I knew I was in trouble quite early on. The warning came from an unexpected source.
I’d just written my first draft. Eighty-five-thousand words. I’d smashed through it in six months. To celebrate, I took a couple of weeks off to enjoy the warmth of early summer, before getting stuck into the editing process. Even though I hadn’t read the book back to myself yet, I knew it was pretty solid stuff. Editing would be a formality. Two or three months, tops. Immensely pleased with myself – and my ability to churn out high-quality prose at lightning speed – I spent the ensuing fortnight lazily slumping about like a bumble bee sweetly soused on pollen. My spirit was aglow with that giddy satisfaction which only comes after a burst of creativity. My ego was so inflated that the slightest summer gust could have tossed me into the neighbour’s garden. I consolidated my sense of worth by purchasing a hat, just so I could tip it at people.
It was in this happy haze of self-congratulation that I accepted an invitation to a garden party. It’s not often I go to garden parties. Mainly because I’m not a character in an Agatha Christie story. But I took up the invitation gaily, even going so far as to wear my new hat (to tip at people). Whilst there, amongst the rose bushes and dahlia of merry middle England, I started talking to a vicar. We discussed writing. He told me that he occasionally penned frothy dispatches to the local benefice newsletter as well as composing some choicer verse which would remain forever private. I told him I usually wrote non-fiction but was currently working on my first novel.
‘How marvellous,’ he said, sitting down on a rustic iron chair, lit by a shaft of afternoon sun. ‘What’s it about?’
Between sips of tea, I gave him the gist of the plot. That it was a comedy set in 1992 and involved a man going to stay on an artist’s retreat in Norfolk and, whilst there, getting roped into pretending to be a primary school teacher during an inspection. ‘It’s a love story really, though,’ I said, and awaited his overwhelmingly positive response.
‘That,’ he said, ‘sounds bloody awful.’
I almost choked on my Victoria sponge. ‘Well. Yes. Yes. No. It needs a lot of work,’ I said, caving instantly. My ego gained a few pounds; a summer gust couldn’t toss me if it tried. Stuttering, I attempted to defend my masterpiece, but everything I said made the plot seem even stupider.
‘It sounds damned implausible,’ the vicar said. ‘I don’t buy it.’
When even a vicar isn’t willing to humour you, you know you’re in trouble. After all, vicars are professional humourers. I believe I’m right in thinking that the art of humouring takes up almost all of year two of ecclesiastical training college. And it’s no secret that, once qualified, vicars will then spend the bulk of their professional careers perfecting their humouring skills; they become expert in the art of vacantly smiling as half-witted stragglers from their flock give them the latest on their bad knees or the durability of their new sheds. But would this professional humourer be willing to humour me at all? Good Lord, no.
‘I don’t buy it.’
I can’t tell you what a kick to the nuts it was. This is a man, remember, who has devoted both life and afterlife to a book about resurrected corpses, people living in the bellies of whales and demon-possessed pigs jumping off cliffs. Oh, yes, he’s willing to buy into the plausibility of all that. But he isn’t willing to buy into the plausibility of my light-hearted pastoral romp.