Nothing at all is what happens to most writers and most books. I think it’s pretty rare for so much to happen to one novel and for nothing at all to come of it.
I’m sure you all remember the story of Naming Names.
It all started when the husband began having seizures, and we spent four long months waiting for a diagnosis of epilepsy. When it came we were very relieved, I can tell you.
Those four months were stressful, of course they were, but they were also some of the most extraordinary of my life. I stopped almost all of what I was doing to spend that time with the husband, and we assessed our lives together in a way that few couples have the opportunity to do.
I also wrote Naming Names.
As writers, we all pick our stories, and we all have our reasons for doing so. For a mother of daughters to write a novel about maternal sexual abuse is, perhaps a strange choice, but I had sound reasons for wanting to tell this particular story.
During a period in his working life, my father was regularly served tea by Myra Hindley. A writer cannot know a thing like that and not weave stories. I was probably in my teens when I first knew that my father had been in a room with the most notorious female sex offender and murderer in British criminal history, and I was in my forties when I finally wrote Naming Names.
While I was looking for an agent for the novel, I decided to post a couple of chapters on Authonomy the, then, relatively new writers’ website. It got mixed reviews. Within hours of me posting the first chapter, Names was being propelled up the charts by some very active readers. It was a hit. Only a day or two later, it was the first book ever banned on the site for content.
It was the first sign of the roller coaster ride this book continues to take me on.
The next high was the Mslexia novel writing competition. Naming Names was announced as a runner-up. Great news! I started this blog on the strength of it, and met my lovely agent.
The winner of the competition, Rosie Garland, quickly signed a very impressive first book deal, and the other runner-up, Rebecca Alexander, soon followed suit.
Meanwhile, I was in talks with my lovely agent, and rewrites of Naming Names were well under way.
I should have spotted the signs, though. My lovely agent was far too confident. My lovely agent was talking about me in the same sentences as some pretty heavy hitters in the publishing world. I even remember asking my lovely agent if that was wise. We talked about my plans for my next novel. We talked about the possibility of a bidding war, and we even talked about book prizes. It all seemed far too good to be true.
When something seems too good to be true, there’s always a good reason for that.
My lovely agent put together an impressive list of editors to send Names out to from a very impressive list of publishers. The big names were all there... All of them!
I didn’t understand it. This was the book that had been banned on Authonomy. This was the book that at least half of my beta-readers hadn’t been able to read. This was the book that I’d struggled to have in my house, let alone in my head... Why was everything looking so damned good?
Then the rejections started coming in.
WOW! Were they some rejections?
That was what took the sting out of the process. That was what saved my poor heart from breaking over my beautiful, brutal little book.
No one was indifferent to Naming Names. No one simply passed on it. Everyone who read Names had a visceral, heartfelt response. Everyone saw the intensity in the work, everyone saw the pain. They said I wrote well. They said I engaged brilliantly with the subject matter. They said it was devastating.
They said they wouldn’t publish it. They all said they wouldn’t publish it.
So Naming Names remains a file on my computer, unloved and unpublished. It took courage to write it, and it would have taken courage to publish it.
I am immensely proud of it, and I will always be immensely proud of it. It has ‘been seen’ now, though, so it will probably never be published.
I could blame my agent. I could say that my writing career was mismanaged. I could say that I should have been advised to write another book or two first, and build a reputation that Naming Names could comfortably have stood on. I could say that there was never a hope that a publisher would take a book like Names from a first time novelist. I could say that I was let down... that Names was let down. I could say that this should always have gone to a small press...
I could say any of those things.
The fact is, I had choices, and perhaps I wasn’t as smart about them as I might have been.
I wanted to see Naming Names published and, even though personal experience told me not to expect too much, I was carried along by the process and by my own vanity. After a long time and a lot of experience at the commercial end of this business I was still naive.
I have only myself to blame.
One day, I might write another book for myself, another controversial book, another book that will engender another visceral response. I hope that if I do I treat it with more respect than I treated Naming Names, and I hope I put it out into the World with more care.