This is the text of a talk given at a seminar at the South Australian Writers' Centre on 30 June 2001. It was also published in Opinion, the journal of the South Australian English Teachers Association, term 4, 2001.
Dick Scowcroft, who used to run Stanford University's Creative Writing Center, once said that receiving the letter of acceptance was the one unalloyed joy in the whole novel producing process. Dear x, we'd like to publish your book. Signed y. Pure delight. Nothing taints the experience. Everything else has its upside and its downside. It turns out that the print run will be 1,500 rather than the 5,000 you were expecting. The advance is risible. The royalties miserable. The cover, when you finally get to see it, has obviously been designed by an escapee from occupational therapy. The reps only manage to get one copy into every tenth bookshop. The reviewers are even-handed: condemning as much as they praise etc etc etc..... But Acceptance - acceptance is just great. So what's the formula for getting accepted? I'm afraid there isn't one.
I've heard publishers say that if a novel is good enough it will eventually find a publisher. I don't think this is true. I'm sure a lot of good novels (and other sorts of would-be books) miss out. And we can tell, just by looking, that a fair amount of really bad novels do get into print. There are even cases on record of people deliberately writing bad novels in order to get into print or to make serious money when they do. Some friends of mine are doing just this at the moment. I won't tell you their names but the nom-de-plume they are using is Kate Bax. Look out for Kate's raunchy blockbuster. It's got the lot: drugs, sex and biotechnical excesses, all in the framework of a gripping courtroom drama. My friends, who are excellent writers, have made very sure that their skills are here used only to produce a pastiche of the likes of John Grisham et al. I'm sure they'll get published.
But normally there is a
lot of luck involved in getting into print. Variables such as the
tastes and prejudices of the publisher's reader (whose identity you
will probably never learn), the publisher's own view (probably
mistaken) of what's hot at the moment, the bursting into print of
similar novels to your own - and their undeserved failure, or their
undeserved hogging of the market - all play their part. Still, some of
us do get into print, and I think the best way I can approach the
problem is autobiographically. I'll tell you how I did it, and have
continued, intermittently, to do it. Maybe we can draw some lessons
from this mundane tale.
in a cheap guesthouse
In 1969, when I was twenty-three, I quit my job with the Victorian Education Department and went travelling. In a cheap guesthouse on the island of Penang I started to write a novel about politically militant school teachers and their discontents. The novel, perforce, dealt with opposition to the Vietnam war which, as I began writing, was in full swing not very far to the north-east. For eighteen months I continued to write the novel in a succession of cafes and flophouses, until I finished it while staying with a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem. The final draft was produced, needless to say, on the foreign correspondent's second typewriter, and I made a single carbon copy by way of insurance. If anything happened to the original, I could always sit down and type up a new copy, using the carbon as an aide memoire. I left Israel and hitch-hiked to London without burdening my rucksack with either fair or carbon copy. While I was thumbing my way up through France the foreign correspondent's wife flew from Tel Aviv to Heathrow, bringing both copies of the novel with her. In the one bag.
El Al lost the bag.
I wasn't amused. But then
El Al found the bag and I breathed a sigh of relief and took my freshly
typed novel - it was called Gulf Stream - and hawked it around
a couple of London publishers to whom I had introductions. It was by
then 1971, I was 25 and I had done almost all the work I would ever do
on that story - almost, but not quite.
they said it was very good
The London publishers didn't want Gulf Stream, although they said it was very good and I wrote like Alexis Lykiard. I'd never heard of Alexis Lykiard, but I got hold of one of his novels and failed to see any comparison - although he wrote well enough. I returned to Australia (where, after all, the novel was set) and did the rounds of all the possible local houses - I suppose about seven or eight of them. They each kept the manuscript for about six months and I was too gentlemanly to make multiple submissions, even though I was now working at Melbourne University and had access to a primitive photocopier. But it was primitive - it would have been immediately obvious that a photocopy was just that, wasn't the top copy fresh off the Olivetti portable. So it took time, say four years for eight publishers. And no one wanted the novel, although they were very polite and said it was very well written, but... That 'but' was usually followed by a statement such as '...we can't quite see it in our list as it is shaping up at the moment.' They couldn't 'see' it, you understand. In the list. My inability to find a publisher was in large matter a freak of perception, an unfortunate ocular disability that clouded the gatekeepers' vision.
I put the novel away in a
drawer. Only to get it out again when someone suggested I use it to
support an application for a fellowship at Stanford University's
Creative Writing Center. This time, bingo. I got the fellowship and
went to California in 1976. The novel had paid off bigtime even
though the thing itself was still unpublished. It was now five years
after I'd finished it. So I abandoned it (again) and wrote another
novel at Stanford. This one was called Please Show Me Baby Roach and
initially it didn't find a publisher either (more
about Baby Roach's fate in a minute - let's keep going with the
twice abandoned Gulf Stream). When I got back from
California my mate Damien Broderick asked me what I intended doing
-Nothing, I replied. It got me to America. It's earned its rest.
-Give it to me, Damien said. I'll fix it up good and proper.
-Oh yeah, I said.
-I'll move it, Damien said, forward about four millennia and onto a new planet - somewhere a bit more interesting than Earth, call it Bolte.
-Have a go, I said, and gave him the manuscript.
[Bolte, I was well aware, was the name of the Victorian premier who had given the nod for the last hanging in that state. Perhaps his new planet would indeed be a bit more interesting than Earth].
And I had nothing to
given up sending my version of the thing to publishers (indeed, I had
out of publishers) and Damien was already an established novelist -
albeit an sf novelist. Not a genre I knew much about. So, without
any help from me, Damien completely re-jigged the novel. He threw some
stuff out, put a whole heap of new stuff in, and renamed the
characters. Anna became Anla. Jack became Jard. He renamed the war too.
The US and its allies became The Empire.
see it !
In real Earth time, we were now up to 1979, a mere eight years after I'd finished writing the original story. This time Damien did the hawking about - initially to no effect either. Still the buggers kept the work for six months each, still the buggers had problems 'seeing' it in their lists. Finally, up the back of a crowd at Writers' Week 1982, our bums parked on the mellow brick wall that surrounds the Pioneer Women's Garden, the pair of us managed to chew the ear of the University of Queensland Press's chief editor, D'Arcy Randall. UQP, we said, has never published a word of science fiction, and it needs to. And have we got a manuscript for you: experimental, full of real people doing real things in unreal circumstances. Talk about innovative, talk about a subtle blend of high art and low genre. Read our Work! We said. See it! See it in your list.
-You'd better let me have a copy, D'Arcy said.
And this time we made the grade. UQP published the novel, now called Valencies, in 1983. This was a mere 14 years from the cheap guesthouse in Penang and 12 years from the foreign correspondent's pad in Jerusalem. I was 37 and I was a published novelist, and every word in the co-authored book that could be sheeted home to me had been written before I turned 25.
OK, so these things take time. But - note this - they can take a lot longer than 12 or 14 years. Remember, I said that Damien threw out some of my original material. Better to say he laid it carefully aside for future use. The next year, 1984, Damien used some of it - with appropriate attribution - in his imaginary autobiography, Transmitters. And there things remained for some little while.
In 1999 HarperCollins published my and Damien's 'novel of the millennium', The Book of Revelation. This work, if I say so myself, is a seamless whole, but it has its sources and some of those sources are less than millennial. Large chunks were actually written by me when I was at Stanford - twenty two years earlier in 1976-77 i.e. these chunks were Please Show Me Baby Roach - mutated something chronic . And some smaller chunks were the remains of that very first novel, Gulf Stream - those bits that had been incorporated into neither Valencies nor Transmitters. The lead time here was thirty years.
It was a strange experience: editing and re-shaping words written by this jejune young man, three decades my junior, as he bummed his way around S.E. Asia and the Middle East in the time of the Vietnam War, before the Yom Kippur War, during the dictatorship of the Greek generals. Could he write? Did he deserve to be published? You may well ask. You might imagine that the writer's older and wiser self now recoiled from those artless sentences, that clunking prentice work, those gauche expressions of a writerly and political consciousness still wet behind its literary ears. Did the man (of which the boy is famously the father) now hack and burn and burnish the earlier material, using the advanced editorial skills obtained by decades of hard work? Not at all. Or not much. If you ask me the young whelp wrote very nicely back then at the beginning of the seventies - I was amazed that it had taken him so long to get his stuff into print. Even if he didn't actually write like Alexis Lykiard, he should have been a published novelist in 1972 at the latest.
What moral can we draw from this? Is there anything that can be of use to others? We can make the obvious point that the wheels of literary preferment can grind exceeding slow. Don't ever give up hope - it springs eternal every time you post the bloody parcel off. It crashes eternal every time they post the bloody thing back - although these days they don't always return the manuscript, they think you can easily produce another copy - if you are foolish enough to want to. We can insist that there is no point in throwing away anything you have ever written. Who knows when you will be able to make use of it. And we have one possible model for getting into print, getting your name onto the cover of a book. Team up with an already published author. Ride piggyback into the realms of the published. It is not such a mad idea as all that. It worked for me. All you need is (a) a good story that you yourself have already written, (b) a published writer friend with a reasonable track record who is in need of a good story and would welcome a ready made one off the shelf.
We may also note that
was finally accepted for publication it was after Damien and I had
face-to-face contact with D'Arcy Randall. There is, it has to be said,
lot to be gained by pestering people like Linda here [a hapless
in the audience] in social situations such as this.
But the real question is: how can we speed things up? It's very heartening to know that poor hacks can finally, after vast eons, get into print. But it is also very depressing, especially if you are in your early twenties, to have to think that you might be in, say, your mid thirties when what you have just written first sees the light of day. How can we move things along a bit?
In 1980 (when I was still
unpublished) I finished a 150,000 word novel, The Bomb-Monger's
Daughter, and sent it to Beatrice Davis because (a) I'd met her at
a party, (b) she was great mates with great mates of mine, and (c) she
was said to be the doyen of Australian editors and, even though she
was semi-retired she had the ear of people at Jacaranda in
Brisbane and Michael Joseph and Nelson in London. But, by
now, I was getting a bit jack of every bastard sitting on my
manuscripts for six months at a time. So I asked Ms Davis if she would
mind awfully if I sent the Work to other people while she was perusing
it herself. She wrote back. She was real thrilled with The
Bomb-Monger's Daughter and thought it was a candidate for
simultaneous publication in London and New York. She'd just have to
talk to her mates at Michael Joseph first. The managing director was
due to visit Australia fairly soon. But, in the meantime, I really
ought to behave like a gentleman and not make multiple submissions all
over the shop. Considering manuscripts for publication, Ms Davis told
me, weighing them up, getting second and third opinions, was a costly
business: publishers' readers extracted their fee. It wouldn't really
be fair to a publishing house to knock back an offer
of publication (expensively arrived at) simply because some
other house (perhaps less judicious in its sifting processes) had got
in first with a rival offer. I did as I was told. I
refrained from showing the manuscript to anybody else until Beatrice's
mates at Michael Joseph had finally said that, powerful though the
novel was, they couldn't quite 'see' it in their list...etc etc etc.
I sat in judgment
When I eventually did get an offer of publication (about two years later) it was from Frank Thompson at Rigby. It took Frank about two weeks to make up his mind. This is the second fastest offer of publication I've ever experienced. I'll tell you about the first fastest later. Frank also gave me some intermittent work as a publisher's reader. For the first and only time in my life I was part of the selection process. I sat in judgment upon other people's novels. I had the power of death, if not life, over the authors' babies. If I wrote an unfavourable report, that's as far as it went, the manuscript was returned to its author. If I wrote a favourable one, the manuscript was given further in-house consideration. I took the job seriously. I wrote about the manuscripts I had read at length and I know that Frank usually included a copy of my report with his own rejection letters. And once or twice with his acceptance letters. What did I learn from this peripheral, but never-the-less insider's vantage point? I learnt that there are an awful lot of quite good novels being written. More often than not I would read a work that was (a) well written - the author knew how to compose sentences; (b) had a cast of believable characters - the author understood the personalities of her or his creations; (c) the characters interacted in a psychologically plausible way - the author was clearly a keen student of social intercourse; (d) the plot was credible - the things that happened in the novel could well have happened in real life. And more often than not I was left wanting more than the author had provided.
What more could the
provided? The author could have provided (e) characters one really
to know. This was the acid test, as far as I was concerned. Not, are
people believable? But, will the reader want to know them, do I want to
know them? In real life there are a great many people who are quite
we experience no difficulty understanding them or crediting them with a
full range of emotions, ambitions, memories, experiences, passions,
neuroses and all the rest. Yet we don't necessarily seek them out, make
friends with them, invite them to dinner, gossip about them, or
on what makes them tick. It's the same with fictional characters. These
have got to be more than believable, they've got to be interesting.
was the major lesson I learned from my stint as a publisher's reader. I
suspect my own fiction has been influenced by it. Even if one is
writing in a highly realistic, domestic mode (writing about, for
example, suburban life in Adelaide in the year 2001), there is nothing
to be lost by having one's characters subject to outrageous assaults on
their sense of self, having them react with panic or uncharacteristic
anger, passion or violence to situations not of their making. If you
want your manuscript to stand out from the slush pile, you shouldn't be
afraid of showing people in extremis. Any old extremis at all.
To get back to Beatrice Davis and the problem of simultaneous submissions. I'm convinced that they are the only way to go. Too bad if some poor publishing house misses out because someone else got in first. Let them speed up their selection processes if they want to minimise that risk. Question: should we tell them we are making simultaneous submissions? Well, of course we should, we should be open, frank and fearless in our disclosures, it is only gentlepersonally to do so. But are we gentlepersons? What if it gets up the nose of the publisher, what if a delicate ego is bruised by the knowledge that its owner is not the only candidate for the honour of publishing our Work? Might the sub-set of the world's publishers to which we have sent manuscripts not get collectively stroppy? Might they not refuse point blank to look at the Work in question? They might. The first time I sent a manuscript to two people (only two, mark you, one in the US to whom I offered the American rights, the other at UQP to whom I offered the entire Commonwealth of Nations) I told them what I was doing. I told them about each other. The yank didn't mind in the least. Not so Craig someone of UQP. He wrote me a very terse note saying he wanted sole consideration and he wanted the option on World Rights, all of them - otherwise he wasn't even going to look at the Work and if I wanted it back I'd have to send him some postage stamps. 'This,' this Craig person said, 'is accepted publishing practice.'
Pig's bum, it is. But why waste time trying to educate recalcitrant publishers to the realities of their own profession? Just do it, I say, and don't tell anyone. The next time I did it I didn't tell anyone. I sent a copy of a novel I had written in collaboration with the Queensland architect, Jim Birrell, to Penguin and another copy to Angus and Robertson (I think, Linda, this was before HarperCollins swallowed A&R - it was a fair-dinkum house in its own right at the time). Penguin accepted the novel, Water From the Moon - (a tale of corrupt business practices, albeit in Indonesia) with reasonable speed. My co-author and I accepted their offer of publication with unreasonable speed. Then there was the problem of A&R. I suppose I should have written at once, withdrawing the Work from consideration. I must confess I was too chicken, I did nothing. I just awaited A&R's response, hoping, for the sake of simplicity and a quiet life, that it would be negative. The letter arrived. I opened it.
It was negative.
It was a strange and
experience: breathing a sigh of relief because some publisher once
could not quite 'see' your Work in his list. I met the A&R
in question some years later at Writers' Week. He said how glad he was
that Penguin had come to the party after he had so reluctantly let the
work go.... We had another beer, I didn't disabuse him.
my experience is limited
So what about agents? Can agents speed things up? Not in my experience, but my experience is limited. I've only ever employed one and a third agents and I didn't employ the one agent for very long. At the time I was hawking Please Show me Baby Roach about I had sent it to two or three publishers and they had sat on it for months and years and every time I sent them a note asking them how their deliberations were going they replied, in the fullness of time, that their deliberations were proceeding and they'd let me know, in the fullness of time. The frustrating thing was not being able to move them along, shift them, force them to a snappy conclusion. I was moving around at the time: teaching in Sydney, living on a farm in remotest Gippsland, living on an island in the Aegean. It was a bit hard to hassle these guys. So I thought it would be well worth the 15% to employ someone else to hassle them. So I sent Baby Roach to the agent, who was a friend of a friend, and she said yes she really liked Baby Roach and she'd soon find a publisher. Go for it, I said. But I didn't send her any other manuscripts. I wasn't putting all my eggs in one rusty billy can. And then silence. Total silence. I moved to Adelaide. The agent was in Sydney. She didn't reply to my letters. She didn't return my calls. I was back where I'd been with the publishers, not knowing what, if anything, was going on. But now I was one remove further away from the action, or inaction, than I had been. At about this time I sent The Bomb-Monger's Daughter to Frank Thompson at Rigby - I sent it all by myself, without benefit of the agent. Frank, as I've already said, accepted the novel in about two weeks flat. He took me out to lunch. Lunch lasted all afternoon. At one point he asked me if I had an agent. I said I was meant to have an agent but I had no idea what she was up to. I named her.
Still, the question
remains? Can you have a good experience with an agent if you are as yet
unpublished? Will they take you on? If they do, will they do any work
on your behalf? Perhaps - I don't really know. And more knowledgeable
people will speak about this later today, so I'll leave it
one last anecdote about agents
But, let me tell you one last anecdote about agents. I recently, sort of, more or less, acquired a third of a US agent. That is to say Damien Broderick switched US agents (not for the first time, I might add). He fired his old New York agent (an Australian and a friend of his - but still, this is a tough world and Damien didn't think she was cutting the mustard) and took up with Richard Curtis - the same agent who has recently brokered the Star Wars deal for Sean Williams and Shane Dix. As about 30% of Damien's latest book was written by me and 5% was written by his friend Barbara Lamar of Texas (they met in cyberspace), both Barbara and I (sort of) got Richard as an agent by proxy. So I thought I would see if I could interest him in flogging around the States a dark and violent ripsnorter of a teenage novel called Space Junk that I had just written. I also thought I'd try out my recent invention, the Read Only Manuscript. I sent the novel to Richard. I sent it to him on paper, indeed on both sides of the paper, single spaced, in ten point type, encased in sturdy clear plastic covers with that plastic 'comb' binding that allows the manuscript to lie flat upon the table when you are reading it.
A week or so later I got an email from Richard:
I wrote back, saying in part,
I read it the other evening and found it very entertaining and solid on a number of levels. You are a strongly talented writer and story teller. But I think this is problematic for the US market, and your perceptions about it being 'idiomatically antipodean' are pretty much on the mark. It's also offbeat enough -- in any quadrant of the globe -- to make it a hard sell for me as well. I had been told it was aimed at YA but I didn't think it would appeal to young people here. Too much on the dark side, and though your protagonists are young, the world you've put them in is definitely not Harrison High!
I don't think it's a matter of scrubbing out Australianisms; it's more organic than that.
But I could be wrong, so please don't rely on me as the last word. I can forward it to someone else if you like. But I would strongly suggest you make it double spaced, printed on one side of the page, for future submissions.
Sorry, Rory, but I definitely want to track your talent from book to book.
Many thanks for looking at Space Junk. It doesn't actually surprise me that you found it a bit too dark and antipodean for the American market. I'm reasonably confident that it will go well in Australia (which was the only country I had in mind when I was writing it)...........I'm intrigued byRichard replied:
>I would strongly suggest you make
>it double spaced, printed on one side of
>the page, for future submissions.
I know that in the days of typewriters, carbon paper and type-erasers, a single-spaced typescript yelled 'rank amateur' at any publisher who deigned to cast an eye on it. But surely these days everybody knows that everything is electronically encoded to the nth degree. Any publisher accepting a novel can demand any hard-copy format they want, or produce it themselves from the disk, upload or whatever. It looks to me as if we are trudging through cyberspace in a pith helmet, because everybody knows you are not a real explorer unless you wear one. The copy of Space Junk I sent you was classified by the Australian post office as a 'large letter'. The postage was only a fraction of the cost of a double-spaced, single sided parcel......
I'm glad you're a good sport about my response to SPACE JUNK.....Submissions online are one thing; hard copy submissions are read in a more traditional way: unbound, double spaced, one side only. This is as much for the benefit of our vision as anything else. It is very hard for me to read manuscripts single space. Hard to read them in bound form, too, and you should see some of the thick manuscripts that authors bind. If you read in bed (as I often do), it's very awkward. Easier to pick up a bunch of pages and turn them over onto the bed as one is finished with them. Now you know the secrets of being a literary agent.well, yes
So I sent the manuscript
of Space Junk to Lisa Berryman at HarperCollins - as I'd been
intending to do when I wrote the thing. I sent it to Lisa, still single
spaced, but printed now on only one side of the paper (I was prepared
to make that concession as I was only sending it 750 kms), and still
bound with thick clear plastic covers and that 'comb' thing down the
spine that lets the document lie flat on a table - regardless of what
the reader might like to do in bed. But I told Lisa that if she wanted
the novel in some other format to let me know. She emailed me back, not
asking for any fancy new format, but seeking my permission.... I'll say
that again, it's pretty odd behaviour for a publisher, seeking my
permission to remove the binding so that the manuscript could be
photocopied for the benefit of various in-house readers. I emailed
back: sure, sorry I bound the thing in the first place. Lisa replied:
hard uphill struggle, trying to convince authors not to bind their
rotten manuscripts. I replied: I'll never bind another manuscript ever
again, honest. Lisa replied: what joy, another author gives up binding.
[Or words to those effects. - I've recently changed both server and
computer and most of my old email traffic got lost in the transition,
but that's how I remember the exchange].
in a cardboard box
So, in-so-far as there are considerations of the nuts and bolts and oh-my-god-should-I-use-sans-serif-type variety that might in some small increment increase one's chances of publication, that's probably one of them: don't bind the poor bloody manuscript, send it to them in a cardboard box.
And as for sans-serif type. Don't use it. You might think it looks neat and clean and modern and all the rest. Your reader might think it looks neat and clean and modern, but people don't actually read sans-serif type. Their eyes start to droop. Their minds start to wander. The Age isn't printed in sans-serif, the New York Times isn't printed in sans-serif. HarperCollins, Penguin and Faber and Faber don't use sans-serif. And if your book is accepted for publication, the chances are 1000 to 1 that the publisher won't have it set it up in sans-serif. So put feet on your manuscripts. At least, that's my advice. It's my prejudice - I loath sans-serif type.
Let's end with a good
I said that Frank Thompson's two week acceptance of my 1983 novel, The
Bomb-Monger's Daughter, was the second fastest
acceptance I've ever
experienced. Now I'll tell you about the fastest. Earlier this year I
approached by my late dentist's widow. After the death of her husband
had retreated to Queensland, where she was born, and started a small
company with a friend. They were keen to break into the primary school
market. Did I want to write a book for ten year olds, something
4,000 and 9,000 words in length? Sure, I said. And thought for a while.
Then I had a good idea - I'd set a story at St Kilda. That's the St
about 15 km north of here - the one with the mangrove trail and the
playground and the salt evaporation pans. I engaged in a day's
I drove out to St Kilda, paddled around in the mangroves, walked out
the breakwater, blew up (by mouth) my family's toy plastic boat and put
out to sea. I rowed across to Torrens Island. I floated around in
Inlet watching the pelicans, egrets, and black swans. I got stuck in
mud. I had to get out of the toy plastic boat and trudge through the
I got covered in mud. I collected a few shells. In short, I behaved
a foolhardy ten year old and had a great time doing it. And then
drove home and wrote, in three days flat, a stirring tale about a boy
runs away to sea on a raft he and his mate have built. There's a
storm in Gulf St. Vincent but the kid survives - he even rescues a
yachtie who's fallen overboard - and is finally ship wrecked (or raft
on Kangaroo Island. It's a splendid yarn - if I say so myself -
the stuff to stir the heart of a ten year old. It took me three
to write, and it took Sue ten days to accept. It will be published
this year or early next. That's the way things ought to move along:
split. They don't usually - but it's great when they do.
Click for gloomy footnote
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