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John Jenkins Jan 11


The January column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.

Why a good tutor is a psychologist

by John Jenkins

As a tutor, how do you deal with and motivate somebody who has talent, works hard, deserves to be published but keeps getting rejection slip after rejection slip? Some people may well have received a rejection slip in the first of the New Year post. That’s a serious blow to any determination to make this the year to be published.

It all depends of course on the mental outlook of the subject. I use examples ranging from A J Cronin, to Jane Austen, to Vicky Lansky, J K Rowling and John Kennedy Toole to persuade writers to keep going..

You will not know all of these names but they are now known to thousands of readers and have legions of admirers.

Every one of them has faced and overcome rejection.

I am always on the look-out for authors who have had the perseverance and guts to go on when lesser people - me included - would have cried enough is enough.

The latest name to add to this list is Jason Wallace who has this week walked off with the Costa Children’s book prize for his story Out of Shadows.

You might think that it is strange to write a story about an assassination attempt on Robert Mugabe for children. You would not be alone in that view. The book was rejected 100 times by agents and publishers: people who should know what the public and children want to read.

Comments from new author Wallace, a 41-year-old web designer, make a fascinating study.

He told The Times: ‘I think I may have had a few low points when trying to get this book noticed, but in truth I don’t think I would have ever given in. I kept getting excited as I reread and edited the book. I had a feeling I had something that people would want.’

So his sheer persistence has picked up an award of £5,000 and the possibility of the overall award of £30,000.

But let’s get back to Vicky Lansky. She is an American author who wrote a book of recipes for tiny tots after examining those little pots of baby foods and deciding that she didn’t like what manufactures were including in the meal.

She was rejected 49 times before self publishing her book: Feed Me, I’m Yours, which made her a millionaire and an author known on television in the United States from coast to coast.

I recently came across John Kennedy Toole, who was born in New Orleans in 1937 and after graduation in English taught at Hunter College and the University of South Louisiana.

He tried and tried to get his book - A Confederacy of Dunces - published and became so depressed at his failure that he committed suicide at the age of 32. But his mother, whose faith in him never wavered, eventually got the book published by the Louisiana State University Press and in England by Penguin.

The New York Times review read:

‘A pungent work of slapstick, satire and intellectual incongruities…it is nothing less than a grand comic fugue.’

Unfortunately Toole is not the only author to receive acclaim after his death.

One of the great tragedies this side of the Atlantic was the death of Paul Scott whose books on the British Raj made such a compelling TV series and pushed sales to wonderful levels. Scott, who had a towering reputation as an editor of other people’s work and encouraged many putative authors, died before he received the recognition his work deserved.

The trick is to learn from the rejection. Let your anger and disappointment cool. Examine the story. Could any of the following be improved? Story arc, characters, plot, theme, dialogue, pace, writing, title, ending?

Send out multiple submissions. I know this is against perceived wisdom but if you are going to get 10 rejections you might as well get them all at once. On the other hand you may find you have four publishers bidding for the book: Jane Green did.

Remember that to stay in business, agents and publishers have to find and exploit new talent. Without people like you they will go out of business. Every professional writer was once an amateur.

Elsewhere on this site you can find a list of famous authors who have overcome rejection. Here’s a few of them to cheer you up.

Anais Nin

'There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic.'

Jack Kerouac

'His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don't think so.'

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D H Lawrence

'for your own sake do not publish this book.'

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

'an irresponsible holiday story'

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

'an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.'

Watership Down by Richard Adams

'older children wouldn't like it because its language was too difficult.'

The Deer Park by Norman Mailer

'This will set publishing back 25 years.'

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

'Do you realize, young woman, that you're the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.'

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

'The grand defect of the work, I think, as a work of art is the low-mindedness and vulgarity of the chief actors. There is hardly a "lady" or "gentleman" amongst them.'

Catch – 22 by Joseph Heller

‘I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.’

The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

‘You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.’

Animal Farm by George Orwell

‘It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA’

Now if that doesn’t convince you that nobody knows what makes a best seller, nothing will. Keep going. Don’t give up. Believe in what you do and some day somebody else may share your view.

John Jenkins' December column was on that key writing dictum - Show the reader, don't tell him.



If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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