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 For Aspiring Writers

The following is based on a presentation made on 21 July 2005 by the author of ‘Why Don’t You Fly? to a meeting of the Capote Club

 

 

The 16,500-mile bicycle ride from Worcestershire to Beijing took me thirteen months. It took me roughly three times as long to write about the journey and get the book published.

There are far easier ways of getting rich than writing; I read somewhere that the average professional writer earns less than £7,000 a year; the John Grishams, Salman Rushdies and J.K. Rowlings are a tiny minority. I’ve devoted over 8 years of my life to writing and I’m still waiting for my first royalty cheque.

I decided to become a writer about twelve years ago. I’d just been allocated a brand-new state-of -the-art truck specifically designed for ultra-long-haul journeys to Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union. As a University-educated lorry driver I felt that I was almost uniquely qualified to chronicle adventures involving potholes and blistering heat in the summer, sheet ice a foot thick in the winter, and an armed policeman riding in the passenger seat to discourage bandits – all at a time of great political and social upheaval in the former Soviet Empire.

I was motivated not by the idea of huge royalty cheques but by the thought that the ideas I had and the way I decided to communicate them might one day enrich the lives of my fellow beings. Nothing excites me more than the possibility that my writing might entertain, amuse, absorb or inspire them, or even change – just a little – their view of the world.

I think art provides a window into the human soul. Other creatives choose to express their vision of the world by painting, music, poetry, sculpture or acting but the written word happens to be the medium in which I feel most at home. This is not just because I love the process of working with language, but also because I am generally too self-conscious and inhibited in most situations to speak with power and confidence. Since when I write I am free from fear or any sense of vulnerability, I am able to express myself as I would to a very close friend: uninhibitedly and with fluency, warmth and humour.

The odds in what has always been a buyer’s market have traditionally been stacked against the unknown, unpublished author, and never more so than today. Publishers have recently been told by bookstores that they are publishing too many books so they are reducing the size of their lists, which means even less room for works by unpublished authors. Penguin and Pan Macmillan, two of the largest UK publishers, now no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts at all – which seems to me to be a very short-sighted policy as one wonders how on earth they are going to find the next J.K.Rowling. Other publishers are specifying submissions by literary agents only and there were times when I doubted that ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’ would ever see the light of day.

Usually all you get back from a publisher or a literary agent is a standard rejection note that begs the question whether they’ve bothered to read your painstakingly prepared introductory letter and synopsis – never mind the sample chapters you sent them. Sometimes it is all too obvious that they haven’t and you wonder why on earth you took the trouble: the woman from Bloomsbury couldn’t even be bothered to get the title of my book right, erroneously referring to it by the title of Chapter One.

The standard rejection slip of the literary agent Juri Gabriel makes for much more interesting reading than most, so I’ve reproduced it in full:

Please forgive me for sending you a form letter in response (he writes) but I receive hundreds of manuscripts and film/tv/radio scripts each year, and there is only one of me. I’m afraid I have decided not to accept your proposal. This does not necessarily mean that it is without merit. All it means is that I do not think I can sell it. Having said which, I feel I ought to make a few general points, which you may or may not find helpful:
1. From the hundreds of people of all kinds who write to me each year, I probably take on 2-4 new clients. (For most major publishers the figures for unsolicited manuscripts are even worse: between zero and two out of literally thousands. Broadcasting and films are much the same.)
2. However, the overwhelming majority (over 95%) of submissions are so hopelessly bad that one shouldn’t really include them in any ‘significant’ statistics.
3. Last year 100,000 new titles (fiction and non-fiction and including new editions of previously published works) were published.
That there is a vast amount of undiscovered talent out there is a delusion. If you are genuinely talented, persist; the real odds are less fearsome than they might at first appear.


So with every rejection slip chipping away at the edifice of my self-belief, how did I know that ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’ wasn’t one of the 95% of hopelessly bad submissions mentioned by Juri Gabriel? How can there be any certainty that one is ‘genuinely talented’ in a subjective world dominated by perceptions and opinions rather than facts?

The truth is that there is no way of knowing. One can only continue to believe.

This belief was bolstered by regular reading of other travel books, many of which persuaded me that my typescript had at least as much to offer the reader both in narrative content and writing quality. Most important, however, were testimonials from other people whose opinions I felt I could trust – which meant those who didn’t know me personally. However much you may implore friends and family for an impartial assessment, they will almost certainly like what you have written simply because you have written it, and they will be too concerned about hurting your feelings to provide an honest evaluation.

After reading three sample chapters of ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’ a friend of a friend wrote:


"Thoroughly enjoyable!! He’s got a really nice, warm style and made me laugh out loud."

A second reader I’d never met wrote:

"The chapters are rotten bedtime reading! I read the lot in one sitting. No really. Being more of an armchair adventurer I have read a fair amount of books recounting other peoples travels and troubles, but in terms of style and content your man has something different. I’m not sure if it was the motivation for the trip, or Chris’ outlook on life anyway, but it was great to read an account of someone I felt I could identify with. I just felt such a degree of empathy for the situations he faced, the frustrations and pleasures. A lot of other writers seem to me to be more superficial. They never seem to let you in on how they are feeling and the observations seem stilted because of it. I would (will) buy the book!"

Writing that comes from the heart engages one’s emotions, and I believe that the reader’s ability to empathise with the narrator or central character is one of the key elements that distinguish the potential bestseller from the also-rans of fiction and narrative non-fiction. In commenting specifically on the warmth and empathy they experienced in reading sample chapters of ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’, both of these unknown readers provided a ringing endorsement of what I was trying to do.

For about a year I was probably the only lorry driver in the U.K. with a literary agent. Publishers are more likely to pay attention to a submission previously accepted by a literary agent because this constitutes some proof to them that the work isn’t amongst the over 95% of hopelessly bad submissions cited by Juri Gabriel. Robert Dudley (my agent) wrote of the manuscript:

"I can’t deny the fact that I found it consistently entertaining, interesting, informative and well written."

Indeed he found the typescript so compelling that he happily took his work with him to bed, a place he normally reserves for reading for pleasure. I felt that there was every reason to assume that tens of thousands of other readers would be equally engaged by the narrative, but his efforts to sell the book didn’t meet with success and he was eventually forced to give up the struggle after approaching no less than eleven publishers.

Nevertheless, my former agent’s enthusiasm for ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’ was vital in removing any smidgeon of doubt that mine might be amongst the 95% of hopelessly bad submissions. Together with glowing testimonials from unknown readers, it provided some much needed perspective during those dark days when the rejection slips arrived thick and fast, and when I was in danger of believing that what I’d written was a load of self-centred, repetitive, talentless drivel.

For weeks at a time I’d wonder if the powerful instinct that I was cut out to be a writer was based on nothing more than vanity and self-delusion, but even when I sensed that I was looking over a precipice, I continued to edit and proofread, adding, deleting and rearranging material and trying to keep positive by maintaining a feeling of progress and telling myself that every rejection slip was giving me valuable extra time to improve the typescript.

And even amongst the rejection slips there was the occasional shaft of light. After reading synopsis and sample chapters an editor at Chatto & Windus pronounced ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’
a fascinating story, intelligently written and with great humour’. An editor at Methuen admitted that the sample chapters had been ‘a pleasure to read’.

Publishers’ editors have absolutely no reason to ingratiate themselves with you and won’t waste their valuable time feeding authors bullshit or sparing their feelings, and I had no doubt that these compliments were genuine, but I was left asking myself quite what else one has to do (apart from being fascinating, intelligent and humorous that is) to get a book published. As a consumer as well as a producer of travel writing, I believe that the market is crying out for a book that incorporates all of these attributes, but the letters from Chatto and Methuen both contained the inevitable clause commencing with a ‘however’ or a ‘but’ – followed by the usual blandishment along the lines of we don’t feel it is quite suitable for our list.

At this point I was still labouring under a common misconception that all one has to do to get published is to write a very good book, but I have come to realise that this isn’t so. Writing a very good book is only a part of it (and if you’re a celebrity you don’t actually have to write a book at all). I refer you back to Juri Gabriel’s rejection slip:

This does not necessarily mean that it is without merit (he wrote). All it means is that I do not think I can sell it.

Once your very good book has been written, bookshops must be persuaded to stock it and the punters must be persuaded to pick it up off the shelves and buy it – and this is where the unknown author suffers a considerable handicap in the eyes of a publisher. Most people will buy a book only if they’ve already read and enjoyed a book previously written by the same author, or if the author or subject of the book is otherwise known to them.

All the evidence points to a single, unwelcome fact: that to be published in a celebrity-obsessed age you have to be famous – and not necessarily as a writer. The following is an extract from a recent article in the Sunday Times entitled Footballers hit golden goal as £1m authors:

They are already pocketing five and six-figure weekly salaries, but now some of the country’s leading footballers are capitalising on recent triumphs by signing deals for their memoirs that put them among the highest-paid authors in the country. Over the past few days, agents have agreed deals of about £1m for Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain who lifted the European Champions League trophy against the odds last month, and John Terry, skipper of Chelsea, winners of the Premiership. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard, another Chelsea player, has signed a high six-figure deal for his autobiography. Footballers are now rivalling other celebrity and cultural figures in their literary earning power. Some of the biggest deals in recent years have gone to Robbie Williams, the singer, John Peel, the late radio presenter, and Sheila Hancock, the widow of John Thaw, the actor. Rupert Everett, another actor, has also recently signed a deal worth about £1m.

So if you’re famous – or notorious – enough you don’t even have to write a single word of ‘your’ book to be published: achieve celebrity in a completely unrelated field (e.g. Steven Gerrard, Robbie Williams, Jordan) and there will be no shortage of ghost writers prepared write your story and publishers eager to publish, promote and sell it.

This is immensely frustrating to the unknown author. The fact that you don’t have to be a writer at all to get published merely adds insult to injury. One wonders how much of that precious space on publishers’ lists is taken up by so-called celebrity ‘authors’ who can’t even spell, let alone construct an elegant sentence.

Although I have considerable regard for millionaire film star Ewan McGregor’s enterprise in crossing Europe, Asia and America with sidekick, cameraman and support crew in tow and on motorbikes provided free of charge by BMW, the journey I made was not just more culturally and scenically diverse than his; it was physically and (arguably) emotionally more challenging, and I believe that ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’ has a spiritual dimension entirely lacking in McGregor’s ghost-written book The Long Way Round. But because of the age in which we live, it is the name on the cover that sells a book rather than what is inside it, and the principle aim of publishers is not to promote good writing or a great story, but to sell books. This is the age of the cult of the celebrity: the Sun doesn’t outsell the Guardian because it is better written or because it contains better journalism, but because every issue is packed with minutiae about the lives of celebrities; and ghost-written autobiographies telling their stories are regularly making it into the bestseller charts.

To get published as an unknown these days takes enormous persistence, unwavering self-belief, some talent, and maybe a little luck too. It has taken me three and a half years to write and get ‘Why Don’t You Fly?’ published, and I spent over five years prior to the cycling trip writing and attempting to find a publisher for the story of my trucking adventures. I failed.

Many of those authors who have gone on to hit the jackpot only did so after several years of failure – but they persisted. It probably helped that they loved what they were doing. Writing should never in my opinion be regarded principally as a means to make money; it is a vocation. You are compelled to write because you love the process of writing and you delight in the flexibility of language and the multitude of alternative ways it offers you to express yourself. That is where you – as a bona fide writer – differ from the likes of John Terry, Jordan and Ewan McGregor: for them books are just another means to cash in on their celebrity. And I have discovered that writing is like any other skill: you definitely get better at it with practice. So persevere! With the benefit of hindsight I’m very glad that my first effort at a book wasn’t published because I hadn’t yet learnt enough of the art of writing. Nevertheless the story remains to be told and one day I intend to rewrite it.

I hope that this account of my struggles hasn’t depressed any of you or put you off. I’ve tried to give you an indication of the scepticism that the unknown, unpublished author can expect to receive from publishers, but your paths to publication may be considerably quicker and less troubled than mine. I really hope so, because this can be a very long and lonely battle. Friends and family can offer sympathy, but as none of mine are writers they didn’t really have any true conception of the corrosive self-doubt, the gibbering frustration and even the sheer fury engendered by the rejection slips. The Capote Club, had it existed at the time, might have provided sorely needed sympathy, encouragement and advice.

A quick word about Pen Press, my publishers. They describe themselves as ‘a partnership publisher’, and as such are only one step away from self-publishing. For a fee they will publish your book under their imprint, but unlike vanity publishers who promise the earth, take your money and are never seen again, Pen Press have accounts with all the major book retailers (including Waterstones and W.H.Smith). This means that they have a reputation to maintain and will therefore only take on material that they feel has potential. But because your fee indemnifies them to some extent against losses incurred by the failure of your book to make enough sales, they are prepared to take on promising material by first-time authors when mainstream publishers won’t take the risk. In return you will get a very professionally produced book (they are members of the guild of master craftsmen) and as a paying customer you have far more clout on the design, layout and content of your book than you’d get under a more conventional publishing arrangement. For more details, you can visit their Website www.penpress.net If nothing else, they will provide an honest assessment of your typescript’s potential for a very reasonable fee. I paid £70 for 140,000 words. Others charge £300 or even more for this service.

I’ll leave the last word to the novelist and life coach
Jacqui Lofthouse

"…having experienced the vagaries of the publishing world, I am beginning to understand that 'success' as a writer is not always about talent or hard work. It is about, most of all, self-belief, a self-belief that is rock solid, that can face rejection head-on, because our self-definition as a creative artist runs deep, to our core and absolutely cannot be shaken. It is that self-definition that makes us artists, that gives us the right to write, to paint, to compose, to sculpt, to act. Without it, there is no persistence. Without it, we are shaken by every little criticism, every rejection, every damning word that ever fell from the mouth of a frustrated creative, or a short-sighted publisher or a parent who never believed the arts worth studying".






 

 

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