Tag Archives: Books

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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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

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.