Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Walrus Says...

I’m a child of the sixties. Back then we thought we had life by the tail. We knew everything, especially not to trust anyone over thirty.

How humbling life is.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk to a high school English class interested in knowing about the life of a writer. It was a talk full of enthusiasm and excitement, tempered, I thought, with a strong dose of realism. I regaled them about the need for persistence, hard work, brutal critiques and a very thick skin. I talked about the rooms papered in rejection letters, the fifteen rewrites, and the stacks of really bad manuscripts that insulate every writer’s basement. All practice, I said. All part of learning the craft.

On the way out of class, a young man with downcast eyes slipped up beside me. I’m writing a thriller, he said shyly. It’s half finished. How should I go about getting a publisher? I asked him if anyone had read it, and he said no, he was afraid of someone stealing his idea. I suggested he finish it, polish it until it shone, and then give it to an experienced reader whom he could trust to give honest feedback.

But before I do all that, he said, I just want to know if I can get it published, because I don’t want to waste my time. I bit my tongue, replied that no writing was a waste of time and a writer should never submit to a publisher anything less than his absolute best. You’re seventeen, I wanted to say, you’ve got three or four decades to become a good writer. Right now you know nothing. Your ideas, no matter how brilliant you think they are now, will look puerile in ten years’ time, and you’ll be eternally grateful that no one was willing to publish them.

I searched instead for words to keep his eagerness alive. As he followed me out to my car, I told him he was already well ahead of the game. He had a passion to write and the persistence to keep at it. I told him his next step was to find a community of writers like himself, who would give him honest feedback to make his work better, encouragement to support him through the hard times, and information about the bewildering, ever-changing book business he was trying to break into. I gave him some suggestions for groups.

He looked crushed. Seventeen years old and facing his first reality check. But how do I find a publisher just to look at it, he asked. I sighed. By this time we were standing by my car in the gently falling snow. There are compendiums of publishers in bookstores and libraries, as well as websites on the issue, I said. Read submission guidelines, check the type of books they accept, and above all, be wary of any publisher or agent who will be delighted to look at your manuscript. For a fee.

He clutched this bit of practical advice eagerly, and set off back towards the school. And I climbed into my car, feeling very old.


John R Corrigan said...

Great post.

Vicki Delany said...

Someone's always looking for the short cut in life. Rarely is there one to be found.

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