I have moved the whole blog to a new address. Please join me over there as no new posts are being added here and I have removed key info from this old version ...


When you get there, PLEASE rejoin as a "follower" - changing addresses means I lose my 230 lovely friends!

NB also - all comments are intact on the new version.

Friday, 28 August 2009


Recently I noticed that my blog has 222 followers (now increased, which slightly spoils the point but please don't go away). I noticed because it's a cute number but then it got me thinking. "Not for 222" is (apparently) the medical code for a hospital patient so close to death that he should not be resuscitated in the event of heart failure.

It got me wondering how a writer decides his beloved book is "not for 222". How many times can you allow it to be rejected? At what point do you decide there's no possibility of life? Is your unpublished book terminally unpublishable?

Strikes me there are two situations where you might have to make the dreaded 222 order on your book.
  1. Your Work in Progress (WIP) is not progressing. It's stuck. What started with an appealing idea and hook has ground to a halt. You have begun to force the plot-line; you know that it all now hangs on an episode which doesn't completely ring true, even to you, but you're determined to make it fit and you pile in more and more things to force the reader to believe in your story. You're starting to bite your nails in your sleep. There are bits of your book that you love and you keep reading them aloud to yourself, marvelling at the gorgeousness of your talent, but you know in a secret and painful part of your heart that your book has been built on sand.
  2. Your finished book has failed (and failed and failed and failed) to find an agent or publisher. Some have given glimmers of hope, which you have clutched at and possibly exaggerated in your mind; your friends and family love your book (duh) but no agent or publisher seems to care about that; your writing group keep telling you to carry on trying - they mop up your tears and tell you you are brilliant and that publishers don't know what they're talking about or are "only in it for the money". (Well, yes, actually, if you mean that they can't afford to make a loss on every book they take on and they do have to eat like the rest of us.)
In each of these cases, a brave decision must be made.

Situation One is an occupational hazard of writing. It's an often fatal illness that happens much more often to books written by inexperienced writers. As you become more experienced, you'll spot the symptoms earlier and treat the cause before it becomes terminal. I have just done this with an idea that I was utterly gripped by until I began to look ahead and think the plot through. I foresaw fundamental problems in motivation and development, so I killed my baby before I'd developed a relationship with it.

(Note: we talk about the importance of "killing our babies" in writing and it strikes me that killing babies is a lot easier than killing adults. Metaphorically, I hasten to add. If you let your book grow and invest huge amounts of time in it, it's much harder to let it go. Whereas, spectacularly unlike real babies, an idea being stillborn is just a pinprick, something you have to get used to. Apologies for the unpleasant analogy.)

Situation Two
"How many rejections should I accept before giving up?" I was recently asked after a talk on how to get published. It's not the first time I've been asked it. Obviously, there is no answer, or not in terms of a number. In theory, you could send it to every agent and publisher who takes that sort of book, which might only be 20 or it might be 100.

But there are two more useful questions you should ask:

1. How many rejections should I accept before doing some radical re-writing of my work?

Answer: not very many, frankly. IF you have submitted your book to the right people (ie you have researched carefully and only sent it to agents and publishers who handle this sort of work) and IF you have followed all the guidelines so far given in this blog and the submission guidelines of the agents and publishers you've approached, and IF your writing is good enough and IF your book is sellable, then it is likely either to have been accepted or to have attracted some specific feedback, even if not an acceptance yet. So, IF the feedback has alerted you to a problem, you should be re-writing now. IF the feedback has either been inconsistent or has suggested nothing, you should consider getting (perhaps paying for) a professional critique of your work. But be careful to research very carefully the "professionalism" of this critiquing ... (Future post topic.)

What do I mean by "not very many"? Well, you ask me for a figure and figures don't really figure in this game. But let's say, for the sake of argument, not more than ten. No, eight. Seven?

"Only seven? Or even ten?" I hear some of you say. Ah, I don't mean you'll only send it to 7-10 agents/publishers; I mean you'll only send it to that many before taking a long hard look at what you've written (another long hard look because of course you've already given it dozens of long hard looks - I mean a long, hard, critical and objective look). Somehow, you must get a good opinion as to what's wrong with your book which means that you haven't yet hooked anyone.

Thing is, if you send it to 25 and they all say "no way" and then you decide you could have written it better, that's 25 publishers you can't really send it to again when you've improved it ... Well, you can, but it's tricky and needs some careful handling.

But I said there were two more useful questions and the second one is even more useful:

2. What should I be doing while my book is out there being read by an agent / publisher / anyone?

And the answer to this is dead easy: you're a writer, aren't you? So you should be writing. You should be throwing yourself into your next idea. If you're not, you're no writer, just a one-book wannabe. And no agent or publisher wants a one-book wannabe. No reader wants a one-book wannabe.

So get writing. Be fickle - turn your back on your beautiful slaved-over book and fall into bed with a new lover.

When you do that, you learn several important things:
  • that your first book may not be as good as you thought it was
  • that you can fall in love again
  • that the death of a book is not the end of you as a writer
  • that being a writer is about striving to be better all the time and that this happens with practice
  • that if your first book is not good enough you actually don't want it to be published
  • that actually you can postpone the 222 decision and wait for new technology to come along (in the form of your new knowledge gleaned from writing the second book) which might cure the disease
  • that if at some point you decide to slap a "not for 222" on your first book, this will be a positive moment in your career as a real writer. And that you will (I promise) get over your apparently tragic loss.
Don't get me wrong: it's tough, it hurts, and even grown men cry. But if you have another WIP, it's not so bad. And you will not regret it. Ever. I don't know a published writer who hasn't got unpublished work in a drawer. And I don't know a published writer who really wishes that that unpublished work was published. God, I'm glad mine wasn't.

And a happy corollary that comes from all this is that resurrection and reincarnation both exist in a writer's world: it can sometimes happen that an idea or a book that died can rise again, later, when you are grown as a writer, and become something so much better and stronger and more beautiful than it first was.

We have to love our books with a passion but sometimes we have to let them die; or leave them lying in bed while we look ahead to the next one to love. Call yourself fickle, call yourself callous - it doesn't matter as long as you are writing.

If you have more than one book in you, let's see it. If you don't, give yourself a 222.