Sending a book manuscript out to a publisher makes many writers feel vulnerable. What happens when things don’t turn out the way you hoped? How do you keep going…or do you?
In 1994, when it was time to send out query letters for the wheat harvest novel Nothing Left To Lose, I had done a lot of research and sent letters out to numerous agents and several of the publishing contacts Joe Vitale had given me (The Query Letter and The Question). I was so scared when it came time to put the queries in the mail that my friend Sue had to go with me for support. I still thought the fear was about the incident with my Dad over the poetry when I was 14. I had done a lot of recovery work on that issue, and I thought I was well on the way toward conquering that fear. Yet I still had the question that Joe had asked me haunting my thoughts – how was I going to make sure I didn’t walk away from publishing a second book, just like I had done with the first book I wrote?
I waited anxiously the next several weeks for replies, and was delighted when one of the publishing contacts Joe had offered wrote back and said he’d like to see a copy of the manuscript. Then I had several agents reply that they too would like to see the manuscript, and I was elated. Things were looking very positive. The fear didn’t feel as overwhelming, and I thought maybe – just maybe – we’d broken the chains of the old childhood fears.
I happily sent off copies of my manuscript as rejection letters from others came in. Since I already had several positive responses, the rejections sure didn’t sting quite as bad. I heard first from the publisher, who made several encouraging statements, but then declined, saying my book really wasn’t what he was looking for. Then one of the agents replied, and suggested the book needed professional editing, and offered a possible editing service to use. The agent said she would like to see my manuscript again after I’d had it edited and revised. It got interesting when a second agent said the same thing – the book needed editing, and here’s a possible editing service to use – and suggested the same editing service. I took that as some kind of sign, and decided to check out the editing service. In addition, I heard back from several more agents that they were interested in the manuscript, but that it still could use some editing and polishing.
I called the editing service, and made arrangements with the man in charge to have him work on my manuscript. I thought now I was really getting somewhere: I had agents waiting and I was connected to a professional editing service. I felt as though I were on a schedule — I didn’t want to let things cool too long with the agents before returning the manuscript to them. I sent followup letters to the agents who had been interested, letting them know I was in a revision process, and would re-submit as soon as I was finished. With the two agents who had suggested using the editor, I confirmed that I was using the editor’s services, and assured them that they would be pleased with the outcome.
Note: I discovered many years later that this particular editing service was part of a shady arrangement where several agents were purported to be getting kickbacks from the editor for recommending that writers use his services. His company had been sued for non-performance several times. Frequently the editing jobs were done by low-paid apprentices, and it was a high-volume low-quality operation. The agents who recommended this service weren’t really expecting to review the revised manuscripts. I met a real book editor from New York at a writer’s conference. When I told him this story, he laughed and said it was one of the big industry scandals for a while. He said I was lucky to actually have an evaluation returned to me.
After about two months, the editor returned my manuscript with a two page evaluation. My copy had been marked up where changes were needed. I was ready to work on a rewrite to tighten up the writing. The editor had been a couple of weeks late in returning my manuscript, saying their office had been ransacked and they had lost a lot of files and notes. Since he was late in completing his part, he made me an offer. When I revised my manuscript, he would evaluate it a second time – at no cost to me – to make sure the changes were all correctly made, and to ensure we had a solid novel. I was thrilled to find him so cooperative. I was generally in agreement with the direction of his suggested changes, and I went to work on a major revision of my novel.
At this point, the fear was pushing on me, but at times not so fiercely, because I hadn’t got that close to publication. I knew I had to first go through the revision process, then have the agent accept my manuscript before we began shopping it to publishers. So it wasn’t as if publication was in the immediate future. Yet I would still sometimes feel stuck while trying to write, as though I physically could not sit down to work on the manuscript. For a while it got completely frustrating. One time I angrily declared, “If I can’t break through this writing block shit, I’m just going to give up writing and take up golf!”
It took several months to do the revision work, and I finally sent the manuscript back in to the editor. The novel felt complete, and I was highly confident that the editor would sign off on my revisions and suggest that it was ready to be resubmitted to the agents. I relaxed and waited with great anticipation.
Finally the day came. I got the revised manuscript in the mail. I opened it, glanced at the two-page evaluation, then began flipping through the manuscript. I was appalled at all the red marks and notes. I sat down, stunned. Finally I picked up the evaluation, and it felt like I had lost ground with the novel: the changes suggested and the direction of the novel felt completely different. Then I started to look more closely at the red marks and notes. Hmmm! The handwriting didn’t look quite right. It quietly registered: it didn’t appear that this evaluation was done by the same editor who had worked on the manuscript before. But that got lost in the enormous disappointment that my novel – which I had thought was complete – needed yet another complete rewrite.
The crushing blow was the song. The title of the book was based on Janis Joplin’s song Me And Bobby McGee, and on the lyrics “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” The song had played on the radio at a critical point in the novel and it had affected the main character deeply. I had the novel set in 1967, and the editor had observed that this particular song didn’t come out until 1971. Since the novel was a fictional account of events that had happened to my Dad in 1967 (Ghosts of the Wheat Harvest), it felt somehow wrong to move it forward in time just to fit the song. I couldn’t figure out how to make that shift, because I was still reeling with the huge amount of work now facing me to revise the novel…again.
Finally, I just gave up. I felt defeated, and didn’t feel like I had the energy to fight both the revision process and the writer’s block in order to finish this novel. I did the only thing that made sense at the time – I went and bought a set of golf clubs.
“Self Portrait, Walking Away: On one of the jetties at Gräsvik” Misteraitch @flickr.com Creative Commons, some rights reserved.