Monday, March 22, 2010

Impatience is not our friend

On Friday, over at Sterling Editing, we did our usual weekly roundup of links for writers, including this one about how, sometimes, not being published is better than being published badly.

I imagine some of you are now folding your arms, glaring at the screen and muttering, "Ha, easy for you to say!" You would be right: it is easy for me to say because I've faced that decision. In 1991 I turned down the first offer made by a US publisher for Ammonite.

I was thirty years old, living in constant anxiety about immigration, broke, and ill. A stranger in a strange land--the only person I knew on the whole continent was Kelley. She had a badly paid job. Legally, I wasn't allowed to work. We had no health insurance. I really needed that book published--and the offer was for a respectable sum from a more than respectable publisher (St. Martin's for the hardcover, Avon for the paperback). But my agent told me the offer was contingent upon a change of title and cutting about a fifth of the book.

I phoned the editor at Avon and asked, "Why do you want to change the title?" "Not everyone will know what an ammonite is," she said. "They can look it up!" I said, exasperated. Silence. "Now, about these edits you want. Which are the bits are so weak that they have to go?" "Oh," she said, "we don't care what you cut, we just have to lose 20% to make it the right page count." Another, lengthier silence. "So. Let me get this straight. You want cuts solely in order to fit Avon's notion of product size?" "Well, yes," she said. "It is a first novel, after all." "I'll have to think about this," I said, and put the phone down gently.

When Kelley got home from work we ate dinner and then went for a long, long walk in the summer dusk. We talked for hours, back and forth. Pros: hardcover publication (St. Martin's!) and a big cheque (equivalent to about four months' of K's salary), not to mention the line on my CV necessary for my immigration application. Cons: the misnaming and brutalisation of my beautiful first book.

It was quite, quite dark, and we were hungry again, by the time we got home. As we closed the screen door behind us and put the kettle on Kelley said, "Whatever you decide, I'll support you." The next day I called my agent and turned down the offer.

Everyone thought I was mad. The phone rang off the hook. (This was before email.) I stuck to my guns. I told my agent (and both editors involved in the offer, and Clarion peeps--teachers and fellow students) that I would rather Ammonite was published ten years from then rather than maimed and mutilated.

I meant it. I knew it was a good book. I knew it had the right title. I knew it was the right length. I knew that, one day, someone else would figure that out. I was right. One month later, Del Rey offered me nearly twice as much as St. Martin's/Avon, and they published it uncut and with the right title. And it was either the first or one of the first mass market paperbacks ever reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.

I made exactly the right choice. It turned out brilliantly. But it could have gone horribly wrong. I had no way of knowing.

And half a dozen years later, I had to make a similar decision, again involving Avon. This time it was about The Blue Place. Only it wasn't called that, then. It was called Penny in My Mouth. Everyone hated the title. My agent kept asking, "But who's Penny?" So, after much agonising, I changed it. I was surly about it--but I had a sneaking suspicion they were right. Maybe. We'll never know. My editor (the Executive Editor at Avon) then wanted me to change the ending. I said no. She got cross, and dumped me onto her Senior Editor. She then resigned (not just from Avon but from publishing altogether) just before publication. My publicist then quit two weeks before the book came out. The book was orphaned--went out with no quotes, no publicity, no one to hold its hand. Terrifying.

But I knew it had the right ending, the ending that would break Aud's--and the reader's--heart. And again everything turned out well. Mostly. It won awards; it's in its umpth (tenth? haven't checked for a while) printing; it found its audience--it is still finding its audience.

I'd make all those choices again. I think. It's impossible to say for sure. All I know is that patience and willingness to dig in for the long haul are the most essential tools in the writer's box. Psychotic self-belief also helps. There again, being able to listen to others ("Who is Penny?") is also vital. But if you don't know what do when faced with a decision, wait until you do know. Just wait. The answer will become clear. There is never any reason to rush. (People will try to tell you there is but there isn't.) Impatience is not our friend.

This blog has moved. My blog now lives here: