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 The reality is that the huge majority of books that are written these days either remain unpublished, or are self-published (often in e-format) to languish in the realms of the unread.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.