I’ve stressed the fact that waiting comes into this business with distressing regularity. The truth is that the beginning is all wait: you write, and you wait. If you return to the writing board, the waiting continues. Many years go by waiting for that first moment of contact, like a forgotten spy checking the same safe-houses and message-drops in the hope that some day, some distant day, there will be orders, a name, a place. Like Vladimir and Estragon, always in hope, and forever to be unsatisfied. It’s that kind of waiting. Perhaps Beckett got the idea for the play from his early experiences of trying to get his work published or performed.
So, you can become quite an authoritative expert on a lack of news, in the not-quite-a-writer business. You soon learn to recognise the various vintages of wait that life serves up to you, from the urgent, piquant sting of the wait just after you’ve submitted your manuscript, to the dry, harsh but full-bodied waiting when it’s around that time that you think you should have heard something, to the bland watered-down waiting that you get after the better bottles are dry and it’s been too long to seriously expert a result. All of these become old friends, and each time you make your submission, you do the rounds of the old watering holes, sample the same old vineyards. If you’ve trodden this path, then odds are you know what I’m talking about.
There are bottles left unopened, however, until you make a certain kind of progress. When you send your full manuscript off, you open a special celebratory cask of waiting that has a fruity, bubbly savour, and yet a distinctly sour and lingering aftertaste, and that, frankly, neither keeps nor travels well: going back for a second glass a month later is a distinctly disillusioning experience. It’s that old enemy, hope, of course. They put hope in the grapes, and it might as well be corked, frankly, but still, you drink it. What else is there?
So, there I am, with an agent, and for the first time the business is out of my hands. It’s up to Simon now to plead my case for me, to tilt in the lists against the black knight, and all I can do is wave my handkerchief from the tower window to encourage him and/or sit mutely behind him and tug at his gown on occasion (1). This is, to date, the hardest wait of all. Perhaps it should be the easiest, now that the agent is acquired, now that the plateau is gained. Lies. There is no plateau, only a slope, and one that will continue, I am sure, long after publication – why, there’s sales figures, sequels, diminishing readerships: even if there was a laurel involved then resting on it is only a polite way of saying waiting.
True, you gather momentum as you pass the various milestones, but equally true, the gradient increases, and at this point it felt as though the path ahead was near-vertical, and it was unclear whether I had sufficient momentum to clear it. The thing is that the waiting earlier is easier simply because you can tell yourself all manner of stories about what is going wrong, and you may well be correct in the telling, and anyway, you’ll almost certainly never know any different. After all, who knows whether they really read it, or whether the reader wasn’t someone who secretly loathes your name or your theme or some chance choice of word on the first page. Who knows whether it was just a bad time, whether the reader got out of bed on the wrong side, broke up with her husband/his wife/their partner/the dog, trod in a puddle, got a car clamped or stolen, had an unfavourable horoscope, and then spilled coffee in their lap immediately before reading your sample chapters? In such circumstances, anyone might form an unjustifiably prejudiced opinion of a work, and, you’re willing to bet, readers have days like that all the time.
And probably that’s true. Given the volume of submissions and the rather smaller number of people paid to read them, how many really do get a fair reading? How many are rejected, that would have won awards and sold a million copies? Oh, surely, far more are rejected that would have bankrupted the publisher and seen the editor lynched if they ever saw print, but still, the holes in the sieve are large. All sorts of things might fall through.
Get this far, though, and the gloves are off. There are no excuses going. The agent has read it, and applied his literary spanner to tune and tighten the work until it becomes the sort of book that Jeremy Clarkson would drive from Monaco to London in, beating James May in the plane (3). The book is no longer an “unsolicited manuscript”, such as many publishers pointedly do not accept. You have an advocate, a respected literary man with the backing of a well-known agency, representing many actual authors of whom you have heard. Every possible factor is now in your favour.
So, no excuses then. If you fall from grace now, there are no safety nets, you just fall and fall, because the agent wants to sell your book to a publisher. This is the only way that the considerable time and effort that the agent has put into it will ever be justified. Your knight has put his spurs to the destrier and couched his lance, and if he fails to strike the quintain at this point, well…
Best not think about it.
But of course, you do think about it. This is the time, more than any other, for soul-searching, lying awake, fretting, mithering and general existential angst. It is out of your hands. It is out of your hands and in flight (5) and nothing you can do can call it back or alter its course.
And so you wait. As mentioned, I’m a lawyer (7), and where possible I do my own advocacy, as to my mind wrangling out a matter before a judge is the best part of the job. Whenever I’ve had to instruct a barrister to speak instead, it’s been nailbiting in a way that actually doing the work myself never was. Delegation is a hard thing to do, and when your life’s aspirations are the things being carried off to market in someone else’s basket…
So, the unkindest cut of all waiting, and I won’t say that I didn’t plague my poor agent, which did nothing for my chances and which I cannot recommend, but it was impossible for me, in the end, to sit there like a soldier’s wife and wait for word from the front. There’s a saying about no news, and at first no news is good news, and then it becomes bad news, and at last you decide that it has, by grim process of inevitability, become good news once again.
And then the news came, and Simon asked me if I would mind terribly if Macmillan were to buy up books 1 through 3 for mumblemumblesum of an advance, and the sun came out, and the world looked quite different.
(1) Metaphors are like knotweed. You should never let them get out of hand, or you’ll never be rid of them. As both a lawyer and a fantasy writer, it has always been easy for me to see the business of legal representation and advocacy as a kind of knight-errant affair (2)
(2) Only most of the time the wicked baron is your client, and very few knight-errants charge by the hour.
(3) But only because of a virtually deus ex machina series of problems at the May end.(4)
(4) And if you still have no idea what I’m going on about, it was an episode of Top Gear.
(5) Because we need another metaphor like a hole in the head (6)
(6) Yes, I know.
(7) A legal executive is still a lawyer. Lawyer is an imprecise catch all term that, ILEX forgive me, is a lot easier on the ear and more impressive in the imagination than “legal executive.” One of my very earliest jobs was an “Administrative Executive” for the Legal Aid Board (8), which taught me pretty damn quickly that putting the word “executive” in a job description, just like calling your new housing estate “Sunview Villas”, is as much a warning signal to the unwary as bright colours on a frog or a rattle on a snake. Notably, below the Administrative Executives were the Administrative Assistants, a post as menial as if the organ grinder’s monkey had hired another, smaller, monkey to do backing singing.
(8) Now the “Legal Services Commission”, as if that changes anything.