Finding a publisher – how did the Brontes do it?

You’ve finished the first draft and maybe the second of your novel, so the chances are, you’ve sent it out to a publisher or agent. Good for you – it’s a sign of your confidence in your talent, so why not?

You’ve heard nothing back yet? Or the news has not been encouraging?

It’s time to remember Charlotte Bronte’s experiences. Every time a rejection comes, I recommend a look through her Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, written in 1850 as a preface to her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. We are indebted to Mick Armitage who has given us the full text online .

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Anne, Emily and Charlotte (right) are above in their brother Bramwell’s famous painting. His attempts to convert himself into a post, in the middle, still manage to dominate the canvas.

Charlotte’s main purpose was to give herself and her sisters their real names as authors of their works, especially their poetry: ‘This notice has been written, because I felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil.’ In the process, she describes situations that writers, especially those from outside the traditional canon, still know all too well.

‘We did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality and, for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.’ Step forward please, JK Rowling, PD James, Al Kennedy, AM Homes, Lionel Shriver who have hidden their genders in neutral or masculine names today. How many others can you name who are still skirting around this truth?

‘The bringing out of our little book (of poetry) was hard work.’ Well, yes. ‘As was to be expected, neither we nor our poems were at all wanted … The great puzzle lay in the difficulty of getting answers of any kind from the publishers to whom we applied.’ The bluebottle stage where our confidence feels like a fly bashing its head against solid glass searching for any gap to fly though.

She goes on: ‘Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued.’ And there lies the biggest ingredient (it seems to me) in success. Not only talent but faith in that talent and the courage to persist. ‘The fixed conviction (Charlotte) held, and hold, of the worth of these poems has not indeed received the confirmation of much favourable criticism; but I must retain it notwithstanding.’

Charlotte describes how, notwithstanding the initial reception given to their poetry, they set about writing a story each: Wuthering Heights (Emily), Agnes Grey (Anne) and a ‘narrative in one volume’ of her own. ‘These MSS,’ she wrote, ‘were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.’ The perfect word: obtruded.

I met an agent once who had turned up on her first day of work at a new agency. A post-it was stuck to a huge tatty typescript on top of a vast pile; it read, ‘Please don’t ignore this’. Up to her eyes in pressure, she didn’t get around to it – to discover later that it was an early draft of the first Harry Potter book.

Charlotte goes on: ‘At last “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey” were accepted on terms somewhat impoverishing to the two authors.’ Such a familiar situation today. ‘Currer Bell’s (Charlotte’s) book found acceptance nowhere,’ she says with heartbreak in every word, ‘nor any acknowledgement of merit, so that something like the chill of despair began to invade (her) heart.’

Finally, a letter came. Charlotte opened it trembling ‘in dreary expectation of finding two hard, hopeless lines, intimating that [publisher X] were not disposed to publish.’

Her next lines should be engraved in gold on the desk of any writer who wishes to follow this traditional route. The letter ‘declined, indeed, to publish that tale, for business reasons, but it discussed its merits and demerits so courteously, so considerately, in a spirit so rational, with a discrimination so enlightened, that this very refusal cheered the author better than a vulgarly expressed acceptance would have done. It was added that a work in three volumes would meet with careful attention.’

Business reasons. If only that publisher could turn back time. But if a good agent or publisher replies, spelling your name correctly and giving detailed feedback on what you’ve written, give yourself a great big pat on the back. It’s a vast step forward. You can get so deeply used to receiving rejections, as Charlotte did, that you miss this but it’s big. Your calling card has worked and they want more.

It’s also worth noting that the three-book deal was alive and well even then. Meanwhile Charlotte’s one-volume tale (The Professor) was still, as she said, ‘plodding its weary round in London’ until eventually ‘friendly and skilful hands took it in’. The three sisters’ books ‘lingered’ in the press for months (I know this feeling so well) while the publisher changed management. When publication day did arrive, ‘critics failed to do them justice’.

Charlotte wrote this after a dreadful time in which consumption (tuberculosis) had taken the lives of Bramwell, Emily and Anne within eighteen months. It is difficult to read the words without tears.

At each setback, they worked to make their writing better. It’s what we all do: revise, edit, rewrite it again. Improve and improve again so that the next setback won’t happen. Over the coming weeks, we’ll look here at the tidying revisions most drafts need – about calendars and timelines (they sometimes go astray after a round of edits), plot arcs and slack passages, looking again at your structure, and working on your best beginning and end. Let’s take the pain out of these bluebottle times by making your draft the very best it can be.

In the mean time, let’s have another go at the mountainside exercise, reminding ourselves far we’ve come.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

 

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