How do you know?

JK Rowling was an amateur. Twelve Rejections? Twelve? Ha! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been turned away at the door. Twelve? No offence, Ms R, but that’s not even trying.

I’m the first (actually, probably the second or third) person to admit that I have an arrogant side, especially when it comes to my writing. When I complete a piece I’m damn excited. I lose all sense of perspective. Okay, I know it ain’t perfect, but I’ve got the bones down. And what bones – the bones of a colossus, a juggernaut, a god. Rational thought – sure, it gets a look-in, but excitement, even tempered with experience, is a heady brew. Writers are notoriously bad at self-evaluation.

This, in and of itself, doesn’t matter. As long as you have a strong enough support network – a writing group is ideal – you’ll get feedback and can improve your work over successive drafts. But how do you know when it’s ready to send out to publishers/agents or to self-publish?

I’ve got this wrong. I realise that now. I started sending my work out far too soon, maybe even years before I should’ve been thinking about publication. Occasionally it was for good reasons – publishers running open submission periods, for example – but mostly it was just down to impatience and arrogance. Plus the unwitting encouragement given to me by beta-readers. How do you know? How do you know when you and your work are ready?

The problem (one of them, at least) with the publishing industry is that it’s a one-shot affair. You send out your material and you either succeed or fail. And then you can cross your target off your list. Done. For that project, at least.

Actually, I’m not sure if that’s true. Can you resend the same material – or at least material from the same project – to a publisher? Can you go back? Is there a sort of statute of limitations?

Still, I’m pretty sure it’s bad form to go back to the same place once rejection has been established. And that’s where literary consultants come in. How do you know when your work’s ready to go out? You ask a professional for their opinion. Most, these days, at least claim to be ‘talent scouts’ for agencies, so if your work’s ready you stand to get a leg-up. If it’s not you get valuable advice on where you’re going wrong.

I get it now. I didn’t before. In my arrogance I didn’t see the point. After all, my writing is technically pretty good – I enjoy punctuating and, with (free) help can vanquish most typos. My flaws are slowly being eradicated as they’re pointed out to me.

But now that I’ve had my work critiqued by a professional I can finally see where I’ve been going wrong all these years. Where my plots are falling down. Where my characters are behaving – well, out of character.

I’ve got this far (pretty much nowhere) without paying a penny. I guess that’s something to be proud of, but I’ve cost myself a lot of opportunities on the way. If I’d paid for assessment a year or so ago I’d have stood a much greater chance of having an agent/publisher by now. Yeah, I get it now. I finally see the point.

Which is not to say that I regret doing it my way. I have learnt. Learnt a great deal along the way. Maybe it was best for me to make the mistakes as I went along: 2013 was, for me, The Year Of Learning How To Be Professional. Maybe I had to go through that (not in a predestination type of way – balls to all that) in order to accept the lessons. I just wish I’d been a little more patient before sending my writing out to publishers and agents.

Of course, I know I should finish by saying that I’ll never be so impetuous again. But I know myself. Even though I (think I) know what it’s cost me, I don’t think I’d change. That’s just the way I am. And if you’re in the same position then don’t be too hard on yourself. Be accepting. Be Zen. Keep on swimming.

By the way, why is it that consultants only seem to exist in the world of writing? I know of no comparable services for the music industry, or in art. All rely on interpretations of taste and of technical ability. I tend to think of all the arts as similar in structure, but maybe I’m wrong.

What do you think?

I submit

Before we begin, take another look at the tag-line up on the top left. ‘Unpublished author’. ‘S what it says. So to be giving advice on how to submit to a publisher or agent may seem a little presumptuous.

But I’ve been trying, and I’ve been reading books, and I’ve been speaking to people – and several bodies have been asking me for full manuscripts recently, so I reckon I’m doing something right. And, since so many sources offer different advice, I thought it might be helpful to give my tuppeneth and see if we can’t thrash something out between us. Just to get things clear from the start, this is based heavily on talks by from David Headley, Adrian Magson, Madeleine Milburn and Daniel Clay at Winchester Writers’ Conference 2013, as well as books like the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (also 2013) and miscellaneous others. I’d also recommend Daniel Clay’s static blog for another perspective: http://danielclaysblog.blogspot.co.uk/.

Submission systems are changing. Just a few years ago, the chances of anybody accepting material through any channel but the post – with self-addressed envelope, immediately doubling postage-costs – were practically non-existent. Publishers weren’t the earliest adopters of modern technology, but once they got the bit between their teeth there was no stopping them. Now most (but not nearly all) publishers/agents take email submissions. And a growing minority now have dedicated web-forms and won’t accept any other method. So with all this diversity, can any one page give advice appropriate for all?

Well, no matter how you get your work to right people, the fundamentals remain the same. Most houses are looking for one, two or three things: a covering letter; a synopsis; and a sample of your writing. Usually the sample is three chapters or 10,000 words, but this varies greatly (and I’ll say this again because it’s so important); it’s crucial that you read the guidelines carefully for each different submission.

The synopsis is the least important part of what I think of as the standard submission package. I know it’s one of the hardest things to get right, but really it’s there as backup for the (probably junior) member of staff who’s reading your work. If they like your covering letter and sample they’ll want to check that the story looks promising: that you haven’t gone crazy and finished with God (or aliens, or great wizards – all the same, really) suddenly appearing to magically punish the wrongdoer and endow your hero/heroine. Unless that’s what your book’s been about all the way through. Consistency, people!

So I won’t say anything more about the synopsis right now. Nor will I waste time discussing your sample writing: just make sure it’s double-spaced (but check the guidelines, just in case) and in a standard font, has page numbers and a header with your name and the title of the book. And is good, obviously.

That leaves us with the covering letter. And it’s time to consider what an agent/publisher is looking for when s/he wearily flicks to the next file on their e-book reader. They want:

  • Great writing
  • To be able to sell your work
  • To be able to work with you
  • To know that you can help them to sell your book

Essentially we’re talking about a business letter here. A job application. This isn’t the place to demonstrate your flair with gimmicks or examples of what a ‘free-spirit’ you are. That comes in your sample. They want to know they can work with you. They want you to be respectful, to include all the info they’ve asked for and to make a short case for your work.

Agent Madeleine Milburn suggested that covering letters should take the following form (not verbatim):

  • Dear… (personal name if possible)
  • I’m currently seeking representation/a publisher for…
  • Type of novel – genre, word-count, YA/adult etc; the ‘story’ in as near to one sentence as you can get. Your fifteen word elevator pitch
  • Why you’re approaching this particular agent
  • A bit about you: your writing ‘qualifications’. Any blogs/social media sites you’re a part of. But don’t use the ones where you’re acting like a – well, as the Americans would say, ‘like a drunken frat boy’. Keep them to yourself, thank you very much. Filthy child.
  • Thanks etc

Oh, and please, please, please – don’t forget your contact details. Even if you’re emailing. Just – just don’t. Also don’t let it go over a page in length – and that can be awkward, what with the wotnots of letter-writing; address, yours faithfully etc.

An example:

 Address

Email and tel. nos

 Date

Dear Mr Publishgasm

I am currently seeking a publisher for my novel, The Rabbits of Satan. Set in 15th century Nuremberg, it is a cross between historical fiction and horror, and is aimed at an adult audience. It follows the attempts of young warrener Jurgen to foil a plot against the master the Prince – a plot that involves carnivorous rabbits, buxom wenches and dark, dark magic – and a trail that leads to the very heart of Bavarian politics.

The novel is my eleventh and is complete at 86,000 words. It’s intended as the first in a trilogy. Please find attached the opening chapters as requested on your website. It would be wonderful to work with Publishgasm as I see you as very much as the leader in 15th century Bavarian books and feel we would be a natural fit.

In terms of market The Rabbits of Satan can be compared with works by authors such as [two or three authors who have recently broken through so that the agent/publisher knows where they’d sit on the shelf].

I am currently employed at the Nuremberg Experience, Staffordshire, and previously worked as a warrener. I have a blog [give the address]. I’m committed to my craft and am determined to make my career in the field.

I am very grateful for your consideration and your time, and would be delighted to send you the full manuscript in either hard or electronic form, as you desire. I look forwards to hearing from you.

Yours, with thanks

Etcetera

Any questions?

Gadgets and NaNoWriMo

I got a new phone in August. I hate it. And I hate it because I like it so much.

What did we do before mobiles, tablets and their ilk? When we were on our buses and trains, when we were waiting for friends or our families, how did we pass the time? Were we perpetually bored?

I hate my phone because instead of spending quality time in my head I play chess or read Twitter. I don’t use my eyes as much – spend less time playing with architecture or admiring nature, or people-watching or dreaming. Several scientific papers – no, I can’t quote them – have suggested that we overstimulate our children and that being bored is an important part of growing up to be a human being. Now I worry we’re losing that as adults.

Because being in our own heads allows us to dream. It allows us to create stories, to make connections – a form of meditation where we can enter a state almost like sleep. Quiet time, where we do nothing, is a precious resource. It’s where we get to know our characters both real and fictional, where we plan and sketch theories and refine and abandon them. I’m a landscape historian by education, and my eternal pleasure is to spot old hedgerows and trackways and try to trace them back through time: to see where a t-junction used to be a crossroads; to spot old manor-houses and lodges and…

And so on. The point is that we’re willingly giving it up. And this time we sacrifice is also the best time for thinking of new stories. Writing-time isn’t just that spent on your computer or with your note-pads: it’s also the time we spend seeing and drifting through time, into wild fantasies and lurid, sweat-drenched nightmares.

Modern technology is fantastic. It’s given us so much, freed us up for more and more time to do what we actually like to do. But don’t let it steal your ability to dream.

*          *          *

It’s been a quiet time here at Writerly Towers. After the highs and lows of September, getting baited by publishers only to see them withdraw the hook, and the new first drafts, and all this… activity, I seem to have been swept into the Doldrums. Becalmed upon an ocean lacuna, awaiting fair wind to gently blow me into harbour, I’m slowly picking my way into the second draft of New Gods and sending off the occasional submission.

As I’ve said on many occasions, it’s a strange life being a writer. You’re constantly sculling from one manic phase to another, trying to cram as much real life as you can around the edges. I’m not a believer in some benevolent muse who’s pulling your strings like a puppet; writing is much more of a habit, even a struggle, than a gift. Still, there are days when the words just won’t come and, despite your best intentions, you feel like it’s just been wasted time.

I’m old now, and resigned enough to be philosophical. Take your time out, take a walk, visit the most excellent Norwich Beer Festival (who can fail to enjoy a brass band rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody with an ale in ‘and?). I’m not a big one for holidays, but I’m treating this time kinda like a brain-off-the-hook session. It’s nice to coast, for once, and not be hammering my muscles against the mighty ocean. And speaking of, you might like to check out this article (http://storyfix.com/help-wanted-hiring-fiction-writers-now) which demonstrates that it’s a mighty ocean indeed.

So for now I’m coasting, doing just a little every day; a sort of busman’s holiday. How long will it go on for? I’ve got no idea. Next week I might be back in the midst of creativity, as abustle as a Dickensian Matron. Who knows, maybe I’ll have had another nibble of interest and I’ll be bouncing around puppy-like, unable to keep from yapping at you all. Or I might have had hopes dashed, thrust into maudlin bitterness and lashing out at the whole industry.

A writer’s life. Weird, unpredictable, where the dull moments are to be treasured and schizophrenia is a constant.

Who will you be today?

*          *          *

It’s NaNoWriMo! That’s National Novel Writing Month (although it should really be InNoWriMo, as it’s gone exceedingly international) for those not in the know. The aim is to write a 50,000-word book in thirty days; a real challenge and a real achievement for those who get it done. Anybody out there giving it a try? I’d love to hear your stories of success or failure, elation or frustration.

I came across the idea a few years ago when I read the official NaNoWriMo guide – memorably described by my Dad as ‘a good book telling you how to write a bad book quickly’. I’ve never taken part; it’s not for me as I’ve got my ways of working and I reckon I’m doing okay on my own. Still, anything that encourages writing – or reading – is a good thing in my eyes.

Just remember that writing is supposed to be fun – or, if not exactly fun, then at least satisfying. For amateurs like me who don’t get paid for their work (not yet, at least) it’s important that we don’t burn out by setting unrealistic targets for ourselves. If you want to write know that I’m here cheering you on; there’s a great writing community out there and we’re all on your side.

And remember that, if it all goes wrong and you abandon your project half way through, that’s okay too. It’s how one responds to setbacks that really defines us as people. Treat those two imposters, triumph and disaster, etc…

Happy writing!

Feeling the draft

Well, it’s been a rollercoaster. Hopes raised and dashed; nice words concealing harsh truths. And where has it left me? Exactly where I started.

But that’s life. That’s what people say. Riding high in September, shot down by slightly later in September. That’s how the song goes, right? So I’m back scouring the Writers’ and Artists’ for agents and publishers, and in the meantime trying to get on with some proper writing.

Except I’m kinda not, at the moment. I finished the first draft of New Gods last week and I’ve rewarded myself with a few days off. Not like me – I hate not writing. But it’s important to take a little time out, to taste something of the real world and remind yourself that there’s more to life. A couple of beer festivals and a first-aid course (not concurrent) have helped the time pass.

Shortly I’m going to fire up Australis and give it the going-over it badly needs, but in truth I’m putting it off a little. I’ve said before that the story’s not working; it’s hard to face up to one’s own failure and wrestle with demons of your own making. Much easier to push on with something new. And it was suggested that, as I’m not happy with Australis, it might be best to leave it on hiatus indefinitely. Unfortunately, New Gods is built on its back. Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, the second and third books are much closer linked than the first and second. To scrap Australis would be almost like scrapping New Gods, and that I ain’t gonna do.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Hopefully I’ll find Australis much more welcoming than I currently fear. It happens sometimes: the mind creates problems where there are none. And a little time will provide solutions to problems you never knew you had. It’s odd that authors can be the last people who know if what they’ve done is good or not, but it’s true.

In the meantime, I wondered if you, dear reader, might be interested to here a few reflections from the world of first-drafting. When I was coming up to the end of New Gods my partner asked if I was happy with what I’d done. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer; and that got me wondering…

A few points, in no particular order:

  • A bad opening is better than no opening. Getting started is perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel, and it’s much better to have something you can change than to sit wondering why everything you’re doing is crap
  • In fact, bad writing as a whole is better than no writing
  • Accept that you’re going to have to change things. Okay, you’re not human if you don’t re-read the occasional paragraph and decide the proverbial red pen is needed – but no-one (except possibly Mozart, and he’s in no position to give advice) plucks perfection from the air. Write words, move on, change later
  • Plots are difficult beasties. Make whatever notes you need to help you keep it all together. In terms of plot, New Gods is probably the most ambitious work I’ve attempted – I have about eight different threads to weave together. My technique? List the threads on a post-it note and wherever I get to a crux, glance down at it – remind myself what every character has been doing whilst I’ve been focusing on this one aspect.
  • That last point isn’t advice, by the way: find your own way of working. Make as many notes as you need. At this stage, no-one’s judging you except yourself
  • Balance isn’t going to come obviously and evenly. I‘m sure I’ve neglected Weng Fu, for example. I’m not sure if Lewinskiy has enough depth. All these characters need time to breath, but the first draft isn’t the time to worry about all this. Assure yourself that you know what you’re trying to do. When you’re done you can get feedback and revisit and rebalance
  • Ditto for pacing and rhythm
  • Words don’t matter at this stage (see previous blog entry the word myth)
  • I’m an embittered old fool who’s done this too many times to get overly excited about finishing a single stage in the process. You’re not. Finishing a draft, even if it needs massive work to make it readable, is a major achievement. Celebrate it. Tell people – go on Twitter and Facebook and indulge in a little boasting. Have a drink. But don’t show it to anyone. ‘Cause bucks to bullion it ain’t ready yet.
  • Characters grow and change over the course of writing a novel. You’ll have a much better idea of who you’re dealing with after you’ve finished than you did when you began. You’ll have inconsistencies, you’ll be able to sharpen the early depictions with your new knowledge and insight
  • Have fun. Be wild and ambitious. Be mad. Later drafts are serious hard work, but first drafts are your chance to go nuts, to put in wild sex parties and inappropriate off-colour humour. Fly kites, see where they drag you. Even if you have to excise wild digressions like tumours, the very process of writing helps sharpen your skills. Be free – you’ve nothing to lose save a little time

So am I happy with New Gods? Yes, yes I am. Not because I think it works as a story, but because the bones are there. I’ve got the elements pinned in place; and whilst a lot of surgery will be needed, whilst there’s a lot of writing which is simply bad, it’s there ready to be improved. Cuts will be made – whole sections might be scrapped as I send my wrecking-ball into the skyscraper of supposition. And all the ideas I didn’t consider will pop up in their place. It’s remarkable how easily a writer can overlook the obvious: ‘But why doesn’t Mr X just do this?’ ‘Erm…’

And that’s why getting feedback on your work is so important. But not after the first draft – please, not after the first draft. No point showing the world what a fool you are just yet.

Plenty of time for that later.

Humbug

After the giddyness of last week’s blog, a more sober entry this time. On Sunday night – which shows how hard editors work – I received my rejection from the publishing house who’d asked for the full manuscript of Night Shift.

This is no surprise. Some publishers only put out half a dozen books a year, and every author knows that they’re up against pretty stiff competition to be one of those releases. And the rejection itself was nicely phrased:  ‘I found the basic concept of a “base under siege” in the Antarctic in the near future to be very attractive. Unfortunately, I found myself always looking for the “monster” or something that gave a sense of the “other”. The thriller elements of the novel meant that the real antagonists were “off-stage” and, while I liked your main character, I kept on wanting more of a Science-Fiction slant – and I’m aware that is my own personal view.’

So, no hard feelings. And, intellectually, I know I’ve lost nothing. But every time you get your hopes up (no matter how much you tell yourself you won’t) and you get rejected, it’s a blow. And you start to ask yourself – where now? I’ve approached most of the agents who take SFF (as science-fiction & fantasy is referred to in the Twitterverse) in the Writers’ and Artists Yearbook and got nowhere. I’m running out of publishers too.

Just keep swimming…

As an aside, I know I’ve made mistakes with the marketing of my work. I sent it out too soon. My covering letter is constantly evolving. I fear I blew my chances with the publishers and agents I initially submitted to by being too hasty. Live and learn.

And now I fear that once again I’m going to be caught in a cross-genre trap. Melding sci-fi, murder mystery and psychological thriller seemed like a great idea when I was doing the actual writing, but how do I sell it? Can’t be crime – it’s set in the future. But is it sciency enough to get in with the SF crowd?

Grumble.

But let’s be positive. I’ve written a book that I’m sure is of publication standard. My cover letter/pitch is getting me attention (and I’ll blog about submissions at some point in the future). And all the while I’m learning, learning, learning – and also cracking on with new writing. New Gods should be finished this week, possibly even today. And when I say ‘finished’ I mean the first draft, which does not mean ‘finished’ at all. Not that I can do anything with it anyway: as the third in the trilogy, there’s no way of selling it on its own…

I realise that you may be saying ‘but if you’ve got all these problems with publication, why not go out and do it yourself?’ Well… not sure if I’ve got a good answer to that.  Go back through the archive to see my previous posts on self-publishing. The simple answer is that I still want to be published properly. But I’m not sure why – maybe just because I’m a people person. I like the idea of co-operating with editors and art designers and of having deep, involving conversations about books and business with professionals. And it all being about me.

My ego may be uglier than yours, but at least I know when it needs feeding.

You can see why writers get reputations for being a little strange, can’t you? Can you blame then for going a little crazy when, after years and years of being told you’re not good enough, they finally get their moment in the sun?

Anyway, back to the matter in hand. I’ve decided I’m going to keep on going ‘trad’ at least until I’m happy with Australis. If nothing’s happened by then I’ll sit down and have a good long think about bunging it out myself. In the meantime I’ll keep shoving out submissions, haranguing agents and publishers until one of them gives in and, in a desperate plea for mercy, agrees to take me on. My dad had a good attitude to this sort of thing: he says that whenever he got a rejection (he wrote for children, more history than fiction but with the occasional toe-dipping) he sent another three submissions on the same day. Kept him going, and certainly that sort of resolve is what I need right now.

Incidentally, does anyone know if it’s a good idea to resubmit work? How long should you leave it?

Prepare to be harassed once more, all you industry professionals!

Deadlines and errors

The deadlines are upon me…

Good news! A publisher has asked to see the full manuscript of Night Shift – I won’t name them for fear of embarrassment at being linked with this blog – and that’s caused a kerfuffle here at Writerly Towers. Actually, it caused more of a kerfuffle in my partner’s car – my sudden shout of ‘shit!’ as she was driving causing some degree of consternation.

Anyhoo, this is brilliant and wonderful. I am excited. I am tempering my excitement, however, with the knowledge that this is only the first step. My novel still has to pass muster not only with the editor who requested the manuscript but the entire staff – notable the sales/financial folks who must determine its economic viability. I think this is something that authors forget – publishing is a business. If they ain’t gonna make money they ain’t gonna take an interest. It’s not fair to say that publishers don’t care about quality; most of them got into the business because they love books. But the bottom line is the bottom line. Which explains Katie Price’s literary career.

So what does this all mean? First of all it means that I’m dashing through Night Shift one (not) final time for an emergency polish. In consequence, I have to put New Gods to one side – so nearly finished that it hurts – and also scramble to get this blog done. I’ve already taken a day out to visit Norwich (A Fine City) for my birthday treat – seeing Duckworth Lewis Method live – and so I can feel the walls a closin’ in…

Deadlines. Sometimes the very best things in life can cause everything to suddenly seem terribly close. Been desperately wishing for this for the past six years. Now I’ve got to make sure that, if it still all comes to naught, that it’s not down to the quality of my writing.

*          *          *

I’ve been reading the latest Donna Leon (The Golden Egg) over the last few days. I’m a fairly big fan of hers; I’m not always 100% convinced by the plots (and especially the endings, although I admire her ability to place realism over literary ‘neatness’), but I adore the way she’s grown Commissario Brunetti’s family into integral players. Indeed, her books are terribly comforting – like going for a weekend in the country with old friends, good wine and a log fire.

But in this latest book there is a quite remarkable error; one that strikes me as particularly illustrative of the writing process. There is a scene where Brunetti, chasing information as policemen do, phones down to the guard room. He speaks to someone, asks for someone else, and then speaks to them in turn.

This second person is then said to ‘glance at’ Brunetti. This stopped me. I’d thought they were communicating on the phone. Well, fair enough, I thought: I must have missed something. But then, at the end of the section, Brunetti is said to hang up. So he was on the phone after all.

I have sympathy with the author in cases like this, because I know it’s very very easy to make this sort of error. The most likely explanation is a change between drafts: initially the conversation took place face-to-face and was later modified, probably to cut unnecessary wordage.  When you make this sort of alteration it’s remarkably easy to miss odd sentences, even just little words like ‘the’ or ‘with’, that can completely disrupt a reader’s flow.

I also think this example demonstrates some of the problems with success. The more established you are as an author, the less oversight there is on your work. Your editor is more likely to skim rather than scrutinise like they do for debut novelists. This, I think, is the cause of ‘third album syndrome’ in musicians: they’ve made their name, they deserve more responsibility – but there’s less constructive advice coming their way.

Still, this is a remarkable and egregious error for such a high-profile author. It should have been picked up (and will probably disappear in the paperback, when that’s released). Just goes to illustrate a point made in a previous blog: standards are very different for debut/self-published works, where every little mistake or typo is held up as proof of incompetence.

*          *          *

A few webby notices to finish:

If you like intentionally bad writing, give this a pop: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/33-hilariously-terrible-novel-sentences-you-need-to-read/#KujBrXMc5kzrDBo2.01

And if, like myself and Malorie Blackman, you believe that well-funded and fully equipped libraries are a sign of civilisation, have a look at this if you missed it earlier:

http://gu.com/p/3jx63

And, far more important than any of this, I’m turning my blog over to an interview with my colleague Marissa de Luna at the end of October. She’s just published her second novel ‘The Bittersweet Vine’ and is going on a blog tour – hijacking sites around the web – next month. Please look out for her on your internetty travels and be sure to check back then for the interview. Of course, I know you’ll be here every week anyway…

Ciao for now, amigos.

Just keep swimming

‘Are you waiting for the world to get it?’ Swervedriver sang on their last album.

 

The satisfaction writing can provide is amazing. The highs can be tremendous. Just the sheer pleasure of achievement, to have a passage down, locked, ready for the tinkering; it can be a fantastic feeling. But most authors write to be read, and that’s where the fragile nature of our egos is revealed in all its primitive antiglory. We’re like jack russells yapping at your feet, desperate for any scraps of praise that may fall from the table. And should the rolled-up newspaper of criticism come down instead…

 

This is never felt more keenly then when we’re submitting our work – to publishers, agents, magazines, whatever. We read the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook carefully, draw up our shortlists and check our targets on the internet. We make careful note of just what material they request (and God forbid that you stray even a single character from their demands) and collate it – careful, of course, that not a single typo remains, that we’ve got the date right, that our personal details are present and correct.

 

And then off the package goes, either in the post (expensive) or via email.

 

At first, when it vanishes from our sweaty grasp, we are filled with hope and optimism. Of course Publishgasm will love my work. I was made to be with them! See, their website says that their commissioning editor loves {insert genre here} – bingo!

 

Time passes. Maybe, like me, you’ve sent out a dozen submissions; at any moment, any one could get in touch; an eager phone-call, an email, even a letter. An invitation to meet up at their offices, an expenses-paid lunch. But nothing comes. Nothing. Not even an acknowledgement. Okay, you know the odds are against you. You know – you’ve read all the books on getting published, the writers’ guides, all the advice in the W&AY – you know that the chance of getting a positive result is tiny. But the heart doesn’t. The heart is still full of passions, of songs, of dreams.

 

But as the days pass, something strange happens. You stop wanting responses to arrive. Instead of the postman bringing good news, you fear his arrival as each day the horrible, incriminating, malevolent package that is your self-addressed envelope might drop on your doormat. Another rejection.

 

And the email. That’s even worse because you have hope until the very, very last second. The envelope is obvious – as soon as you catch sight of it you know it’s your sample chapters returned with an ultra-brief note telling you that your work isn’t quite right for Publishgasm after all. Email… emails are sneaky. For a start, it’s not always easy to see who they’re from. You sent off your work months ago – can you remember which individual company-person you addressed it to? And it might not be them replying anyway. They have People for that sort of thing.

 

And the subject line gives you no indication. They just reply to your message, meaning, in my case, that such things are usually titled ‘RE: Night Shift – fiction submission’.

 

Again, you know that the odds are weighted heavily against you. You know that it’s almost certainly a ‘thanks but no thanks’. But you hope, you hope, you hope. Because you believe in what you’ve done. You believe, and you know that it only takes one person to get what you’re saying, for your work to cross the desk of the right person at the right time and your career’s underway. Because writing’s about being read: the arrogance of us to think that strangers want to read our work.

 

So why even open the message? Why not just let it sit there? It’ll become Schrödinger’s Email, full of mystery and potential. In fact, isn’t it better for people not to reply so you can keep the beautiful Hope alive?

 

This, of course, is stupid. I still do it, though, sometimes – wait until I feel I have the mental strength to deal with it.

 

Because I’m getting rejected a lot at the moment. This is partly because I’m sending in a lot of submissions and I guess partly because these things come in fits and spurts. Most of the time I manage to be philosophical and take what I can from the rejections (you can read a lot into the way an email is worded; my ironic favourite came from a grammar-starved obviously work-experiencing bod). Quite often the commissioner will squeeze in a little almost-compliment to sugar the pill. So far I’ve garnered a ‘not right but we’ll see any more work you have’ and a ‘your work shows intelligence and imagination’. Mostly you’ve got to look pretty hard to find these markers, though. ‘Don’t take this rejection as a reflection on your writing’ and its variants are common.

 

But they’re still rejections. So how does one cope? Well, you just have to keep going. ‘Keep on swimming’, as my lovely fiancée sang to me recently. Because no matter how many rejections you get, you have to believe that someone out their in publishingland will get you. You have to believe this. And whilst you’re sending out the finely-whittled samples, keep working on new stuff. After all, no-one’s ever said that your work has to be published in the order it’s written.

 

UPDATE: Just returned from work to find the Envelope of Doom on my hall carpet. Inside was not even a note: the agent had simply written ‘no thanks’ in red pen on the bottom of my covering letter.

 

Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…