Monday, May 25, 2009

Timing Is Everything

In teaching my editing class, I always like to pass along stories about how books are accepted, and how they get skipped over until some editor finally "connects" with the book. One amazing story is "The Confederacy of Dunces," a book that was rejected by all the major publishers over a period of several years. After the author committed suicide, his mother continued to submit his manuscript and finally prevailed upon author Percy Walker to read it. Walker used his influence to get the book published. The book won the Pulitzer but that's not even the end of the story . When 100 prominent writers were asked to name the single best work of American fiction in the last 25 years, this was the book they named.

The story I personally love is from Lillian Jackson Braun, author of The Cat Who books. Her first short story about her cat was published in Ellergy Queen's mystery magazine and made the "Best Detective Stories of the Year." After she was asked to write several more, a publisher asked if she'd like to try writing a novel with a cat, so she wrote The Cat Who Could Read Backwards and then the publisher asked for another and then another.

But then...there's a gap between book number three and four--a gap of 18 years. As Braun explains, "By the time I had written the fourth one, tastes in mysteries had changed, the management had changed, the policy had changed. They wanted sex and violence, not kitty-cat stories. [Note: This was the late '60s, the era of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins.] Sex and violence were not my style, so I just forgot all about The Cat Who. I had a full-time job on a newspaper and it was exciting and I had a wonderful life, so who needed it?"

During those years, her husband died and she remarried. One rainy day she gave her manuscript for book #4 to her second husband, and when he read it, he said, "I think its time has come. There are fifty-six million cats in the United States and I think you should resubmit it." So she did and now twenty-something years later she's on book #30.

The idea that an author may have to wait eighteen years may not be terribly comforting, but to me the point is more that we can't know the future and there may be some wonderful things ahead. We just don't see it now. But what we do now helps us be ready for it--whether it's writing a book or enjoying whatever we're doing because life is full of changes and we may be doing something else at any point that we didn't anticipate. You just may be surprised.


Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Love this post, Val! I really like hearing success stories about publishing and the like. What a shame the author of Confederacy didn't live to see this day.

Jeri Gilchrist said...

I love your knowledge of authors and their background stories into the world of publishing, Val. It impresses me. I also love the insight you shared with your blog.

Lynn Gardner said...

I have loved the Cat Who books and wondered why there was such a gap. Thanks for solving the mystery! Maybe in another 20 years I'll have recovered from the angst of KBE (I'm sure you can decipher that!) and write again. Thanks for all your help through the years! Love ya, Lyhn

Michele Ashman Bell said...

Val, you have so much knowledge stored in that brain of yours. I love all the stories and bits of background that you have to share. You ALWAYS have just the perfect insight to any topic.

Thank you for this lovely post. I'm quite renewed after reading it.

Cheri J. Crane said...

Excellent post, Val. It gives us all hope. =)I've read several of "The Cat Who . . ." books and enjoyed them thoroughly.