Monday, June 16, 2014

Holding on to Hope for our "Unmarketable" Manuscripts

I proposed out current topic, which JoAnn kicked off on Friday, after reading Marion Dane Bauer's blog post, The Creative Mind. In the post, Marion writes of her experience creating a young adult short story collection that wasn't very marketable, in part, because "the book was awkward to place anywhere in the juvenile market." Unfortunately, I've written not only one, but possibly two, such books. At least Marion's reputation and sales history allowed her book to make it into print. My manuscripts, in contrast, are currently sitting in the proverbial "drawer," and may never see the light of day. This is especially frustrating because of the hours and hours of work I put into them. Both are set in 18th-century Milan--one a biography and the other a historical novel--and required extensive research. The more research I did, the more fascinated I became with my characters and their story. I'd hoped others would find them just as fascinating. The novel has done well in several writing competitions, and even took first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City RWA Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest. Admittedly, I've only sent it to a few editors and agents so far and, in general, they say it's well-written. Just not marketable enough. There's that dreaded word again. I've revised and submitted a few more places. But the longer it takes to hear back, the more my hope fades.

I'm looking forward to reading how my fellow TeachingAuthors deal with the issue of marketability. Our writing isn't only a creative pursuit--writing (and teaching) is what we do to pay the bills. At the moment, I can't afford to take a chance on creating another unmarketable book project, so I'm focusing on teaching and freelance writing. As much as I love teaching, I'm sad not to be working on a book project right now. I actually started a new middle-grade novel "just for fun" a few months ago, but I've put it on hold. Whenever I think about working on it, my inner critic says, "What will you do if this one turns out to be unmarketable too?" Some days the answer is "quit writing altogether."

Sorry, readers, writing this post is depressing even me! So I searched for some encouragement online. I Googled "unmarketable manuscript" and found the phrase in Sophy Burnham's For Writers Only: Inspiring Thoughts on the Exquisite Pain and Heady Joy of the Writing Life from Its Great Practitioners (Tarcher Books), a book I happen to own but haven't read in years. I pulled For Writers Only off my bookshelf and read Burnham's own rejection story. Burnham, who is a bestselling nonfiction author, spent four or five years working on a novel. When she finally finished it and sent it to her agent, he responded, "This is unmarketable. . . . Burn it. Every writer does one or two of these. You're a talented writer. Go write something I can sell."


Understandably, Burnham was crushed. She almost did destroy the manuscript. But then she remembered something her mother told her when she was ten or twelve years old:
"If you ever become a writer," she said, "remember never to throw away anything you've written."
(Funny, I often tell the young writers in my writing camps to never throw away anything they write, either!)

Burnham followed her mother's advice and packed the manuscript up in a box. Years later, Burnham was working with a new agent who asked if she had any other manuscripts. She brought out the boxed-up novel. The agent read it and thought it was "wonderful." Within a month, the agent had found a publisher for Revelations, Burnham's first published novel.

Burnham went on to say:
"In fairness to that first agent, the novel probably was unmarketable when he read it . . . in that climate, at that period of time. . . . But times and tastes change. What is the moral? Perhaps that you never know when you'll succeed, that all you can do is to follow your path with enthusiasm, and don't let rejection get you down."
Even before reading Burnham's story, I'd thought about the cyclical nature of the young adult fiction market and how what doesn't sell today may eventually be the next big thing. I haven't given up hope for my novel or the biography. Like JoAnn, I'm pondering other approaches that may make these manuscripts more appealing. In the mean time, I'm not throwing anything away. J

Out and About:
I'm teaching several one-day writing workshops for adults this summer at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. If you live in the area, I invite you to read more about these classes, and the children's writing camps I teach, on my website.

Also, don't forget to enter our current giveaway for a chance to win an autographed copy of Joan Bransfield Graham's latest picture book, The Poem That Will Not End: Fun with Poetic Forms and Voices!

Happy writing!


Jill said...

I have three novels in a drawer, Carmela, so i know exactly how that feels. Hang in there. Today's "Unmarketable." may be tomorrow's "Exactly what I've been looking for!" We can dream...

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, Jill!

Linda B said...

You may be sharing this big 'ouch' story, Carmela, yet I wish this post could be shared by so many, many aspiring writers. It holds such good advice: write anyway that which you love, don't give up, put the rejections away for a sunnier day, and on. Thanks much and best of wishes to you for all those manuscripts!

laurasalas said...

Oh, I know this heartache well, Marti! Great writing and marketable writing often overlap. But not always. The market is a fickly creature. I hope you find the pull of writing again irresistible, though...xoxo, Laura

jan godown annino said...

Hello Carmela,

This is a soothing post you share. Thank you for writing it!
Good luck for the future of that new one in the drawer. And for your summer projects. I feel a long note coming on, so everyone is excused from reading, here on out...

I understand why it at first glance the post appears depressing. But I feel empowered to know that super-talented, mult-published Teaching Authors run into the biz. wall of giant sales needed.

In one of my three critique groups a national, award-winning author has left the currently unmarketable manuscripts in the drawer. But others in the group are self-publishing. Too soon, to know if they are/will be pleased on that path.

In my own experience with my unmarketable projects I have to look at them as fun, creative, learning experiences for someone who Can't. Not. Research. And. Write. It's too much a part of me. I guess it's like a potter who creates a vase without a buyer ready to purchase, or a composer who hears music in her head & creates a score without knowing a symphony will perform her new piece.

I'm waiting to hear if my revised course outline to teach children's lit. for a lifelong learning program is a "go" for the fall. And I'm presenting to a young authors summer workshop & I have a new research/writing novel idea on an abolition topic, that I've felt connected to since I first learned of this true story, so maybe this one when I pull it together (likely a year's worth of time & energy) will receive a contract offer.
My recently marketed "next" p.b. biography of a forgotten literary figure is so far publisher-unwanted/unloved.
I don't have an agent to shop my stuff, so I hear "nada/no" from editors/publishers directly & it takes longer to get to them in the beginning, because I search for places that still read from unagented writers.
But last week, I received a packet of letters dated June 6 & June 8, from Connecticut, from a teacher who thought enough of my p.b. bio (about Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, She Sang Promise) to not only present it to her 4th-graders, but to collect their responses. What a fabulous teacher Ms. Jean Witz is, because she is doing something with her students so that the letters are not rote. They are specific, detailed & even fun. One ended his note: "I hope you continue to make more books of this high quality. Sincerely, Daniel T." This is going to carry me thru the hot, humid Florida summer. And into the fall. These notes & your lovely gift of a post. And my neurons, which bring me new ideas & my fingers, which itch to write....

Courage to everyone on this path with more thanks,
ps apologies for the length

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Linda, Laura, and Jan. I love your comment, Jan:
>>But I feel empowered to know that super-talented, mult-published Teaching Authors run into the biz. wall of giant sales needed.<<
That was part of my hope in sharing this topic--to help other writers, especially new ones, so that we all struggle with this. No need to apologize for the long post--I appreciate your taking time to give us such thoughtful feedback!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

I'm so enjoying the honesty and heart of my fellow TeachingAuthors.
Thank you, Carmela!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

I'm so enjoying the honesty and heart of my fellow TeachingAuthors.
Thank you, Carmela!

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, Esther! :-)

April Halprin Wayland said...

Thank you, Carmela. Honesty wins every time, not sugar-coating. I'm so glad Burnham didn't burn her book. Her agent's words were too severe--even given that current market. They remind me of the song in A Chorus Line, "Nothing"...when the singer's drama teacher, Mr. Karp, said she's never been an actor...

April Halprin Wayland said...

Oops...I meant

when the singer's drama teacher, Mr. Karp, said she'd never BE an actor

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing those TERRIFIC lyrics, April. I didn't know them before. :-)

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing those TERRIFIC lyrics, April. I didn't know them before. :-)