On January 11, 2015, 98-year-old crime novelist Helen Eustis died at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. The Cincinnati native was best known for her novel The Horizontal Man, a story about a murdered English professor. The book, informed by her experience as a student at Smith College, won the Mystery Writer's of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1947 for best debut novel.
Eustis wrote The Fool Killer, a mystery adapted into a 1965 film of the same name starring Anthony Perkins. She also wrote award-winning short stories and translated books by mystery writer Georges Simenon as well as other European crime novelists.
Publishers will tell you...that every manuscript which reaches their office is faithfully read, but they are not to be believed. At least fifteen out of twenty manuscripts can be summarily rejected, usually with safety. There may be a masterpiece among them, but it is a thousand to one against.
Trivia has swamped contemporary literary life and become, it seems, more important than the books. A book's blurb is more important than the book itself, the author's photograph on the book jacket is more important than its content, the author's appearance in wide-circulation newspapers and on TV is more important than what the author has actually written.
Many writers feel increasingly uncomfortable in such a literary landscape, densely populated with publishers, editors, agents, distributors, brokers, publicity specialists, bookstore chains, "marketing people," television cameras, photographers. The writer and his reader--the two most important links in the chain--are more isolated than ever.
Choosing an agent is a lot like choosing a hairdresser. [I currently don't have an agent or a hairdresser.] If you know a bunch of writers and most writers do because who else is home all day?) ask the successful ones who represents them. [In reality, writers with agents hate to be asked this.] If you don't know any writers, look at books by authors you admire and see which agent the author thanked in the acknowledgements. Send five to ten of these agents a resume, cover letter, and proposal for what you're trying to sell (it's imperative that the prospective agent knows that you have a money-making project in mind). Interview the agents who respond positively and pick the one you like best. If no one responds positively, send your stuff to another five to ten agents. Don't take it personally. Think of it as practice in handling rejection. (Believe me, you'll need all the practice you can get.)
I find the possibility of life as a fiction writer horribly depressing. Nonfiction, meaning journalism, essays, scholarly work, etc. is far more important to me because I am attempting to have an actual impact on the culture, on politics, and on ideas in people's heads. Nonfiction provides a more direct line to all of those things than fiction, which is too often used as an escape or to console people about their lives. Oh, and nonfiction pays much better.
An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. [Editors should never] get to feeling important about themselves, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing. A writer's best work comes entirely from himself. If you [an editor] have a Mark Twain, don't try to make him into a Shakespeare or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.
I've often suspected that part of the reason why editors take so long to decline on projects, apart from never having enough time to consider them, is linked to how uncomfortable we are rejecting and disappointing people, whether it's the agent who has submitted the work or the unknown soldier who wrote it. Plus, we've all seen enough books that have been notoriously and strenuously rejected throughout the industry that nevertheless go on to bestsellerdom or critical acclaim.
Just as you shouldn't take a polite letter for an encouraging one, don't let a harsh letter do more damage than necessary….It's hard not to focus too deeply on a rejection letter, or any correspondence from an editor, because it's often the only feedback you have, but I beg you not to spend more time with rejection letters than the time it takes to read and file them away.
A huge vocabulary is not always an advantage. Simple language, for some kinds of fiction at least, can be more effective than complex language which can lead to stiltedness or suggest dishonesty or faulty education.
Take a class of writing students in a liberal arts college and assign them to write about some aspect of science, and a pitiful moan will go around the room. "No! Not science!" the moan says. The students have a common affliction: fear of science. They were told at an early age by a chemistry or a physics teacher that they don't have "a head for science."
Take an adult chemist or physicist or engineer and ask him or her to write a report, and you'll see something close to panic. "No! Don't make us write!" they say. They also have a common affliction: fear of writing. They were told at an early age by an English teacher that they don't have "a gift or words."