Having been a writer for fifteen years I’ve played the not so fun game of waiting, a game most writers play. The difference between us and those shooting hoops in Houston tonight for NCAA immortality is that we play a very slow, very passive game. We wait, and then wait some more. Often months, a lot of months, and what we get when we finally get that treasured missive from a faraway agent is a form letter, that Dear Author, Because of the number of submissions we receive we’re unable to provide a more personal response, but be assured that we blah, blah, blah. So many we spread them when painting the ceiling, or lighting the gas jets of our fireplace, crumbling a few to add more blaze. Or that email, that “not quite right for us,” we’ve seen a zillion times, our delete button beginning to wear.
What we hope for, of course, is a letter, electronic or otherwise, that mentions us by name, that says I, Silvia (or Roger, if you prefer) have read your work, found it interesting, and would like very much to see additional chapters. Suddenly we’re having visions of a review in the New York Times Book Review, a live interview with Diane Rehm, a mention on Oprah. And with thoughts like that the waiting is even worse than it was before. A month is a decade, six weeks a lifetime. I myself was at that pulling-your-hair-out stage not so long ago. An agent in the UK with one of the big international literary agencies asked to see more. At the speed of Michael Phelps, I complied. Close to a year went by before I worked up the nerve to contact her. By regular mail, that ancient way of delivery was the only way these lords on high permitted. Another few months went by. Still nothing. Just the bills, reminders of doctor appointments, the charge account offers of Capital One. I finally called their New York office, got a name to write to, to find what hole in the universe my three chapters had gone through. Laboring over just the right words, because the last thing you want to do is sound insistent, even when subjected to the worse kind of abuse as we writers too often are, I got something down on paper, and raced to the post office. Bought the UK postage, filled out some sort of Customs form, and after whispering a final prayer, handed over my precious mailing the petulant postage person—there was, I have to admit, a line behind me, some had begun muttering, or clearing their throats the way people do when irritated. Trying not to think of them, these people I might later see in the same post office, I drove home, waited, and within a week got one of those “not quite right for us” letters.
What we dream of or when awake long for is a glowing response, a vibrant exultation that what we’ve sent them is wonderful, that nothing, absolutely noting needs to be changed. I often imagine people like Stephen King standing by the telephone when his agent called to say that his story “Carrie” had been sold for four hundred thousand dollars. A high school teacher in Maine, he was at the time, living a lot less grandly than he does now. Later he waited on an editor, who not doubt was mindful of the amount invested by his employer, but for Mr. King and others of his rank this was an entirely different relationship than most of us, the unwashed, think of when they consider the person they have hired for half of their monthly rent, a kind of bribe for them to read and improve a not so good manuscript, make it what it should be if written by a professional writer, which in the sense of a panhandler on the street corner, we are. There is, of course, a major compensation to this first stage relationship of writer versus editor. For once even we, the servant of so many, are not vassals. We are lordly, almost. Not that we control them, we don’t, but their responses to what we’ve sent them tend to be prompt. Why? because we’re paying them.
The next stage of editing, and by that I mean the massaging, the whacking, the cleaving in two, if necessary, by a different kind of editor, one who works for big or at least reputable publishing house, a place where we’re respected to some degree. The chopping is not as vicious, as constant, as it used to be. So the bottom line can be fattened, they, the pruners of prose have themselves been cut, these in house editors who used to hack at even the likes of J. D. Salinger, the aptly named Raymond Carver, a self cutter if there ever was one. So there isn’t a lot of trimming and revising these days, which makes things even easier, at least in the near term, for us writers. But that’s miles, light years for most of us, who are still trying to finish that third chapter of draft number four, wondering if five will be enough. And yet we keep going, working toward the end, already thinking of that query letter, that first submission, the rejection letters that will surely follow. Yet when the time comes into the mail it goes, for month after month. And still, like a flower seeking water in an Arizona desert we submit our work, our dream, hoping that sometime, somewhere, it will grow.