Hey, those of you who have at least a passing interest in my family’s long and semi-illustrious connection with modern science fiction: TotalDick-Head.com has posted a nice little piece on my mother, Kleo Mini, better known to short story readers as K. Emmanuel.
The picture above appears courtesy of some really nice passerby outside the old San Francisco beatnik hangout, the Caffe Trieste, a generous soul whose name has apparently already been lost in the mist of time. The jovial fellow next to her is David Gill, known to all of us here at Author! Author! as the Philip K. Dick scholar whom I invited to join me to speak at Harvard recently.
For those of you who weren’t reading this blog during the tumultuous period when my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, was teetering breathlessly on the edge of publication, my mother was married to the aforementioned science fiction writer throughout the 1950s, the period during which he first began writing professionally. Back then, she looked like this:
One of the great advantages of growing up in a family of writers (my father, uncle, brother, and a hefty percentage of the family’s friends all hammered away on the same anvil) is not only seeing with one’s own wee eyes that making a living at it is indeed possible, but also hearing from one’s cradle continual confirmation that yes, baby, even the most talented writers on earth have had to struggle with rejection.
Or, to be precise, one is told that back in the day, it wasn’t easy, either. Heck, writers in the 40s and 50s evidently had to walk uphill both ways to the post office in three feet of snow to submit hand-typed manuscripts to agents and editors.
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might conceivably be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), a writer could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.
So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page.
This is the origin of the SASE, in case any of you had been wondering: getting their rejected manuscripts back would save writers weeks of retyping time.
This fact is as ingrained in my family’s lore as the story of how my parents met. Back in the far-away 1950s, while Kleo toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories. Dozens of them. As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy.
(Because Kleo had a big brother in the SF biz, she knew to take both her agoraphobic husband’s writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published — and how she acquired many of her own excellent copyediting skills. But that’s another story — and part of the memoir that the Dick estate sued to prevent being published. Amazing how persuasive people with millions of dollars can be, in the lawsuit-shy post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES environment. But I digress.)
When a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.
Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But both Philip and Kleo kept typing away, keeping as many stories in circulation at once as possible.
How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore (since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost), but one day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch.
Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”
I have it on pretty good authority that one of those stories was “The Minority Report.” Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.
So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did they toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did they rend their garments and give up writing forever? Did they poison their mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?
No, they did what professional writers did back then: the wife ironed the pages so they could be sent out to the next magazine.
As a writer, I’ve always found this story very comforting. All too often, those of us in the writing community fall under the spell of the common mainstream illusion that any writer with real talent will inevitably be discovered, signed by an agent, and lauded to the skies after a single submission or contest entry.
Come on, admit it: didn’t you send out your first query letter fully expecting to receive a phone call from an agent begging for your manuscript by the end of the week? Didn’t you walk into your first literary conference believing that the ideal agent for your work was waiting there, would demand to read your book in its entirety on the spot, and would sign you before the conference was over? Didn’t you first contemplate contest entry primarily in terms of how heaped with laurels you would inevitably be?
Really, on your low days, don’t you still cherish the illusion that your literary gifts are so valuable to the reading world that some morning, you’ll hear a knock on your door, and it will be the agent of your dreams, begging for the privilege of carrying your work reverently to the perfect editor, who will naturally drop everything to read it, fall in love with it, and acquire it by next Tuesday? The book will, naturally, be out within the month, and before spring is truly upon us, you’ll be chatting with Oprah about it, right?
And the fact that this has literally never happened to someone who wasn’t already a celebrity for some other reason doesn’t really affect the sense that it SHOULD happen to the truly talented, does it? And that’s a genuine shame, because that nagging SHOULD has made virtually every gifted writer feel like throwing in the towel from time to time.
In reality, most authors who hit the big time put in years of hard, dispiriting work to get there. Overnight success is usually an illusion reserved for onlookers — and lasting success tends to reward those who have built up their writer’s tool bags with professional skills.
How did they pull that off? By doing precisely what you have been doing, I hope: by learning which agents and publishing houses would be most receptive to your work, refining your query letters until they positively glow with professionalism, and polishing your manuscripts until they shout, “HERE IS A GREAT ORIGINAL VOICE PRESENTED AS THE INDUSTRY LIKES TO SEE MANUSCRIPTS!” By reading in your chosen book category until you have such a strong sense of the current market that you can state without hesitation why your target audience needs your book. By learning the advantages of seeking out good feedback — and training yourself not to take criticism of your work as a reflection upon your personality. By becoming skilled in self-editing and incorporating feedback so that you may turn around revisions in a timely manner.
And by reminding yourself that the only manuscript that has NO shot at publication is the one that the writer never sends out.
Yes, it’s probably going to take sending it out a LOT to reach the agent and editor best suited to working with your unique voice and worldview — but a lengthy search is not necessarily a barometer of the writer’s talent.
History shows us that even the best books often take a good, long time to find a home. I know that I’ve pointed this out before, but 5 of the 20 best-selling books of the twentieth century were initially rejected by more than a dozen publishers:
Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)
Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)
Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)
Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)
I’m not going to lie to you: this is a tough business, requiring a perversely diverse array of personal attributes: an attention to detail that would make Thomas Edison weep with envy, a sensitive perceptiveness to social dynamics that would make Freud gnash his teeth and run back to the drawing board, a marketing savvy that would make Jacqueline Susann seem dilettantish (if you ever aspire to promoting your own work, see ISN’T SHE GREAT? with all possible dispatch) , and an idealistic tenacity of purpose that even Don Quixote would consider unreasonably strong. Not to mention the favor of the muses that we know as talent.
A tall order? Sure. But somehow, I suspect that you have it in you. Because, as Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
Keep metaphorically ironing those pages, everyone, and keep on patiently adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks. And, as always, keep up the good work.