Hazel McHaffie

agents

I Saw a Man

Well, it just goes to show – reading is such a subjective experience.

I turned to I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers because it’s billed as ‘the most stylish thriller’ … ‘taut’ … ‘suspense almost physically frustrating’ … ‘exemplary thriller, clever, classy, slick’ … ‘extraordinarily tense and powerful’ …all the kinds of accolades we’d all like to receive about our writing, huh? And just the masterclass to help me make my own current writing more taut and unputdownable.

Or not.

What a let down. OK, the essential thread of suspense is there – a bereaved man, a writer, Michael Turner, walking into his neighbours’ house because he sees the back door open and worries that intruders have entered it. Once inside, he’s distracted by a sense of his late wife’s presence which lures him upstairs into hitherto unknown territory. Up there, he unwittingly causes and witnesses a terrible accident, but can’t do anything about it without revealing his own trespass. The knowledge haunts him. Meanwhile his neighbour is also harbouring a massive burden of guilt, lying about his activities. Who will do or say what? Whose secrets will come to light first? What will the repercussions be? And hovering in the background, is the man who pressed the button that resulted in the collateral death of Michael’s wife.

So far, so I-want-to-know-what-happened. But for me, it felt hollow. Far too much description and backstory slowing the pace. The characters spineless and selfish. The ‘crimes’ unworthy of so much weight. Some of the main threads going nowhere. I’m sure these criticisms are in large part a measure of how much I’m currently agonising over the balance in my own domestic thriller, but authors are always critical readers, and I make no apology.

Although I’d personally take issue with some of the simplistic sentence construction, there are, however, a number of beautifully lyrical passages, commensurate with Sheer’s reputation as a poet.

‘London was blistered under a heatwave. All along South Hill Drive windows hung open, the cars parked on either side hot to the touch, their seams ticking in the sun.’

‘Their flasks of coffee, two hours cold, stood on a shelf …’

 And he weaves in some occasional surprisingly insightful wisdom. Not surprising maybe in a book about how men cope with grief.

On the effect of sudden brutal loss:
‘Caroline was dead and he’d been left holding the shell of the truth, bereft not only of her, but also the man she’d been making him.’

On the symbiosis of reading and writing:
‘Is a story half-cooked,’ he asked her, ‘if it’s only been written but not read?’
‘Absolutely!’
He laughed, thinking she was joking, but then saw that she wasn’t.
‘Without the reader it’s just thoughts on a page,’ she said. ‘Imagination in ink. A printed tautology.’
‘Tautology? How?’
‘Well, a repetition, then. Of what was in the writer’s mind when they wrote it. But when it’s read …’
‘Yes?’
‘Well, then the words gather a new imagery, don’t they? The meaning gathers new association. It’s like a chemical reaction. It all depends on how they react with the reader, their life, their mind.’

And that’s where I part company from the gushing critics. My chemical reaction with this book fizzled rapidly like a damp squib. Sorry, Mr Sheers. Your credentials may put you way beyond my reach, but your idea of tension and suspense is vastly different from mine.

One of the things agents often say to writers is, “I didn’t love your story enough to fight for it.’ Would an agent have loved I Saw a Man enough if an unknown author had submitted it? Hmmm, I doubt it very much. But I’m not reading it as an agent, and it’s given me a different and helpful perspective and yardstick for my own book, so that’s a bonus. No reading is wasted on a writer.

Back to my own novel. And I am relishing the terrific help of my experts. A lead paediatrician in Child Protection, and two accountants, and one of my long-suffering literary critics, have all given me invaluable guidance and feedback. I’m galloping along surrounded by all this evidence of their support and friendship and life experience.

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Editor-speak

A desirable property?We’re probably all familiar with the kind of language estate agents use to beef up the attributes of a house/flat/hovel in order to sell it.

For ‘bijou/cosy’ read ‘cramped’.

‘Excellent transport links’ translates as ‘there’s a motorway and/or busy railway line right next to it‘.

‘An ideal purchase as your first three-bedroom home‘ is agent-speak for ‘the second bedroom will take a single bed at a squeeze; the third one will only fit a z-bed on the diagonal in a crisis‘. You know the kind of thing.

Manscript of Over My Dead BodyBut did you know there’s also a dictionary of kindly words used by editors who are dropping our precious manuscripts into the nearest bin? Thanks to author of 90 novels, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, who claims to have a world-class collection of rejection letters herself, for the following handy guide.

sincere – dull

frank – embarrassing

heartfelt – dull and embarrassing

ambitious – far too long

epigrammatic – short and senseless

gnomic – even shorter, and still senseless

robust – too much sex

cerebral – too little sex

niche interest – incomprehensible to normal people

authoritative – see niche interest

well-observed – autobiographical

lovingly observed – tediously autobiographical

well-written – over-written

richly detailed – horribly over-written

broad-brush – full of careless mistakes

authentically voiced – writer has no grasp of grammar

original – writer has no grasp of grammar or syntax

energetically original – writer has no grasp of grammar or syntax, vocabulary, plot, pace, dialogue or character

not what we are looking for – unpublishable

didn’t quite work for us – don’t give up the day job

Maybe after all there’s something to be said for the agents and publishers who simply state: ‘If you don’t hear back from us within six months you should assume your manuscript does not fit with our lists. We wish you success elsewhere.’ You don’t hear anything; you make excuses for the deficiencies of Royal Mail. Ten weeks after the deadline date you finally succumb to a terrible sense of failure. You even picture the said gurus scoffing to colleagues in their superior way about the drivel submitted in the name of literature which they are obliged to lift out of the slush pile and at least cursorily scan. You maybe throw a minor hissy fit. Or go into a spiral of depression and hopelessness. You maybe pack away your pens and paper for ever.

But truth be told, the people who issue these horrible but carefully-honed rejection letters have their own cross to bear. They live in daily dread of a) overlooking a masterpiece or b) utterly crushing the spirit of a writer whom they have never met or c) incurring the wrath of an agent who has the power to unleash the most beautifully crafted diatribe against the editor’s entire empire.

I’ve had a glimpse inside this world. Occasionally a writer lower down the pecking order even than me will request that I look over their precious text and give ‘honest’ feedback. The worse it is the more I personally agonise long and hard over what to say to them. I was so stressed and in dread of one persistent person’s reactions that I spent an hour calming myself in our local cathedral before meeting up with her.

Pen a masterpieceSo next time you get a coded letter from a publisher or agent just visualise the sweet revenge of your brilliant work going on to win the Orange Prize for fiction … the Man Booker … the Nobel Prize for Literature. After all, you know from my previous posts that a surprising number of famous bestsellers have been rejected many a time and oft. It could be you. All you have to do to prove it is pen a masterpiece and find a brilliant publicity team. That’s all.

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Encouraging facts for struggling writers

Mslexia‘Tis the day before Christmas, when all through the house … hmm, yes, creatures are stirring, but hopefully not a mouse … all presents are safely delivered or under the tree, wine is mulling, carols playing, lights twinkling, larder and fridge full … Pause for thought …

Top of the list those who are grieving or weighed down with life’s troubles. I surround you with huge sympathy and concern. May you find courage and strength to go on; may you in time find peace. For now please forgive my moving on to matters of far less moment, but this is a blog about writers and writing.

Next on my list then, all those of you who have ever doubted yourselves, or known deep despair. Those who have struggled to get published, who have felt hopeless and diminished. Those who have burned/shredded/drowned a manuscript following a rejection slip or an ominous silence from a prospective agent. Those whose hearts are failing them for fear of another year of knock-backs. Yes, you, my fellow writers. I’d like to send you a seasonal gift: some heartening statistics culled from the latest Mslexia magazine. In short, hope.

Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, was rejected 78 times before his first novel was accepted for publication. I bet you haven’t amassed 78 yet.

Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having even one accepted. OK, you don’t write or even like poetry. I get it.

It took Malorie Blackman two years, submitting eight/nine different books, and 82 rejection letters before she was published. Now that’s what I call determination and awe-inspiring self belief.

The HelpKathryn Stockett‘s bestseller The Help was rejected by 60 agents. What does that tell you about agents? Flick your nose at that one you selected – who’s heard of her anyway?

Elmear McBride‘s multi-award winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing made the rounds to agents and publishers for nine years before someone recognised its potential. OK, it has had poor reviews from the public but at least it’s risen above the radar.

Zen and the Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the most rejected bestseller. It was rejected 121 times before going on to sell five million copies. 121! And you thought you were in the wrong job?

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverBestselling We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver was rejected by her own agent (who rated it so poorly she made Shriver pay the bill for photocopying) and 30 publishers. NB. Shriver went on to marry said agent’s husband! Phew. Some revenge, huh?! Hey, I never said those were the kind of tactics to adopt.

Author of twenty novels Anne Tyler has disavowed her first four because she now shudders at the lack of redrafting and character development. If you’re still within your own first four … or eight … or more … come on! What are you – a mouse?

A recent survey of 2254 women writers by Mslexia revealed that one in three submit less than a fifth of their finished work. Why? Because they fear rejection. Hmmm. Chin up folks! Re-read the above facts … And again … Perseverance and sheer cussed determination – that’s the name of the game. So, enough of doubt and timidity! Gird your loins and get that manuscript out there in 2016. It certainly won’t get noticed languishing in the drawer marked Failures.

And all blessings of the season whatever it means to you to all readers of my blog, struggling or not, writers or not. Thank you for your support.Christmas gift

 

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