Monday, April 25, 2011

Jay Neugeboren: A Writer's Odds

"A Writer’s Odds” originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.

by Jay Neugeboren.

I recently sold a short essay on Ingmar Bergman to The Notre Dame Review, which was especially welcome news since I’d written the original version of this essay in 1962--46 years ago--and had been submitting slightly revised versions of it, if intermittently, ever since.

A few months after I’d written the Bergman essay, as it happens, I sold my first short story, by which time, at the age of 24, I’d accumulated, by count, 576 rejections. By this time, too, I’d written five unpublished novels, and it would be another three years, and nearly 2000 more rejections, before I sold my first book.

During those years, in order to keep track of where things were, I kept a scoreboard pasted to the wall beside my desk on which I listed the title of the work, the place I’d sent it to, the date on which I’d sent it, and the odds. Most stories went out at somewhere between 500 and 1000 to 1, novels usually had odds of about 10,000 to 1, although, depending on the early morning mood of the handicapper, these odds could, on any given day, ascend to several hundred thousand to one. At the bottom of the scoreboard I posted additional opportunities: a Best Bet, a Long Shot, a Hopeful, a Sleeper, and a Daily Double. Shrewd bettors in those years, undismayed by previous losses--the odds became outrageous once a story collected more than thirty rejections--could have cleaned up. Several times, in fact, after sending a story around for a few years, I’d change the title and send it back to a place I’d previously submitted it to, and it would, the second or third time around (this happened at The Atlantic, for example), be accepted.

Things didn’t change much after I began publishing. Thus, my eighth book, The Stolen Jew, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and winner of Best Novel of the Year Award from the American Jewish Committee (and still in print), was rejected 17 times during a two year period, and a non-fiction book published a decade ago, Imagining Robert, also still in print and also a New York Times Notable Book, along with being a Book of the Month Club Selection, a Featured Selection of the Quality Paperback Book Club, and the basis for a prize-winning PBS documentary--was rejected, during a three year period, by 41 publishers.

During the years I taught writing, what I used to say to my students, as to myself, was that while it was hard not to feel rejections personally, one shouldn’t take them personally. Given the long list of commercially successful books turned down by publishers--from Catcher in the Rye and Peyton Place to A Separate Peace and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance--who could figure out how to figure--how to tout--the vagaries of the literary marketplace? Best was to keep your eye on the object: to write the books and stories you wanted to write, and to hope that, with persistence and luck--and never underestimating either--your work would see its way into print. And once it did, as in any good story or--or any interesting life, since the essence of both was unpredictability--anything could happen.

And sometimes I’d console myself, or celebrate, as with the Bergman essay, by reciting a faith-based mantra learned during the basketball playing days of my Brooklyn youth: If you keep making the right moves, eventually the shots fall.

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