10 April 2018

Twenty-Five Years ‘in the business’

Twenty-five years ago this month I celebrated my fortieth birthday during the Easter Weekend while on holiday in the Lake District. (I'll do the maths for you ... I'm sixty-five this year). We (that’s me, husband Ron and daughter Kathy, then aged 11) were camping on the shore of Coniston Water. For the actual day we went for a walk up Coniston Old Man. I seem to recall that it was a bright and sunny morning, but somewhat chilly. We had our wonderful dog, Nesta, back then. She was a Lakeland Collie (same as a Border Collie but with short hair) and bred from one of the Mountain Rescue dogs. And a sweeter, nicer nature I have never met, before or since. She inherited her mother’s sense of ‘search’ so was wonderful for playing hide-and-seek with. We had her from when she was weaned at a couple of months old to when she passed away at the age of thirteen. I’ll have to write a post about Nesta one of these days.

We had a lovely holiday, but I was on edge throughout because just before leaving home I had spoken with my (now ex) literary agent about The Kingmaking. William Heinemann, an imprint of Random House UK, had expressed an interest and I would know their decision after the Easter break. That meant I had to wait until we returned home to North-east London.

The Kingmaking, is the first part of my Arthurian Trilogy – although when I submitted it to the Marsh Agency I had no idea it was to become a trilogy. The agent liked it, but said it needed a lot of work and, ‘you do realise this will make a trilogy, don’t you?’

Er, no… I didn’t.

It had taken me ten years to write that ‘final’ draft. Not continuously, there were huge breaks and often I would only write a few sentences once a week, but in between writing I was researching and visiting places with a post-Roman connection. You see, my novel about King Arthur was to be set in the mid-to-late 400s. The vast machine that was Rome had abandoned Britain, leaving behind a void of chaos where groups of people vied against each other for supremacy. It was a power-grab period, and may the best man (or men) win.

This was the time when Caledonia, and the land of the Picts, became Scotland – when the Scotti tribes came over and settled from Ireland. When the Angles, Saxons and Jutes upped-sticks from across the Channel (the Narrow Sea – the English Channel) and made their homes and life here, eventually creating ‘Englalond’.

This was the time, IF he had existed, that ‘King’ Arthur would have been around. (Whether he was or not is a subject many Arthurianites heatedly debate, with never a definite conclusion being reached – except we argue like mad and insist that we are right.)

MY Arthur was going to be a warlord. Rough round the edges, a military man, not the later Medieval-tale chivalric knight in armour chap who turned a blind eye to being cuckolded. Ah no, had there been a Lancelot in my story he’d have been gutted and got-rid-of by my Arthur without hesitation.

Nor was MY Guinevere – I call her Gwenhwyfar – going to be the eye-lash batting, bosom-heaving nit-wit who fell for a posturing vain and proud Lancelot. MY Gwen was every bit as equal in rough toughness as was Arthur, and no way would she be daft enough to give up her position for someone like Lancelot. You might have guessed by now that I can’t stand Lancelot. In fact, I dislike the traditional Arthurian tales, the knights in armour, holy grail, nampy-pampyism. So there is no Lancelot in my story. No grail, no chivalry, no Merlin …. Instead we have two strong people who love each other but fight like mad. My Gwen has a sword and knows how to use it. My Arthur fights hard to gain his kingdom, and even harder to keep it.

Back in the '90s - outside the British Museum with a few friends...
Charles Evans Gunther on the left, with the late Kathleen Herbert
standing next to me (I'm in the red!)
No idea, now, alas, who the other guys are
So, there we were back in 1990. (ex) agent told me to go away and re-write what I had as the first part of a trilogy. It took me until late 1992 to do this. I re-submitted what had now become The Kingmaking as it is now, and half of what is now Pendragon’s Banner, book two. The (ex) agent liked what she saw, and sent it to Heinemann.

As it happened they were after the wonderful Sharon Kay Penman, but she was contracted elsewhere… she had assisted me with tidying up that first (final) draft (there had been countless other writes and re-writes before I even considered contacting an agent.) Sharon had encouraged me and suggested me to this agent, so Sharon will always be in my heart as the world’s best because she not only helped me on to the ladder, she gave me a hefty push a good way up it. And incidentally, this is why I try as much as I can to help new and novice authors now: I know full well how much that little bit of assistance can mean!

So there I was, submission submitted…. Waiting. Hoping. Fingers crossed…

We came home. Holiday over. Exactly one week after my fortieth birthday I received the news that yes, Heinemann wanted the entire Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy – what I had already written and  Part Three, which was still in my head. I was  offered a contract, and paid a nice advance. That I was over the moon is an understatement. I was, after many years of boring people with, ‘One day I am going to be a proper author’ was going to come true!

To get a scoop, the London Evening Standard took me, Ron and Kathy out for the day to Colchester (don’t ask… no idea why Colchester!) When we came home the street was crawling with reporters all wanting a story. The post-six o’clock  local news on ITV spent the day with us filming, and we had a good long spot on the show.

My official promotion photo
(don't I look young!)
Launch day was so exciting. A bookshop in Walthamstow High Street hosted it, we had wine and canapes and loads of people turned up. I had radio interviews (who remembers Derek Jameson on Radio Two? I spent a happy hour with him in his studio chatting about this and that – and my novel. And as it was a late night show the BBC even provided a car to take me home.) The Kingmaking should have become a bestseller. I was nominated for a couple of awards, but from there the rose-coloured glasses proved to be more tinted than I had thought.

Launch day at Walthamstow High Street
The marketing for Kingmaking lasted a few short months, and the marketing for other two books in the trilogy when they came out did not materialise. The reality was, historical fiction was suddenly not as popular as it had been, Heinemann had been sold, and a lot of money had been paid out to supposed best sellers which turned out to be dreadful. Let’s face it, sorry, but models and footballers are not novelists! Heinemann undertook very little follow-up marketing. This was the nineties. Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, were still things of the future, even websites were a new concept and very basic. Authors were entirely in the hands of agents and publishers, and if either did not back you, you sank. To this day I do not understand how a publishing house can pay out a generous advance and then not bother to promote the books they have taken on. Eventually, said agent also let me down, well, her loss, frankly.  

The original cover
designed by artist Chris Collingwood Historic Art
My Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, twenty-five years after the first part was accepted for publication is STILL going strong – published traditionally by Sourcebooks Inc in the US, Indie published here in the UK, and are being translated into German with Part One now published.

buy book on Amazon Germany

So, Happy Silver Anniversary to me, from me. It’s been a rough road with lots of ups and downs, but I’m still here, writing and I’ve met some wonderful people – authors and readers – along the way. (Met a few ratbags as well, but we’ll skip that fact.)  

This is where the champagne cork pops, and someone enthusiastically shouts ‘Hooray!’

If you want to wish me some sort of ‘best wishes’ please do so by:
1)     Buying The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner and Shadow of the King
2)     If you’ve already read them, please, please, please, leave a review on Amazon
3)     Tell twenty-five people to buy the Kingmaking! Well, I can but try to encourage sales *laugh*

Seriously, thank you to everyone reading this (and sharing and retweeting etc.) Without you, I wouldn’t be sitting here sipping my glass of celebration bubbly!

 UK covers designed by www.avalongraphics.org

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 Website: www.helenhollick.net
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  1. What a wonderful birthday present. And, since that means that as well as being your Silver Anniversary, it must also be your birthday, here's best wishes for both.
    Your original publishers may have bitten the dust, but I'm so pleased your Arthurian trilogy lives on - that, along with Harold and Emma was what turned me into a big fan. And now, the hubster is also a fan.

    1. thank you Loretta, ye it's my 65th birthday on the 13th... I think that's the age you are _supposed_ to retire!

    2. Lol, isn't 65 the new 45 these days?

  2. Mazel tov on your silver bookiversary!


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