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Brittany: In Defense of the Novelist

Recently, on my personal blog, I wrote about my latest rejection from the world of publishing. After asking to see my full manuscript, it was rejected one hour and seven minutes after I submitted it. That stings and I’m grumpy about it. But probably not for the reasons you’d expect.

I’m not one of those writers who thinks everything I write is genius. I don’t shun editing, or even re-writing, when it’s warranted. I like to hear criticisms of my writing (though obviously accolades are more welcome) because I do see writing as a process, and something you are always learning and growing from. So when I submitted my manuscript to this publishing company, I didn’t expect them to trip over themselves in their zeal to offer me a contract. I’m a realist.

But at the same time, I didn’t expect to be rejected so summarily, or so soon. The email I received said that while the “best editor” at the house loved my concept, she just couldn’t deal with the long laundry list of rooms in the house and their flaws and that I should re-work my book with an eye toward keeping my readers’ interest. Ouch. It’s obvious to me that the editor stopped reading at somewhere in chapter 1, at which point she suggested to the publisher, who then suggested to me, that after I reworked my book, I should re-submit it to them.

I got online and whined about my bad luck on Facebook. My friends were split into two camps. There were the ones who said, “Excellent! They’re still interested in your work! Re-write it and re-submit it to them!” And there were the ones who said, “Send it to someone else. If this publisher can’t be bothered to actually read the entire manuscript, they’re big fat, giant poopie heads and don’t deserve to publish your book anyway.”

I can appreciate their reactions, and I agree with them both. But at the same time, I feel very sad. I feel sad for me, the writer, whose three-year work-in-progress isn’t getting published. I feel sad for readers, whose literary choices are controlled by publishers who expect every story to play like an episode of 24. I feel sad for publishers, who are so time and cash-strapped, they don’t have the time to read a novel and examine it through a wider lens. It seems like more and more, novels are going the way of news, where everything must be reduced to a sound bite. What happened to the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, where a reader could get lost in the lengthy descriptions of another world? What happened to our collective attention spans that we can no longer absorb large amounts of information without singing, dancing, and catchy slogans? I remember from my experiences as a teacher that there was an enormous push to make learning fun and entertaining. That’s all fine and good when it’s appropriate, but sometimes, you have to know the basics before you can make the learning fun. People seem to forget that.

I devoted six double-spaced pages of my novel to a description of Alex and Will’s tri-level. It is the central conflict of the book, the “home” in Home Improvement, the place where the vast majority of the action in the book happens, the physical manifestation of all that is going wrong between my main characters. My reader has to see it, has to be overwhelmed with the “laundry list of problems,” has to experience the house the way Alex experiences it. They have to understand why buying this house seemed like a good idea at the time. They have to understand that this is the moment of no return.

Evelyn pulled into the driveway of a large brick tri-level with gray siding and cheerful yellow shutters. It sat on an oversized corner lot where several mature oaks and maples dotted the yard. We got out of the car and wandered up the daisy-lined sidewalk to the front door. Evelyn unlocked it and we stepped inside.

From the outside, I expected warm country décor, much like what we’d seen in other houses. But the entryway walls were chalk white, and instead of bandanna-clad cows, the only decoration was a large square of geometric-patterned carpet and a light fixture made of neon squiggles.

“The owners go for those modern touches,” Evelyn observed.

If a twenty-year-old light fixture was her idea of a modern touch, I couldn’t wait to see what else she considered current décor.

“Let’s start on the first level,” Evelyn said, and led us from the entryway, down a short flight of stairs to the family room.

The first level was mostly below ground, except for two small windows that were level with the Indian Hawthorne growing in front of the house. A cookie-scented candle sat burning on the family room fireplace mantle and filled the room with the irresistible scent of baking cookies. The-butter-and-vanilla-scented room was enormous, and looked extra inviting with its large brick fireplace on the far wall. Those were the room’s good points. Unfortunately, the room was crowded with mismatched furniture, and the wood-paneled walls were covered all over in little strokes of aqua and pink paint. After a few seconds, my vision began to blur.

I wandered through a doorway to my left and into the den. A homemade desk took up most of the room and black splotches circled the ceiling. “Is that mold up there?” I asked.

Evelyn squinted at the walls while Will examined the nearest patch. “It’s just paint,” he said after poking it.

Who in their right mind thought faux-mold was a good idea?

I asked the same question when we opened the door to the laundry room. Every surface was covered in pink sponge marks, including the pipes. As I stared at the paint job, Evelyn came up behind me and said, “This sponge-painting is all the rage right now. We just did it in our dining room. It turned out really nice.”

I had my doubts.

I won’t be re-submitting my work to this particular house. And I won’t be re-working anything with so little critique to go on. Again, I’m not averse to re-working my novel, but I have to feel like the changes I make are purposeful. I had purposeful reasons for writing the scene as I did, and I need to find an editor who, at the very least, understands my intent and can support my vision. That’s all I’m really asking for. I think that’s all any novelist can ask for.

The whole publishing experience feels a lot like that poem The Blind Men and the Elephant. Everyone “sees” something differently, and everyone is wrong. I know I still have a lot to learn. The first order of business is hiring a professional editor… someone who is looking at my book for its strengths, rather than its weaknesses. Then we’ll see where I go from there.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. brittany, it sounds like you’ve made an excellent and well-thought decision. good for you. i found the 1 hour read and immediate summation critique incredibly disrespectful. and i was not you, going through it personally. what would they have said of proust?

    July 16, 2009
  2. yep, i agree that the one-hour read could not have possbily told them anything about your story.

    i know nothing about this world, so i can only relate it to what i experience at my arts festivals. i’m putting my work out there for everyone to critique…and maybe across the aisle from me is someone with buy/sell crap selling earrings for two pair for $5. then they walk into my booth, which is filled with pieces i actually created myself with precious metals–gee! real silver! imagine that!–and wonder why my prices are so much higher. as far as the rejection piece, i see it in their faces. you’d be surprised how rude some people can be with their “oh, i don’t really like this stuff” comments. fine with me, to each her own. and then there’s the type that says to her friend “oh, you could make that yourself” as they both pick it up to study it. they bug me more than the ones who just say they don’t like my pieces.

    rejection and lack of appreciation for what you’ve done comes in all forms. i think the key is just to hold you head high, have faith in yourself and what you’ve created, and know that there is someone out there who will truly admire and appreciate what you’ve done. you’ll find the right publishing house for your book. i’m certain of that. 🙂

    July 16, 2009
  3. just found this post on one of the gazillion blogs i follow. sounds like an interesting little challenge for you prolific writers!

    http://picsandpoems.blogspot.com/2009/07/for-hell-of-it_16.html

    July 16, 2009
  4. I don’t want to be the voice of doom and gloom, but all writers must keep in mind the current reality of the publishing world. It is an extremely difficult time for publishers. Budgets have shrunken to shadows of their former sizes. Ad budgets are negligible. (Publishers are spending so much less money advertising their books a ripple effect has been felt throughout the book-related magazine and newspaper industries.)

    The publishing model is changing. As print-on-demand and digital media proliferate, traditional publishers struggle–and the current economic climate is having a major impact. Any established publisher is not going to take a chance on a piece of fiction that doesn’t totally blow his or her socks off–AND scream “marketable.” Your book has to be more than good. It has to be superlative. Forgive the sweeping generalities, but you won’t get published unless the editor who reads your manuscript stays up all night to finish it because he or she can’t put it down and drives straight to work to send you a contract or to call your agent. If the publisher isn’t confident that your book is going to sell at least 5K copies–hopefully many times that amount–they won’t bother, regardless of how much they might “like” your book. It has to be marketable, not just likeable. It may be dripping with literary merit but if it’s not an easy sell, no go. The mid-list of “worthy” fiction has shrunken drastically over the past decade. Most publishers just aren’t interested in another “good” book. There are millions of “good” books out there, and millions more sitting in the slush pile. Publishers want a GREAT book that leaps out from the pack–something that sales reps can pitch to Barnes & Noble like selling water to a fish. The piles and piles of well-written, nice little books that end up on the remainder table? Publishers are steering clear. All of that mid-list fiction just amounts to nails in the coffin.

    In the traditional publishing model, publishers take on all the risk, because EVERYTHING THAT BOOKSTORES BUY IS RETURNABLE. Bookstores buy at a huge discount, pocket the flap mark-up, and then RETURN whatever they don’t sell. (They can also buy non-returnable books at a deeper discount, but that’s not how the big guys generally operate.) The book pulping business is huge. Publishers don’t like spending lots of money publishing a book just to spend more money sending their books to the pulper when copies return from the bookstores by the ton and the distributor’s warehouse starts charging for storage.

    I’m not saying this to bring anyone down–I’m saying this so that you see that rejection is not necessarily a judgement of weather your work is “good” or “bad.” It MIGHT be a judgement. But it might also be the reality of this market, and the result of what a specific publisher is really looking for–what they think that readers want, and what they think they can sell. I’m sure there are small independent publishers that will still take a chance on an unknown first-time writer and a good book without an obvious marketing hook, but I don’t think that those publishing houses are sitting in a lot of cash right now either.

    The only thing you can do is ensure that your book is “sock-knocking-off” good. Then, it’s just a numbers game. The cream of the crop will find its way into the right hands eventually. Have faith. In the meantime, make damn sure that your book is something that will make an acquisition editor’s heart skip a beat or two.

    July 16, 2009
  5. yea, the market for almost anything except ipods sucks right now. and whether miranda sounds like the voice of doom or not, i choose not. i’m still going to do what i can to get my manuscript out to publishers/agents/whatever after i get it back from readers.

    i think these are sage words, m, i just don’t want to be discouraged in a market area that has always been challenging. i mean, really, what is the percentage of writers who are actually making a living wage to feed and house a family, eh? if my old writer/artist/musician crowd around boston is any indication, the percentage is miniscule. even the relatively lucrative touring musicians i knew still had at least part time day jobs and lived quite frugally.

    July 19, 2009
  6. firstly Brittany, as an aspiring writer who is still in naive delight at finally finding a space in the new house to write, (note i write space, not time) my first reaction was to congratulate you on actually finishing your novel to ‘sending to publisher’ standard. I sit in the attic night after night, exhausted from a day of the usual domestic and mothering tasks, scratching a few well-thought, and often not well-thought lines of my excrutiatingly slowly developing novel, wondering why i am putting myself through this, but unable to stop. so to see that you have actually got to the end, finished it, re-drafted it, edited it, and then sigh a sigh that must feel better than a week’s worth of… well, you know and finally close that laptop, to me seems nearly impossible. but then i realise how patronising that is. because you have got to the end, and now you are at the start of the next excrutiatingly slow process – getting it published. so instead of congratulating you (although in fairness, your achievement cannot go unaddressed, so congratulations!), i’m going to commiserate with you because the feeling of such brutal and callouse rejection must cut to the bone. But i agree with the previous posts – it is such a tough business but you must keep going. keep the faith and and keep trying. there are so many stories out there of books that have gone on to be bestsellers being rejected many times before finally being taken up. keep going!!!

    July 24, 2009

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