Tag Archives: Literary agent

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 The reality is that the huge majority of books that are written these days either remain unpublished, or are self-published (often in e-format) to languish in the realms of the unread.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

 

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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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.

Trifling matters

It has struck me often, even before I started to write this blog, that my life is filled with small irrelevant detail. In fact one of the reasons I selected WordPress was that I knew that you could create fixed pages, and hopefully, over time I will be able to build up a site that people can look round, rather than depending upon a blog that should probably be updated more frequently than things happen in my life. I look in awe at those people who have weekly columns in newspapers and manage to come up with something original, or even better, funny on a regular basis. Worse still, the news is filled with its usual stories of seasonal lack of cheer. I should be feeling guilty at setting forth all this trivia, however on the grounds that guilt is an over-rated personal attribute, I shall just go ahead anyway.

This morning, I crawled out of bed at about half-past nine. Charlie has returned to work, and the only things I have to do involve dirty clothes, and combining foodstuffs into tasty formats. The former is (of course) deeply boring. The latter, I found I had little enthusiasm for, on the grounds that after several days of over-indulgence, I can’t actually imagine what it feels like to be genuinely hungry. Still, I have promised Charlie that there will be trifle at New Year, and so it was necessary to make some kind of sponge. Given that we really don’t need any more cakes right now, I decided that perhaps small buns were the way to go. Having assessed my ingredients, and with the knowledge that blueberry muffins are without doubt the best of the muffin-based food range, I decided to add some blueberry jam. Given as well, that I had leftover green and red marzipan in the fridge (chocolate log, you understand) I thought I would add pieces of that into the mix as well. As I stirred the resulting hideous purple mess, I found myself happily contemplating the fact that perhaps, just perhaps, I was the first person ever to combine these particular flavours together. Given that there is chocolate icing left over from the chocolate log as well, I suspect that the finished product will be really quite delicious. Obviously purple sponge, red, jelly, orange fruit, yellow custard and white cream will look quite garish when mixed together, but the good news is, that if I add sufficient sherry nobody will give a toss anyway.

Rather more soberly, I have to announce that I have completed the redraft of “Tomorrow” and so find myself at the beginning of another quest for a literary agent. I would like to think I am inured this time, to the inevitable six weeks of emptiness (well in my inbox at least, it is unlikely I will be dieting during this period) followed by the brick wall of generic rejection letters, but I know it’s still going to feel like shit. And as usual, the beginning has been beset by cock-ups. I have perused books and many websites on the subject of “how to hook your agent” and yet none of them have ever given the advice “Don’t start out with your most preferred agent because you will almost certainly make an arse of sending out your first draft”. This time it was quite spectacular. I had decided to try out a somewhat cheeky vibe, and was speculatively writing a lot of trash in the happy knowledge I would be able to edit extensively thereafter, when I inadvertently pressed “send”. I still don’t quite know how it happened, but I sat there in horror with the realisation that I could not retract a single word. Instead, pulling myself together, I began again from the point where I had left off, attempting a light-hearted thrust or two, in the hope that the poor sod on the receiving end would be amused. It was only after I had sent out the second e-mail that I realised that the document I had uploaded, which I thought was a docx document, was actually odt… a format that agent doesn’t accept. I can’t face writing again. I can only hope that he is in generous mood when he comes across the wonderful item.

Dawn

So much has been invested in the past weeks. The pre-Christmas anticipation (for me at least) lasted more than a month. And then the day arrived and was beautiful, yet so brief.

There were imperfections. It was impossible to get to sleep due to the activity in my brain, rehearsing for the next day, and (irony of ironies) the insomnia caused by the worry that I might not get to sleep soon enough. Soon enough for what, you may ask.

The oven decided to play up. The electrics in our house are old and… well cobbled together would probably be a good description. No neat and tidy holes through the ceiling or floor: the wires line the walls. When there is a surge of power in the kitchen, the fuse blows. After a bit of fiddling with the water heater, the electric radiator and the extractor fan, the vegetables managed to limp to boiling point, though limp is an inappropriate word because for once, they weren’t overcooked. At least it happened in the latter stages, by which time the pork had already achieved fragrant crispiness. We eat ribbe now: a wonderful side of pork with tasty crackling that complements the roast potatoes and stuffing rather better (in my opinion) than dried out turkey.

Anyway I have been fighting that sad day-after-Christmas feeling, on and off. We watched Call The Midwife this morning, downloaded from the internet. It was presumably meant to be uplifting. After last year’s sad topic, and the Downton death debacle of Matthew Crawley, I watched with the strangely demoralising certainty they would give it a happy ending, but it left me feeling a kind of melancholic nostalgia. Not that I was alive back then. It is set a decade or more before I was born; the costumes are notably like those I see in photos from when my parents were young. But these programmes make me yearn for “when things were less complicated”, which is odd because it isn’t as if things were easier back then, and that was clear in the storylines which were of post-war PTSD and polio.

I guess what I secretly yearn for, is that time when I was a child, and it was someone else’s job to ensure that Christmas went swimmingly. To a time when the world seemed wide open and anything was possible. I know that the reality wasn’t like that. Teenage was a difficult time of wanting and hoping so much. I achieved something wonderful, getting into University to study Veterinary Science, but what I really wanted was a wonderful man to sweep me off my feet. Some people are never happy.

But that’s just it, you see. On the whole I am very happy. I have that wonderful husband. My life is stable and fulfilling. I see on websites sometimes people setting out their “bucket lists”. I don’t bother because I have done almost everything that was really important to me. One thing remains and that is to have a novel published. I’ve already seen my name in print of course. I’ve had short stories published in the Veterinary Times, and even been paid for the privilege. But as I am about to embark upon the painful journey of trying to find a literary agent who loves Tomorrow, I can only hope that this time… this time I have got it right.