Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll tell you a story.
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a novel about the First World War. There have been many more since then, but this one became a huge word-of-mouth hit – not quite the da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of its day, but up there with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and possibly even Gone Girl. And, in the way of these things, for a while afterwards every agent and publisher was looking for his or her First World War novel in the hope of matching the first one’s success and, since publishing and agenting are businesses, earning power.
One day, a fresh-faced, naïve debut novelist came along, clutching a pristine typescript and a letter of introduction to one of those agents. He read the typescript (the novelist knew he had – he’d left coffee stains on some of the inside pages as well as the cover sheet) and summoned the unsuspecting novelist to a meeting at his tiny top floor office two hundred miles from her home.
She left the meeting after an hour or so, her head reeling and her notebook filled with the many ‘suggestions for improvement’ the agent had made. And for the next month she toiled over he typescript, incorporating his suggestions – yes, pretty well all of them, even the ones which made her uncomfortable, or left her thinking Really? – and turning her novel into the publishable commodity he had not-quite-promised it would become if she followed his advice.
Eventually it was all reworked and retyped (this was in the long-gone days before word processing; remember them?) and she sent it back to the agent with renewed hope. But this time there was no meeting; a three-minute phone call was all it took. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘The heart’s gone out of it.’
Spot the deliberate mistake, gentle reader. It wasn’t the heart that had gone out of the novel. It was the author. Perhaps the agent hadn’t exactly ‘suggested’ changes that turned it into the First World War novel he would have written if he could write; perhaps he was genuinely trying to make it publishable, whatever that means (I never did find a satisfactory definition, even when it was my job to decide what was publishable and what wasn’t). But whatever his motives, the result was the same: it was no longer the novel that the author had set out to write, so it lacked that certain spark which came directly from her.
I’ve been put in mind of that salutary experience several times recently, when reading debut novels for review. There are always trends in fiction, usually sparked off by an unexpected word-of-mouth success. All those years ago, the First World War had a little heyday. Then came chick-lit. Back in the Noughties The da Vinci Code gave rise to a whole raft of novels about puzzles and ciphers. And now I’m afraid it’s Gone Girl. It keeps on reappearing: the story which seems to come to an end halfway through the book, then turns upside-down and goes off in a different direction, leaving the reader feeling mystified and a little foolish. And alas, it’s rarely achieved with the same degree of skill as Gillian Flynn showed. The examples I’ve encountered have all been by debut authors; maybe people who are already established don’t feel the need to jump on the latest bandwagon.
Yes, OK, that debut author was me, and let me tell you that experience really was salutary; it taught me a valuable lesson – write the novel that’s in you, not a version of someone else’s. Which isn’t to say advice from informed sources should be ignored – just used with care, and not at all when it sets alarm bells ringing, or gives you a sinking feeling which kills the excitement which has brought you this far. And maybe, just maybe, someone else will be as excited about it as you are. And if that doesn’t happen, at least it’s still your novel.