Wednesday, December 15, 2010

RJ Ellory: In the Den of Arbitrary

All---

Many of us are tangentially aware that there is an element of the arbitrary that runs strong in the publishing world, as in any other realm where the choices of individuals are of high importance.  Bestselling British author RJ Ellory is aware of this more keenly than many.  He has kindly offered this recounting of his struggle to kick start his now award-winning writing career:


I started writing on November 4th 1987, and between then and July 17th 1993 I wrote something every day except for three days when I was going through a divorce.  I completed twenty two novels in that time, something in the region of three and a half million words, and at different times I was in discussion with a couple of agents, with one or two publishing companies, but nothing ever really got as far as I would have liked.  I wrote first of all in longhand, and then I got a typewriter, and finally ended up with an Amstrad dedicated word-processor that took about half an hour to warm up!  


I spent those six years sending the material I was writing out to British publishers, and received about five hundred  complimentary, very polite, Thanks, but no thanks letters.  I also have two lever arch files with something in the region of three or four hundred straightforward format rejection slips.  This is just from companies that didn’t even look at stuff.  I understand the sheer volume of work that a handful of people have to wade through in a publishing house.  People have given me figures on just how many unsolicited scripts come to the major publishing houses each week, and that figure is astounding.  


It wasn’t that British publishers didn’t like my work; they just felt that they couldn’t ‘sell’ an English writer writing US-set novels.  They advised me to send my work to the US, and I dutifully complied.  I then received many, many letters from the US publishers saying that they liked my work, but they didn’t feel they could sell an English writer writing US-set novels!


Despite this Catch-22 situation, my belief was that if I just kept on going I would eventually find the right person in the right company at the right time.  I had this datum from Disraeli who said, Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose.  Nevertheless, after six years of doing this I finally thought ‘Enough’s enough’, and I stopped writing.  I then studied music, photography, all manner of things, and didn’t go back to writing until the latter part of 2001.  


It was then that I wrote ‘Candlemoth’.  I sent that to thirty-six publishers, thirty-five of whom sent it back.  All except Bloomsbury, and an editor there gave it to a friend who gave it to a friend, and it wound up at Orion with my current editor, and we have now worked together through eight books.  Despite his initial enthusiasm for the book, it still took him four moths to convince his colleagues that they should publish the book!  Since Orion signed me there have been a couple of comments made by a couple of publishers I have met about how they should perhaps have pursued things with a little more tenacity back in the early days.


The earlier unpublished stuff will probably stay right where it is in the loft.  It was a different genre, more supernatural in a way, and I write better now anyway.  I think the time away from it between 1993 and 2001 made me more succinct, gave me a greater clarity about what I wanted to say.  I have gone back recently and read some of my earlier work and it was a little verbose.  But hell, it was good practice!


Now it’s a different game.  Now I know the things I write are going to be read, and that makes a lot of difference.  It has its own issues, its own obstacles, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.  As John Lennon said, Find something you love, and you’ll never work another day.
R. J. Ellory


Ellory's books, which are all available in the United Kingdom, include A Quiet Belief in Angels and The Anniversary Man, which are also available in the United States.  (His other books often be found in the Amazon.com marketplace in the US, as well.)  His latest release is The Saints of New York.

Ellory writes psychological suspense with a literary touch and human warmth, and a voice that echoes around your imagination until it lands in your heart to stay.


14 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Nevets--and Roger.

    It's a compelling demonstration of how exacting a literary apprenticeship can be. I'm a big fan, and I still think RJ is a writer who should have been picked up sooner; but given the excellence of the works as they stand, maybe it's all for the best...

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  2. It is always interesting to me to see what authors went through to get published. Somehow makes my writing career seem not so bad. LOL

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  3. Thanks so much for this excellent contribution to kick off the series, Roger. As one of my writing role models, I think the story of your path is even more impactful to me than it might be for other readers.

    @Tim - I know what you mean. I want to say, "Ellory should have been published much sooner," but at the same time, it did give his writing time to mature. Better not to regret, I suppose.

    @Elena - Glad you liked the piece!

    @Summer - It helps doesn't it? To see that it wasn't easy, even for someone whose books are now published in a multitude of languages, but that the challenges can be overcome? I love it!

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  4. I love the John Lennon quote. I can also relate to what Ellony said. I too stepped away from writing for a short period of time.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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  5. This was AMAZING to read, thank you! It just goes to show how everyone's path is different, and usually not easy or quick. I plant to read some of Ellroy's work in the near future.

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  6. @Nancy - I've had too stepping aways, and I think I've grown from each of them. My writing itself may not have specifically benefited, but I think my attitude towards the craft and practice of writing and my spirit as a writer matured greatly from the time.

    @Michelle - I tend to shy away from making specific recommendations, but I would be very surprised if you didn't like Ellory's stuff.

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  7. Wow, very inspiring. I am a firm believer that if we keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what obstacles slow us, we'll get there.

    Angela @ the Bookshelf Muse

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  8. I was happy to see that stuck with it, even after all of those rejections. It takes a strong individual to stay with something instead of just giving up. Congratulations!

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  9. It's sad that many of his words will remain in the attic because I'm sure there are people out there that would appreciate his novels. Thanks for telling us about him and his path.
    CD

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  10. @Angela - As my aikdio instructor used to say, "You want to get there, start walking." :)

    @Trish - It's pretty impressive, isn't it?

    @Clarissa - You're welcome, and stay tuned each week for more profiles of authorial courage. :) And you're right, too: there's something sad, almost eerie, about all those words just sitting in an attic.

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  11. It's inspiring and depressing at the same time. Honestly, what does the reader care where the writer is from? Why on earth would a publisher think that was important?

    It shows how ridiculous rejection could be.

    Frankly, I think Ellory ought to dig up those manuscripts, give up a new polish to make them current or bring them up to his present standards, and sell them all as ebooks.

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  12. Proves that perseverance pays, and that the publishing industry is indeed fickle. I have to find something by Ellory.

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  13. @Tara - I know that the reality of any human choice is that it will be in some measure arbitrary, so I don't find it depressing personally. For me, the fact that he was able to overcome those arbitrary rules-of-thumb is tremendously encouraging.

    It would be pretty cool have to see some old Ellory material, but as Tim Stretton has said, Roger is the hardest working write I know. That may be a retirement project.

    @Kathy - Exactly so, though I prefer to reverse the order. The publishing industry is fickle, but perseverance pays off. :)

    I hope you enjoy Ellory's work!

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