June 17, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Mimi Jones Hedwig
When I was working as an editorial assistant in my first job at Viking Press, an eminent book publisher, one of my tasks was to handle the slush pile – the unsolicited manuscripts that arrived as actual pages, wrapped in brown paper and twine, in those quaint days before the personal computer. It was so certain that they would be rejected that I was expected not even to read them.
But I was curious and idealistic. Day after day I would browse the pages of the manuscripts that weren’t obviously amateurish or deranged, hoping for that electric surge up my spine that compelled me to keep reading.
It took two full years for that to happen. One day in 1976 I opened a package and began reading, and, unable to stop, brought the book home with me that night, and the next day gave it to my supervising editor and said, “You have to read this.” The book, Ordinary People by Judith Guest, was the first manuscript to be published from Viking’s slush pile in twenty-seven years and became a blockbuster bestseller and a multiple Academy Award-winning movie, Robert Redford’s directorial debut.
But during the two years leading up to that happy discovery, after a few minutes’ perusal I would pack each manuscript up for mailing back to the author, including an ivory colored card printed with the publisher’s colophon and the brief message: “The Viking Press thanks you for the opportunity to consider your manuscript. We regret that it is not quite suited to our present needs. With best wishes, The Editors.”
If the author had not included return postage, the archaic courtesy that still prevailed back then required that I type up an envelope and send the rejection slip that way. Even that neutrally polite form letter sometimes provoked wrathful reactions; once I opened a letter to find the rejection card inside, smeared with some suspicious brown matter and the scrawled words: “Take a taste of your own sweet medicine.”
Nevertheless, authors knew at least that their manuscripts had been received, opened, and seen by someone. They were given the respect of a response and could cling to the hope that their work might “suit another publisher’s present needs.”
Publishing has changed greatly since then. There is no longer any hope for an author of being plucked from the slush pile of a major or midsize publisher; these companies do not consider or respond to unsolicited manuscripts, but rely on literary agents to be the gatekeepers. Thus, agents are besieged by hopeful authors. Now that computers have taken much of the toil and expense out of producing a book-length manuscript – no more typing, white-out or correction tape, retyping, photocopying, packing up, and mailing – everyone can relatively easily act on their certainty that they have a story or a theory or a self-help formula that the world is waiting for.
Most of the time the only way to present your work to an agent is a one page query letter, sometimes with a permissible inclusion of a few pages of the manuscript. Agents get hundreds of these letters each week – and somewhere along the line many of them, out of self-defense, adopted the policy of “no reply means rejection.” In other words, in response to their submissions most writers can expect to experience complete, invalidating silence.
The frustration of the querying process drives many people to writers’ conferences where, for an extra fee over and above the conference registration cost, they can meet one on one with agents to make a ten-minute case for their projects. Many authors line up sessions with as many agents as their budget and schedule will permit. If the agent is interested in your description (or, possibly, if he or she wants to avoid the awkwardness of declining the project on the spot), you will be invited to submit some or all of your book.
Filled with hope, you rush home and send each agent what they have requested, in the various forms they require. And then, you wait. And as the waiting goes on into the months, you begin to suspect that you have been – in the current parlance – ghosted, that is, treated as if you and your project were a mere waft of vapor dissipating into the chill mist of utter oblivion.
I think a lot of writers get disheartened, both by the submission process and the new requirement that they come to an agent with an established, robust social media following and a body of short work published in periodicals ranging from the obscure to the major. Also, with our vivid, writerly imaginations, we may speculate that the reasons behind those mute dismissals or pro forma responses are all the criticisms and deprecations that, in our worst moments, we level at ourselves and our work.
The end result of all this is that we may begin to doubt that there’s any point in trying to get published, or, perhaps, continuing to write at all. In effect, we reject ourselves.
Here are the steps I have resolved to take to avoid engineering my own failure and becoming one of the literary ghosts doomed to hover forever on the outside of the publishing world, looking in with haunted, yearning eyes:
- Write daily, always probing for what moves or excites or holds risk, my own truth, the kinds of stories I want to read.
- Seek every day to renew my passion for the process, because I believe that is the writer’s best and surest reward, no matter how little or much worldly success we achieve.
- Repel the sense of futility that discourages me from beginning a new writing project, knowing the huge amount of work it will require and the likelihood of rejection.
- Formulate a publishing strategy: for me, now, a tiered process, starting with querying every agent who handles the genres I’m writing in; moving on, if necessary, to independent publishers who don’t require agents or monetary contributions by the author; and, if no success with those, considering a financial partnership with a carefully vetted hybrid publisher.
- Compartmentalize this process as if, when undertaking it, I commute to a separate room, a bright, efficient, and emotion-free office that is not even in the same building as the sanctuary (solitary, hushed, low lit, mysterious) that shelters and nurtures my creative work.
- Believe in the possibility that someday my work will come before a curious, idealistic publishing professional — who, scrolling through my pages, will sit up straighter at the electric surge that compels them to keep reading and then to tell someone else, “You have to read this!”
After three decades as an editor at Viking Press and Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines, Mimi Jones Hedwig is working full-time on four novels and a memoir.
May 7, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Mimi Jones Hedwig
Whenever I feel the impulse to lose myself in the absorbing process of making something, I choose one of two activities: knitting or writing. Both give me comparable — and abundant — rewards. Yet I have to resist knitting, or I’d do it all the time. And I have to push myself to write, because I almost never want to do it.
They are similar in many ways. Both are more or less solitary pursuits – although knitting circles have thrived since antiquity, and writers’ groups offer relief from the isolation of the labor, as well as support and guidance.
Both create something complex out of something simple – a strand of yarn, a strand of words.
Both yield a tangible product: an expanse of fabric, a sheaf of pages.
Both require dexterous fingers, an alert brain, a certain bravery to venture into something untried and difficult.
Both involve making intricate patterns: configurations of stitches that become a structure of yarn, configurations of words that become a story, essay, novel.
Each discipline requires attention to the smallest element: the formation of each stitch, the exact number of stitches; the choice of each word, the right number of words to convey the essence with no excess.
With knitting and writing both, there is a great deal of craft to learn. Both take diligent effort and practice, ideally daily.
Both require patience. There’s the size of the projects, for one thing: it takes a enormous amount of time and effort to make an adult-scale garment or a book-length work. Also, sometimes you have to rip out, or throw out, huge tracts of fabric or words because, in knitting, you may have made a fatal mistake too far back to be fixed, or, in writing, an idea, a plot line, a character, is remaining inert, stalling the whole project. You may have to repeat the process of destruction and re-creation several times.
Sometimes each discipline demands philosophical resignation. You stash the problematic knitting attempt in a closet along with other UFOs (UnFinished Objects), maybe to take it apart someday and use the yarn for another project. In the same way you may shelve a seized-up novel or story or memoir, hoping to gain insight into how to get it running at some future time, but possibly winding up stripping it for parts.
But … all these similarities notwithstanding, knitting and writing have some essential differences:
With knitting it is not so much the product that pleases me, as the process – the satisfyingly repetitive motions, the feel of the smooth wooden needles, the texture of the yarn, the sense that the colors I’m working with are seeping through my skin to enliven or calm my inner state. Sometimes I put the finished sweater, scarf or shawl in a drawer and never think to wear it. Often I give my knitted items away, to keep them from engulfing the house as kudzu does the Southern landscape where I live.
With writing, however, both process and product are important. I want to perfect the work; I relish the painstaking labor of revision, of searching for and finding the exact word or phrase or image to express my meaning, my vision. And then, when I have made the work as flawless as I can, I feel a need to show it to the world and have people respond to it. Writing is, after all, an act of communication; I can’t know if I have done it successfully unless readers tell me that they understand and appreciate what I have written, and, even better, that my story made a difference to them. I long to heft my published book in my hand, to open it and breathe in the confirming scent of paper, ink and glue, to display it on my bookshelf — and, in time, to add several others bearing my name on their spines.
Other people’s reactions to my knitting don’t affect me much. What I create is not self-revealing because I didn’t invent the stitches or the patterns I follow. True, I am responsible for the choice of colors and fibers, the selection of a particular pattern, but my sense of self-worth is not bound up with the final product.
Thus, there’s safety in favoring knitting over writing as my creative outlet. I never sit paralyzed, despairing, needles stilled, yarn slack, at a complete loss as to how to go on. No one has ever pronounced my knitting unconvincing. Cliché. Flat. Stilted. Uninvolving. No one has ever suggested that another knitter could have done a better job than I in executing a particular concept. My knitting has never made me cry, or want to stick pins in an effigy of someone, or get drunk.
A reasonable person might ask, why, then, should I put myself through the difficulty and occasional devastation of writing? Why not just knit my way to creative bliss?
The answer is that, in the best moments, writing gives me rewards that knitting never could: The absorption of bringing into being from nothing a world, characters, a sequence of events. The happy surprise when the story or a character takes off, independent of my intentions, in a compelling new direction. The marvel of coming to an insight that seems pregnant with power to change my life.
With knitting, I have the satisfaction of practicing one of the most complex and beautiful crafts ever devised by humans. But with writing, on rare and exhilarating occasions, I feel that I’m sharing in the creative power of God.
Mimi Jones Hedwig held senior editorial positions at Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines before quitting full-time work to devote herself to writing. Her articles have appeared in all the aforementioned publications, as well as McCall’s magazine and Angels on Earth, a publication of the Guideposts media group. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is presently working on four novels and a memoir, as well as innumerable sweaters, scarves and shawls.