Thursday, July 20, 2006

What do elephants and beginning writers both need?

Here is a guest blog from Cameron Nunn, author of the best-selling Shadows in the Mirror -a book that every boy (and many girls) should read and will love reading - to embroider a quote from Gary Crew on the front cover:


The saying is that everyone has at least one good novel in them. However, writing that novel may only be the first struggle in a long journey.

I finished my first novel, Shadows in the Mirror six years before I finally held a printed and bound copy in my hands. There was a sense of celebration when I pressed that last full-stop. I scoured my bookshelves and the internet for addresses of publishing companies who might have wanted to publish my masterpiece. Armed with ten addresses and ten copies of the opening chapters, I mailed them off and waited.

Weeks went by and I began to despair whether something had happened to my literary gems. When the first reply came in, I ripped it open with trembling hands. A one line reply, dripping with insincerity, thanked me for sending them the manuscript but declined an offer of publication. Eight more followed with various remarks, from the patronising to the soul-crushing.

And then, finally a request to send the remaining chapters. Hope ran high even as weeks ran into months. Finally, another letter. Yes, but they would like to show it to the other editors. Another six months . . . and then the crushing blow.

As I sat, I pondered my brief foray into the literary world. Masochistic as I am, I had kept every rejection letter (no doubt hoping that like J.K. Rowling, I would be able to sneer at those ill-discerning publishers from the tower of my best-seller). As I poured over comments, I looked for clues among the more detailed responses as to what they didn’t like. Steadily I began to form a picture of what was and wasn’t working in the novel. Armed with this information I began to re-write, or more accurately, slash pages. One of my favourite maxims has become, ‘It is not what you write in the book that often matters most, but what you edit out.’ Five chapters were reduced to ten pages.

Shortly after, I asked a friend who had been a former publisher to cast a critical eye over the work. She came back with more suggestions but more importantly encouragement to try again and the name of some editors who might be interested in publishing this style of book.

Although I was fairly sure that publishers wouldn’t remember reading a novel that they had rejected a few years earlier, I changed the title just to be on the safe-side. Ten more copies and ten new letters, this time shamelessly name-dropping my friend’s endorsement of the novel as worthy of each publisher’s consideration.

Again, there were the usual rejection letters (which I’ve still kept in the hope of one day writing the best-seller that they missed out on). However, this time the interest was much stronger. A few publishers expressed interest but most importantly Black Dog Books were willing to offer the support necessary to develop my manuscript into a publishable work.

The journey from acceptance to publication is another long journey, but not nearly as tough as just getting the foot in the door. When I’m talking to students about getting published, I remind them that publishers get many, many more unsolicited manuscripts than they can ever read. A rejection doesn’t mean you should give up. Listen to advice and keep plugging away. What do elephants and beginning writers need more than anything else? They’ve both got to be thick-skinned to survive.

Cameron Nunn


lili said...

As I poured over comments, I looked for clues among the more detailed responses as to what they didn’t like. Steadily I began to form a picture of what was and wasn’t working in the novel.

You know, I think that's what makes an author. Non-authors get the rejections and say "stupid publisher. they don't recognise my genius". Authors say that too, but only for a few days, then they go back and figure out how to make it better.

Lee said...

Cameron, most people don't even remember the published books they've read a few years earlier. This could become a rant about how quickly readers tend to consumer their Mcbooks, so instead I'll just add that publication is really not the only validation for a writer. But yes, it means you need even thicker skin. (And you know, everyone always assumes that the edited and published version of a book is better. What if they're wrong?)

Andrew's black dog blog said...

Hi Lee, thanks for the tips about the missing comments. I've fiddled with the settings and hopefully all is well. My sense in is that the edited version is usually better but it must be true that a bad editor sometimes gets loose on a good script. And maybe it happens far too frequently.

Lee said...

Thanks for fixing this, Andrew.

As to which versions of of a ms are better, the problem is that except in rare cases - famous literary figures whose material is archived - most readers or critics never get a chance to compare. At least in films, we sometimes get to see the director's cut.

Lili, I'd be very very wary of such sweeping generalisations. And we all know of authors whose manuscripts were repeatedly rejected: are you certain these mss were always 'fixed' before being accepted for publication?