The envelope lay on the floor, its handwritten address beautifully laid out, purveyor of great things to come and wonders within.
“Why would you want to do this?” they had said. “It’ll all end in tears,” they had said. “Don’t say I didn’t say I told you so!” I had ignored the lot of them.
I opened the envelope, giddy as a teenager. There were no wonders within.
I knew immediately I’d have to ring them. They’d assigned a child barely out of college with nothing to her name for Christ’s sake. I needed someone with more experience, a lot more experience—someone like me.
The novel I’d written was about a thirty-something year old whose parents had died; a father from falling down a stairs and a mother from vertigo. It was a masterpiece, destined for great things. I imagined people flocking to signings to catch a glimpse of something never done before, a book with emotion and melodrama layered on the pages so thickly, the leaves themselves had coloured yellow they had wept so much too. Except the letter didn’t agree.
I stormed into the house. She didn’t understand the grind; the late hours, the tiredness at work, the disappointed face of my five year old closing the door after my latest ‘No’, the angrier face of my eight year old slamming it. No, she hadn’t seen the blood, sweat and tears. I had wept so much I could barely see the keyboard.
I took a few deep breaths and read through the bullet points.
She said the writing was uneven. What the hell did that mean? I had written it using a keyboard. The only handwriting was on the front of her envelope and that was perfectly straight. How could anything typed be uneven?
She said the pacing at the start, middle and end sagged. When I was writing it, I had paced the study, hall and bedroom. I didn’t understand. There was nothing wrong with my pacing.
What did she mean the characterisation was shallow and every character spoke the same? Of course they spoke the same. I and I alone wrote the blasted thing.
And the nerve of her saying first drafts always needed a lot more work. That was my fifteenth draft, the first fourteen of which were written behind a closed door. Yes, I read Stephen King’s On Writing. For the fifteenth draft, I opened the door and invited Bernard, an avid reader from Accounting, to take a look. He recommended it needed to be, I quote, ‘a little better’.
So I made it a little better. I removed some of the crying from the last few pages to give it a little more edge and a little more optimism. It worked, because when I showed it to him a second time, he’d looked stunned. I knew then it was ready. It was time to send it to a publisher.
Only, he suggested, being a self-published author himself, I should send it to a proof-reader, just to find the spelling mistakes, and since I was getting a proof-read done, I should get a copy edit done and pretty soon he was talking about a structural edit so I didn’t bother listening after that and said yes just to shut him up.
I hadn’t even wanted to write a book. The whole thing started because Peter, a bloke I used to work with, suggested at a party fifteen years previously that everyone has a book in them. Then, when Michael, a friend of my father’s, had written a book in his thirties after his parents died, I remembered what Peter had suggested. Even better, Michael wasn’t educated and his book had done well, so, I thought, if Michael could do it, it was a foregone conclusion I could write a bestseller everyone would be weeping over too.
I printed out two hundred advance copies and had given them to my friends. They wept and wept, especially when I asked what they thought of the piece on my mother’s funeral. Which part is that they said? Is it beyond the first page? When I said it was the final chapter, they had wept again.
One of those who received a coveted advance copy, Fred, a holder of six Ph D’s, asked if I knew anyone in the industry or had any friends with young teenage daughters who wrote in ‘weepy dreary lit’. At least I think he said lit.
I remembered my cousin, Papyrus, saying she was interested in literature. Both her parents were artsy types too, into tattoos and nose studs. Papyrus was a waitress back then and had written four short stories which had paid her nothing. She said she was in this Review and that Review, but I never heard anyone taking about her in the literati circles I was in, those groups I administer where I post pictures of quotes and cats.
Anyway, when I brought up I had written a novel, she offered to critique it. At the time, I hadn’t a clue what she meant but I played along and arrived in the café where she worked. I handed her a manuscript, not a book apparently, as I ordered tea and sat at a table directly in front of the counter.
She took a few more orders then grabbed the manuscript and after reading the first page—wow, she read fast—she tossed it on the counter and went off wiping tables that looked clean to me. An hour later, when she had dealt with a few more customers and picked up the manuscript again, she gave me such a look of pure pity I almost wept with joy.
She came over on her break and asked how far along I was in the process. I didn’t know what she meant, so, with a twitch of her mouth, she asked if I had an editor lined up before I sent it off to an agent or had it self-published. I asked what an editor was. When she explained, I said Bernard from Accounting had suggested something similar but I said I hadn’t listened because it didn’t need anything. It was already a work of art.
She grabbed me by the collar and shouted I needed more than a bloody editor.
After she calmed down—I told you my work generated deep feelings—she asked how many words I had written. I didn’t know, so she showed me: 320,000. Most novels of this type are around 80,000 she said. Another win for me. I wouldn’t have to sell my work for a paltry $16.99. I could get over fifty dollars each.
Then she said something that made no sense. She said my editor would cut away some of the dross and I’d end up with a piece of flash fiction or a short story if I was lucky. The place got busy then so I couldn’t ask her what she meant and I couldn’t catch her eye even when there was no one in the café during the 2PM to 5PM slump, so I left.
I had listened though.
The morning the letter arrived, I rang the agency. They understood how I felt. All that effort only to hear it needed a lot more work. I almost screamed down the phone but somehow managed to politely ask for the owner, an older gentleman. After about an hour’s conversation where I explained my life story and the minutiae of the more important chapters, which clearly was all of them, he told me a lot of people have trouble accepting their work is shit and hung up.
To hell with the lot of them. My cousin had said getting an agent or self-publishing was next. Bernard had gone the self-publishing route, so, as I was destined for better things than him, an agent was obviously for me.
I ignored everything the letter said and sent my manuscript to the first agent in the search results list. The cream of authors sent their works of art only to have a seven figure deal the following day, so patience being one of my strengths, I thought waiting a few days would show how easy I’d be to work with. When I got no response after an hour, I thought, no harm in sending it to another five agents; the competition would keep them on their toes. After that, I sent to twenty at a time until I’d reached eight hundred agents. By that point six months had passed and I hadn’t written anything else. But I had read, a lot.
One Sunday evening, I glanced at the huge gold frame hanging in the living room. I looked with nostalgia at the first copy I’d printed sitting behind the glass front. On a whim, I ran upstairs and took the topmost copy from the stack of signed advance copies returned to me— such respect they had garnered, all looking pristine as if they had never been touched—and returned downstairs.
The opening page wasn’t what I remembered. I checked to see how many pages were in the manuscript; eight hundred and eighty eight. By the end of the second page, I was reminded of the most tedious bore at a party, drunk on melodrama. By page three, my fingers were demonically possessed, preventing me from turning further and after letting out a long deep sigh, I knew what I had to do. Rip the stack of copies to shreds and throw the lot of them in the bin.
The following day, I was agitated but didn’t know why. I couldn’t focus. Scrolling through photos and memes couldn’t hold my attention. I grabbed a pencil and doodled on a piece of paper, a scene between two characters from a story I had thought about the previous week. I sat up and added a little bridge over a stream and two bubbles with dialogue. The dialogue felt right but didn’t fit the setting correctly, so I scribbled out the bridge and changed it to the deck of a ship. I added more dialogue then pretended I overheard their conversation. They weren’t friends as I had initially envisaged, but brother and sister. When satisfied with the result, I knew what I had to do. Grab the laptop and begin writing another story.
So I did.