Thursday, 21 April 2011

Nobody Knows Anything

I’m a great admirer of the screenwriter William Goldman. He wrote both the novel and the screenplay for one of my favourite thrillers – Marathon Man. He also penned the scripts for a whole host of really big movies, including All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and A Bridge Too Far. I love his writing style, and from the non-fiction books he wrote (Adventures in the Screen Trade and What Lie Did I Tell) I learned a lot not just about the movie business, but also about the crafting of story.

Goldman will be remembered for many achievements, but one of the things he became known for was for his use of the phrase ‘Nobody knows anything.’ What he meant by this was that movie executives never have a clue in advance as to how well a movie will do at the box office. One of the examples offered by Goldman is Raiders of the Lost Ark. A big, big hit. Yet it was turned down by every single studio in town, until Paramount said yes. Two further examples: Universal passed on Star Wars; Columbia passed on ET. They passed, argues Goldman, because Nobody Knows Anything.

At the risk of being a little bit contentious here, I think that Goldman’s saying also extends to the publishing world. Consider the example of J K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Turned down by all the major publishing houses until a small outfit called Bloomsbury took her on with an advance of £1500.

Here’s another example. This author’s first novel was again turned down by every major publisher, until a minor player called Wynwood Press agreed to publish. Wynwood printed only 5,000 hardback copies, and even they didn’t sell. Wynwood later went out of business.

That book was called A Time to Kill. Its author was John Grisham.

In case any publishers out there are feeling singled out, I should redress the balance by saying that Nobody Knows Anything applies to literary agents too. I should also make it clear at this point that I am not trying to be insulting when I say this. I am merely highlighting the fact that agents, like publishers, are not clairvoyant. What needs to be borne in mind about agents is that they take on what they believe they can sell, and that ought to be what they are passionate about.  There is therefore a huge element of subjectivity involved. What one agent believes to be brilliant may be dismissed as unremarkable by another.

In the days when I was submitting to agents, I received lots of rejection slips (don’t we all?). I hasten to add that these were for my earlier, unpublished novels, and not for Pariah. Here is one of the comments I received from a well-known agent:
            ‘You need to remember to show, not tell.’
and here is another, from a different well-known agent:
            ‘You certainly know how to show rather than tell.’
These comments were referring to exactly the same extract from exactly the same book. You see what I mean about subjectivity?

The point I am making here is that just because your book is being turned down, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s no good. Agents and publishers reject submissions for all sorts of reasons, often not related to the quality of your work. It may because an agency is so overloaded that it cannot at present take on any more authors. It could be because a publisher already has an author with novels that are similar in some ways to yours, and doesn’t want the two to compete with each other. That said, if enough people consistently give you exactly the same criticism about your work, then you should listen and do something about it.

But the essential thing to take from this is not to get too downhearted by rejection. One day you may have the satisfaction of proving them all wrong. Keep reminding yourself of those three words: Nobody knows anything.

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