UnPublished: The Art of Not Being Read

gemma cole gc images

Sometimes the ideas you like the best, those which are most uniquely and personally “you,” just don’t seem to appeal to the zeitgeist. Many of us are, after, all situated at what you might call a “slight” angle to the universe, grazing it with our presence instead of slamming into it full-frontal. For a writer, this means that occasionally our off-beat stance might gain the interest of an editor or agent, but much more often it means we miss altogether, and our “soul piece,” that little nugget of expressive perfection, goes sailing into the literary purgatory that is the slush pile, and then the garbage.

I, like most writers and would-be writers, have a large dossier of unpublished work. In fact it far exceeds my published work. It is sad for a writer to know that these pieces sit gathering dust, unread, unloved, unpublished. And it is therefore my intention in this piece to dust off some of them and introduce them to the general public, where, even if not published in their full glory, they will at the very least receive some recognition, like the names of dead soldiers being read at a war memorial.

One of the most conspicuous of my unpublished works came from my seven years learning Arabic and studying Islam and the Middle East. “Write what you know,” is the mantra that dogs us, and I often wonder how this applies to books like Fifty Shades of Gray, or, for that matter, Harry Potter. But slavishly obeying the mantra, I decided that there was a need for a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, written from the available primary sources, for the young adult market.

It was a serviceable idea. This was the mid-nineties. Bin Laden was a few years away, flying under President Clinton’s radar. The big deal in the Middle East was still Israel-Palestine, not Al-Qaeda. But educators were positive about the need to “understand” Islam in its full complexity, in order to counteract the negative stereotyping about Muslims and terrorists. A few years later that stereotyping was to become even harder to counteract.

So I read Ibn Hisham’s Life of the Prophet Muhammad, and found that it was a helluva story. In brief, the tale concerns an orphan boy in the dusty desert city of Mecca on the Saudi Arabian peninsular, in the sixth century. It is a tribal society centered around a giant black stone, probably of meteoric origin, which serves as a ritual center for “pagan” or animist peoples far and wide. Monotheism is not unknown — there are Jews and Nestorian Christians living nearby and passing through from time to time — and in fact Al-Lah (The God) is one of the many deities worshipped in the region.

But the guts of this story lie in the struggle of Muhammad to bring a new consciousness to his people. Young Muhammad works for a wealthy woman, escorting trade caravans north to Syria, and earns a solid reputation as a responsible man. He marries his boss (Khadija), and becomes well-respected in the community. He develops the habit of retiring to a mountain cave to meditate and enjoy his solitude, and it is here that the angel Gabriel comes to him and enjoins him to “recite” the Qur’an, the words of god. This initiates a life-long series of recitations which, hundreds of years later, after Muslims have conducted most of their conquests, are systematized and written down in one authoritative book.

Writing the story with young readers in mind I found that it was resolutely contemporary; it was chock-full of themes that all young people could relate to — social and economic isolation, friendship, doubt, security, fear — yet it also contained a healthy dose of unfamiliar themes, just to juice it up, such as angels passing along the word of God, and people walking hundreds of miles over deserts, with camels laden with spices.

I finished the book and began the work of shopping it around. I did not have to go too far before I caught the attention of an editor at an imprint of the publisher Houghton Mifflin. I sent her the manuscript and followed up a few weeks later. To my amazement, after asking me a few brief questions about how to handle the pronunciation of Arabic names, she said she would “send me a contract by the end of the week.”

The end of that week came and went with no contract. Several more weeks went by, as I labored at my desk job in a dusty cubicle, and when I finally decided that enough time had elapsed so that I would not appear needy or pushy, I called the editor.

“Dorothy is out this week,” an assistant told me.

I waited another week and then called back.

“Dorothy… er… died,” I was told.

“Oh my god!” I said. “I’m…sorry…that’s awful!” Which it really was. Both for Dorothy and for me. Not wanting to seem disrespectful, I continued: “But is there anyone else who can take over my book?”

“No, I’m afraid she was the only editor here, we can’t do anything without her.”

I hung up. Years of working on the book and hammering away at editors, then suddenly a wonderful promise, and ultimately this?

I shopped Muhammad around a little more after that. Notwithstanding the continuing need for the West to “Understand” more about Islam, I did not have any takers. Perhaps the Salman Rushdie affair was still too fresh in people’s memories to let them easily contemplate Islam. So I moved on, relegating the amazing tale of Muhammad to the bottom drawer.

Next on the agenda: a superb novel. I have always believed that most writers want ultimately to be able to create fiction. It seems to me that this is where the real skill lies. For my part the attraction is that fiction, like all art, has the power to transport people. How many times have I finished a novel and been left reeling, with a sense of having been on a journey, and how many times have I desperately wanted to be able to do that for people?

So I started out with a short story I had written, based on a real life experience. This may have been my first mistake, expanding what was very possibly a decent short story, and fleshing it out so what had been lean and tense ultimately became obese and spongy. Not that my mother was particularly literary, but she may have been on to something when she said, in a particularly memorable maternal put-down after reading it, “do you read many novels?”

Again, following the write-what-you-know mantra, the plot followed the travails of a small group of people living on a little island off the coast of southern England — very much like the one on which I grew up. An “island within and island” I liked to call it. The action takes place during a hurricane, one of the very few recorded in recent history in that part of the world. As the storm mounts, three couples find themselves alone on the 400-acre island, connected to the mainland only by a tidal causeway. Over the course of a long and rather alcoholic evening, the tensions between the six people unravel, especially those between two men, one a writer, the other a fisherman. Childhood slights and class inequalities mix with sexual jealousy to ignite an emotional time-bomb which is triggered during the storm, and intensified on the island, like an explosion in a barrel. And talking about explosions, since this was set in England in the eighties, I had one of the characters be a Falklands war veteran, allowing me to delve, briefly, into a forgotten and bizarre conflict that loomed large for a short while in my youth.

It was certainly no War and Peace, but it did, I think, have some promise: deep themes, more-or-less three-dimensional characters, a plot and a setting, even some sex and violence. Notwithstanding my mother’s opinion, I sent it to a few agents, but with no response. Then I attended a “pitch” workshop in New York for three days. Apart from having a good time in the city and learning something about the publishing industry, ultimately this did not help. The attendees spent their time fine-tuning the pitch to their masterpieces with the aid of a somewhat-published author. The idea was to have that “elevator” speech ready on paper, to convey to an editor the essence of your book in three or four sentences.

At the end of the workshop we all filed into a room with a real, live editor in it. In my case she was about twenty-three, and represented a large New York house. I sat down and gave my pitch. We had been encouraged to compare our books to other, better known ones, like they do in the movies (“part Pretty Woman, part Elephant Man,” etc.). I compared myself to a British author who had recently been successful, Alex Garland. His “Tesseract” was a tightly-written work exploring a very restricted time-frame packed with action and intrigue. I talked briefly about the island off the British coast on which I grew up, and I fancied that, for a second, I saw the editor’s steely eyes mist over, as perhaps she delighted in the fact that I had written “what I know.” When my time was up, to my amazement instead of dismissing me outright, as she had most of my colleagues, or inviting me to send her a few pages, she asked for the entire manuscript.

Outside the room, my colleagues were impressed. This was it! She was actually going to read the book, and if that happened I would be the next discovered British novelist, part of the Cool Britannia Brat Pack. I emailed her the manuscript as soon as I could. Then began the writer’s wait. And it continued until, as always, I felt enough time had passed (in this case six months), whereupon I emailed her to see if perhaps she had forgotten to tell me she was publishing the book. Her response was almost as cutting as my mother’s: “A nice try, but it’s a little overwritten. You could try a re-write, but honestly most of it would have to go.”

Thus, the novel was trimmed back to a short story…and binned.

To date, young adult history had failed. Literary fiction had failed. I was ready, by this time to enter the daunting territory of Self-Help. To be precise Comedy/Self Help. In retrospect I probably should have stuck with one or the other. My blending of the two genres reflected my derisive attitude towards Self-Help, and was ultimately a kind of satire. This was probably the undoing of the project. The book itself was called Ten Ways to Appear Intelligent (when you’re not), and, yet again, followed the mantra of writing what you know. Although of fairly average intelligence, I am relatively well-educated, (meaning that I am probably what Mark Twain considered the worst type, the educated fool) and this means I have always been around quite bright people. Consequently I have had to develop strategies for appearing as bright as them (exhausting!). It occurred to me that most people are in the same boat — could it be that what we consider “intelligence” is often merely a kind of pose? Is everyone simply attempting to appear intelligent, some more effectively than others?

If so, this book was for you! I conceived it as a kind of pocket primer. It was to have one chapter for each “Way,” so it was really a small book of essays. Chapter titles included: “Don’t Talk!” which described how silence is often an effective strategy, as people often mistake it for depth. An added bonus of silence is that it reduces your chances of saying something idiotic. It also has a long history within most spiritual traditions for the simple reason that it allows you to go deep. Mark Twain nailed it again when he said, “drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.”

Another chapter suggested the benefits of a wide, if shallow, knowledge of Greek mythology, so that you could at least appreciate that the Odyssey is not just a kind of minivan, but a major ancient Greek literary work which is foundational in western culture (of no interest, perhaps, to those from the East, I agree). Everyone associates a knowledge of the classics with a good education, and most people — except Twain — associate education with brains, so being able to make occasional references to “Sisyphean tasks,” or “Oedipal complexes,” makes people feel that you are at least culturally literate, especially in an age when many people actually don’t know the background to some of these phrases we throw around.

I wrote several chapters of this book. My wife was never a fan. Neither was my brother, who seemed to believe I was made for better things. I peppered the text with what I considered witty asides, but others felt were just annoying. However, I sent it out to several publishers, and got a response from a small house in New England, with a nice, handwritten note from the editor that said, “Very VERY funny. I laughed my ass off! Not sure, however, exactly how to market this. But keep writing!”

This marketing excuse is one that writers hear a lot. Is your book this, or that? Where does it fit in the line-up of genres? Mystery or comedy? Self-help or Satire? If your book has an identity crisis you are doomed. As with success in general, you have to know who you are, and in the publishing world, your book has to know who it is.

I scribbled away on Ten Ways for a while, thinking that if I had a few good chapters I could sell it. But ultimately I lost steam, as other things like work and children crowded my life and demanded a more serious attitude, the book’s identity crisis becoming an Achilles heel (to use a reference straight from the book), writing and marketing it, therefore seemed like a Herculean task.

Books, I realized, were a very efficient way to waste time. Searching for lesser efficiency in this area I turned to articles. The first one I pushed all the way to completion emerged from a few months I spent evaluating an online education program fostering links between the United States and the Islamic world. An organization in New York, founded to generate connections between school kids during the Cold War, had been awarded State Department funds to expand the model to Muslim countries, in the wake of 9/11.

I spent several months reading the interactions between school kids in places like Karachi, Damascus, Cairo, talking to their peers in places such as Witchita, Durham, NH, or Jackson, AL. Teachers and children around the world submitted work, written or graphic, and discussed ideas in forums. From time to time a Muslim kid would come over for a year or a summer and reside with an American family. There were profound problems with the idea and the execution. The overall goal was reasonable: Often, when we meet people they cease to appear “other.” Differences are often ironed out in face-to-face communication, when one can see the other’s humanity. However, what I learned was that sometimes one’s stereotypes are confirmed. Meeting each other face-to-face, in other words, can be hazardous, as profound differences rub up against each other. “One could argue,” I wrote, “that it is this knowledge of the other which drives us to hate it. For with no inkling of the fact that the people in those mountains over there have webbed feet and drink human blood, what would be to hate?” Of course, there are no blood-drinking, webbed feet people, except possibly in the Adirondacks, but sometimes atheism, social liberalism, or gender equality might seem like that to people living in Theocracies, or in tribal lifeways.

This experience reminded me of the founding father of Islamic fundamentalism, the Egyptian cleric Sayyid Qutb, who came to America on an exchange in the 1950’s. Having stayed with families and attended church services in Wisconsin, he came away scandalized at the relationship between men and women, and the use of alcohol in this country. When he went home he dedicated himself to writing diatribes against western cultural mores, and ensuring that his country followed a strictly “Islamic” path. So much for exchange.

While worthy on many levels, I could not find a place for this piece. I thought I had an editor interested, but in one of those mysterious exchanges, he melted away, having been on the point of publication. Sometimes the freelance writer is at the mercy of editorial whim or editorial direction, which is precise and focused for every magazine. Writing on spec, therefore, is a very risky business, as the chances of you writing exactly what someone is looking for are slim.

Inspired by the various issues brought up by 9/11, I dreamed up “Travels in the Lands of Peace.” I conceived of this while reading a memoir about war-torn Afghanistan. So easy, I thought, to write about such carnage. Why is it so fascinating? Is it because everyone living in the peaceful, secure, book-consuming west wants to hear about life on the other side? Possibly. But what about writing about what makes for peace? And are there places that suffer from long and intractable outbreaks of peace? This would be possible to research without threatening my family with my untimely death. My thoughts turned to Scandinavia, England, the Arctic. Most of these places, though, were only peaceful because they either had small populations, or they exported their violence, through imperialism, or through exploitative capitalist activities — contributing to the de-stabilizing of smaller poorer countries and, for example, feeding the demand for drugs (Mexico, Afghanistan).

Ultimately I concluded that there were no intrinsically peaceful places; almost all were either violent in the past (Scandinavia, Switzerland) or actively displaced violence, like the United States has done frequently after its own civil war, to less fortunate places over which they claim some interest. In an era of ever-greater connectivity, all places are ultimately bound to violence of some sort or make violence elsewhere. And this is only “military” violence. Other kinds of violence, while not admissible as “war” exist in most societies, such as murder, or domestic violence, even in nomadic hunter-gatherer communities which are often touted as peaceful.

What is the take away from all this non-publishing activity? First of all I should say that I think publishing is really a numbers game. Assuming of course that what you write meets a certain quality, then the perspective, subject matter, style and timing all need to be aligned with editors, whether book or magazine, in order for the deal to be struck. If you write only what you are truly interested in, you enter into a strange dilemma: the quality of writing is likely to be higher as you are vesting yourself more thoroughly in the work.

And yet your writing may be so idiosyncratic that it does not appeal to the specific editorial requirements of individual publishers. Then your soul piece may be headed for the bin. If this is the case either dust it off, fine-tune it and send it again, and again and again, or just keep it on your hard drive, read it from time to time, enjoy it yourself, relish the status of “unpublished,” and join the hordes of authors who have been there, while making time to honor those “unwanted” pieces, as publishing just may not be the ultimate signifier of quality.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart! www.adrianvcole.com