Twenty years ago, before I was published I spent two years writing an adult book. I was a great fan of ‘Hill Street Blues’ at the time and structured my book in a similar way. It was a complete day in a secondary school and involved the lives and loves of a group of teachers. (No need to guess what my job was at the time). It had a host of main characters and a number of intersecting story lines. It was big, baggy and never to be published but I learned a lot from doing it.
After several rejections I began to realise that the returned ms looked as though it had hardly been touched and therein, I thought, lay the problem. Editors clearly found the first few pages dull. If only they could persevere, I thought, they would see what a terrific novel they had on their hands.
Someone suggested that I send the novel to a professional ‘reader’. This would be someone who had experience in the business and who could give me objective advice on what was good/bad about the novel. This seemed like a good idea to me and I duly paid my fee and send off my ms along with return postage.
Then I waited.
If I’m honest those days of waiting were some of the most exciting days I spent. Like in the early days of the lottery when I bought a one pound ticket and spent hours working out what I would do with the winning millions.
I pictured this ‘reader’ discovering my novel. She would read it through with a growing realisation that here was something really good. She would recognise the few odd things that needed to be improved (the beginning, certainly – I accepted that). She would talk to friends in the business about this first novel by an unknown but promising author. She might even know an agent and give them the heads up on this new talent. Finally someone would actually read my novel through to page 296 and gasp with admiration and it wouldn’t be long before I had an agent and a publisher.
Then one day the postman handed me the returned ms. My hands shook as I opened the package. On the top of my book was a seven page letter. It started with the words,
This is no better or worst than any other first novel I have read.
I read the sentence over several times. What did it mean? Then I read the next paragraph which informed me that if I wanted to read the positive comments about my novel I should turn to page seven of the letter. I did and read the positive paragraph. Then I went back and read eight torturous pages which tore my novel to shreds comparing it (unfavourably) to Dickens. Perhaps the embarrassing criticism was that my sex scenes were like a cross between Mills and Boon and Masters and Johnson.
I tore the seven page letter into shreds. I cried.
Later my husband picked up all the pieces and put them in an envelope and stuck it down and put it away in the bottom drawer of my desk. He told me to keep it until the day I published my first book and then read it again.
Years later my first book was published (1990). I held a copy in my hand and decided to get the envelope out of my bottom drawer and reread the letter. It took me an hour and lot of sellotape to stick it back together. Then, with the confidence of a newly published author, I sat back and read the whole seven pages again. I cried again. I tore it up again (harder this time because of the sellotape). I threw it away. Again.
This time my husband did not retrieve it.