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!

 

 

 

 

Ten things to get your novel published

  1. A solid sense of yourself as a writer

You need a solid sense that writing is what you were born for. The good news is that if you are a writer, then writing is what makes you happiest in all the world. Our writing is an essential part of our heart and spirit and the more we honour it, the happier we become. As our writing grows, we grow. If you have not had that experience yet, try writing more every day and see if you feel a difference.

  1. Love of the writing process

One of my earliest childhood memories is of sitting alone with crayons deep in my own writing world. I can still feel the bliss of those crayons in my fingers. Partly it’s the safety of that cocoon, partly the joy of rolling those words into the right order, of producing something new under the sun. The more we write and study the craft, the better we write and with that comes self-assurance that will help through the feedback and criticism stages. This is a long way from arrogance; it comes from the long process of trial and error, above all from the rewriting process. It comes from a sense that writing is always where your time is best spent, regardless of the outcome.

  1. A safe place to write

Virginia Woolf’s extended essay published in October 1929 was famously titled ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Not all of us can afford this and the creeping closure of libraries threatens our writing spaces. However, we are usually not far from a friendly café and all we need is to train our brains to cut out the noise, take from the surrounding company inspiration as we find it and let writing wrap itself around us.

  1. Write loads

We all do, far more than ever gets published. Musicians practise scales and arpeggios daily and play sections of their latest piece till their fingers are numb. Hemingway talked about his published work being ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of his writing. Incidentally, this New Yorker piece about the great man shows that even he was capable of a truly dreadful sentence now and again: In pencil, he added, “Time is the least thing we have of.” All creative work is trial and error. Will this work? Maybe this will work better? Or that? The more you write, the more confident you will become. That is why I am a huge fan of journal writing. Scribbling for the sake of it loosens the writing muscles, clears the fog and can come up with surprisingly useful things. Go for it. Go for everything. Be fearless!

  1. Choose your best ideas

So much for words. Agents and publishers trade in ideas. What are your stories about?

Choose your best ideas and if a story is not working, it may be the central idea that is deficient. Do not be afraid to dump it and move to something more exciting. Our greatest crime is to waste our readers’ time.

  1. Value your craft

Story-telling technique, grammar, spelling – these are our tools and they all matter very much. In creativity, rules are always there to be broken so it helps to know the rules first. For a reader to feel a sense of your authority, they need to know that if you are breaking rules, you know why even if they do not. They need to trust you.

There is an illusion among civilians (non-writers) that to produce a best-seller, all you have to do is knock out a blog at the kitchen table. This has never been true.

IMG_E1806Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Wilde and Hemingway all rewrote their masterpieces time and again. Nobody ever said this would be easy.

We are lucky, we can learn by reading great books and by seeing great plays, television and films. Drink up all the best stories you can. Go on all the courses you can afford. Read everything about the craft you can find.

  1. A thick skin

Now I’m talking about the rejection period where doggedness is your best friend. These are your learning years too and a professional standard does not come overnight.

  1. Be ready to be edited

Arrogance stops your writing career dead. Agents and publishers always see your script as work in progress that needs their professional input to suit the market. Writing is about rewriting and we all need it. The trick is to relish the company of these professionals who know what they are doing, to take their interest in your writing as a compliment and to enjoy lifting the quality of your work. The next book(s) should be easier.

  1. Have good people around you

Part of the rejection years is about gathering ‘champions’ of your writing, people who are impressed and will remember you but aren’t quite ready to offer you a contract. These people talk to each other. Sometimes they live with each other. So it’s good to keep sending your best writing out so that the positive vibe around you can grow.

The good people you need most are your agent and publisher. In the best of all possible worlds, you and your agent are friends for life and build your career together for mutual benefit. This means you are honest with each other, listen to each other, both work hard and understand why things might not be perfect during tricky times. Like any relationship really. A solid relationship with a publisher is wonderful too. You might write a variety of things over a lifetime, gathering appropriate publishers as you go.

You need good support at home, or none.

A good other half is a great help. A great other half is often one who takes no interest at all in your writing other than to offer a shoulder when a rejection comes and a hug whenever there’s good news. A bad one is worse than being alone. Beware of hooking up with a frustrated writer (this happens more often than you’d think) who wants to shoehorn in on what you’re writing all the time, trying to push and pull you in different directions that somehow never quite satisfy them. Their well-meaning critiques can shrivel your will to write.

Being alone is not so bad. All writers need access to great big slabs of time alone (Jilly Cooper called it writers’ ‘hermit-itis’) and not all other halves have the self-confidence to live with that.

Finally, you need a good writing group. A band of good-hearted people you trust to understand the writing process and who will help you thrive at your own pace, as you help them thrive at theirs. People who understand that if your genre is not their sort of thing, then their feedback might not be your sort of thing either. People with a positive critique ethos, seeking to tell you what works best in your work because, believe me, by the time you have read your words aloud to any group, your bones know all too well what has not worked. We writers are less good at knowing what we’ve done well – we need to be told.

  1. Luck

Did Thomas Jefferson say that the harder we work, the luckier we get? Actors and musicians joke about how ‘overnight success’ sometimes comes after years of hard graft. This is true of writers too. Hilary Mantel spent ten years writing her first book. The Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown’s fourth novel. Beatrix Potter and William Blake published their own work initially, as did Jane Austen.

If you keep writing, keep learning, keep circulating among writers, publishers and agents, keep sending out your best work in a professional way, keep raising your game, that mysterious ingredient luck has a better chance of finding you.

I wish you all the luck in the world.

Happy writing!