Has this happened to you? Having submitted a well-crafted piece, you wait in limbo for the several months The Writer’s Guide told you it would take. You check your mailbox/email as the assessment period crawls to a conclusion. And finally, eventually, you give up waiting. You are left wondering what it means…is the piece rejected, or lost in space? Writer Beware recently linked to a blog related to the hot issue of “no response means no” here.
Those readers who submit will know what I’m talking about. It takes a lot of guts to keep throwing your work into the publishing abyss. And if you’re being very good and not multi-submitting your work the turn-around time can easily extend into years. At this moment I have a number of stories I could send out. Some of them have been awarded in competitions. Some have already received polite rejections, or no replies. All of them took months to get an answer (or not). It’s a painful process, no doubt about it, and possibly worse than ever these days. More people are writing, doing NaNoWriMo, and, if agents complaints can be believed, swamping magazines, agents and publishers with barely edited drafts. Shocking!
When I go into bookstores I feel slightly sick sometimes. I’m thinking Ecclesiastes 12:12 here. Definitely way too many books. Way too many people thinking “publish or die.” Much of it won’t be reprinted. The turn around in book stores now is in the months, not years, for new releases. And for every book on the shelf, how many that never made it? Apparently over 100,000 manuscripts circling the globe at any given time. Most of those manuscripts will run out of fuel and crash land somewhere (hopefully not over a populated area.) And some of them will actually be good ones.
We were warned. Everyone said it would be hard to get in print. After several years of writing I was dismayed to discover the damning statistics, how few writers get published, and even if they do, how little they get paid. After a term of denial I have (sort of) accepted that. I’m not exactly sure where I am in the Five Stages of Grief, possibly a little angry when I hear agents dismissive comments, or how editors usually get paid many times more than their authors. It doesn’t make sense, that is, until you look back through the history of writing.
Across many cultures it used to be the mark of an educated individual to be able to express oneself in writing, whether letters, journals, or poetry. Doesn’t it just give you a warm feeling to take your place in the pantheon? And believe me, I do think it’s wonderful for more and more people to write, to join groups, to do courses, even to do NaNoWriMo. But I’m also thinking of the Chinese Art I studied in university, and the ideal of the scholar, the lone seeker sitting in a hut beside a river, contemplating nature, perhaps penning (er, brush-stroking) a poem. It makes me wonder, could we find some purpose to writing other than being published?
Being in print seems to have become an issue of personal validation. It’s a kind of fame that is available to people in all shapes, sizes and colours, seemingly. All you need is pen and paper, right? Unfortunately, if being published confers value, being rejected must confer the opposite: unworthiness. I wonder just how damaging it might be to some to spend years hurling the dredgings of the psyche at a brick wall? I’m so grateful to Natalie Goldberg for teaching me that there is another way of looking at writing: it always has value if it is written truthfully and from the heart. And perhaps the self-knowledge benefit we gain from it is actually its highest value.
I’d like to bring this all together with a couple of ideas I’m grandly calling The Burinsmith Manifesto. This is the guide I work to. If we all did this whole problem of not getting a reply and even not being published would become irrelevant.
BE REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR WORK. Explore what the writing means to you. Have you created something you really want to share with the world? Have you spent time developing your skills, style and ideas? Stripped of the romantic notion of writer as celebrity, and aware of the financial limitations of what is available, is this still something you want to pursue? If not, maybe explore other ways of sharing your ideas: journalling, writing letters, blogging. Write poems for those you care about. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a story for his children. Join a writing centre. Get together with other writers and make an anthology. Self-publish. You may even find that when freed from the pressure of getting published your writing starts to take on greater personal significance. It might even become worth publishing.
ONLY SUBMIT YOUR BEST WORK. So you have decided in spite of all you want to have a go at being published. Now is the time to apply another layer of honesty to your work. Sort the sheep from the goats, not everything you write will be great. Clearly, the publishing industry is no crap-shoot so be hard on yourself. Sub-standard, derivative, unoriginal, unedited or poorly presented work does not have a chance. Ask, does the manuscript hold up to or even surpass the quality of published work you have read? If you think it does, go ahead and submit. Then even if the piece is rejected, even if it’s not responded to, at least you will know it wasn’t because you hadn’t done your part.
I hope that doesn’t sound harsh. I certainly don’t mean to be. Recently I met an idealistic new writer with his first manuscript in hand, just about to post it off to New York “to be made into a book and, hopefully later, a movie.” I smiled, remembering a time when I shared that optimism. Now, nine years in, I think I’m ready to relax a little. I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to look in terms of my output, or even subject matter. Deep, slow breaths. It’s part of a healthy life to reorient one’s compass from time to time.