It was an opportunity I had to take. Here was an editor keen on my novel. But a few others in the acquisitions meeting had reservations, so a contract wasn’t quite in the offing just yet. A few tweaks, though, could make all the difference.
My agent has been working hard for the last three years trying to interest a publisher in my novel. Then, last year, an editor at one of the largest publishers got in touch with her. He loved it, but had failed to get it through the acquisitions meeting so … how amenable might I be to considering making changes?
Naturally, my agent got in touch with me immediately to ask me the question. I couldn’t see what the risk was in considering making some changes. The editor offered to chat with me directly, so a date and a time was agreed. What a wonderful opportunity.
During the call he explained how he loved my novel, but that book acquisitions were a collective agreement, and a few people at the meeting had some reservations about my particular manuscript.
My novel is, essentially, cosy crime, with a touch of humour (hopefully!) and the biggest cosy crime market is America. He suggested tweaking my story in a way that would appeal to these readers. Could I inject some aristocracy – an Earl, or a Lord, perhaps? American readers love British nostalgia, particularly of the 1950s. Could I move my novel to that period? And, oh yes, there was a small matter of wordcount. My manuscript was 125,000 words, whereas the typical cosy crime novel is nearer to 90,000 words. Could I cut 35,000 words? OUCH!
At this point, the editor expressed his surprise when he’d realised my manuscript was 125,000 words long. He loved the pace of my novel and said that in no way did it feel like 125,000 words. But to make it fit the market length it needed cutting. Normally, at this point, he advised authors to cut a sub-plot, but he said mine were so tightly interwoven that he couldn’t come up with any suggestions as to how I might manage it. GREAT!
It was a half an hour phone call packed with advice. To have an editor of a large publisher take the time to explain the market in detail and make some suggestions was a wonderful opportunity.
Naturally, my next phone call was with my agent. The thought of adding some aristocracy appealed to me … already my head was buzzing with ideas of conflict and humorous opportunities. I was less sure about moving it to the 1950s, and decided not to. That would entail too much research and, in my opinion, my novel is set in the Welsh Borders, large areas of which are still in the 1950s! (Mobile phone signal? What’s that? The once-a-week bus service provides quicker communication.)
The cutting to 90,000 words would be a challenge. I remember wincing when I heard that. But, as a writer, I knew it wasn’t impossible. It would be painful, brutal and heart-wrenching, but I felt it was do-able.
Of course, the editor wasn’t offering me a contract now. So all this work would be on spec. But it could improve my chances of acceptance. It was a risk. But I also saw it as an amazing opportunity. I agreed to do it.
I changed my main character. I made him a Lord. The ramifications were huge. Not only did I have to move him and his family out of the three-bedroomed semi, I’d given them, but I had to create a brand new estate and manor house, and give them staff. I also need to extend the family.
And then there was the word cull. Did I cut 35,000 words? No. I managed 30,000. Well, make that 28,000, but the agent helped me identify another 2,000. So my 125,000-word manuscript became 95,000. (I hoped for a 10% leeway in the 90,000 word count, which is what happens with a lot of non-fiction!)
My agent loved it. And so we sent it back to the editor at the beginning of January. And we waited. And we waited.
When my agent was at the London Book Fair, she met up with the editor and made enquiries. He apologised for not having read it yet, but confirmed it was in his pile to read. He then turned to his assistant and described two scenes from the book that he’d particularly enjoyed. (When my agent told me this I prayed they weren’t two scenes I’d culled!)
A few months later came the decision. It was a No. A rejection. While the editor loved the revised version, the acquisitions panel decided to go with another cosy crime series instead.
I’ve been quite surprised by some of the reactions I’ve had when I’ve shared this with other writers. Some were horrified that I’d made so many changes. ”It’s no longer YOUR novel, now!” they exclaimed. ”How dare someone make you change your manuscript. That was your idea, and how you interpreted it.” One even suggested that I had ”sold my soul to the devil, just to get my novel published.”
I don’t see it like that at all.
I was grateful, and still am, of that 30-minute telephone conversation with the editor. This is a man who knows the market I’m writing for. He didn’t have to offer me that time. And, let’s face it, that time has not earned him, or his publisher, any money.
And, yes, it is still my novel. He suggested some ideas to help adapt it for the market, but it was still my interpretation of those ideas. (And I still have a copy of the 125,000-word version anyway, so it’s not as though I’ve deleted that or got rid of it.)
And despite making all the changes I have, when I read both versions, the story is still the same. The plot is still the same. So I haven’t really made a huge change. But it’s better suited to the market for which I’m aiming.
And while cutting 30,000 words was hard work … and it WAS hard work … the novel is infinitely better for it. What I have now is a far stronger manuscript. One that I have much more confidence in. This whole exercise has been an interesting learning experience! I’m a better novelist (and editor) because of it.
And that’s the business of writing. Not all ideas pan out. Rarely do they pan out as you imagine them to. Somethings are meant to be, others aren’t.
There’s another reason for writing this post. As writers, we’re great at sharing the good stuff on social media. My timelines are full of writers sharing their news of their just-signed new contract for a multi-book deal with a publisher. Then there are the cover reveals. And it’s an essential social media etiquette that a writer films the opening of the box of their author copies of their latest book. And quite right too, because these are all fantastic achievements.
But it does skew the perception of what the business of writing is like: one magic moment after another. Which it isn’t. There are highs and there are lows, and we’re not always great at sharing the lows.
Yes, when this editor came back with a rejection, it wasn’t nice. It was a low point. But, he said some very nice things about me as a writer, and as a novelist. He’s convinced that I will find a publisher for my novel (as is my agent).
And so, despite this rejection, I too am convinced I will see my novel in print. Because his advice led me to make changes to my novel that has created a far stronger story. The business of writing is not all highs. There are lows as well, and we’re not always very good at talking about them. But the lows are just as important, for they help to calibrate the highs.
One day I will be blogging about my published novel. Indeed, I thought I would be doing that quite soon. But it turns out that wasn’t to be. Not just yet, anyway.
But when I do, it will only be because of the work that I did here … to reach this ‘low’ point, if I can call it that. The road to publication is not a straightforward journey. But what makes it interesting is that we never know what is just around the next corner.