JK ROWLING GETS REJECTED

Harry Potter writer shares publishers’ brush-offs for first Robert Galbraith novel in attempt to to inspire other authors

Harry Potter author JK Rowling
JK Rowling was the first female novelist to become a billionaire. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

The Harry Potter author JK Rowling has shared some withering rebuffs publishers sent to her alter ego Robert Galbraith, in an effort to comfort aspiring authors.

Rowling posted the rejection letters on Twitter after a request from a fan. They related to The Cuckoo’s Calling, her first novel as Galbraith. But Rowling also saw Harry Potter turned down several times before the boy wizard became one of the greatest phenomena in children’s literature, with sales of more than 400m copies worldwide.

Asked how she kept motivated, she tweeted: “I had nothing to lose and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try.”

When she pitched under the name Galbraith without revealing her true identity, she faced many more snubs. Since then, Galbraith has published three successful novels but the first was rejected by several publishers, and Rowling was even advised to take a writing course.

Rowling erased the signatures when she posted the letters online, saying her motive was “inspiration not revenge”. She did not reveal the full text of the most brutal brush-off, which came by email from one of the publishers who had also rejected Harry Potter.

Rowling said she could not share the Potter rejections because they “are now in a box in my attic” before offering the Galbraith letters. The kindest and most detailed rejection came from Constable & Robinson, who – despite the advice about a writing course – included helpful tips on how to pitch to a publisher (“as on book jackets – don’t give away the ending!”). The publisher added: “I regret that we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we could not publish it with commercial success.”

The short note from publishers Crème de la Crime said the firm had become part of another publishing group and was not accepting new submissions.

When The Cuckoo’s Calling eventually found a publisher in 2013, it was achieving respectable sales before the secret of its authorship broke, and it then shot to the top of the bestseller lists.

Joanne Harris, author of a string of hit novels, joined the Twitter discussion to say she had so many rejections for her 1999 book Chocolat, later adapted as a Hollywood movie, that she had piled them up and “made a sculpture”.

Rowling, Harris and their literary disciples are in excellent company. Eimear McBride, the 2014 Bailey’s prizewinner for her first novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, accumulated a drawer full of rejection letters before a chance conversation led to her book being published by Galley Beggar, a tiny independent publisher in Norwich.

James Joyce’s epic masterpiece Ulysses, regarded as one of the greatest Irish novels, was repeatedly rejected by baffled publishers before finally being published in a tiny edition in Paris in 1922 by his friend Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co bookshop: a copy of the first edition sold a few years ago for £275,000.

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TS Eliot, in his role as an editor at Faber and Faber, turned down George Orwell’s Animal Farm as “unconvincing”. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was rejected as “not funny on any intellectual level”, and John le Carré‘s first spy novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was passed from one publisher to another with the withering comment: “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.” Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick attracted the memorable response “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?” It did.

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CREATIVE WORK RELEASE

I almost never face Writer’s Block. I almost always have the opposite problem, too many ideas to pursue at once.

But for those who do have Writer’s Block problems then maybe this will help.

How to Work Through Difficulty: Lewis Carroll’s Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block

by

“When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”

In addition to having authored my all-time favorite book, Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll was a man of extraordinary and frequently prescient wisdom on matters of everyday life — his nine commandments of letter-writing offer timely insight into how we can make modern digital communication more civil, and his four rules for digesting information are a saving grace for our age of information overload. In The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download), this blend of timelessness and timelines so characteristic of Carroll’s thinking comes vibrantly ablaze, but nowhere more so than in an 1885 letter to one of his child-friends, a young lady named Edith Rix.

Carroll addresses the age-old question of how to overcome creative block. More than a century before psychologists identified the essential role of taking breaks in any intense creative endeavor, and long before our earliest formal theories about the stages of the creative process, Carroll offers spectacularly prescient counsel on how to work through creative difficulty and seemingly unsolvable problems — a testament to the fact that in the study of creativity, psychology often simply names and formalizes the intuitive insights artists have had for centuries, if not millennia.

Carroll offers young Edith three tips:

When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on. Put it aside till the next morning; and if then you can’t make it out, and have no one to explain it to you, put it aside entirely, and go back to that part of the subject which you do understand. When I was reading Mathematics for University honors, I would sometimes, after working a week or two at some new book, and mastering ten or twenty pages, get into a hopeless muddle, and find it just as bad the next morning. My rule was to begin the book again. And perhaps in another fortnight I had come to the old difficulty with impetus enough to get over it. Or perhaps not. I have several books that I have begun over and over again.

His second tip is particularly noteworthy for the way it compares and contrasts Carroll’s two domains of genius, writing and mathematics — for, lest we forget, behind the pen name Lewis Carroll always remained the brilliant mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson. He writes:

My second hint shall be — Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. I mean, don’t go any further in that book till the difficulty is conquered. In this point, Mathematics differs entirely from most other subjects. Suppose you are reading an Italian book, and come to a hopelessly obscure sentence — don’t waste too much time on it, skip it, and go on; you will do very well without it. But if you skip a mathematical difficulty, it is sure to crop up again: you will find some other proof depending on it, and you will only get deeper and deeper into the mud.

In a way, this dichotomy also illuminates the difference between reading and writing. Writing is almost mathematical, in the sense that it requires a clarity of logic in order for the writer to carry the plot forward. A reader may be able to read over a muddled sentence and still follow the plot — but only if that sentence was unmuddled for the writer in carrying the plot forward. In that sense, while Carroll’s advice to Edith considers her experience as a reader, his advice to a writer regarding creative block would be more closely aligned with the mathematician’s experience — if a writer were to skip over a difficulty in the construction of a story, which is essentially a logical difficulty, it too “is sure to crop up again.”

Illustration by Tove Jansson for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Click image for more.

Carroll’s third tip is at once remarkably simple and remarkably challenging to apply for anyone who has ever tussled with the mentally draining but spiritually sticky process of creative problem-solving:

My third hint is, only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest, or your penalty will be that you will never learn Mathematics at all!

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the beloved author’s thoughts on happiness, morality, religion, identity, and much more. Complement it with the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then fortify this particular bit with the psychology of the perfect writing routine and more ideas on overcoming creative block from Brian Eno, Carole King, and some of today’s most exciting creators.