Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Uncertainty of Writing

by Karen Harrington
author, Janeology

Recently I was reminded of a vignette cited by writer Barnaby Conrad. After attending a bullfight, Conrad eavesdropped on a conversation between matador and reporter. The reporter asked, “How did you come to be a bullfighter?” And the matador replied, “I took up bullfighting because of the uncertainty of being a writer.”

I don’t know if that sentiment makes me laugh or sigh. Does this mean there is less chance of being hurt in a bullring than in the world of letters? I suppose you could argue that by the end of a bullfight you are guaranteed a definitive outcome. But after months or years of writing a manuscript, there is no guarantee of anything, save the satisfaction of completion.

Whether you are a matador or writer, one thing is clear: it takes courage and little dose of insanity to do either.

Now that I’ve been published and seen my idea go from spark on a sticky Sticky Note to Barnes & Noble bookshelf, I have a larger, perhaps more realistic view of the process. I’ve been immersed in the business side of the process and seen first-hand how subjective the landscape of bookselling can be. But that doesn’t deter me. If anything, coming full circle in the writing-to-publication journey reminds me of how very rewarding it was (and is) to have those days where I say, “Wow, this story is something I would like to read!” or “I can’t wait to see what will happen next.”

All said it takes a special brand of courage and moxie to go the distance as a writer. Whether you are honing your first work in progress or you've sold ten best-sellers, I think it's still worth remembering that you've set yourself apart from the pack just by entering the ring. So I thought I’d conclude this article with a list of writers who forged ahead despite the uncertainty of the profession.

The list is compiled from Michael Larsen's book, Literary Agents.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was returned fourteen times, but it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

• Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead was rejected twelve times.

• Patrick Dennis said of his autobiographical novel Auntie Mame, "It circulated for five years through the halls of fifteen publishers and finally ended up with Vanguard Press, which, as you can see, is rather deep into the alphabet." This illustrates why using the alphabet may be a logical but ineffective way to find the best agent or editor.

• Twenty publishers felt that Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull was for the birds.

• The first title of Catch-22 was Catch-18, but Simon and Schuster planned to publish it during the same season that Doubleday was bringing out Mila 18 by Leon Uris. When Doubleday complained, Joseph Heller changed the title. Why 22? Because Simon and Schuster was the 22nd publisher to read it. Catch-22 has become part of the language and has sold more than 10 million copies.

Mary Higgins Clark was rejected forty times before selling her first story. One editor wrote: "Your story is light, slight, and trite." More than 30 million copies of her books are now in print.

• Before he wrote Roots, Alex Haley had received 200 rejections.

• Robert Persig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, couldn't get started at 121 houses.

• John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, was declined by fifteen publishers and some thirty agents. His novels have more than 60 million copies in print.

• Thirty-three publishers couldn't digest Chicken Soup for the Soul, compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, before it became a huge best-seller and spawned a series.

Write on!


staceyjwarner said...

Excellent post. J.K. Rowling was also rejected and it was pure luck the HARRY POTTER books were "discovered"

I think we need to write because we love it without getting lost in the "is it good enough"...

much love!

Karin Gillespie said...

Great post. Kathyrn Stockwell who's Southern book "The Help" was rejected over thirty times. Her book is on the bestselling list as we speak and has been for weeks.

Shelley said...

Very inspirational! Write because you love it and have faith that your passion will resonate with others!

Scobberlotcher said...

Thanks for all your comments!

I agree that writing should grow from a passion.

Best of luck to all!

k. harrington