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How to Get Published – Step One
One of the serious problems of being a writer is coping with rejection – often continuous, repeated, unexplained rejection. You receive your little printed slip saying ‘no thank you’ and that is it. At the same time you pass bookshops crammed with the works of others. How did they get published? How did they make it into the bestseller list? Are their books really so much better than yours?
In the face of this, it is essential to keep your belief in your own writing, even when professionals are apparently telling you that it is not good enough. Working scientists like myself have this problem too and, since I have considerable experience in this field of rejection or criticism to whatever degree, some of my own experience in science – carried over into fiction – may be useful to the reader. What happens in the scientific world is this. First you often work in a team. That is a lesson in itself. Rejected writers rarely have anyone to turn to who is in the same boat, to commiserate with and to help them bolster up their confidence, keep writing and keep submitting. Maybe groups of rejected writers do gather and gnash their teeth. So much the better if it is done constructively. I have not heard of it but I would encourage such groups. To return to the world of scientific publication, let’s say that you and your team do some work in astronomy (as I do). For example you make some observations of the Orion Nebula (you know, just a bit south of where the three stars in a row are found – Orion’s belt). You have some beautiful data – or so you believe – showing how stars form in Orion. You get all this stuff together and you write your interpretation of what you have seen: for example that here we have a very young star, just ten to a hundred thousand years old, pushing material out at fifty kilometres (30 miles) per second into surrounding gas etc. etc. You send this around to the group of people involved in the work for suggestions about improvement. Your group will be your local people in your own university, but often also other scientists in other institutes in Europe, the USA, Japan and elsewhere. At the same time as you send the work around, you secretly believe that it is almost perfect and that no serious improvements can really be made!
This is the first step where you may suffer rejection – from your own group! After a time, comments for improvement come back. Some of your colleagues may not believe that you have got everything right. Maybe the gas was rushing around at 40 miles per second, not 50, what the error on this value anyway, or that Figure 2 is unintelligible, what about the work that was published last week in Astrophysical Journal, shouldn’t we mention it etc.? It is odd but although I have published many scientific papers, I still suffer from the belief that the version that turns out ultimately to be only the first draft, was perfect! I fully believe in Raoul Dahl’s statement that if you read a new passage that you have written and you think that it is something fantastically good, that you have written something really marvellous, then you are most probably in deep trouble. But I only believe it, it seems, when applied to writing fiction. I should remember to apply it to scientific writing! Be that as it may, when all colleagues are agreed, the scientific paper is sent in to an editor of a journal, Astronomy and Astrophysics for example (A&A – and not Alcoholics Anonymous). Then, just as with our novels, you wait…and wait.
Then, one day, you get an e-mail from the editor. By the way, you may well know the editor personally. He could even have been an old student of yours, or possibly your boss at some stage. After all, the world of science is small. It has been calculated, purely in terms of numbers, that you are 4.5 times more likely to meet an Elvis Presley impersonator than an astrophysicist. At all events, this e-mail from the editor contains the dreaded ‘Referees’ Reports’. These are like reader’s reports. The difference here is that you have at least got someone to read what you wrote. It is (almost) unheard of for a scientific paper to be returned unread by referees. This would only occur if you sent a paper on astronomy to a journal concerned with, say, pig farming. This tends not to happen.
So all papers are seriously looked at except for a very, very few special journals, like Nature and Science, where by contrast a large proportion of the papers sent in are rejected by the editor just on the basis of their first paragraph sounding boring! To return to the dreaded Referees’ Reports, these contain a short introduction by the editor. It may read: ‘The work “Blah Blah” has been sent to referees and this paper is suitable for publication in A&A when minor corrections etc.’ Great! However it may also read, ‘This paper has been reviewed by two experts in the field who feel that in its present form this work is not suitable for publication blah blah…’ and your heart sinks. This is nearly, but not quite, the equivalent of the white printed slip saying ‘no thank you’. It is not quite the equivalent because you always have the option of writing back to the editor condemning the referees to various different circles of hell – though this must be done in a subtle, scientific, impersonal manner. By the way, very often you do not know who the referees are. The reports are anonymous. This gives interesting cause for speculation.
Let us say that you face rejection by the journal. Below the editor’s comments you will find the referees’ reports. There are typically two of them. Sometimes the two reports may differ considerably in content. Hopefully they do differ, for then it is easier for you to fight back. This is where it is so nice to have a team. You cope with rejection by spending the next few days systematically taking apart the referees’ cases, e-mailing back and forth with your team, spreading moral support and hopefully getting some in return. The point is this: you have a support network to help you on at this stage. It is an important way of dealing with rejection. It may well be that the editor on receiving your reply, rejecting the referees’ rejection, will ask for a third referee. The editor will also pass your comments on to the original referees. They may acknowledge their errors or reiterate their points with further examples and arguments. You may win through or you may not.
Now as a lone writer, you do not have a support team. You may have shown your work to a few people, or like me, read it to your children, who adored it. But you know in your heart of hearts that your children would always love almost anything that you read to them, if you wrote it. You may have a husband or wife who will surely back you up and help you to keep writing. But what other remedies are there for coping with rejection, especially rejection without recourse? When the little slip of paper arrives saying no thank you, there is no writing back to the editor to ask who read it, what did they say about it? You will merely get another slip of paper (maybe) stating that the publisher has many submissions, of which not all can be read, and your title did not appear to fit in etc. etc.
The remedy that I would like to suggest here is to use the very thing that you are good at: writing. Write the rejection out of you! By this, I do not just mean go on with your latest book. Certainly do that, but in addition I mean sit down and write a specific story or article which satirises the situation in which you find yourself. Make fun of the silly publishing world with its arbitrary decisions issued by self-appointed experts, a world in which publishing houses have no real clue about what makes a book a bestseller or even which books are good or bad. The virtue of satire is that it highlights the difficulties which we face, it releases some of the frustration which we feel and it allows us the satisfaction of poking fun at the publishing business in general and editors in particular, exposing them in their intellectual underpants. Now all this sounds highly theoretical and what I want to do is to give you an example of what I mean. Be warned of course that not a word of what I write below in inverted commas is true.
“I have a sure-fire way of getting your work seriously looked at by a publisher, the essential first step to getting into print. I discovered it only very recently. An American friend, another writer, sent it to me. He described it as follows.
It all started like this. It’s Friday today but just on Wednesday I was walking my children to the big yellow school bus, herding them across the road, when I was nearly swept off my feet by a silver Mercedes which flew in front of my nose, jerked to a halt and disgorged five children. These children were all dressed up to the nines, three girls with pig-tails swinging, their backsides prim in designer jeans and two older boys, with quiffs that cost a hundred bucks at Sweeneys if they cost a dime. ‘They’re new,’ whispered my older girl and eyed the jeans enviously, smoothing down hers with one hand. Whether she meant the girls or the jeans I wasn’t sure. Then the mother got out of the car, very, very long, tanned legs first, a Bermuda tan. And Bermuda’s a long way from where we live in Seattle. Maybe it was a Hawaii tan, but what the heck. She didn’t look like she’d had five children but then maybe she hadn’t. Perhaps she was a new acquisition. At any rate she started fussing over the children, making sure they were presentable to the bus driver, I suppose. ‘I know you could go to school in the car, dear ones,’ she was telling the three girls, altogether too loudly. ‘But I don’t want you to be different. You go on the bus with the rest.’ To top it all she had a snotty English accent. Put on, I bet. Sure she wasn’t English! God, that English accent, it gets me. And they have the cheek to believe that English is meant to be spoken with a potato half way down your gizzard. ‘Daddy’s got a meeting with the governor in just a few minutes, darlings, so jolly along there!’ she added and I could see a man of about fifty smirking behind darkened windows in the back seat of the Merc. Oh! Yes, I should have mentioned that the damn thing was chauffeur driven. And what had the Legs said? “Jolly along there”, had I heard right? Well, I’m a writer and I would not blooming well dare to use a phrase like that, even giving it to an English twit in blue stripes and a top hat! Who were these people?
‘Dad, dad! They’re publishers, they publish books!’
‘Whose a publisher?’ I yelled over the sizzling pan of hamburgers. It was Helen’s night out with her girly friends and I was cooking dinner, if that was what you could call the unidentified frying objects in the pan. ‘Whose a publisher?’ I called again. I hate publishers. May they be condemned to proof-read a novel without end by Enid Blyton or Dostoevsky, yes, Dostoevsky. Ha!
‘Those people we saw this morning,’ sang out my elder daughter. She’s fourteen and beautiful. Too blooming beautiful, the little wretch, though she does not seemed to have found out yet. (How parents delude themselves).
‘This morning?’ I asked. ‘That man in the car who was off to see the governor and the one with the wife with the English accent?’ And the legs I thought to myself. My daughter nodded her head vigorously. ‘A publisher? Hmm,’ and I absently spilled a tablespoonful of pepper over the hamburgers.
‘Oh! Daaaad!’ screamed my girls in unison.
‘A publisher!’ I muttered as I tried to scrape it all off with a knife. ‘Ow! Ow!’ Hot fat spluttered onto my hand.
‘C’mon, gimme’ said my elder one and took over.
‘What sort of books?’ I asked as I splashed ketchup over my plate a few moments later.
‘Novels and things! Really famous ones. You know that one…’
‘ The de Rabelais Cod,’ broke in my younger girl. She’s only nine.
‘Code! Twit!’ said her sister. ‘Cod. It said Cod on the cover. I can read as well as you!’
It only said Cod because in a fit of hate that such junk should be published when mine was not even looked at, I had inked over the ‘e’.
‘Cod, code.. who cares. He really published that?’ I asked, hamburger perched on my fork between plate and mouth.
‘So Crispin said!’ she replied.
My hamburger fell off and into the ketchup with a splat.
‘Ooooh, Kwithpin’, lisped my younger one, dodging the swipe aimed at her from her sister. ‘Kwithpin, kwithpin, kwithin!’ and she began to thump the table. My older girl went pink but collected herself.
‘Crispin says that they know hundreds of famous authors. They come to tea. He invited me to tea to meet them. There’s a new one coming tomorrow for tea. Can I go, Daddy? Please?’
‘Which author’s coming to tea?’
‘Henry de Pilfort. You know the one who writes about the Crusades and the Templar knights and things. His latest is number 3 on Amazon. Look, I’ll show you!’ and she dashed off to grab her computer. She shoved it on the table, pushing the plates and the broken bits of hamburger to one side.
‘You’ve got ketchup on the side of it!’
‘Look!’ she said, ignoring me. She turned the computer towards me. ‘There he is!’
‘Hey!’ said my younger, ‘he looks really quite like you!’
‘God! I hope not,’ I said. But he did. Really very like me in fact. He could be my blasted brother. He wasn’t, was he? My ghastly little brother hadn’t taken up writing, under a pseudonym, had he? Henry de Pilfort didn’t sound like a real name.
‘Yeah, you could be him!’ said my elder girl. A thought crossed my mind. I could be him, she’d said. I could be him…..
‘Crispin lives at 1250 Lakeside Drive, Daddy.’ Oh of course. It would be Lakeside Drive. The poshest address in town. When we got through the electronic gates and past the flunky, the ‘Legs’ was there to greet me.
‘Mr. de Pilfort, what a pleasure! So kind of you to collect Crispin’s friend on the way. Why, you look so much younger than your photograph!’
Do I? Damn it all! Perhaps the one on Amazon was an old one? What do I do if the wretched man is seventy or something? They said in some review or other that he was a recluse. How old was the vile fellow? I had been swatting up on Henry de ruddy Pilfort until two in the morning, but it didn’t give his birth-date anywhere. He always wore a bow tie, I’d learned. He had a Texan drawl. Oh God! I’m a writer not an actor and I didn’t possess a bow tie.
‘I never was photogenic!’ I heard myself reply to the Legs. I tried the Texas drawl a bit. I felt my mouth hanging open with the effort and shut it again quickly.
‘Ah! Mr. de Pilfort. It was so lucky that you were able to catch such an early plane. You could almost have had lunch with us, sir!’ The Legs’ husband, the publisher, had arrived. I gave the man’s outstretched clammy hand a limp shake. ‘You don’t have your lawyer with you, Mr. de Pilfort – for the contract I mean.’ A lawyer. Damn! Noone had said anything about a lawyer.
‘He will be here by a later plane, Mr. um..er..’
‘Sorry. I’m terrible with names.’ I said. I’d forgotten the Texas accent. It could go hang, I decided.
‘Not in your books, not in your books! Great names in your books,’ chuckled my host. ‘What have you there, if I may be so bold as to ask?’ nodding towards the briefcase I was clutching. “So bold as to ask”, sycophantic worm, I thought. Just because he sees great dollar signs flashing up like a cash register in front of his eyes each time he looks at me.
‘Oh! Something that you might like to cast your eye over, perhaps!’
‘Perhaps? Certainly, certainly. Another one to keep people awake reading all night, thrilled to the core?’
‘Well, it’s a bit different,’ I began cautiously. I’d brought my work along of course. Would he fall for it? Would the real de Pilfort turn up before the publisher could get a good look at it? At all events, I’d decided late last night that chapter 1 was a bit boring. I’d start him at chapter 3.
‘Well, it’s like this..’ I began to explain. We sat down at a table, as Legs ushered the children, including my daughter, out of the room and into the yard. ‘The book begins with a dream sequence in which …’
‘A dream sequence,’ muttered the publisher. ‘Sorry, go on,’ he added.
‘In this dream, this man, who is an alchemist…’ The publisher’s head shot up.
‘Yeah, he dreams of transmuting lead into gold, but only figuratively, mind you. Not real lead into real gold. What he really wants to do is to take bad novels and rewrite them so that they become good novels. Or transmute them into good novels. Lead into gold, you see.’ I’d been looking at the table but now I looked up to see the publisher’s eyes round and staring. ‘Are you with me?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Well, this guy, the kind of hero, if you like, he has to make money of course so he works as a travelling salesman for women’s underwear. You know, he goes from store to store trying to get them to stock Nobbler’s lingerie. Nobbler, that’s the name of the company he works for, see.’ The publisher nodded again, more faintly this time, I thought. ‘So he does quite a lot of flying, naturally.’ The publisher’s eyebrows shot up. ‘No, I mean in aeroplanes of course!’ I tried to laugh at my joke while the publisher looked at me suspiciously, probably wondering if I was completely off my head. ‘Well,’ I continued, ‘the flying’s important because it’s in airports where he really wants to operate. In airport bookshops. There can be nowhere else on the planet where bad literature is so highly concentrated as in airport bookshops. Look at those shelves of bestsellers.’ I was getting a bit heated up, quite forgetting that I, Henry de Pilfort, would generally find my name writ large in the bestseller section and also that the publisher before me was probably responsible for quite a few of those potboilers. ‘Yeah, look at them,’ I went on regardless, ‘so much pulp. Toilet paper, the lot of them. Okay, back to the story. When he’s not hawking bras and panties around the country, he’s at home working on…..’
‘Mr. de Pilfort,’ interrupted the publisher hesitantly. ‘This does sound very interesting indeed and very unlike anything that you’ve written before. I wonder if it would sell? Perhaps with your name on it, anything…er…’ He corrected himself just in time. ‘Perhaps you would like to leave it with me and I’ll get a good read of it.’ This is where he should have steepled his fingers. His sort always do in the bad novels that I would like to burn. But he didn’t. He just put his hand out in a gesture which seemed to indicate that I should hand the manuscript over to him. So I did. It was great to see my manuscript in the hands of a publisher – even if after he had had it before him, it might well end up behind him shortly afterwards. Figuratively speaking of course.
Well I promised you a sure-fire way of getting your work looked at by a publisher. Flip through all the famous writers, find one that you look like and impersonate him (or her). It’s the only way and good luck.”
Okay, that’s over! I hope that you found it amusing to read. But the point is this: the rather crazy story highlights frustrations that some of you may feel about your attempts to publish. You have worked it out of your system. I must admit that if I receive bad referees’ reports on a paper, I often start off by writing a vitriolic reply which I never send. It then becomes toned down and toned down further as I realise the possible truth of some of the criticisms made. But I have worked it out of my system and it helps. Writing a satire of what happened, for example, when your manuscript arrived at the publishers could relieve your feelings and it may very well turn out to be a good bit of work in itself.
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