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The real sixth sense

Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Are my passionate convictions why I can't get published?"

I'm a sucker for an agony column, and since it's years since I've had a proper job, Jeremy Bullmore's in Saturday's Guardian has the same pleasure for me as gardening programmes do: intellectually and humanly fascinating, without the least necessity to take it (at the moment) to heart. And today's column included a problem which I found myself reading as a perfect analogy for a particular writerly situation. I hope Jeremy won't mind if I don my costume of Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt to the passionate, aspiring author, and paraphrase:

Dear Jerusha; I'm in my late 20s and currently working in a bookshop while trying to get my novels and stories published. I've spent a lot of my career with this aim, reading all the great authors and doing an MA, but now that I'm trying to find a publisher, I'm feeling as if there's no place where I and my writing fit. I have struggled to find an agent who sees fiction as I do, and no matter how much effort I put into revising my work and trying to make it so good they can't resist it, I still often find that my work is misread, or rejected outright. Over the past couple of years I've really stretched my reading and writing, and worked out what to me is important about literature. It has very recently occurred to me that a lot of my professional frustrations thus far may be down to my personal view of what's important in writing, and indeed my strong instincts about what I believe to be good and bad literature.

I have been looking to write for a living and/or do other related literary work in publications and forums which I believe in, but in the meantime it's obviously crucial for me to get that first publishing contract. Although I'm not overtly opinionated in my submission letters and networking in the writing world, I cannot change my literary nature any more than I can change the colour of my skin. Any advice as to how I might get my work to fit better, so as to get that contract, would be greatly appreciated.

From what you say, I'm not convinced that you're right to call your working life to date a 'career'. That word is usually reserved to mean progress within a chose path or profession - and if you're not yet published that's exactly what you're still looking for (I'm sorry if that sounds cruel, but I suspect it's an important point.) You know you've got a writerly nature all your own. You find it instinctively easy to distinguish good literature from bad. And all that's good - but also potentially a stumbling block. Strong and immediate convictions about artistic and aesthetic issues can seem to others like inflexibility and even prejudice. And indeed, they may be.

You say you're not overtly opinionated in your submission letters and networking, but that may just be your own view; others may think that's exactly what you are. So my guess is that you shouldn't consciously be trying to 'fit', as you put it. Rather, you should be trying to practise what's called in the jargon 'a theory of mind'. This not hugely helpful phrase is used to describe an individual's ability to see things through others' eyes.

It's very difficult to imagine things as they seem to others. It's not a facility we're born with; it needs to be consciously practised, and as a writer of fiction you have, I would imagine, have been doing a great deal of practising. But you need to start doing exactly that when it comes to getting your novel into the shape which will mean agents and then publishers think it will sell. In suggesting this, you may well think I want you to soften your writing and compromise your artistic principles. I don't. It's true that an increased understanding of other people's take on writing may well affect your own, but that's the beginning of imagination and empathy, not the end of conviction.

You should learn to listen more carefully to what other people say about your work. Just because you've asked for their opinion doesn't mean you're actually hearing it; you may just be getting ready to explain why the writing is exactly how you want it to be. If some people who might help your career onwards, either by helping you improve your work or giving you opportunities, seem to misunderstand it and you, this could be partially the cause. They may see you as someone who isn't interested in how anyone else, except yourself, hears your work.

It's interesting that you're tempted by other literary work. Successful writers and critics and teachers don't just put forward their own work and opinions with force and conviction. To be a successful writer you need first to understand other kinds of work, and what readers (including agents and publishers) see in them. Only then will you have any chance of writing things which catch their interest, let alone converting them into fans. And it's not just readers who must become fans if you're to get anywhere as a writer: at least one agent and at least one publisher must become fans of yours, if you're ever going to get published at all.

If you make a habit of reading and listening attentively, of trying to see things through other readers' eyes, you'll find it becomes almost instinctive. And when that happens, you'll find that your relationship with the book trade becomes more comfortable and rewarding. Your work will find a place where it fits, because it will start to be something which speaks to those readers in a way that they can hear.


Just a note to point you towards a new piece in Resources, on psychic distance. Click here, or look over to the sidebar on the right.