I’m beginning to know how Mary felt.
It all seemed so simple at first. The play was in town. She and Abe didn’t really have all that much to do around the White House, what with the Civil War winding down as it was. The seats were good; the theatre was beautiful; the price was right. It seemed like a nice idea, so why not?
And then it all got rather more complicated.
Well, I can identify with all of that. Except the part about the Civil War, the White House, being married to the president and, thankfully, John Wilkes Booth. Oh, and the play, of course.
But, other than that, it’s exactly the same. Except for me, it’s a book.
Now, I can hear you all saying ‘aaarrgh, not the book, AGAIN’. Yes, I’m afraid so but please bear with me because this time it’s not really about the book per se but, rather, about the story of the book. Which is a sad one.
It all seemed so simple at first. For every gift-giving opportunity for years, Tom’s brother, Bob (hello Bob), has asked me for the first chapter of my book. I have no idea why, other than he is a very nice, encouraging sort of person and has always said that he enjoyed my emails. Either that, or he was afraid of what other gifts he might get. Considering the fact, however, that the last present he gave Tom was a pair of underwear featuring the picture of a moose on a bicycle and the words ‘Getting the Moose Out of Life’ on it, he really isn’t one to talk. Anyway, for years I told him ‘next year’ and sort of meant it when I said it but, invariably, got distracted and quickly forgot about it.
Not, however, last August. The day Tom told me that Bob and his family were coming for Christmas, I sat down and started writing a book. I figured that a chapter for his birthday and one for Christmas every year for 10 years was doable, as long as they were very short chapters. Unusually for me, I didn’t announce what I was doing, I didn’t ask anyone if they thought it was a good idea, I didn’t procrastinate, I didn’t start realising that the windowsills needed repainting, I just decided to do it.
After all, how hard could it be? The Civil War might not have been on the wane, but the children were more-or-less grown up, both work and the house were ticking over and I suddenly had some free time. I also had a great seat, at my new-to-me antique desk, in my freshly decorated study, in which I really enjoyed spending time. And, the price was not only right, it was downright free.
So, a book that Bob might not have actually wanted but which he had asked for, repeatedly, written at a point when I had free time, a good seat in a great room and at an unbeatable price. It seemed like a nice idea, so why not?
And then it all got rather more complicated.
It was called Confessions of a Pet Nanny and was a short, sweet book about dogs, lots of dogs. And their owners. And the weird yet wonderful part of London in which we live. It was not War and Peace. It also wasn’t James Herriot, or Bill Bryson, or anyone else you might ever have read and liked. It was just a Christmas present for Bob.
I showed it to Tom and the children. They liked it. In fact, they really liked it and thought I should try to get it published. Except, of course, it needed a bit of “tweaking”. Nothing is perfect the first time, everything can be improved upon. You get the idea.
Tom showed it to people, who showed it to people, who in turn showed it to people. Everyone thought it had potential, or legs as they called it. Yes, it was definitely publishable, but it needed a bit more in it than just dog stories. It needed something that would broaden its appeal, something that would attract a wider audience.
One friend with tons of editorial experience thought that the real story wasn’t the one about all the different dogs I watch, it was the one about how I started off as a diplomat and ended up as a Pet Nanny. There can’t be too many people in the world with my particular career path. She wanted to know more about how I got here. Much more.
Someone else thought it was more about how crazy the English are when it comes to their dogs. She kept pointing out that not everywhere in the world does Fido have regular hydrotherapy sessions or can you go into a park and find a spot fenced off for the children to play in, while the dogs are allowed to roam everywhere else at will. Where else, she wondered, can you live in a neighbourhood for years without having anyone speak to you, but spend just one weekend walking a friend’s dog and you suddenly know everyone. Where was all that in the book? She also wanted more.
Meanwhile, another said that it needed a thread to run through it that would keep the reader hooked. She suggested that it be the story of my own dog, Gaby, from when she first arrived in my life until, years later, she passed out of it. Tom agreed. He thought the idea of a definite storyline interwoven among all the vignettes about dogs was a good one. He just didn’t think it should be the Gaby angle. Instead, he thought a dog should get hit by a car in the opening scenes and then over the course of the book we should learn more about what had happened. The dog, by the way, needed to die in the end otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘believable’. I have no idea why not. You’ll have to ask Tom.
Obviously as a result of my deep-rooted insecurity as a writer, I obliged. Everyone. Diplomatic career – right you are. English love of their dogs – in there. Gaby – got it. Dead dog – no worries. The result was at least four separate stories, in search of a plot.
This, apparently, was no problem. All I had to do, Carla said, was layer it – like a lasagna. Yes, a lasagna. A layer of diplomat, followed by a layer of dead dog, English eccentricity, Pet Nannyhood and Gaby. Repeat until you run out of ingredients. Sprinkle in a few sentences to link one layer to the next and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown. Wait, sorry, I just made that last part up. What she really said was and then get it published, or words to that effect.
So, not knowing what else to do, I did it. The result, From the White House to the Dog House, was surprisingly coherent. I sent it out to a few agents. They sent it back, with very nice notes telling me why it wasn’t for them. And then, one didn’t send it back. In fact, he took it with him to the Frankfurt Book Fair where he apparently got a few publishers interested in it.
Well, not it as it is now of course, but it as it will be. After a bit of “tweaking”.
As amazing as this seems, he has agreed to be my agent. I think. I’m leaving that to Tom to sort out. He likes that sort of thing. Anyway, my perhaps-agent and I met up yesterday to discuss the tweaking. It turns out that his idea of a tweak is to totally restructure the entire book. Instead of lasagna, we are now aiming for stew. Huge chunks of the book can remain the same, but it is lacking one essential ingredient – me. He wants a lot more of me in the story and, for some bizarre reason, Tom. As we walked for hours around Bethnal Green, he kept quoting large sections of my book to me, verbatim, and told me what worked as is and what needed more work. Everything I said to him he replied with ‘THAT should be in the book’. Where? It doesn’t matter. I am not supposed to worry about that. All I have to do is go home and write it. How long didn’t matter either. Ten pages, 50, 100, whatever I wanted would be fine. Just make sure I get a lot more Tom in it because he, apparently, is ‘a great character’.
Ten, 50, 100 pages? More me. More Tom. Hmmmm, I don’t know that that’s what I wanted. In fact, I know it isn’t. What I actually wanted was to be told that I had completely finished everything I ever had to do and that he, my possible editor-cum-agent, would merely rearrange the chapters into a better order. Tom, however, was thrilled.
After the play, Mary went a little loopy and wound up in a home for the seriously overwhelmed. I can so easily see how that happened.
Bob, meanwhile, got snowed out and never did turn up for Christmas.
You have to laugh, I suppose.