When I was in eighth grade I wrote two short stories for our English teacher, Mr. Mortem, a malevolent-looking man with a low brow and small beady eyes. We joked that he moonlighted as an axe murderer. But he was even scarier as an English teacher. He snapped girls’ bras in the hallway and terrorized us with menacing-sounding exams called “evaluations,” which turned out to be ordinary multiple-choice tests.
When we turned in our stories, Mr. Mortem said he didn’t believe I’d written mine. How would he know? All he’d ever seen of my writing were checkmarks on his “evaluations.” He also didn’t know how disenchanted I was in school, or how passionate I was about writing.
“I’m going to keep this story so you won’t try to use it again in high school,” he said.
My stories, according to Mr. Mortem, were too good for me to have written.Inside, I was seething.Just wait. Someday I’ll be a real writer. Then you’ll be sorry!
I did become a “real” writer of twenty-five children’s books, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties, and a memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story. I have published many books in rhyme, and one day I had an inspiration for two companion rhyming picture books. It was one of those rare moments when, instead of imagining the brilliant, funny books you wish you could write – the ones just out of reach – I was looking at two books I did, by some miracle, get down on paper.
On a wave of euphoria, I shot the books off to an editor at a major publishing house. The editor liked the stories and asked if she could hang on to them while she decided if she could make me an offer.
Time passed, and I didn’t hear from her. Every so often I’d write or email to ask if she was still interested in the books. She assured me that she was. Eventually, I gave up on her publishing it, but in moments of despair, those times when the idea that you can write seems like a psychopathic delusion, the very fact that I had written these two books sustained me.
Months went by, then years. I sent the books to other publishers. One editor from Random House wrote: “Your idea is an original one…but the sad truth is that it is very difficult for us to successfully publish [these kinds of books] unless the author is extremely well known.”
At least she was honest about it.
Much later, I was browsing in our local bookstore when I noticed two colorful picture books with identical titles to those of my two stories. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. There were my titles on another author’s books, shiny hardcover books displayed prominently in the front of the bookstore. I knew you couldn’t copyright titles, but still, two of them?
Slowly, I picked up the books and opened them, first one, then the other. Now I really felt sick. Both books were published by the first publisher I had sent my two manuscripts to, manuscripts which had continued to sit in the editor’s office for the past five years. Although the text of these stories was different, the concept was the same. There was also another, and more significant difference. The writer of these two books was better known than I was.
Later, I read on the (unwitting) author’s website that the editor had approached her with the idea for these two books. It was my Mr. Mortem all over again. The editor had decided my books were too good for a writer who wasn’t famous – too good for me.
Just last week I got a ms. back from from another editor at that same publishing house.
“Please feel free to share your ideas with us in the future,” she wrote.
Follow Pamela Jane @austencats
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