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You’re Leaving There Too Soon

Thanks so much for all the great comments yesterday.

Some of you may remember that before I moved house in June, I sent out ten copies of my script, Sugar Mountain, to indie producers and George Clooney. Much silence. Fast forward to the third week in August. 

Cell phone rings. A woman with a British accent introduces herself. Her name is the same as Lear’s youngest daughter. As a result, I ascribe great character to her; how could a woman with that name speak anything but  truth?

 Indeed, she has called to say that my script has gotten great coverage and that the top people at the production company would be reading it that weekend. She would be back in touch in two weeks. I did what any sane, seasoned writer would do: I started drafting my Oscar speech. 

You know what happens next: they never get in touch. I send a friendly email, like hey, have you had  chance to read that script, you know the one with the great coverage?? No answer. Fortunately, I know how to go fuck myself.

Now it’s November, I finally, I start my new script. Then, I impulsively shoot off an email to  Lear’s  true daughter. I ask if she has any feedback for me, and if she would be interested in my new script, Loneliness 2.0, which I  lie and say is weeks away from being finished. Here is her reply (yes, a reply!):

HI Betsy–

So the news on Sugar Mountain is that we think it is unusually good, and I want to encourage you with that. It is and truly engaging story with intricate and well-developed characters. The trouble is we don’t think we can take it on as the story’s themes do not resonate with enough of the team here, and we feel we would not do it justice if that is the case. We also have a very full slate which we are struggling to get into production. Anyway we are very pleased to have come across your work, and we would be prepared to read more.  Re. Loneliness 2.0, please could you send a one paragraph description of the story. We’ll take it from there.

I wonder what you make of this little exchange.I feel kind of jerked around since it seems like they were never going to get back to me. How do you all handle it? I guess I should be grateful they got back at all. I never heard from the other eight, or Clooney for that matter.

The One That Got Away

When the venerable editor and publisher Robert Giroux died last year, his NYT obituary listed some of the illustrious writers he worked with  including Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. Equally interesting to me were stories about the ones who got away.  One of these writers brought in his manuscript on teletype paper pasted together into a roll of 120 feet long and demanded that no changes be made. Giroux would not agree and Kerouac walked out, On the Road with him. Giroux had also courted a new short story writer whose work had appeared in The New Yorker. When it came time to offer on his first novel, the brass at his company said it wasn’t right for them: adios Catcher in the Rye.

With this is mind, I surveyed some of New York’s top editors asking if they would divulge which books got away, either because they didn’t recognize their value (either commercial or literary) when they saw it, or because the deciders said nay. Friends, the results:

“My saddest loss was the three day auction of the Steig Larsson trilogy which I was sure I was about to land,” writes one editor. He goes on to say they lost the book to Sonny (that’s Sonny Mehta, publisher of Knopf, and known pistachio nosher). “If you’re going to lose it might as well be Sonny.”

NOTE: Everywhere I’ve ever worked, there was no publishing house people would rather lose to or win from more than Knopf. I worked for a publisher who actually defaced a jacket with a ball point pen because she was so frustrated with the art director. “Well, what do you want?” the art director screamed back.  “I want Knopf jackets!” the publisher yelled. “Can you make a Knopf jacket?”

Then there’s the so-called  beauty contest, that is when two publishers make the same bid and the author chooses the publisher/editor she prefers. One editor writes in, “I wish I had acquired The Physick Book of Deliverace Dane. Our offer was identical to the acquiring publisher, but the author went with the other house. ” That’s always a great feeling, like standing in line at your camp social, or for that matter sitting on a bar stool at 3:00 a.m., and not getting picked, not that that’s ever happened to me.

“I passed on Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.” another editor shares. Years later she approached Sittenfeld for a blurb on a debut novel and praised Prep in the letter. Sittenfeld wrote back saying she’d be glad to read the novel, but did the editor remember that she had turned down Prep?  Ouch. P.S. She never got the endorsement.

Another editor is still smarting over her boss’ refusal to let her bid on Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces. (What’s with that spelling of  Kevin??) The book immediately hit the list  and the editor shares how she relished the “oh-so-immature-yet satisfying feeling of I-told-you-so.”  (Disappointing, but not exactly Holden Caulfield.)

Another editor admitted that she cried over losing  The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And also regrets not getting a shot at Edgar Sawtelle and Olive Kittredge. (Note to self:  post a list of novels that are titled with the character’s name? Have a contest? Too nerdy?)

Another editor confessed: “I turned down Guernsey even though I thought it was a very commercial idea because it was stiffly told. Of course then it was rewritten and the rest is history.” And another, “I passed on Shopaholic because I had a current bestseller and thought I didn’t need another one. Ha.” (Funny, no matter what I have, I always want another.)

In the If-You-Don’t-Have’Anything-Nice-To-Say-Don’t-Say-Anything-At-All department, one editor addmitted to having passed on Cold Mountain. But she didn’t just decline, “I airily declared to the agent that I grew  up on a Civil War battlefield and that if I didn’t believe it, noone would.” Thanks for sharing.

And then there’s the horse. Everyone wished they had published The Biscuit.  For two years, all editors said when asked what kind of books they want to publish was Seabiscuit. One editor wrote in to say that she offered, “Except, I told the agent is was worth $50,000.” What are the odds that the book would’ve wound up on the NYT Bestseller list for 23 weeks? And be made into a feature film starring the incredibly sexy Jeff Bridges and be nominated for an Oscar?

And last, our annual “The One That Got Away Award” goes to the editor who claimed he “turned down James Patterson’s first novel Along Came a Spider because it was so poorly, sketchily written even though it was pacey, as the Brits say. MISTAKE!” Hey, you don’t get the prize for nothing.

Full disclosure: When I was an editor, I turned down The Liar’s Club. I just didn’t believe her.

FAQ: When Will I Be Loved

I received this letter in my askbetsy box: Dear Ms. Lerner, I’m a writer and blogger, and I’m doing my best to promote my work, get an agent, and move to the next level. Can you tell me why it’s so hard to market and sell a literary novel these days, especially for a nobody like me? I think that writer’s today needs fan’s of their work, people who will fight for them no matter what, but how do you get that to happen?
I’ve had several conversations on my blog about this very issue, if you’d like to check it out. But for someone who has been writing for ten years, building an audience, shaping his work, getting footholds in the literary ezine market… what advice, besides “don’t give up” or “you just have to get lucky” would you give a writer trying to break in for the first time, in this economic climate. Go to graduate school in Iowa, sell a kidney to get into Yaddo, pay a huge fee to go to Breadloaf?

In other words, who do you have to blow around here?

Dear Writer: You’re tired of hearing “don’t give up.” Okay, try this:  give up. Walk away. Get out while  you’re young cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run. Did I say run? Run like the wind.

I could tell you all the economic reasons why it’s so hard to publish literary fiction. I could tell you about a novel I sent to 32 publishers and couldn’t sell and truly believe it to be the best work of fiction I’ve had the good fortune to work on. That and a token. It’s not hard, it’s nigh impossible. Ask any local bookseller what people are buying, if they’re buying.

Your anguish, frustration, and pain are very real to me. Much of an agent’s work is picking up the pieces (it’s often just as shattering to be published, but that’s a little like telling a single person who wants to get married what a bummer being married can be). But, you know, ten years isn’t really that long. You have to practice the piano longer than that to get to Carnegie Hall.

Is it all about fancy conferences and connections? No, not really. Mostly no. It’s more about luck if you ask me. And since you’re asking, you create your luck. And you’re doing that with your blog, the zine world, etc. Another writer, sitting under a rock, would marvel at your literary life. Everything you’re doing is right.

You may feel that the light is permanently yellow, but it will change. It always does.

There Are Two Kinds of People In This World

Had lunch with two great friends, also agents. After a lot of industry gossip, commiseration about the business being really slow (July is the new August), comparing and contrasting notes on editors, the conversation finally turned to something I could get my brain around: who we would rather sleep with, Jon Hamm from Madmen or Gabriel Byrne from In Treatment? Just for one night.

If you’ve ever even toyed with the idea of leaving a comment, please weigh in now:

“I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of a human heart.”*

A couple of months ago, a writer queried me with his work. I invited him to send it. Six weeks later, he politely asked if I had had a chance to read it. I had no recollection of his letter or receiving the material. I apologized and asked him to send it again, promising to get back to him in a week.

This morning I read his pages, first read of the day which is always my best and freshest. I was immediately taken with his precise prose. A superb adjective and simile in the first two pages knocked me out. Then some aspects didn’t sit well with me, then I grew restless with the story, even though I recognized his abundant skill.

I wrote him a rejection letter. I was apologetic and gave some notes about the work. Usually, I’m much more general. I knew that no matter what I said, it would ring hollow.

He wrote me back, thanking me for my time, polite again. He referenced Roger Angell’s rejection letters to Richard Yates. I looked them up and they are rich. He allowed that he believed in his work and that if the prose is fine, the rest should follow: plot, characters, setting. etc. It wasn’t like the usual letter I receive after I decline a work. It was poised and sincere and pained but not at all indulgent. And I have been haunted by it all day.

*Richard Yates

No You Didn’t

Yesterday,  I had lunch with one of the smartest editors in the business. She allowed how she keeps a file for letters from authors that express their gratitude — and that these letters buoy her on particulary rough days.

I allowed how I keep an “asshole” file. I started it when I first became an agent, and I didn’t quite know how to handle the sting of rejection. After all, as an editor, I had been on the rejecting side for so long.

I didn’t put just any letter in there. No, the rejection had to strike a particular note of condescension, arrogance,  falsehood — you see where I’m going with this.

Eventually, some client letters made it into the file, especially the three page single-spaced letter dipped in acid from the gnome who fired me –who will go unnamed. You know who you are, and that was a fuckin’ brilliant letter, completely raising the bar. I salute you.

The best letter so far, however, is from a distinguised editor who wrote that if the book I was submitting was my idea of art, I should look into a career in real estate. That’s a keeper!