It’s all very well knowing that you want to be an author, but it’s not exactly a job you can apply for. Going through school, college and university, I knew that I was going to have to find a job to keep me going until a publisher discovered my work and offered me a publishing deal. Well, that’s how I saw it. The trouble was, I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do. Then, by a stroke of good fortune, I found a job that seemed ideally suited to my ambitions. I was just finishing a post-grad course when the local branch of Waterstone’s advertised a job vacancy. I loved books, I loved bookshops, and it gave me the opportunity to stay in a town that I come to love. Thus began my bookshop years.
I soon learnt that it was more perfect for me than I had anticipated. I was surrounded by books and people like me who also loved to read and talk about books. I was discovering new authors all the time and learning so much about writing from reading. I was meeting publishers’ reps and learning about publishing and the book trade. I was experiencing first-hand what made a book sell. I was even meeting authors at the regular events held at the shop. As I watched them sign copies of their books and listen to them talk about their books, I became even more inspired than ever that one day, I would be doing what they did.
This was a very productive time for my writing. I was writing, using all my days off to work on the Arris novel. At some point, I made a conscious decision not to take up any other hobbies or past-times because I needed the time for writing. Thankfully by now, I was working on a word-processor, something that enabled me to edit and count words – watching that word count go up and up was a constant source of satisfaction to me.
As I said in the previous blog, I had every intention of Arris being my big, break-through novel. But one quiet afternoon in the shop, a little thought came to me. When customers came to the till with an enquiry, they usually said something like “Have you got that book…” which I thought would make a really amusing title for a book. Then customers would be asking “Have you got that book ‘Have You Got That Book?’” The idea amused me so much that I began to wonder what kind of book could have a title like that. Maybe a novel about a bookshop. This was the late nineties and bookshops were quite trendy places, so that was an attractive idea. In fact, it was such a good idea, I realised that I should be writing a novel set in a bookshop. I could make it light and fun, chick-lit at its best. All I needed were some characters and a plot. It must have been a quiet day in the shop because by the end of the day, I had everything I needed. I went home from work that evening and made notes on the whole synopsis and complete ensemble of characters. Reading those notes back, I can see that my original plan was pretty much what I went on to write.
Have You Got That Book? was set in an old family run bookshop called Phoenix Books, in a fictional suburb of London. It was owned by a couple of elderly spinster sisters, who left the business of running the shop to the staff. It was the lives of these staff that would make up the plot, Jilly Cooper style, with their individual stories running alongside each other over the course of a year. There was Owen, a quiet book-lover who ran the fiction section but who would rather be writing and selling his own novels. There was James, the assistant manager, who had given up a career in Academia because of a scandalous affair with a student but was finding success in a career in bookselling. There was Sophie, a shy young girl who ran the children’s section and had a secret crush on Owen. There was Alex, a handsome but modest hunk who unpacked and processed all the deliveries. And into their midst came Sassy, a great-niece of the spinster sisters, who is offered the job of manager, despite having no experience. This is where the action begins, as the bitterness between Sassy and James causes ructions in the shop, disturbing the peaceful equilibrium. Sassy and James eventually make up and have a relationship, only for that to be thrown awry by a visitor from James’s past. Sophie is seduced by a lecherous author who leads her into a life of parties and hedonism. Alex finds himself having unexpected feelings for a friendly male delivery driver, despite the fact that he is in a steady relationship with his girlfriend. And Owen is stuck in the middle, trying to keep the peace and sort out everyone’s problems, at the same time as trying to protect the shop from the competitive rivalry of a large chain bookshop in the same town.
The idea was so whole, and so exciting that I knew I had to write it straight away. It meant pausing work on the Arris novel and throwing myself headfirst into HYGTB? I imagined that I could write it pretty quickly by keeping it light and fun. My characters could be caricatures, without much depth and it needn’t be that long. My plan was to dash it off and cash in on a trend for bookshop settings – this was the time when the films Notting Hill and You’ve Got Mail were being made. It was a band-wagon ripe for jumping on.
My notebook shows that this idea came to life on 28th April 1998. But what happened next was not what I had planned. Those characters that seemed to have leapt into my imagination almost fully formed began to demand much more than a frothy chick-lit treatment. As I began writing, they developed into real people, with back-stories and genuine emotions. I couldn’t just dismiss them as stereo-types. They had human flaws, but that made me like them more and made me determined to make them believable and relatable for readers. My quick chick-lit was becoming an epic. And what I thought would be a speedy project took over the next two years of my life. An old diary record shows that I finished the first draft on 11th April 2000, with 26 chapters and what amounted to over 500 pages. It was the first thing I had finished since 1988, so it felt like a huge achievement. And I also believed that I had created something good that people would enjoy reading as much as I had enjoyed writing.
The advantage of finishing something is being able to offer it to other people to read. Once I had finished my first draft and tidied it up and done some rudimentary editing, I printed off a hard copy and started lending it out to my friends. It was the first time in years that anyone had read my writing, and I was thrilled with the responses I was getting. Yes, they were my friends and family, so they weren’t going to be critical, but I was encouraged by the way they wanted to discuss the characters as if they were real people. To me, that felt like evidence that the novel was working how I had wanted it to work. Surely it would only be a matter of time before I was discovered by the publishers, and like my character Owen, become a famous bookseller author. I started sending it off to publishers and agents, convinced that they would also see the novelty factor of a bookseller writing a book about a bookshop. I could imagine the headlines in the trade press! However, I soon had another new experience to put under my belt – my first rejections.
Reading it myself now, I can see why it was rejected. It’s a great plot and has lots of good elements, but it isn’t particularly well written – not badly written, just not of the standard I aim for these days. It could be improved, but would take a lot of work. And while I’d like it to be read again, I find myself wondering if it should be. It might not have turned out as chick-lit as I first imagined but it is still of that genre; it is highly dramatic and full of passion, in and out of bed. For a provincial bookshop, the characters are rather glamorous and beautiful and all behave perfectly to type, with each person paired up for the romantic happy ending. There’s nothing wrong with that – I love a bit of Jilly Cooper – but I don’t write like that anymore. It doesn’t fit with my later work. But if I were to change it, would I be taking away everything that made it fun and entertaining? Is it worth doing that? It’s a strange dilemma to find oneself with, to have a novel I don’t know what to do with. Until I decide that, HYGTB? remains in a state of limbo.