Tag Archives: Online Writing

All Change

Things have changed since I last posted. So much so that this is the first time I have been able to sit down and record it. On the calendar downstairs, back on the 24th March, written in pink felt-tip pen, is the name of my nearest veterinary clinic. To distract my mind from my echoing e-mail box, I had wandered in off the street and asked (in my best Norwegian) whether I could come in and “see practice”, just for a week or two. The smiling receptionist, looking bemused promised to get the boss to call me, and I left, feeling, to be honest, like a bit of a tit. After all, I could have made that contact over the phone couldn’t I? Still, later that day, I received the call, and at 9a.m. on Monday morning, I presented myself.

I confess that the first question confused me somewhat. Peering into a cupboard filled with uniforms, the nurse asked me whether I was a small or a medium. How to reply? I was obviously neither. Promising me that the medium was VERY stretchy round the waist (yes but what about the arse?) she handed over the medium overalls and commanded me to change. Shovelling me into a pair of green clogs (more on those later) she started to show me things on the computer. Obviously it was all written in Greek… or maybe Latin. Actually I might have understood those bits, but the rest was a mystery. Being me, I set out to solve it, and armed with a trusty pen and a post-it note, I gradually began over the course of a fortnight to decipher the runes.

I also made some new friends. So much for the much-fabled Norwegian stand-offishness; we spent the next two weeks laughing. And on the Thursday of the second week, I was offered a job. Dagny, the scary boss lady said I should talk to my husband… who of course said “What are you waiting for. Get signed up immediately!” So I did, setting out to work two days a week. The past fortnight has been a whirlwind of bank accounts and tax office visits ( yup, I didn’t have the former and have never paid the latter here) and getting the paperwork together to try to get myself authorised to carry out veterinary work in Norway. Currently I’m working as an assistant, which suits me down to the ground as I am helping out without having to consult, and in the meantime, I am gradually picking up more Norwegian, though there is the terrible temptation to revert to English, especially as some of the clients immediately start to chat to me when they find out where I am from.

It’s a wonderful feeling, picking up the reins of something I used to be good at. Some things come back so quickly. Others are filled with fog. I suspect that when it comes to real knowledge, I have always been very reliant on books, and for the moment, I don’t have the right ones to hand. The BSAVA Manual of Emergency and Critical Care was my constant companion for all the years working in the emergency clinics. It’s at the top of my shopping list as even though there aren’t so many emergency cases during the day, I seem to recall it had a lot of fantastic tips on how to work cases up in the first instance. I’m slowly regaining knowledge, refilling the blanks, remembering the things I was never good at (I can take a mean x-ray, but am rubbish at reading anything more complex than a broken leg or a twisted stomach). I am learning new things as well. Who knew that it was illegal to castrate a dog or spay a bitch in Norway without good clinical reason? Apparently they have to be allowed freedom to explore their wild-side, though how that works when using drugs to prevent ovulation I have no idea. Bang goes the idea of opening a spay clinic in my nearest city!

This week started badly. I tried to anaesthetise a dog without having the machine fully switched on. Never a good idea. Worse still, it transpired that the green clogs actually belonged to the boss lady. Well I always did like to walk in shoes that were hard to fill. I’ve bought my own now. And Dagny has not yet used the whip on me that I took in for Irene to use on Jan-Arne.

Been out walking (the picture at the top is taken from south of our village, looking up the coast) and skiing, both downhill and cross-country. I would like to say that I didn’t fall over once, but sadly I can’t. Still things are looking up on all fronts. There might even be some movement on the book, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself so I’ll leave that for next time.

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Bodies

Language is an odd thing. Now I am using Norwegian more often, I notice strange things occurring with greater frequency. For example, I sometimes have conversations with people and afterwards thinking back I can’t recall which language we used. More confusing still is the phenomenon which occasionally occurs when a sprinkling of “English” words are scattered amongst the Norsk. For example, I saw a headline in the newspaper the other day. “City løftet trofeet!” It said. Trofeet? I ran it through my mind. Not sure about that one. Something to do with three? Løftet meant lifted. I knew that. So something about a city being lifted? What could it mean? An earthquake? I was trying to work out how this incredible feat of tectonic activity had occurred without my being aware of it when I noticed the accompanying photograph of a bunch of football players and it suddenly crystallised in my mind. So much for earthquakes. I was halfway up the stairs before I registered that the Norwegian word for city is “by” Had I registered that City wasn’t even a Norsk word, I would have realised that this was all about the Norwegian obsession with English football. City had lifted the trophy.

So a day or two later, I should probably have been more alert to this phenomenon when I was looking for the soap. I found Irene and asked her where it was. “Det er I skapet der bodies holdes.” she told me. My mind worked that one out. It was in the cupboard where the bodies were stored. That much I registered. But really? The soap was in cold-storage with the bodies? It couldn’t be. Or did she just mean in the room? Was there another cupboard in there? I shook my head in confusion and she must have taken pity on me because instead of trying again, she led me into the prep-room, skirted round the piles of dog food that were sitting there and opened the cupboard where the clean laundry was stored. “There!” She pointed to the big container. I just stared at it. “What?” she asked, looking at me still. “But the bodies?” I asked her. She took out one of the “Bodies” a cute little item of clothing that we use on dogs when they’ve had an operation. It was again at that point that I realised that the Norwegian for body is “kropp”. When I told her, she just laughed.

I received my authorisation notice last Friday. So now I am allowed to do official vet things like operations. I love operating. The vets here are fascinated with the way I sterilise cats. I learned a really nifty method for castrating cats years ago that involves tying a knot in the blood vessel and vas deferens using only a pair of artery forceps. Once you’ve done it a few hundred times, it can be done in about ten seconds flat. And much to their interest, I have always spayed cats through a hole in the flank. Here they go in underneath through the midline. Guro, whose middle name is Moira because secretly she’s actually Scottish, decided to jump right in there and we spayed a cat together on Thursday. Apart from the classic first-time error we managed to make when we failed to go right through into the abdomen and found ourselves having one of those odd moments when it seems the cat had no abdominal organs, the whole thing went very well. I’m glad to work with such open minded people who are keen to try different things.

Another big event on Thursday, seeing my first patient alone. It was a dog with a broken claw. Not so much to go wrong I thought. But when I looked at the dog, it was hard to tell what I should do. Dim light from the window and a dog the colour of Yorkshire jet meant that I had only the faintest sight of the claw I was examining. Happily Magnificent Magne rode in to the rescue… and switched on the light. I felt just like a new graduate again: a mind so filled with uncertainty that common sense was as elusive as the light had been. The uncertainty was replaced by a booming knowledge, reflected in the client’s eyes… “Oh no. This one’s clueless.” Still, I managed to sedate the dog and the ring block around the claw worked perfectly. The patient never even twitched as Magne gouged away the outer layer of the claw using the dental instruments. The usual frustration entered my mind as I bandaged the foot without dressing or K-Band (how am I going to survive without K-Band????) but the finished product looked neat and tidy. And the next time could only be easier surely? And so I thought, that was my week over, but on Friday morning, as I sat in bed contemplating a lovely relaxing day, a message popped up on Facebook. “Are you there?” said Irene. Wondering whether she would be eaten alive by SBL for using Facebook at work, I replied that I was. “I didn’t have your telephone number,” she said. “Guro has rung to say she can’t come in. Could you come instead?”. I was tired from a midnight run to the airport, nevertheless I like working Fridays, so I wasn’t going to turn this down.

And so I found myself in a room examining my second patient. It was one of Guro’s and she has an interest in small pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs and this one was a hamster with a lump on its bottom. I was amazed when I took it out of its cage to find the “lump” was actually the most enormous pair of testicles that I have ever seen. If a bull had an equivalent pair, they’d be dragging on the ground. Aside from their massive size, everything seemed to be normal but as Madam Self-Confidence had still not installed herself in my head, I scurried off to get a second opinion. I found Vivek first. She was probably trying to hide, but there was no escape. Scouring the books in the back-room, we couldn’t find a thing, but happily Google Images came to the rescue. Apparently these gigantic appendages were completely normal. Of course, with the client now in “Oh no. This one’s clueless” mode, I couldn’t saunter back in and casually tell her that everything was quite in order, so happily this time Vivek came in to reassure her. One day perhaps I will manage to see a patient on my own again.

Later on I found myself helping out Jan-Arne. He was going to see a few more of Guro’s clients and so I examined a dog with him that was in for a biopsy of a lump beside her bottom. Obviously a day for it. It felt to me a bit like a lipoma, albeit in an awkward position, so I asked for permission to remove the whole thing, rather than doing the biopsy, if on inspection it turned out to be just that. And it was. It came away beautifully. My satisfaction was complete when I saw the owner’s face when I told her that it had been a benign fatty lump. To me, it was a small, if very satisfying operation. To her, it meant so much more. It is those moments that make life as a vet worthwhile.

Shameless

So life is going on and work is getting better and better. Tuesday was a bit mad because Kari Anna is on holiday this week. She’s the clinic’s resident veterinary nurse, and like most veterinary nurses, when she is there, she flits calmly around the practice and suddenly all the mess has disappeared and everything is under control. On Tuesday morning there was just Gerd (a veterinær assistent like me … well actually not much like me because she is sensible and mature and… well you get the picture) and me there, and Gerd was busy on reception where the phone was ringing madly and about a thousand people were waiting to be helped. So I found myself rushing around, trying to make sure everything was reasonably tidy. Unlike Kari Anna, I was unable to do this invisibly and just in case I thought I was doing rather well, mid-morning Jan-Arne came up to me with a look of confusion and asked why I was doing so much cleaning up today.

Anyway into the midst of all this came scary-boss lady herself [hei Dagny!!!!] and demanded asked very kindly that I should get theatre ready for two cat sterilisation operations. Despite the fact that I had done it before under the steady eye of Kari Anna, immediate panic set in. I knew which surgical kit it was, but which size of drape had I been told again? And which suture materials? What size was the pack of gauze swabs, two or five? So many things to go wrong. Worse still, as I commandeered the last two surgical kits from the shelf, I realised that very probably I should have put the other kits that I had so carefully sorted out into the steriliser, because if any other operations were coming in immediately afterwards…

AAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaargh!

So with my head spinning round on its axis like the child from the Exorcist, I started to hunt around for everything I needed. At that moment, Magnanimous Magne (the other boss) stuck his head round the door and asked whether I could help him with a blood sample. I’m sure I snapped “No” rather rudely, but he didn’t seem to notice anything untoward, and a few minutes later, fortunately I found a spare minute to set up the haematology analyser and run his test for him. The operations went smoothly and there were no screams from outside theatre, so presumably nobody needed another kit during the time we were busy. It was with relief that I finished with the surgery and was left to sort out the two patients and clean up the theatre while Dagny went to get on with other vetty things.

As soon as that was all clear, I rushed to the autoclave. Now what was it I had to do again? I had to drain some water out of one of those little tubes but was it the water from the tube on the left or the right? I thought it was probably the left, but when I tried to open the tube up for emptying, I couldn’t get the rubber bung off the end. Was it meant to come off, or was it attached and needing to be twisted or opened somehow? I didn’t want to rip it off and then find I’d broken it. And was it the left tube? There didn’t seem to be anything in that one. So it was probably the right. Gerd was still stuck with her three million clients, and there was nobody else around, so taking my life in my hands, I approached my scary lovely boss and asked her if she knew. Very helpfully she came through. She hadn’t used the machine for three years, but she would try to remember. Within moments she had successfully removed the bung from the right tube as I had asked. With a triumphant nod she left me to it.

It was only when I was still standing there, with about a gallon of water in the bucket at my feet that I began to have some disquiet over whether it really was the right tube. When Kari Anna showed me, surely there had only been a little drainage? Now there was something approaching a flood threatening to overwhelm the bucket. Shoving the bung back into the tube, I rushed through, and happily Gerd was able to spare me a moment. I had, she confirmed, as I had suspected, made a brave attempt at emptying the entre autoclave, but fortunately all was not lost. There was enough distilled water to refill it and no harm done. Better still, she even showed me how to make more distilled water. Lets face it, by the time I have to do it, I’ll probably have forgotten, but I’ll deal with that when it happens!

Thursday and Friday weren’t so fraught thank goodness. This afternoon I even had a brief period when I wasn’t sure what to do. Irene was being terribly efficient, and there is another girl doing work experience who was rushing round after everyone tidying up, and as I don’t like to sit around doing nothing, I went in to see if Jan-Arne needed a hand. He was examining a cat with mastitis so I helped him to sedate her. As he was cleaning out her wound, Irene put her head around the door. Was I available, she wanted to know, to help with a dental? It was Jan-Arne she asked. Did he really need me, she wanted to know. Jan-Arne looked up with a grin. “No,” he said, “I don’t really need her, it’s just more fun when she’s here.” ** And really, when all is said and done, that’s good enough for me.

Here he is:

Jan Arne and pig

That’s him on the right….

And what is it that is shameless? Well I shamelessly stole Jan-Arne’s beautiful photograph of a foal for the top of my page. Who could possibly resist?

**Technically he said it in Norwegian, but it’s a near enough translation.

Blissful Ignorance

Sunday this week: a lovely day, and the day I had arranged to go out and “see practice” with Jan-Arne. I had been hoping to do this for a while, but it had proved difficult to arrange. In the event I ended up seeing only one patient, though Jan-Arne did all that he could to drum up some additional business, first by telephoning the previous days clients to see if they needed a follow-up call, and secondly by driving me around the entire district in a vain attempt to run over an animal (or cyclist).

The single call was to a cow with mastitis. I walked into the barn and as with the small animal clinic, had an immediate feeling of coming home. I miss farm work so much. I love the sense of peace that I experience when I am in the presence of dairy cows. These large animals are so docile; they allow us to stand so close and rarely object to being handled, except now and then when they need to protect their calves and even that is mostly done with a doe-eyed gentleness. But there is also a sense of community in farming that is so very different from city life. Years ago in Scotland, working in a dairy practice, I felt almost (only almost) as if I belonged. I wasn’t born to it, and yet as a vet there was a sense of integration. I was wanted and needed within their society, and it is that feeling of belonging that appealed to me, almost as much as the animals themselves.

There were some interesting differences. Norwegian farms are strict on biosecurity. I was fascinated to see the gigantic pair of wellington boots that the farmer’s wife brought out from a cupboard. They fitted right over Jan-Arne’s trainers and he clomped around with feet like those of a yellow elephant. I had to make do with special plastic wellington boot covers. I had the tremendous feeling that I could just walk back into that lifestyle. It all felt so similar to the old days that I could almost see myself there.

Any delusions about that were shattered later when we visited a farm where Jan-Arne was friendly with the family. We looked at a couple of their bottle-fed lambs and all the time the conversation was rattling on around me. I couldn’t follow a word and the farmer couldn’t speak any English. They had a lovely young daughter though, who kept grinning at me conspiratorially. She wanted to show us her pet lambs and tried various methods to capture them, including an attempt to entice them with some food. Afterwards, she raced around the field chasing them, a streak of pink in a pair of purple wellingtons, childish hair flying everywhere. Finally she managed to catch one, a sturdy black lamb of a traditional Norwegian breed. My biggest regret of the day was that in my haste to leave the house I managed to forget my camera. Jan-Arne very kindly offered to take some shots of the field and the child and the sheep and here they are…

Jan-Arne's Sheep 1

Jan-Arne's Sheep 2

Jan-Arne's Sheep 3

Always difficult to get a good action shot, but it was a beautiful setting on a wonderful day.

The biggest revelation occurred when we got back to the practice where I had left my car. Jan-Arne pointed to the house next door.

‘I wonder if Magne and Gerd are in there, enjoying their day off,’ he said. ‘Did you know they lived there?’

Did I know they lived there? My mind was screaming.’Magne and Gerd are married?’ I managed to croak it out at last.

‘Didn’t you know?’ He was laughing at me.

Amazing the things I fail to register. Everyone else knows presumably and maybe they just forgot to tell me, but more likely I missed it. Perhaps they stand and chat at the desk about what they are going to have for dinner. I have no idea because after so long in Norway, my brain just switches off when other people are chatting to one another. They could be talking about me, and I would remain in a happy state of oblivion.

I realised recently that this was, in many ways, a blessing. When I return to Scotland, it always comes as a shock to overhear conversations which my mind automatically processes. There are so many preconceptions based around accent and word use, instant frustration at the banalities of life. Here I escape all of that. I wouldn’t change it, even if it means that occasionally things pass me by. I wondered recently whether this must be like for a young child, having a mind that passes over incomprehensible things that don’t really matter.

When I discovered Magne and Gerd were married, it leaped into my head that I should be worried about whether I had ever said anything reprehensible about one to the other, but of course I was able to dismiss that in an instant. I just don’t have those kinds of conversations. I would love to say I have never said anything offensive about anyone, but of course, there is Scary Boss Lady. Apparently the other staff found “All Change” so amusing that they had to tell her and she read it. Since then, she has tried to convince me she isn’t scary. She even appeared one day in a poncho with the words “Love Me” woven into it. I left no doubt, she told me over a mammary tumour, that it was her I referred to. In case there was any confusion, I had clearly stated “Dagny, the scary boss lady”. She tells me that it will follow her now. Even at the Christmas party, she is in no doubt that her name-tag will read “Scary Boss Lady”. Still, she can’t have been too offended. Apparently she told her friends in the cycling club about me on a train journey. I can imagine their wide-eyed shock as they asked her, “Did she know you would read it?” Of course, I didn’t know. But I was aware it was possible, because I had already friended some of the others on Facebook. Ah well, it’s always a good idea when starting in a new job to begin on good terms with your boss!

The Girl with the Chicken Head

I didn’t have time in my last entry, but in the car on Sunday Jan-Arne told me a bit more about Mystical Magne. As well as being married to Gerd, Magne is seventy-seven years old. I would never have guessed. According to Jan-Arne, Magne has said he will only retire when he doesn’t get up and look forward to coming to work every day.

Jan-Arne himself was off work on Tuesday… which just goes to show that large animal work can be bad for you. He told me on Sunday that he was hoping for a “small colic” in a horse. You should be careful what you wish for. Instead of the minor ailment he desired, he ended up dealing with a major incident. He carried out all kinds of treatment to try to alleviate the problem, including introducing a large-bore needle into the caecum to allow the gas to escape. At one point he was trying to get some liquid paraffin into the poor animal without much success. Rather than using a pump (which he felt would be unsafe for his patient) he tried to blow the solution down the tube… and landed up in a battle of rills where he couldn’t determine whether he or the horse ended up swallowing more. In addition he inhaled the stuff, and attributed the hideous cough he came down with the next day to this, as well as to a cold triggered by staying up half the night in his shirt-sleeves battling to save the horse. He is (as yet) not very experienced, but he is determined and innovative and shows a degree of dedication that I admire very much. Sadly this wasn’t a story with a happy ending. The poor horse was eventually put to sleep, but Jan-Arne tried all he could to resolve the problem and had done all that was possible to alleviate the animal’s distress. Sometimes that is all you can do.

On Thursday, still sounding like a rendition of the frog chorus, he turned up at work in a T-shirt and a pair of pyjama trousers. It is possible that he felt so ill that he didn’t have time to change, but more likely he thinks it is time to start a new trend. This is Norway after all, the land of cosmopolitan chic, and whatever you feel about maroon pyjama trousers, nothing could be worse than the hip-hugging, bum-crack showing jeans and white-socks-with-sandals look that has permeated the summer fashion parade here in recent years.

In the meantime Irrepressible Irene, short of veterinary work, had decided it was time to clean the windows. It would be more fun with two she told me, and so convincing was she with her foxy grin, that I found myself outside a few minutes later with a blade in one hand and a drying cloth in the other. Round the front of the building was easy enough, though there were a few girly screams as some spider’s webs came into contact with Irene’s hands. It must be said that she is a very attractive young woman, an opinion which must have been shared by two friendly spiders (both of them named Scott [after Sir Walter]) which felt so drawn to her that they began nesting in her hair and had to be removed.

Round the back of the building was a different matter. Not only were the windows higher off the ground, but there was a foot-deep runnel running along the side of the building that meant that the step-ladder Irene had fetched could not stand flat on the gravel. So with no discernible respect for Health and Safety* (yay for living in Norway) we mounted the precariously wobbling stairs and continued our perilous trip around the outside of the building. As we burnished the final window into glinting brightness, I thought we were finished, but with her usual thoroughness she insisted we should clean the inside as well. Unfortunately for her, there was some evil condensation in between the double glazing that even she was unable to banish. There was, however an interesting ritual that I observed. I can only assume that it is a Norwegian idiosyncrasy. At one point in the proceedings, Irene donned a rather natty chicken mask and continued to climb on swivelling chairs (*see earlier note on Health and Safety) to polish the glasswork. During this mysterious ritual, Gerd even came through to take a photograph. And so, dear reader, if you are really lucky and come back next week, I may be able to share some solid evidence of this fascinating local custom. Who could possibly resist that?

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.

 

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.