I had has vanished.'

He meant, of course, that the rest of the Steading would scorn her for bedding a slave.

Fulll of contrition, Rada caught and held the back of his hand to her cold cheek. 'I wanted us both to be happy.'

Slowly, unwillingly, his other hand came to rest on her back. 'I was.'

The waves murmured in the near dark and the cold wind spattered fine grains of sand against her cloak. She took a deep breath and lifted her head. 'Will you trust me to do the best I can for us both?'

'I will trust you,'' he said flatly, 'as long as it does not involve that Southerner.'

Banners of Alba is available on Amazon:

Jen Black


Marie Laval said...

People don't always believe what some of us must go through in order to see a novel published! It does take a lot of determination and self-belief to put up with rejections and disappointments, and a lot of love for the story you have written. It looks like Banners of Alba has held a special place in your heart and your life for a very long time. I wish you the best of luck with the new release!

Jen Black said...

Hi Marie,
You are so right! I began Banners without really believing it would ever be read by anyone else but me. Took me a long time to gather the confidence to present it to a prospective publisher!