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How not to serial 12


This is the twelfth and final excerpt from David Armstrong's wry and entertaining How not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author

11. Waiting

'Life is a horizontal fall.'

Jean Cocteau

Time is the thing. In publishing - and even more so in non-publishing - time is elastic. They reckon it can take easily five years to get a movie off the ground. Richard Attenborough took twenty years to raise the cash and get Gandhi made, and Martin Scorsese nearly as long to make Gangs of New York.

Books aren't usually this bad, but even for people like me, people writing modest books with modest aims, it's nothing for a book to take two or three years to get published, even after it's been written. If you're lucky.

When my first book was published, in November 1993, my wife gave me at Christmas a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. After the years of submitting manuscripts, my previous copies of the guide were dog-eared and heavily annotated.

Julia wrote in the flyleaf: 'Congratulations! You won't be needing this again.' (Sadly, it didn't turn out to be true, but it was a typically sweet and thoughtful message.)

The thing about trying to get published is that it really is - for most of us - a very time-consuming business. You write the book (which is often pretty hard, of course) and then you have to embark on the truly terrible time of writing letters, sending emails and making telephone calls trying to persuade supposedly interested people to even look at it.

Simon Gray, a man who has written over twenty stage plays, lots of TV films, a couple of movies and five novels, is still painfully familiar with this syndrome. He writes in Enter a Fox, his 2001 account of the particular miseries associated with being a playwright, that he sat at his desk, 'not so much worn out by the task completed as drained in advance by the task ahead... sending it (the play) out, waiting for responses... this, for me, is the truly ghastly part of playwriting, and the prospect of it somehow taints the work itself.'


As a little-known novelist, if someone eventually deigns to agree to look at your book, you send it off, and then wait two, three or four months.

Eventually, you call.

The last thing you want to do is provoke an intemperate reaction. The editor of your dreams will have slipped off his Barbour jacket one Sunday afternoon, might have had a glass of wine after a good lunch and a walk with his red-setter, and to have read in a leisurely but deeply interested manner a few chapters of your fascinating novel.

In reality, after the months of waiting, you gird your loins and make the' most cowering telephone enquiry of some Aussie temp on the end of the line in a central London office.

Nudged into a response, your would-be publisher/editor might, at this point, between faxes, meetings and calls from equally hungry and desperate authors, finally skim a few pages of your book.

And then, almost certainly, she will troll off a note telling her secretary to draft a letter to Ms Rowling to the effect that, whilst the author's manuscript is not without a certain something, regrettably, in these commercially-driven times, there is no market for tales of orphaned schoolboys attending wizard schools.

To a Mr Rankin of Edinburgh, she writes that, in a competitive crime market that is positively awash with misanthropic, jazz-loving, heavy-drinking, maverick detectives, she sees no place for his creation, the dour 'John Rebus'.

By the same post - what a good feeling it is to make some small impression on the ever-growing pile of manuscripts that threatens to overwhelm her office - she fires off a missive to a young man called Oliver, explaining to the poor, garrulous mutt, that the cookery-book market has been sewn up by Delia Smith, Rick Stein and, in any event, has been basted to death.

Your own novel comes back four days later, the solitary hair that you placed between pages twenty-three and-four is, just as you knew it would be, still there.

You want to phone. You want to tell them you have caught them out in their shoddy, dastardly non-reading trick. Instead, you turn up the Writers' and. Artists' Yearbook, call the next publisher on the list and begin the whole miserable, dispiriting process over again.

All this takes tons of time, is absolutely debilitating and wrecks any shred of confidence in your work that you might still have.

Tips and Summary:

1) Believe me, hard though it often is, writing's actually the easy bit.

2) Don't do it.

This is, regretfully, the last excerpt from How not to Write a Novel, but you can still read the previous excerpts.

About How Not to Write a Novel

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt
The seventh excerpt
The eighth excerpt
The ninth excerpt
The tenth excerpt
The eleventh excerpt
The twelfth excerpt


© David Armstrong 2003

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