Longstanding readers of A Few Kind Words will be familiar with the saga of The Artefact, the third in a series of young adult novels, with which I have been grappling for a number of years.
To wind back a little (seven years in fact): at the time the second in the series, The Reckoning, was published, I had already written two-thirds of The Artefact, and was waiting for my publishers to send through the contract. Instead I got a letter sacking me for not having sold enough of the first two books. This despite the fact that both The Reckoning and its predecessor, The Witness, had been shortlisted for Scottish Children’s Book of the Year, and my promotional endeavours had included visiting close to 50 secondary schools between 2007 and 2008.
(I particularly remember the final visit, in the last week of the summer term, to a school not far from Inverness. My audience of 30 or 40 teenagers, who had either been on a collective lunchtime sugar binge, or were gripped by some kind of mass end-of-term hysteria, spent an hour bouncing off the walls of the classroom. I am tall, I have a loud voice and I can, when the occasion demands, summon a stern demeanour. None of this cut any ice in this establishment. A couple of weeks later the postman delivered a large manila envelope containing about 30 handwritten letters of apology…)
But back to The Artefact. Disheartened by my sacking, and at the time pretty angry at its peremptory nature, I put the manuscript aside thinking I’d return to it in a month or two. But other things intervened, including a period of about 18 months when I travelled to India quite regularly for work. I began to wonder whether I’d lost interest in the story. I tried to revive it on a week’s retreat in the south of France but ended up writing myself into a corner. I put it aside again, but it kept quietly nagging at me. I bored Sarah to death with shall-I-shan’t-I conversations over the dinner table. I even turned to you, dear readers, for advice. Of those who obliged, about half of you said finish it, half said let it go. That was most helpful.
Finally, this time last year, I had a rush of blood to the head and finished it over a quiet fortnight. Then, after a week of polishing earlier this year, I handed it over to my agent, Jenny Brown, who sent it out a couple of weeks ago, under the new and more exotic title of Jaguar – the animal represented by the artefact in question – to the first three publishers on her list.
And now we wait. It feels good to have brought a long-unfinished piece of business to its conclusion, even though we don’t yet have a publisher: I’ve finally got the story out of my system. That’s the first step. But a story needs an audience and finding one, which is the next step, makes me feel anxious and exposed, especially since we have now had one rejection.
This is an aspect of the whole business of writing books that one forgets about, perhaps in the same way women forget the pain of childbirth, until the next time. Rejection hurts, however much one can dismiss it intellectually, and I doubt one ever really gets used to it. Briefly there’s a little stab inside and an accompanying voice that whispers ‘maybe they’re right, maybe the book’s no good, maybe you’re just fooling yourself’.
But Jenny’s list is long, it includes the editor who bought The Witness and has now moved on to another publisher, and as every published author knows, it only takes one person to fall for the story and you’re home. No one knows this better than my friend and Dark Angels colleague, John Simmons. His novel Leaves will be published in June. It’s a small slice of life from the London of the early 1970s; a story of ordinary, and not-so-ordinary, lives beautifully observed and compellingly told. I recommend it to anyone who lived through those times; and if you didn’t, it offers a fascinating glimpse of a pre-Thatcher, pre-internet England that seems today almost like an alien planet.
But what you really need to know about Leaves is that John wrote the first draft shortly after coming down from Oxford. That was 45 years ago. Jaguar’s seven-year gestation pales in comparison.