I probably shouldn’t blog about this, but I feel compelled to.
Yesterday I received a rejection letter from a literary agent and, for the first time, I can honestly say that I don’t feel remotely disheartened. It hasn’t thrown me off my stride. I didn’t reach for the bottle. It would appear that I have, as I was advised to, grown the skin of a rhino.
I recently self-published my novel, These Fragile Things, which examines an idea as old as the Bible: that a teenage girl might risk ridicule and scorn – knowing others will be affected besides herself – to voice the seemingly impossible claim that she is seeing visions. In the 80s. And, in Streatham of all places!
Having already been told that my novel was ‘too quiet for the current market,’ I was not actively seeking representation, but I received a personal introduction via a traditionally-published author to an agent of the young and passionate variety. The type who is still building his list.
Not wanting to waste his time, I came clean about my writing history (winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award, as a result of which my first novel was published, but having subsequent work rejected because it didn’t fall into the same genre). I was also very open about why other agents have continued to reject my work, to which my young friend responded by praising the intensity of my writing and saying that he thought I had been very hard done by. (Others might be encouraged to know that, far from being put off by the fact that I had self-published, he also praised my energy for following an alternative route.) And so I sent him my manuscript, thinking that I might have found someone who ‘got’ me, for want to a better phrase.
The writing, he tells me, is ‘very good indeed.’ (Note the ‘indeed.’ I particularly liked that.) His reservations lie elsewhere.
The plot, he feels, would be more suited to a contemporary setting. I had several reasons for rooting my story in the 80s. The main one was that I wanted to write about an historic event I had borne witness to; an event that seemed so catastrophic at the time (although it has since been dwarfed) that it truly felt as if an Old Testament God was seeking vengeance on his disobedient off-spring: the Great Storm of 1987. That date – together with the dates of other real-life events that my teenage prophet Judy spoke of – was pretty much immovable. This criticism, I felt, was subjective. A question of taste, if you like. To a twenty-something, the 80s may feel like history. To a forty-something year old -my age, and the age of the majority of my readers…
The second point that he made is that Graham, the father in my story, appeared to convert to Catholicism ‘too easily.’ (In fact Graham deferred making good a promise given while his daughter was in the operating theatre undergoing life-saving surgery for over a year.) In my mind, my agent friend missed the point that it was Graham’s conversion that provides the source of conflict between husband (who supports his daughter) and wife (who blames her husband for his influence over their daughter and seeks a medical explanation). And apparently I am ‘notably strong when it comes to forcing the pace of the narrative and sustaining the tension.’
So we come to the third point: ‘To create suspense I wanted to have the sense we were going to find out some dark truths about a seemingly normal family set-up. That kind of psychological suspense is proving popular at the moment.’ At this point I should perhaps point out that:
- The mother in my seemingly normal family set-up just happens to be a sex addict (some might call this a ‘dark secret’).
- That the mother is completely confounded by her daughter’s revelations, which also prove to be an embarrassment to the Church.
- Added to the boiling pot, we also have press intrusion, growing religious fervour, Judy’s followers camped out on the grass verges outside the family house, none of which makes the family popular with their neighbours.
As writers, we all have to compromise to a certain extent. I had done a certain amount of ‘beefing up.’ I had already deleted five of the opening chapters in order to cut to the chase. However, there should be a point at which every writer refuses to become the lady writer Michael Chabon describes in his rather wonderful ‘Wonder Boys’ who touts her one novel around writing conferences year after year, having made yet more adjustments to suit the whims of individual literary agents. This lady is seen as an eccentric. A little bit of a laughing stock. But it may simply be that she refused to conform to publishing trends. In other words, no one could fit her work into a box and stick a label on it.
Since I chose to go public with the strange workings of my brain, I have built up a small but loyal readership, and something precious has happened. Ordinary people have begun to entrust their extraordinary stories to me. One man recently confided in me about his teenage son who, having suffered from epilepsy since childhood, is now going through a series of psychotic episodes during which he believes God is speaking to him. As an atheist, the father is struggling to come to terms with this. He has not provided his son with any sort of a religious upbringing, but he now wants to know what books he should read so that he can try to understand what his boy – his beautiful boy, who he has had to watch trying to set fire to himself – is going through. It is not a priest he is turning to for advice. He is turning to me, because something I have written makes him think that I will understand. Choosing religion as a subject carries with it certain responsibilities, which the level of trust he has placed in me only amplifies. I feel it would be insulting to people dealing with similar issues in their own lives to ‘introduce a new angle.’ It would be as if I were saying to them, ‘I’m sorry. Your suffering is not enough.’
And so my book will remain a ‘little’ book.