Suddenly… nothing happened. But it happened suddenly. (1)
You’ve dispatched your sample chapters to agents and/or publishers. Now what?
Well, very little. Wait for the little rejection slips to come fluttering to your door. As mentioned, even that can take some time. When you finally strike gold you’ll know about it but,before then, you’ll live in an agony of ignorance, wondering each day what has become of all the paper messengers you sent out into the world, and not one of them has the grace to inform you of its progress.
On no account should you start calling the recipients of your work and badgering them for a response. This may, in fact, yield a response, but not the response you were hoping for. You will win no friends by making a nuisance of yourself. This is all about power balance. They have the power, and you, at this stage in the proceedings, are a supplicant, and one of many. I really rather doubt that there is such a thing as a publisher’s blacklist (2) but if there was, you wouldn’t want to be on it, now, would you? Later on, of course, when your books are being made into films and you live in a castle in Scotland, you can make as much of a nuisance of yourself as you want. (3)
Eventually you will probably find that either all your little birds have returned, empty-beaked, to the nest, or you’ve given over the remainder to storm and predators, on the basis of extreme effluxion of time. You may by then be working on a new book. You may have been brushing up the faded colours of the original. Sometimes (rarely) you will receive constructive criticism from people returning your work, most often agents in my experience. Treasure this like gold dust.
And submit. And wait.
How long must you wait? Well, I waited over ten years, punctuating the wait with one submission or another. There are no guarantees.
You may think this is a hard life. It can be soul-destroying. You can reach some milestone birthday or other and think, “Should it not have happened by now?” The leaves turn brown and fall, and you wait like an ageing princess in a high lower, watching for the glint of sun on armour in the distance, but each time the White Knight just rides on (4). Spare a thought for some distant cousins who have it harder. (9)
The truth is, it’s a royal bitch trying to break into any artistic institution. Making a living with your creativity is, in any field, massively oversubscribed. The aspiring writer has some key advantages over, let’s say, the actor or the opera singer. The reason? Why, there’s the wretched rent to pay (10). The days of wine and roses, when you were a student (assuming you were) and could play fast and loose with your time, are soon over. Unless you are independently wealthy or have a celebrity relative, it’s time to pay the bills. Nothing cramps your artistic style more than having to work for a living but, Lord knows, we all do. Spare a thought for those whose chosen dream cannot be tapped out in evenings and weekends. There are those who cannot don the pinstripe, even just to keep the wolf from the door.
I was a mediocre amateur dramatician at university, but I had friends who took it very seriously indeed. That is a cliff’s edge, and if you want the chance to fly, you must throw yourself off. We writers have the chance to tie a rope about our waists first, working by day, writing by night, hauling ourselves back up each time we cast ourselves off. My friends had the choice: stay up top and give up the dream, or jump. They jumped. They went to theatrical schools and became equitised (11), and their lot is very similar to a writer’s, save that it’s harder. They do well enough, my friends. They seem to be able to scrape the rent together. You see them, it’s true, in films, on the television. Still, they are waiting for the big break, just as writers wait, and they can’t put in eight hours a day for Consolidated Actuarial while they do it, because they must be ready to drop everything when the chance comes. And they’re good at their trade, too. That’s the howling unfairness. I’ve often sat and watched some film and thought, “Now why isn’t Al in this?” or “Tim would be perfect for that role.” And time goes on, and they make ends meet, but it’s unjust that they haven’t been discovered yet. Just as there are a lot of published books out there that are dross, and a lot of talented writers unread, so there are a lot of good actors yet unfamed whilst in their place hollow men strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard all too bloody often.
I digress. But this is a blog and therefore the home of digression. Next: What to do besides wait.
(1) The Goon Show, of course.
(2) Although after sufficient rejections this doubt begins to erode. It’s easier to blame an international publishing conspiracy than the brute forces of mere chance.
(3) I am not for a moment implying that she makes a nuisance of herself, but she has become the archetypal author-made-good.
(4) After depositing another batch of rejection letters. It would, I think, try the patience of any Disneyesque heroine (5) if each successive Prince Charming left a polite note explaining that (a) he wasn’t currently looking to rescue any more princesses (b) he really only rescued blondes (8) or (c) all of the above.
(5) The traditional Snow White type that couldn’t do anything for herself (6), rather than the later, more girl-powery ones.
(6) I swear, that woman even needed seven dwarves and about a million miscellaneous animals (7) to get the housework done. It’s easy to whistle while you work with that kind of staff on the payroll.
(7) Like Upstairs Downstairs re-enacted by the cast of Redwall
(8) Ideally blondes with a solid history of being successfully rescued before.
(9) No, not lemurs, although they are having a rough time of it.
(10) Robert Service, from his rather appropriate poem It is Later than you Think.
(11) Equitable? Equilateral, perhaps