I’m now only six rejections away from a century of literal pain. Almost one hundred minds have read and dismissed my novels as unworthy. A logical man might take this to heart and learn something from it. But I, being a computer programmer, am more artistic and will take it as a challenge.
However, I do remember writing a short story about a writer who wreaks revenge against some innocent magazine editors. I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but the hilarious naivety regarding electronic mail implies that it must have been the early ’90s at the latest. I sent it to Interzone who rather bravely rejected it, although Lee Montgomerie did joke in the reply that it had struck a nerve…
Carl O. Caine
The fire crackled merrily in the hearth as Richard slumped back into his favourite armchair. In one hand he held a cup of steaming tea, in the other, a crisp white manuscript. He placed the tea gently on a table by his elbow and stretched. This was the first manuscript of seven that he would have to wade through tonight. He had chosen to read it first because it was only a few sheets thick.
He looked casually at the clock on the mantelpiece. Seven o’clock. Time to start. He took a quick sip of his tea and began to read. His eyes scanned from left to right slowly at first, but then as he worked his way down the page he started to read faster. The clock on the mantelpiece kept time.
He turned the pages avidly. Occasionally he would mutter indistinguishable words or gasp and his eyes were filled with excitement.
And then suddenly he turned the last page over and there was no more. He examined the back of the paper feverishly, but the writing had come to an end. Slowly he smoothed the manuscript out and began to read it again.
The clock whirred and struck eight o’clock. Richard continued to read.
He read on and on with only the sounds of the clock to accompany the rustle of the pages. The moon replaced the sun, and he reached up absently to turn on the standard lamp behind him, but his eyes never left the page. His mind never left the story.
Sometimes he would stand and pace about to relieve the cramp affecting his legs, other times he would shift position on the chair, but always, always he read.
The phone started to ring during the next day, and Richard was oblivious to it; only the manuscript mattered.
But on the third evening his fatigue finally overcame him and he dropped into a feverish slumber.
His dreams were full and wondrous. Never had he dreamt so clearly or felt emotions so acutely as then. Sweat glistened on his brow and his eyes flickered beneath their lids, but eventually he sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He was awoken by the sound of his phone in the study. Groggily he rose from his chair and stumbled to answer it. The irate voice on the end of it belonged to Paul Hughes, the editor of his magazine.
“Richard? What the hell’s going on? Where have you been?”
“What? I’ve been here.” He looked around at the clock and noticed the time. Crap! Ten past twelve. Late again. “I’m sorry I’m late Paul, but I’ve…”
“Late? Late? You’ve just redefined the word. Do you know what day it is?”
“Yeah, of course. It’s Tuesday.”
“Richard. It’s Friday. You are three hours late. And three whole days late.”
Richard switched the screen of his computer on. Jesus! It was Friday. What had he been doing? He hadn’t had anything to drink. He couldn’t have slept for three days. What had…
“Paul. I’m sorry about this. I’ll be in in an hour. I’ve got something rather interesting to show you.”
“It had better be good Richard.” The phone clicked dead.
It took him slightly more than an hour to get into work, but he was confident that what he had to show Paul would blow his socks off. He breezed into his editor’s office, nonchalantly tossed the tatty manuscript in front of his boss and sat down.
“Hello, Richard.” Paul said coolly. “Is this what you’ve got?” He looked at the title page.
GREAT DROWNING LILIPUT
CARL O. CAINE
Paul turned the page and started to read. The text was just a jumble of words, with a few phrases inserted apparently at random. It made no sense at all.
“What is this?”
“Keep reading. Just give it a moment to sink in.”
Paul read for a few more lines.
“Richard, this is crap. It just doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s not meant to mean anything. You just feel the moods. It…it stimulates your emotions.” His confident smile was wavering.
“Are you going to tell me that you read this rubbish for three days?”
“Well, yeah.” He smiled weakly. “I mean I didn’t actually realise that I had read it for that long. I just started and then… poof! … you rang me. I think that it’s the next generation of literature. The next step. Don’t reject this. If you do, history will remember you for that.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Do you actually think that you’re behaving normally. First you lose track of three days and now you try to convince me to publish gibberish. Richard take a look at yourself.”
It was Richard’s turn to look puzzled. “Do you really not see anything in this script?”
“No. I think that you’ve been working too hard. Take a couple of days off.”
“Hmmm. Maybe you’re right.” Richard said flicking through the offending manuscript. “But when I read it first it was incredible. Like a sunset. Reaching out across the sky and feeling it. I’m sorry. You’re right it is just a jumble of words. I will take a few days off. This is weird.”
“Yeah. Make sure that you reject that first though.”
Richard stood and left the office with a frown. What had happened to him. Paul must think that he’d gone nuts. There was no deep feeling in this writing, it was just rubbish. He must just have been tired.
He sat down at his desk and keyed a rejection note into the electronic mail to the author. He couldn’t help saying that it wasn’t him that had rejected it, that it was the editor who had found it unsuitable.
With that done he left the office and didn’t come back until the following Wednesday.
When Richard returned to the office Paul had disappeared; no one had seen him since Friday night. He had left the office at about six o’clock, got into his car and vanished. His wife had not seen him over the weekend and he had not contacted work. The police had been informed, but so far they had come up with no sign of him or his car.
That afternoon though, a policeman came to inform Richard that they had found Paul. He had been found dead in Hyde Park in the early hours of Monday morning.
“How did he die, officer?”
“A heart attack.”
“Why did it take so long to identify him?”
“He wasn’t carrying any identification.”
“Where was his briefcase? His wallet?”
“They must have been stolen. Now sir I need to ask a few questions. Did Mr Hughes often go to the Park?”
“Yes. He went most Friday nights during the summer. He liked to read in the open air. Weather permitting.”
“Any other nights?”
“Not really I don’t think. No. He was a man of habit you see. He would go on a Friday. It would be the start of his weekend. Are you treating his death as suspicious, officer?”
“No. Would you say that he was under a great deal of pressure at the moment?”
“Not particularly. The magazine is doing well.”
“How would you describe his temperament?”
“Stolid. Reliable.” Richard shrugged. “He’s not the type to stay away from home during a weekend. Officer, when did his wife inform you that he was missing?”
“Very early on Saturday morning, sir. It was… ” He consulted his pocket book, “four twenty five.”
“Surely she would have told you about his habits. That he liked to read in the park.”
“She did, sir. Normally we don’t send anybody to look for missing persons until forty eight hours have passed, but as we had someone in the park, we did have a quick look. He wasn’t there.” The policeman paused. “We assumed that he was perhaps with another…”
“Not Paul. I would have known, I’m sure.”
“How long had he been dead when you found him?”
“Only a few hours.”
“This is very strange don’t you think? He stays away from home for the weekend and then goes back into the park to die. That’s the action of a lunatic, not Paul.”
“People do strange things…”
“Yes, I know that.” Richard frowned. “Where was he found?”
“Now that part is quite strange. He was found hidden in a bush.”
“A bush?” Richard said rather loudly, “Someone hid him in a bush and you’re not…”
“Don’t upset yourself, sir. The Forensic lads say that no one put him in the bush. It was as if he had made himself a den, you know, like an animal.”
The policeman picked up his helmet and left Richard feeling rather confused. Paul wasn’t the type of person to do anything odd. He loved his wife, and she loved him. Why had he not gone home? And why had he been in the park on Sunday night? It didn’t make sense. His wallet had gone. Had he been murdered? No. It was much more likely that someone had found his body and taken his belongings. But a heart attack? Paul was a fit man, barely thirty.
Richard shook his head, rubbed his eyes and tried to concentrate. As deputy editor he now had twice as much work to do and this was compounded by the fact that he had been off for most of the last two weeks.
Paul’s death kept tugging at his concentration, so he sent copies of all the stories and articles that he had to read to his computer at home and left.
He was unable to look at the manuscripts until the following Sunday. He had closed the office for the remainder of the week, and it was only the knowledge that he absolutely had to read the scripts that he set to work.
He found nothing he read was even slightly interesting. He knew that he was not being objective, but still he could not bring himself to narrow the scripts down at all. Until he picked up one that had been addressed to Paul. He stared at the manuscript and his hands shook slightly.
CARL O. CAINE
Richard’s mind leapt back to his reading of Caine’s first manuscript. Dare he read this? With so much work still to do? Would it affect him in the same way?
He watched his hand turn the title page aside and flicked his eyes across the text. It was the same, seemingly random words interspersed with odd phrases. He noticed the difference between this script and the previous one immediately. This one was starkly morbid. Whereas the previous one had made him examine all his emotions, this one stabbed at his mortality.
But that didn’t mean to say that it wasn’t gibberish. Unlike the previous one Richard merely felt contempt for such a futile piece of work. What did the writer think he was doing?
So he tossed the wad of papers aside and decided that he could reject that one at least.
That night while mulling over Paul’s death before he went to sleep it dawned on him why Paul had not been home for the weekend. He must have spent the entire time reading in the park. Richard could picture him sitting on a park bench glued to a manuscript during the day, and avidly reading under a street lamp at night. Then making a nest for himself in a bush, where he wouldn’t be disturbed by kids or tramps. It shocked Richard to think of Paul reduced to such idiocy, but his theory explained so much.
Being out in the cold with no food or water would be bound to harm anybody’s metabolism. If the excitement of reading the text had been as great as when Richard had read his, then in his reduced physical state a heart attack could become a probability.
Had that killed his friend? Was that its purpose? Had it been deliberate?
Richard tried to dismiss these thoughts as merely tired imaginings, but it all pieced together so well. Tomorrow, he decided, he would contact this Carl Caine and find out the truth.
He fell into a queasy sleep.
The next day he nearly convinced himself that his thoughts of the night before that been bordering on the hysterical, but when he got into the office he found another story logged into his e-mail slot. It was from Carl O. Caine.
He erased it before he even read the title.
He tried to find an address for his antagonist but he only had the electronic mail number. He could try to find an address from that but it would be like trying to find an address in a telephone book from a phone number. The only people who could legally get access to the electronic mail company’s records were the police, and how would he convince them that he had a valid reason for calling them in? Hello officer I need to get a number for a vengeful author whom I suspect murdered my boss with a nasty story. Yeah, that would work.
Vengeful? Who would want to kill Paul? A rejected author. Perhaps he had sent in some real stories, before he started with the gibberish. If he could match this electronic mail number with a previous one on record in this office, surely that would prove his theory.
He programmed his terminal to search for a match and set it to work. Almost immediately it came up with a response. Bingo. Carl Myers. And an address. He had sent in seven stories, all had been rejected at the first reading. This was his man. The fact that he had used a pseudonym surely confirmed his guilt.
Carl Myers lived in Barnet and it was early evening before Richard found the house nestled in a neat suburban street. He stopped his car and walked uneasily up to the door. His plan was that he would pretend to want to publish some of Myers’ material.
Surely he had nothing to fear.
Nervously he rang the bell before his thoughts turned him away from the house and he stood for a couple of minutes. There was no answer. He rang the bell again, this time for slightly longer and backed away from the door searching the windows of the house for any lights or movement, but the door opened suddenly to reveal Carl Myers.
He was a tall, lean man in his early forties who looked used to physical exercise. Richard had prepared for a sort of manic dwarf, but there wasn’t anything odd about him at all.
“Hello,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“Er, yes. I think so. Are you Carl Myers?”
“I’m from Dread. The magazine. You sent us some manuscripts recently. I’d like to talk to you about them.” Richard had expected the man to shrink back and deny everything, but instead he just smiled warmly and said, “Of course, come in. Oh, at least now I know somebody reads my stories.”
Richard stepped into the house and Carl Myers closed the door behind him. His theories had now almost completely evaporated and he was more worried about hurting an aspiring writers feelings.
“Please, take a seat. Would you like some coffee. The kettle’s just boiled.” Richard felt ashamed, this man was not a murderer.
“Er, yes please. White, one sugar.”
“So did you like my stories?” Carl Myers called from the kitchen. “The latest ones took me ages. I think they should work.”
“Yes. I thought the most recent ones you sent in were very… original. How did you come across such an approach to writing?”
“Well, I thought that it should be possible to write something that affected the core of a man’s being. I thought perhaps if I knew enough about someone I could write the ideal script for them.” He walked into the lounge carrying two steaming mugs of coffee. “I thought that there might be a subjective approach to writing. Certain phrases will only trigger certain responses in certain people. To start with I could only experiment with my wife. But she was not very much of a reader and I had to give those up fairly quickly.” He pushed a button on a tape deck located in the corner and inserted a tape. “You see her brain was quite limited. Eventually she died.”
Richard spluttered coffee. All his thoughts tumbled feverishly back into his mind. “You killed her.” He stood and stepped away from the grinning man who just sat down calmly.
“How? By letting her read one of my stories. Let’s be reasonable Richard. How can a story kill anyone.”
Richard felt acid fear suddenly creep under his skin. “How do you know my name?”
“I know everything about you. Otherwise how could I have written this?” As he said the words he pressed a button on the tape recorder and his voice started to emerge from the speakers about the room.
Richard couldn’t move. The voice whispered unconnected words that somehow suggested that he should die. He had never heard anything as perfect.
Stop beating heart.
It seems obvious to me now, that writing Charlie’s Worries was akin to making the dread journey through the Mines of Moria – battling the goblins of procrastination, the cave-troll of doubt and then the ultimate enemy, the Balrog of pernickety editing. It’s almost as if JRR Tolkien wrote that section specifically to highlight the perils and torments of writing a novel.
So, after two years of scribbling and typing, I emerged from the fusty tunnels of imagination into the bright light of hope and Lothlórien. Galadriel took me to a clearing and showed me some things that have not yet come to pass. I expected to see money raining from the sky and awards and publishers prostrating themselves before me, yet strangely all I saw was fire and ruin.
“I know what it is you saw, for it is also in my mind.” Galadriel’s voice echoed in my head, somewhat smugly.
“I cannot do this alone.” I replied.
“You are a writer, Simon. To be a writer is to be alone.”
So I screwed up my courage and sent out missives to the Gatekeepers of Amon Hen (I think this is what most people call Literary Agents). Then I set out onto the river of rejection with only some biscuits for sustenance.
I could sense the Gatekeepers chasing me down the banks of the river. Somehow I knew they were there, just out of sight, but always in my thoughts. I imagined them reading my work, gasping at its audacious originality, crying at the pathos, laughing hysterically at the funny bits and then falling over themselves to send me an Email of Acceptance.
But this utterly failed to happen. Instead gnarly, black arrows of rejection thumped into my heart. Each one chipping away at my self belief, until now, two weeks after I sent the first email, I lie breathless against a tree with eleven slivers of despair protruding from my soul.
Then, once again, I hear Galadriel’s voice in my head. It says: “The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail to the ruin of all.”
So, slightly heartened by these somewhat ambiguous words of encouragement, I determine not only to stagger to my feet and suffer the inevitable sting of bad news, but to write more. I’ve already written nearly 15,000 words of The Book of Lies and I shall use this as a shield against the depressing times ahead.
So bring on Sauron, what’s the worst that can happen?
On Sunday night I had a discussion with my better half about how many submissions I should be sending out at a time.
“I’ve read in my books on writing,” I pointed at the bookcase, hoping it would lend weight to my argument, “that I should send out three or four at a time and see what they say .”
“I’d send out loads. To everyone.”
“You can’t do that. It’s just not done.”
“It’s just not.”
“Well. What would happen if two agents I’d approached got talking to each other at one of their many gala dinners or money counting parties and they found out that I’d submitted to both of them?”
There was a slight pause. I think it was to let the sheer idiocy of the question sink in. “That’d be brilliant!”
“Two different agents talking about your book at a party. Surely that’s exactly what you’d want.”
It was exactly what I wanted. “Ah, but what if one of the agents that I don’t want to be represented by offers me representation before one of the ones I do want to be represented by?”
“Firstly,” she said, “if you’re going to be a writer you need to make your writing clearer. Secondly, don’t approach any agencies who you don’t want to work with.”
“I’ll send more out.” I said.
So, this week I’ve sent more out. Loads more. But I have always made sure that each agency is willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts and I’ve followed their submission guidelines to the letter.
And my reward?
At quarter past one this afternoon I received the first rejection. This was from The Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency although I commend them on their speedy response, I curse them for their lack of speedy acceptance. Even though I didn’t, I thought I had a connection with Penny Holroyde because she’d rejected “Entering The Weave” eight years ago.
The email I got was just a standard reply. Which is FINE. Honestly.
No, really. It is fine. I understand that there is no point in spending any more time than is absolutely necessary on work that is not going to be accepted. But, although it was entirely standard, they still said that they “enjoyed reading my material”. This is politely encouraging and suitably vague which means that it can be used for almost any reply. That doesn’t help me, and, in the long term, I don’t think it actually helps the agencies, either. I’m sure many aspiring writers will hang onto the fact that this agent “enjoyed reading” their work, and hold it up as testament to their own skill, therefore prolonging the hope/agony when ruthless honesty would have been kinder and more helpful.
I think they should be more structured. I propose that the next agents’ banquet they all get together and adopt a formal method of response which should include a rating out of 10 for how much they liked it or how close to accepting it they were. It wouldn’t take long to add that. And even if they really liked it and gave 10/10 they wouldn’t need to actually take it on. I understand how very few writers get to be represented. But a simple scoring system like this would be useful to everyone. If a writer was getting consistent 9s and 10s, then she’d know she was close; whereas if all the agents returned 1s and 2s he’d know there was something seriously wrong with what he was submitting, and he would know that the next thing he wrote would have to be different.
It would also help the agents in the long term. Even the most stubborn writer would learn to target his audience and begin to submit to agents who were giving him higher marks, rather than submitting across the board.
For an aspiring writer, the one thing worse than waiting is not waiting any more because you’ve received a rejection.
I’ve been compulsively checking my emails since Tuesday half hoping/half dreading to see a response from Louise. And at 1:15 I checked and found one:
Thank you. I’m sorry I took a while to respond. I represent a small and focused list and my reading days are few. You have the trappings of an interesting story with potential, but it needs work, and I can’t take on the editing process as overall I didn’t fall in love. The storytelling is quite traditional in tone and narrative, and I’m afraid the dialogue doesn’t ring true. I’m sorry, but I am unable to grasp the world you create, and this is so vitally important. You hint at what you’re trying to achieve, but I don’t follow why Sam’s sister and Grandma think they are someone else. To suddenly have grandma “your majesty,” feels contrived, much like the bizarre moment with an old man and a petal; it just forces the plot along. I realise you have been working on this novel for some time, and the market has moved on. It’s difficult to keep up with the current commercial big-sellers, and yet these are what set the bar.
I hate to be a disappointment but of course I am but one subjective view. Another agent might very well have a different opinion. I am sadly not the right agent.
With very best wishes
It’s not what I’d hoped… I have been imagining her reading the book avidly, chuckling at the funny bits, sobbing uncontrollably at the sad bits and smiling wryly at the wry bits. Occasionally she’d look up from her kindle and shake her head at the fact that this new author had spent so long in the wilderness. I imagined her imagining just how ridiculously successful this novel would be, a defining moment in her career, a world changing publication… Perhaps I was getting ahead of myself.
It’s easy to be bitter, to disagree with what she’s saying, and dismiss her, in her own kind words, subjective opinion. But I won’t be bitter and I’ll take the criticism on the chin. And “grow” stronger.
Today I’m going to print out the first three chapters and send them off to three agencies. I shall go through my previous rejections and find which ones seemed most receptive to my previous advances with Entering The Weave and cross reference that with their response time. I also need to write a snappy synopsis to go with my submission and an engaging covering letter.
So, now that this cathartic rant is over, to work.