Category Archives: Writing

Reflections

It’s a while since I have written about writing. It was my failure to make sufficient progress towards publication back in the spring which sent me on my veterinary odyssey, and that is something about which I have no regrets. However, stuck at home and physically incapacitated for the past week, I have forced myself to write again on a regular basis. I have been making slow progress with my aims, and this can only speed things up, but I thought perhaps this would be an opportunity to share my journey with the people who read my blog.

A bit of history first. During the five years I was in Norway, but unemployed, I wrote two books. In the period between February 2012 and June 2014, I sent out sixty seven submissions to literary agencies, and  three to small independent publishers regarding these two tomes, largely to either deafening silence, or to painful generic rejection letters, which ranged from the bright and polite, to the blunt instrument, seemingly sent only to cause injury.

To those who have never written, this perhaps seems odd. Writing the book is surely the hard part, you might think. The reality is that the huge majority of books that are written these days either remain unpublished, or are self-published (often in e-format) to languish in the realms of the unread.

There have been some bright points in my journey. The first book I completed and submitted for inspection was Tomorrow. The standard format in the UK for submission is to send three chapters of your book, and an outline of your plot, and then wait (usually a couple of months) for a reply. After weeks of negativity: silence initially, then a short flurry of rejections, I finally received the response I had been hoping for: a request from a literary agent for the rest of the manuscript.

It was at that point that I suddenly found myself full of self doubt. I hadn’t taken the time to ask people to review my work. I had produced it and polished it, and I thought it might be alright, but the one person who had begun to read it, after an initial flurry of enthusiasm, had never got back to me. In feverish excitement, I contacted her. She seemed reluctant to hear from me. I finally managed to drag the information from her. She felt that although the book had started well, the ending was awful. As if I had suddenly run out of ideas and had just hurriedly drawn everything together. What was the incentive of one of the main characters, she asked me. She couldn’t understand why he would have acted as he had, taking large, unfavourable risks with no apparent motivation. Frantically I started to read through my book. She was right. It made no sense. Over the course of a weekend, I botched a vapid rewrite of the ending. I couldn’t change much. There wasn’t time, and it had to fit in with the synopsis I had sent. Within a day of sending the full manuscript, I had received a rejection from the agent.

Ready, Vet, Go was the second script I sent off. This time, I thought, I had it right. I had completed. Read and re-read. I had supplied the text to friends and family, who had responded with delight.

The silence this time was even worse than on the first occasion, but after a long delay, there was a small glimmer of daylight. Two agents paid me the compliment of sending a personalised commentary on my chapters, even as they told me they didn’t want to read any more. To give you an idea of the “positivity” of these entries, I will reproduce one of the letters here, without naming the agent involved.

Dear Sarah McGurk

Your veterinary details ring true but you need a much greater depth of characterisation and a stronger plot.

I regret that as I am taking on very few new clients at present this is not something I could successfully handle.

Thank you for letting me see your work.

 

After a pause for recovery, I wondered what I should do next. I had more writing ideas, and yet I still felt that Tomorrow, contained an original plot twist that should surely draw people in. Some ideas came to me about how I could change the ending. After some six months, I was ready to re-submit. Again, mostly there was silence, but there were two positive responses this time. The first, to my surprise was from one of the independent publishers. They wanted to publish my book. The unmitigated delight I might have felt was tempered. They wanted to publish it as part of their Romance range. Although Tomorrow is a love story, I had been aiming at more serious women’s commercial fiction. Would Romance readers want to read a story set in the accident and emergency department of a Glasgow hospital? I had worked in animal emergency and critical care. I hadn’t pulled my punches about the sometimes awful working conditions in the NHS.

Ultimately my decision was made for me. The Society of Authors read the contract I had been sent, and pulled a million holes in it. Not that I shouldn’t go ahead, they said, but I might be better considering self-publishing, rather than tying myself into a contract that might lead to nothing, or at best, might leave me with a successful book for which I would receive only a tiny percent of the profit.

At least though, here I had proof. An editor of an independent publisher had read my entire manuscript and had felt it was of publishable quality. The second “high” point came from the same agent who had sent me the above e-mail. This time though there were no punches pulled, and precious little positivity about Tomorrow itself, there was an invitation.

 

Dear Sarah McGurk

You write with emotion but your novel has very little sense of place, and I was totally unconvinced by the film star angle.  I do think it is a mistake to write this in the first person as it reads more like a memoir than a novel and it will be hard to sell as it does not fit any category.

Have you thought of writing about a female vet? – if you could get a strong narrative hook it could be very commercial.  As this stands, I can’t see a market for it.

Thank you for letting me see your work and do think about a vet series, which I should be interested to read.

 

Again, for those who have never written, this perhaps doesn’t seem such a huge step, but for anyone who has battered their head off the veritable brick wall presented by the literary agencies of the UK, the suggestion that someone might actually be interested to read some of my future work seems to me like a big deal.

So at the moment, I am revamping Ready, Vet, Go! I have added a narrative hook, I have brought forward the female vet and I am ramping up the plot. Shortly I am going to need some people to read it for me. It’s difficult for me to stand far enough back to see the whole of my work. I am stitching in new sections. I can’t tell if my repairs have produced patchwork or something that looks as good as new. So if, around Christmas, you might be willing to help out, I would very much value your time. I ask you to bear in mind, this is a work which might still need changes. If you are hoping to read a perfectly thrilling book… well you might be disappointed. What I need is feedback. Even if you don’t finish reading, I would want the information on where you stopped and why. So I guess what I am looking for, is people who will not be afraid to be blunt. Bear in mind that I am the person who called my boss “Scary Boss Lady” online where she could read it. I need the same cheek from you.  Believe me, very little could be more painful than the feedback I have received from all those agents. I don’t need just to know it is no good, I desire information about where I am going wrong. So if you like reading, and you have some spare time and a strong constitution, then I would be delighted to hear from you. Let’s face it, if you have read this far, you must at least have some stamina. This time I want to get it right.

 

Double Agent… (A Gent, part 2)

So at the end of my last post, I reproduced the letter I had sent to Peter Buckman at the Ampersand Agency. It was a risky strategy. Another no-no when applying to agents is the use of humour unless you are absolutely certain it is

  1. Appropriate
  2. Actually funny.

Still, given the situation I found myself in, I probably didn’t have much to lose. To my delight, I didn’t have long to wait. Within a day, I received the most civilised reply.

Dear Sarah,

Don’t worry: I’m sure you’re only human.

I will take a look as soon as I can.

Best

Peter Buckman

Heaving a sigh of relief – my manuscript wouldn’t be rejected out of hand – I sat down to wait some more. Waiting was something I was used to.

I didn’t have long to wait.*

Only a few days later, another e-mail arrived. Eagerly I opened it.

It was a rejection.

There was, however, a different tone from all the other rejections I had received. It was cheerful and friendly and helpful. My style was good he told me. My grammar was perfect. It was only the subject matter that did not grab him. Best of all, he used the word “reluctantly”. This was a new experience. Nobody had ever expressed reluctance at letting me pass before.

He liked me, I thought. He wanted to take me on. He just didn’t think he could sell my book.

I think a kind of madness seized my brain at this point. If the subject matter of Ready, Vet Go! didn’t grab him, perhaps that of Tomorrow would be better. Tomorrow is based around an idea that came to me one day when I had been working the nightshift in Bradford and was driving back to Scotland the next morning. What would happen, I wondered, if a surgeon had to perform life-saving surgery on the wife of a man she had fallen in love with. Agents, I understood, were looking for new angles and unusual plot twists and there had been more interest in Tomorrow in general, presumably for that reason.

And so it came about that I broke the third rule of agent application. When you are rejected, accept it gracefully. Don’t argue.

Flinging caution to the wind, I forged a new message. If it was just the subject matter, would he consider taking a look at another manuscript? Please?

I had quite forgotten my other, self-imposed requirement. Make sure the manuscript is suitable for the agent. I had just sent off a work of womens’ commercial fiction to a bloke.**

Despite the fact that I had now broken almost every written and unwritten rule, when the hoped for response arrived only a few minutes later, despite being yet another rejection, (this time on the grounds of said blokiness), the latest e-mail contained an unexpected offering.

Peter had sent me the contact details of one of the editors at a publishing house. Send Tomorrow. Mention my name, he said.

In my long search for an agent, I had read about this possibility too. This was a big deal.

I confess I felt the same as I might if I was handed a delicious looking toffee apple on a stick. With the correct approached, the flavour could be delectable. Approach it wrong, and there was every chance that the stick would become uncoupled and there would be shards of toffee sticking to the carpet.***

I was still trying to work out how to approach an actual editor twenty four hours later. Should I send my three chapters and outline as usual? Full manuscript? Just a letter?

I was still contemplating, when yet another e-mail arrived.

It was from Peter again. He told me, he had just been sent a storyline by a company called Working Partners. They were looking for a writer for a series for adults.

A series about vets.

I am a vet, I thought.

In Yorkshire.

I’ve lived and worked in Yorkshire, I thought.

The deal was, that I, along with several other writers, would submit two chapters, based on the storyline they provided.

If I got the job, Peter would take me on as a client. Would I like to have a go?

With my heart in my mouth, I sent the message winging right back. Of course, I’ll have a go, I said. How could I possibly resist?

Casting my toffee apple aside, I held my nose and plunged right in…

 

 

Notes:

*My family tell me there are two different time zones they inhabit. There are normal minutes and then there are my minutes. If they time a minute on the clock, it occupies quite a limited amount of time (usually round about the sixty second mark). However, when they ask me to do something and I call “Just a minute,” they know they are entering the alternate time zone and that the minute they have to wait might feel considerably longer. For reference, all literary agents exist within this alternative time zone when they are reading manuscripts from the slush pile.

**Peter’s terminology.

***I may have taken this metaphor WAY too far….

 

Continued…

And for those who have managed to read this far, here are some gratuitous images of Jan-Arne’s bitch Susi with her gorgeous puppies.

Summer at Hope Meadows

Summer at Hope Meadows, Lucy Daniels

It feels strange to finally be able to talk about Hope Meadows. Because it will be published under a pseudonym, I was unsure at first whether I would be allowed to mention my involvement. Right now the first book is undergoing its final edit. I am gearing up to the idea that I might be writing features, giving interviews or even attending book festivals. I have also just received the wonderful storyline for the second book in the series, so I am about to be very busy.

But I should start at the beginning, with the e-mail that Peter Buckman sent.

The e-mail was from Victoria Holmes at Working Partners. She explained that the first major success Working Partners had, was a series of children’s books called Animal Ark. This gorgeous series (she said) featured twelve-year-old Mandy Hope, the daughter of vets Adam and Emily who ran the eponymous Animal Ark surgery in the idyllic Yorkshire village of Welford, and her best friend eleven-year-old James Hunter. Together they had rescued animals from every imaginable peril, making friends young and old, two- and four-legged.

Personally, I had not come across Animal Ark. The first in the series was published back in 1994 and by that time, I was working in a large animal practice in Scotland, which left almost no spare time for reading.

Animal Ark proved to be very popular, selling millions of copies, round the world. As the series was now reaching its 25th anniversary, Victoria explained, as well as relaunching the original books, Hodder had commissioned a brand new series, featuring Mandy Hope as a newly qualified vet, returning to Welford to help run Animal Ark and open an animal rescue centre.

They were, looking for authors to submit sample chapters. Several would be asked to send their version, and the one they felt was most suitable would be selected to write the rest of the book. The remit was to write the first two chapters of Mandy’s story. Working Partners (in the shape of Victoria herself) would provide an outline of the plot and whatever guidance I needed. It was my job to fill out the storyline.

From the off, Victoria and I proved to be on the same wavelength and the project itself was fascinating. Not only did it give me a chance to share my veterinary experiences, it was both a challenge and an unexpected pleasure to work with characters who had so much background.

As well as the plot, I was provided with information about the characters, both new (for Hope Meadows) and old. I was also sent two original Animal Ark manuscripts. There was also the geography of Welford and the surrounding area to assimilate.

To give an example of the challenge, the outline for chapter one contained the instruction “Mandy’s childhood flashes before her, with memories sparked by every location of lovely Welford”  As someone who had never read Animal Ark, this could have been daunting, but I set to, trawling through the pages of Amazon, making use of their handy “Look Inside” feature. Having identified some likely memories, I asked Victoria for the manuscripts and at the same time, asked the librarian at the British International School of Stavanger, whether she might be able to obtain hard copies. One way or another, I pulled together some suitable history.

I am not sure whether all the writers who submitted were quite so demanding of Victoria’s time. It seemed like hundreds of messages were batted back and forth as we discussed technicalities about the new storyline, historical and geographical details and even exchanged some friendly information about ourselves. By the time I set down the last full stop on chapter two, I was addicted.

As I contemplated what I had produced, there was an incredible feeling. The urge to write more was excruciating. It was no longer just about getting a deal with an agent and publisher. The project itself had become a burning need. I had added touches that I felt were all mine, yet somehow they seemed integral. It was hard to imagine the idea that someone else’s version might be better. That in nine months time, I might have to buy and read those chapters again, in somebody else’s words.

I was a veterinary surgeon. That had to be an advantage. But I was also a novice writer. I’d had nothing published and the deadline for the completion of the first draft was only a couple of months away. Would they be willing to take on someone with so little experience? With a strange sensation of loss, that I might never, ever get to write any more, I sent off my two chapters on the thirtieth of August and held my breath.

 

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And We’re Off and Running…

I’ve had another crazily busy week. Back on Monday and Tuesday, I was delighted to make a start on Book Two which is set at Christmas. Those of you who know me will realise that writing a festive book is right up my street. Then I discovered there was a problem in the very first chapter of book one that needed to be resolved. As happens  sometimes, the solution came to me just as I had retired to bed. Of course I had to get up and work through it immediately. Otherwise my mind would be bounding around all night like Zebedee in the Magic Roundabout.

Anyway, to continue the story of how I got here, I have to go back to the end of August. I had sent my two chapters to Victoria on the 30th. I didn’t have long to wait. On 5th September I received a message, offering me the commission to write Summer at Hope Meadows.

I’m honestly not sure whether my main reaction was excitement or panic. After so many years trying to find a way into the world of professional writing, here it was, almost within my grasp. It was a lot to get my head around. I had always assumed I would be taken on by an agent who liked one of my books. They would take me on as a client and they would then present my manuscript to publishers. It would all be a slow process.

Instead, here I was, being offered a commission to write an 80-90,000 word book in less than three months.  Even if I was to write every single day, Monday to Friday every week, that would require that I should write 1,250 words a day.  I had never written more than 1,000 words per day before. Any time I had tried, I had quickly lost momentum.

Worse still, I had just signed a contract with the Norwegian Food Standards Agency to work full time for the whole of September and October. I hadn’t told Victoria, because I didn’t want to give them any additional reasons to reject me. But could I actually manage it?

Victoria had also asked me to make some changes to the first two chapters. Although she loved them, there were some stylistic changes I would have to make. There were one or two places where I had the perspective wrong. “Third person limited perspective” (yup, me neither!) was what I had to aim for. Some of the characters weren’t quite canon either. Fortunately Victoria’s instructions about how to fix the problems were very clear.

Regardless, this was my big chance. If I didn’t take it, I would be back wading into the slush pile. Pulling on my metaphorical wellies, I jumped right in.

Booty?

I have just re-read last weeks blog and realised that by the end, I had left myself running in metaphorical wellies. That sounds very difficult indeed.

The first weeks were indeed tough. Despite my full time work, I managed to complete the amendments to chapters one and two, plus write and send off a further two chapters to Victoria, all within four days. She seemed quite amazed at my haste, but despite the metaphorical wellies, I was determined to hobble onwards. This was my lucky break. So what if my socks were falling down?

I don’t think I have ever been quite so relieved as when my contract arrived a day or two later. From the original end of November deadline, the date had been moved to the ninth of January. Kicking off the wellies and pulling my socks up (see what I did there?) I set to work at a more measured pace.

I guess it might be helpful to include a description here of how the writing process with Working Partners operates. At the beginning, I was sent several pages of information about the project. They included information on the characters and geography as well as an outline of the plot. Because the series is based on a previous series, I was also sent some of the earlier books.

The plotline I worked from was developed by Victoria. It runs to some 10,000 words and lists each chapter and what should occur. Some parts are very detailed. Occasionally, Victoria will specify exactly how she wants a character to feel and what they should say. Other times, there might be an instruction along the lines of “Mandy goes for a walk on the moor and sees lots of wildlife.” The latter directions actually require a lot of work, because I want to ensure the information I add is both interesting and accurate. I love stories where writers weave information into a story in a way that is informative, but not intrusive. I hate it when there appears to be gratuitous information added that is obviously intended to be educational, but that doesn’t really fit. Reading should be fun.

It is quite different, working with someone else on a book. Usually there are so many plot details to work out before I can even start to write and there is so much editing afterwards. Writing with Working Partners is much more a team effort. I like to think of it as being similar to two people producing a lovely cake. Victoria comes up with a recipe and the basic ingredients. I take those elements and using both her directions and my own experience and understanding, I bake and ice the cake. I send back the almost finished article to Victoria and she adds a few special touches. We then send the whole off to Hodder and hope that the editor thinks it’s so great that she wants to share it with everyone.

Obviously this is something Victoria does all the time. She is involved in many such projects. I believe, however, that together we have produced something it wouldn’t have been possible for either of us to achieve alone. It certainly feels very special to me.

Major Characters

For those who have read Animal Ark, the main characters in Summer at Hope Meadows will be old friends. I’d like to share a little bit of information about them, their interactions with one another, and how I have tried to tie up their past with their present situation.

First, Mandy Hope herself. For those who haven’t read Animal Ark, Mandy hope was last seen at the age of twelve. She is the adoptive daughter of veterinary surgeons Adam and Emily Hope. She and her best friend James had a wonderful childhood, roaming the beautiful Yorkshire countryside and looking after the animals they found.

For the new series, Mandy has reached the age of twenty seven. She has qualified as a veterinary surgeon herself. The story begins with Mandy returning to Welford, the village where she grew up, to help her parents in their practice.

I must say that I enjoyed writing about Mandy. She shares so many of my own traits that I found it easy to find her voice. I suspect the biggest difference is that she is more earnest than I am. In the children’s books, she comes across as quite a serious character. Those who know me well will know that I have a dry sense of humour, which sometimes tends towards the cynical. Mandy is more idealistic.

She is also self-aware, will fight for her own needs and stand up for herself when necessary. As someone who tends towards the passive, I found it empowering writing a character who was much more assertive than I was when I was in my mid-twenties.

Like me, she is very uninterested in clothes and make-up, which is just as well, because I am truly ignorant about both those things. In the original guidance Victoria sent, there were instructions and links about the aural haematoma operation Mandy had to carry out.

I joked to Victoria that while the other authors probably followed them assiduously, I had written that element off the top of my head. However, I did have to search online to find out what a shift-dress actually was.

In book two, Mandy recently had to apply mascara. I had to suppress the urge to write about all the clumps in her eyelashes as I personally, have never managed to apply mascara without them appearing. If anyone knows the secret behind this important life-skill, please feel free to drop me a line.

Adam Hope is Mandy’s dad. In the children’s books, they have a warm, but teasing relationship. Mandy is sometimes to be seen out on her bike, whipping him into shape (not literally you understand) as he takes to the lanes around Welford to run.

I found his character and the relationship between Mandy and Adam quite straightforward to understand. It is based on both mutual respect and teasing. Adam’s eyes are always twinkling. Even though his hair has more grey now, he still teases Mandy. But now, Mandy sometimes gets her own back for all the years of ribbing.

The relationship between Emily and Mandy is more subtle and at first I found it difficult to get a handle on Emily’s character. I am sure, when I started to write, she was coming across as insipid. This was cured when I spent a day in the library at the British International School in Stavanger. The librarian had already come up trumps by obtaining a copy of Sheepdog in the Snow for me. But it was one of the English teachers, Mrs Rhodes, who came and asked what I was doing, who finally helped me see Emily clearly.

Fortunately for me, Mrs Rhodes had read many of the Animal Ark books. I was amazed when she announced that her favourite character was Emily. She felt that Emily’s relationship with Mandy was wonderfully warm and based on an often unspoken trust.

When I read the books again, I began to notice this important trait. Mandy grew up with a mum who trusted her judgement enough to give her a great deal of freedom to make her own choices. That faith has allowed Mandy to grow up with a quiet self-confidence.

Finally, to James Hunter, who in the original series was Mandy’s best friend. I don’t want to give too much away, but the opening chapter in Summer at Hope Meadows is a big one for James.

When they were younger, James was a steadying influence on Mandy. Now, although they are physically further apart, they still look out for each other. There is a real sense that when both their lives enter periods of chaos, they view one another so clearly that they instinctively see what is best for each other: indeed more clearly than they can see their own path.

The most interesting thing for me, has been writing about characters with so much back history, which has to guide how they will react now. I know that when I get time to go back to my own stories, I will take much more time to write down events from their past. Mandy, James, Emily and Adam are now so clear in my head that they almost write themselves. And that is a very pleasurable way to write.

Thanks to Jan-Arne Hagen and Steinar Sirevåg for the photos.

Case Files

Although Summer at Hope Meadows is a novel set in a veterinary practice (as opposed to a novel about a veterinary practice) it was important to me that the background was believable. I have noticed that even writers who are known for thorough research often get small details wrong. For those without a veterinary background, it might not be obvious, but for me those errors leap out.

In addition, anyone who has worked full time in mixed practice will know the job is an integral part of life. It would never be far away from the story. I have tried to reflect that reality throughout the book, though there were times when Mandy definitely had more freedom than the average young veterinary assistant. For those reading this in other parts of the world, veterinary assistant is the normal term for a salaried veterinary surgeon in UK practice.

However, the set-up is unusual, in that they are practising in a family setting. I suspect the lines between who was on call, and who would attend cases out of hours could be blurred. They are living in the same house. It’s conceivable there would be more give and take if one of them felt unwell or had an excessive amount of work coming in.

There were a whole host of different cases I had to describe, from an aural haematoma in a cat, to a back-breaking session finding an abscess in a cow’s foot. One thing I found difficult was to find the balance of expertise. Mandy has been qualified for only a year. I didn’t want to make her unrealistically experienced, but nor could she come across as ignorant.

I blurred the lines a little, by giving her some specialist knowledge. For two years working in Norway, I spent a lot of time in theatre, working as an anaesthetist. When Mandy is faced with an awkward client and a difficult case, I wanted to give her the tools to prove herself. So I added the information that she had an interest in anaesthesia. She proves herself in style…. and for that I must give thanks to the wonderful Veterinary Anesthesia Nerds group on Facebook!

One of the joys of fiction over real life is that I can go back and change what happened earlier. Recently, faced with a situation where Mandy literally had her hands full, I was able to go back to an earlier scene and slip the tools she needed for the job into her pocket when she was leaving the car.

The second book is set even more firmly in mixed practice. I have asked for the third to be set at lambing time and they have agreed. (Hooray!) There is the slight complication that I haven’t worked in mixed practice since 1999. During my years in emergency and critical care, I saw only one lamb. Other than that, the nearest thing to a large animal was the Scottish Deerhound I once saw with a neck injury.

Luckily I have friends who still work in the kind of rural practice that Animal Ark represents. It’s important because working in Norway is really quite different. I am no longer up to date with what is permitted and what is common. Perhaps, some time soon, I will make the time to go and see practice with one of them. Any excuse to get my arm up a cow’s arse should be grasped firmly. Even if it is done with only one hand.

Have a great weekend.

Thanks to Jan-Arne Hagen for the photo