I’ve taken a break from this blog for several months, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but because the journey of getting a first novel published has been more complex and frustrating than I expected. I wasn’t naïve about the process either; having talked to many people beforehand, I understood what it involved.
Alas, one has to grow a thick skin. I thought I had one (in comparison to many artists). Coming from business and finance, I was already used to knocks and bumps, critical feedback and tough conversations. This was different. When you’ve put your heart and soul into an endeavour, rejection feels totally different.
In March, when I was signed up by Thomas Colchie (see By Serendipity, I Have an Agent!), a literary agent who specialises in representing international writers, I had high hopes. Thomas approached a dozen publishers on my behalf, but unlike theoretical physics, everyone has a view, and this view is subjective. Publishers turned us down. The funny thing is, their feedback – to the extent that they gave any – was not consistent. For some, the book was not literary enough, for others, not commercial enough; a couple of publishers complained about the Malaysian-language dialogue, others about the pace being too meandering. My partner, bless her, was outraged by this last comment, because its meandering nature, like a winding river, was precisely what she loved most.
There is a Russian fable about an elephant who painted a landscape. Before sending it off to an exhibition, the elephant invited friends over to inspect his painting. The elephant was very excited: would his friends praise him or criticise him? What would they suggest as improvements? Each animal friend came, inspected, and pronounced. Their criticism was all valid, but by the time the elephant had incorporated their suggestions, his painting had turned into a fantasy savannah featuring snow, ice and the River Nile side-by-side – a far cry from what he had wanted to depict.
Should I re-write my novel, or should I stand firm? That was the decision I had to make.
My agent didn’t think I should re-write my work. He believed that the pace and richness suited the story and its setting – South-East Asia at the turn of the twentieth century. Instead, Thomas advised me to start writing the second book in my trilogy. This may sound strange – if you can’t find a publisher for one book, why write another? But Thomas, who is a highly experienced agent, believes that the second part of the story, being less complex, would be easier to sell. For the moment, I’m taking this advice. I will commence research in Malaysia next month.
Meanwhile, I’ve completed the non-fiction book I had already started – a short work about my experiences in France. Anyone who has read the blog-post about my battles with a skip (yes that’s right, a skip) will have gleaned that there is little love lost between France and me. France may be a superb holiday destination, but once I began spending more time there, I found the place a huge disappointment.
I did not want to write a French-bashing book though, as there are already plenty of those, nor did I want my manuscript to sound like a litany of complaints. Instead, I’ve tried to achieve a style of loving, albeit sceptical, humour – along the lines of the vastly popular A Year in Provence or the more recent 1,000 Years of Annoying the French. The latter may sound like a piece of French-bashing but isn’t. Really. Having said that, any French person reading it would need a sense of humour.
My own book will centre on some of the things my partner and I had to confront when she bought a house near Paris and I set about managing its renovation. This is not an account of builders and DIY but is about things you would not imagine finding in Western Europe in the twenty first century. Phenomena such as cash desks (I can already hear it, what?), gardeners whose quotes depend on what they think you can afford (not on the size of your job), a taxi driver who barks at three passengers to squeeze into the back because he’s charging his iPod and can’t be bothered to move the device. If you think we were just unfortunate, we weren’t – others have recounted similar experiences. In his book 1,000 Years of Annoying the French, Stephen Clarke even describes Parisian taxi drivers as being “allergic” to having passengers on the front seat. And I thought I knew France. Non, pas du tout!
To be clear, I’m not trying to change anyone: the French have every right to be as they are. In fact, it would be great for us all if the country stayed more or less as it is (and even better if it regressed by 50 years, as some politicians are unwittingly proposing). I could never live there though. But I hope that my account of how to deal with certain French peculiarities, or not (as the case may be), would be entertaining to anyone with an interest in France. It might even be thought-provoking for those planning to move to the land of foie-gras.
Now nearing the end of its third edit, my non-fiction manuscript is almost ready. I’ll be sending it soon to my agent for initial feedback and he’s already expecting it. Fingers crossed.