Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Introducing...guest blogger, Sara Bain

I thought it might be fun to have a a different perspective now and again in the pages of May Contain Nuts. The first guest spot goes to Sara Bain, a talented writer and a wonderfully generous and supportive friend to other writers. Over to Sara...

Write Place, Write Time

When I first began writing my epic fantasy 14 years ago, I had no idea that the journey would take me to more unreachable shores than the map I had invented.

Many writers will affirm that, when those first lines are on the page, the story takes on a life of its own and the astounded author can only sit back and let it unfold beneath the finger tips. From the onset, my enthusiasm and passion for my story grew each day. Juggling jobs, kids, housework and dinner with one hand and a keyboard with the other, there was not a day that went by that I did not steal a few moments or hours to write.

I am the ultimate optimist: when the National Lottery first started, I bought a ticket in absolute certainty that I would win the jackpot. When the six numbers were called in the first televised show, I was sure that the announcers had made a mistake when none of my numbers came up — not one of them. I suppose this terrible disappointment should have taught me a lesson in realism but, even before my precious manuscript was finished, I sent it off to a publisher in New York, convinced that they would beg me into entering into a three-book deal by return of post. When the polite rejection came, I could hardly believe what I was reading.

Shrugging it off and trusting that perhaps New York was not quite ready for me, I telephoned a publisher of a London fantasy imprint and was horrified at what she told me. The editor, in her brutal description, enlightened me on the difference between the solicited and the unsolicited manuscript in the same way that a prosecution lawyer differentiates between an eminent judge and a low-down, good for nothing, psychopathic child murderer. It was then I learned about the dreaded slush pile — the pauper’s grave of aspiring authors — an unhallowed place where the filth of dirty little non-entities, ie the manuscripts of unpublished writers, takes up precious floor space.

Outraged and eager for a second opinion, I telephoned another publisher who re-affirmed the testimony of the first but encouraged me to find an agent. Agents, she said, were far more likely to get you a publishing deal than going it alone and only take a tiny 15 to 20 per cent of your tiny royalties which, in turn, amount to a tiny percentage of your tiny sales. She recommended that I purchase a copy of the current edition of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and choose an agent to represent me.

She said: “From your sample chapters, it looks as though you can certainly write, the characterisation’s great and I like the story. Get yourself an agent and I’ll consider the manuscript.”

Me (in tiny voice): “But why do I need an agent if you are already expressing an interest in it?”

Her: “All writers should have an agent. You need someone to negotiate on your behalf. Sorry.”

Perhaps, if I pretended that I was an agent, she wouldn’t have put the phone down so quickly.

I did as she told me and sent samples to three agents. One of them said no; another said lovely things about my book, how well it was written and how great the story was but that he was into stage-writing and couldn’t take me on; and the third didn’t bother to answer me at all.

A change of tactics was drastically needed, so I sent one sample page, a synopsis and covering letter to a big London publishing house and squealed with delight when the editor asked me to send the full manuscript. On hindsight, I really should have finished the book before sending it off and should have at least revised it once, but enthusiasm extinguished all good sense and, of course, she ended up rejecting it.

Many chapters later, I batted off the moths and sent it out to a few choice publishers or agents and received varying degrees of refusal in return. One told me that no one was buying new fantasy these days; one used the excuse that they were “a bit full up with fantasy at the moment”; one even told me that, although my manuscript exactly fitted the bill of their publishing ethos, their offices had been hit by a hurricane and they were too busy relocating to take on any more manuscripts — now that’s what I call an excuse!

My latest effort, about three years ago, was to walk about 20 blocks of New York’s Fifth Avenue (which is about a thousand miles in three-inch heels) and hand over my first three chapters and synopsis to one of the editors of a fantasy publishing house. She was polite in a non-committal kind of way and didn’t appear at all impressed that I had come all the way from Scotland just to present her the manuscript in person (which wasn’t exactly true, but how could she have known that?) A spectacular delivery via Fed Ex made me feel quite important, even though it carried with it a covering letter saying "thanks, but no thanks".

A few more sequels down the line and I have learned that many authors, like artists, find a publisher purely by being in the right place at the right time. Even if the stars did converge to cause such a fortuitous turn of fate, your sample chapters must then land on the right desk, ie an editor or underling who can empathise with your work. Should your proposal get this far (and this is only half way to the moon on a Honda 50 by comparison), then your full manuscript must run the gauntlet of an external reader who must also be someone who likes your work. Say the reader loves it: the editor will then need to speak with the editorial department, the marketing department, accounts, circulation, the shop keeper down the road and their next door neighbours, as well as take a look at the future lists which are fully-packed with spurious biographies from Z-list celebrities up to the year 3001.

There’s a moral to this tale: enthusiasm is a curable psychosis, the treatment for which is the bitter pill of rejection. I, however, refuse to swallow my medication. I have taken the time to reflect, re-write and get things perfect before I dare to tackle the great wall of publishing again. It might take another year or so, but another editor once told me to keep trying and don’t ever give up: “a good book will always find itself on the shelves” he said — that’s if it ever finds its way out of the slush pile, the odds of which still remain lower than winning it big on the lottery. I suppose you have to be in it to win it.

Sara Bain is a journalist, writer and photographer based in south west Scotland. Her evocative, intelligent and witty blog is called Life’s An Idiom. Do yourself a favour and have a wee peep. The address is - http://lifesanidiom.blogspot.com

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sara, I so enjoyed reading your guest-blog. Your experience with the grim realities of publishing made me laugh out loud – but at the same time I can definitely share your frustration. It’s so hard to get a book deal. It can either make you laugh or cry – and your take on it made me laugh. Best of luck with your opus. Keep on writing and polishing and then, for goodness sake, do submit it! How can you possibly fail?
    Love, Janice