On Writing

Some of those who access this post will recognise I have shamelessly stolen today’s title from Stephen King… because one day I’m going to be as big as him, obviously. I’m not going to emulate him in trying to tell others how to write however, I just wanted to reflect a little on the writing process, and on the dreary experience of approaching a brick wall of literary agents. I think that is the correct collective noun, though of course (as ever) I hope to be proved wrong this time.

I find the whole process of trying to find an agent very distressing. I am fully aware there are other people out there who are much worse off. I could, for example, be trying to try and find a job to pay the bills. I am immensely lucky in having a very supportive husband. But the process of putting my work out there and then… well actually the rejections themselves aren’t so bad; it’s the long silences I find harder to bear. I find myself checking my e-mail box with ridiculous frequency. It would be easier if I knew that agents had down time. If I could stop checking over the weekend, for example, it would give me a break, but I know they read and respond at all sorts of odd times. They are very busy, that much is clear. Of course, if I had any of that thing known as self-control, I could have a break anyway. Sadly the self-control gene passed me by.

For the moment, it is “Tomorrow” I am trying to promote. An odd experience because I have done it before with the same chapters and a similar synopsis. The last time, I had the unmitigated joy of receiving a request for the full manuscript. In the event, the full MS was rejected within a day of being sent off, (rightly so as it wasn’t ready) but at least I have to presume that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the chapters I am sending. It is just a subjective matter of finding someone who likes them.

In the meantime, I want to get on with something else, and although I have been toying with putting together a detailed plot for a new book, I have also received some feedback on “Ready, Vet, Go!” and I feel inspired rather to head back and redraft that before moving on. One of the frustrations of teaching yourself to write is that feedback can be terribly difficult to come by. Informed feedback even more so. So then, I have to take what I can, where I find it. I have various friends who read “Ready, Vet, Go!” and the majority of them reacted positively. One or two never finished reading it, which I put down at the time, to life getting in the way. When I sent my chapters and synopsis off to the first agents, (for anyone reading who doesn’t write, this is the standard sample that literary agents ask for to assess your manuscript) I was fully expecting an enthusiastic response… or at least some response other than absolute silence or flat generic rejection.

The first response I received was from an agent I’ve been communicating with occasionally for years, ever since I wrote to James Wight (son of the late, great James Herriot) and he generously (and incredibly) telephoned me to put me in touch with his agent. They’ve been very kind, though they have steadfastly rejected me a number of times, but one thing they have always done has been to give me feedback. They commented that the chapters were well written, but that the plot seemed a little slow, and they were struggling to see a narrative hook that they could use to sell it to publishers. I wasn’t too downhearted at that, and set out to send it to other agencies. Resounding silence ensued. Having contacted twenty agents, I couldn’t honestly bring myself to carry on putting myself through the wringer. Only one more agency gave me feedback, this time to say “Your veterinary details ring true but you need a much greater depth of characterisation and a stronger plot.” For those of you who have never been through this process, it will be difficult to understand why I felt glad to receive such a brief and negative message, but I had honestly reached the stage when any feedback at all regarding my utter lack of success was valued.

It took a while to work out my next move. I really wanted to know whether there was a genuine fault with my narrative, or whether it was just that it hadn’t resonated with any agents, so I set out, via this blog, to find some readers who weren’t friends and family to test-drive my novel. It was an interesting experience. I posted on a Facebook forum, and very quickly received seven enthusiastic offers. Smiling to myself… obviously my three chapters were not so awful… I send out the book to my new group of beta-readers… and the result was another deafening silence. It was a very odd experience. When I contacted them, those who did respond invariably said that they had been enjoying the book, but life got in the way. Some of them cited bereavements, some just family pressures. One lady, after my prompting did finally finish, and said she enjoyed it, but I had to accept that even without more concrete feedback, a novel that can be put down so easily and forgotten, is fundamentally a novel that isn’t doing its job.

And yet still I had this problem of a lack of constructive feedback. I knew there was something wrong, just not how to fix it. I am an enduringly fortunate person. At this point my parents, for the first time, really engaged with my plight and stepped in. Perhaps this was because I had spent part of the summer holidays hogging their printer to send out four precious printed submissions (one of which prompted the “Veterinary details ring true” response). A friend of theirs was a professional playwright and poet, and better still she used to run creative writing courses. For the first time, I was able to receive some detailed feedback from someone who had read the whole work, and knew what she was talking about. She had some very positive things to say abut my easy writing style, and consistency. She suggested that to improve the work, I would need to inject some additional tension, and perhaps a little dark to counteract the lightness. She also suggested that to improve the characterisation, I perhaps could weave in some back-story for the protagonists. She was very upbeat about the prospect of me finding an agent. She said she thought it was just a matter of time and perseverance. She did have some negative feedback though on my subject matter. Her gut feeling was that the veterinary theme has been done to death, and that very few publishers would even consider it. She suggested I move on and work on other projects.

This was a very odd feeling for me. I have always felt that there continued to be such an interest in animal-stories that, so long as it was really well done, there would always be a space for another vet. Last year there was a blatant attempt by the BBC to reinstate James Herriot, which to me suggests that they would like to have a new veterinary series. The immediate audience response was to tune in (nine-million of them, I believe) and then to tune out again because… well in my opinion the characters were just not engaging.

Anyway, I put everything aside, and had been trying to start something new. A couple of days ago, however, I received an unexpected e-mail from one of the agents I contacted with “Ready, Vet, Go!”. Now I don’t know whether she was kind enough to give me feedback because she my submission had been “misfiled” (her word) and there had been an excessive delay. Anyway, for whatever reason, she was the third agent to give me feedback on “Ready, Vet, Go!” and this is what she said.

“I’m sorry that your novel is not one for which we would be confident of securing a commercial publisher’s support. I’m old enough to remember the James Herriot novels which I loved and I was initially intrigued by the idea of something similar. I do think your idea has potential, but I didn’t feel your narrative voice was quite strong enough to support the ambition of your ideas. I felt as if I was being retold a story, rather than the story itself.”

This then was something new. An agent who didn’t like my writing so much, but who definitely didn’t feel negative about the subject matter. I have honestly been toiling with starting to put together a whole new project. I am aware that agents want you to do that. You should always be writing “the next thing”. But really, it is hard to motivate oneself with so little feedback, so little positive affirmation that yes, at some point, someone will read and love my work. Hard to find the enthusiasm when there is wind and rain and grey skies outside. And so rather than starting something difficult, I have decided to go back and review an old friend. I don’t want anyone to feel I am just retelling a story. I want them to share the joy of standing in a cow-byre, ankle deep in straw and unnamed muck looking at a placid, motherly animal, in the knowledge that it really is possible to make life better.

3 thoughts on “On Writing”

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