It was in 2006 and my first novel was still a mere baby of funny scenes strung together and I was under the illusion that it was the next Brigid Jones-and more. I along with six other Scottish writers had been offered a place on a weekend retreat. We were all working on our first project.
It was a weekend full of workshops, great food and an audience with a well-known agent.
I truly believed I had written a best seller. I was so excited, so close to my dream I couldn't touch my breakfast. Instead, like the others, I waited.
The agent was a woman with a packet of cigarettes a day voice and she didn't mince her words.
“You’re too coarse,” she said, “I mean describing her breast as…” she flicked through her notes “elephant ears?” She looked at me “why would you do that?”
“Is it not funny?” I muttered.
She didn’t even answer but instead gave me half an hour of her time. I took a page full of notes and tried not to think too much about my English teacher. She always sent my stories back covered in red marks and comments such as…
“I find this hard to believe.”
“Is there such a word?”
“Were you drunk when you wrote this?”
Her idea of constructive criticism was to tell me to get a job in MacDonald’s where “no spelling was required!”
I wandered the beach crying into my phone, ““what will I do if I can’t write,” I said to my pal. “I may as well…join a commune, take to chocolate, it’s all so hopeless.”
“Writing is like marmite,” she said sagely. “You either love or hate it-lukewarm, does not cut it with Marmite.”
For those of you who have never heard of Marmite, it is something very British, salty and considered good for you. Yeast in a dark sticky mass you either spread thick as you can on toast-like me or gag at the mere thought of unscrewing the lid.
My pal then launched into a list of writers from Ernest Hemingway to Agatha Christie who all experience wrist slashing reviews. Not one writers of comedy however were mentioned.
“What are you trying to say?” I said, “I should be writing mysteries; fishing for marlin?”
“Can you not take out the elephant description?” she sighed.
In truth the writing wasn’t finished. Once my tears were wiped away, I reread my notes re-grouped and re-plotted.
Years later, my first book rewritten, edited and self-published, a reader wrote to me, I love your book,” she said. “It touched me, and I laughed out loud.” A husband whose wife “just loved the book” asked me for an autograph. And my daughter’s friend, an English student, said “there is more to your book than first appears, worth a second read.”
Of course, the same book has received some pretty hurtful reviews too, some along the lines of “impossible to read”; “utter rubbish,” and as funny as a road accident” nothing I can’t handle without a jar of marmite by my side.
The lesson learned…
One reader’s funny bone is another readers snooze button.
What some called “racy and fast-paced” others call “impossible to follow”. And what some call a “cracking caste of full body characters” others called a “confusing entourage of women who do not attract a second read…”
When you think your work is finished your probably halfway there and steer clear of comic descriptions involving elephants.