Modest proposals that bit the dust



I tell people who want to write books that the road to publication is paved with letters of rejection. And I have a file drawer full of them to prove it.

In the book world, no publishing house will even consider reading a fiction manuscript until the final sentence of the final chapter is typed. Unless, that is, you’re some bestselling scribbler like Stephen King or John Grisham. But, when it comes to nonfiction, houses often take projects on speculation, provided a well-written proposal comes their way.

I’ve become something of an old hand at writing such proposals, and, unfortunately, at having them knocked down like so many tin ducks in a carnival sideshow arcade. All that remain of those many ideas are in that mass grave of a file drawer.

Let’s take a look. Here’s a 50-plus page prospectus for a book that would have been about my friend Dean Smith, who was an Olympic gold medalist and a stunt man and actor in a slew of movies, including a dozen or so starring John Wayne. The packet includes an overview of Dean’s life and work, an annotated table of contents and five sample chapters. My excellent literary agent up in Connecticut sent it to more than a few New York houses, all of whom found much to like but each of whom declined, saying it was set too far back in the past to grab readers’ attention. John Wayne, several of them were kind enough to remind me, has been dead for decades.

This next proposal grew naturally out of that one, and lies dead as a doornail on top of it. That book would have been titled “Pilgrim: A Journey Toward John Wayne.” What I was hawking in these 30 or so pages was a personal memoir built around 15 of Wayne’s films, each corresponding to something going on in my life at the time they were released. I also intended to visit the locations where the films were shot and interview surviving cast members and extras. I pushed it as an enticing yarn for readers of memoirs, film retrospectives and travel books.

My agent dutifully sent them out, like homing pigeons, and they promptly flew back with curt notices that no reader could be expected to care about how my life stacked up against a bunch of movies. And oh, yeah — they all reminded me — John Wayne has been dead for decades.

One I had especially high hopes for was the last casualty to plop down into the drawer. It was for a book about the 1937 New London, Texas, school disaster, where natural gas collected under the building and exploded several minutes before the last bell of the last period on the best attended day of that school year. More than 300 people died, almost all of them children, and that little town lost most of an entire generation in one afternoon. The book would have focused on the disaster itself, the resulting investigations, the survivors and their subsequent lives, and the way the townspeople closed ranks for whole decades and never spoke of the tragedy, even among themselves.

I thought that New London project would have made one fine book. But the publishers who my agent — who must have by then felt like Don Quixote swinging away at windmills — sent the fat proposal to the usual New York houses, each of which saw the story as too entrenched in the distant past, with more recent disasters eclipsing it. Never mind that it was still, more than 70 years later, the worst school disaster in American history, or that it resulted in natural gas being given the distinctive odor it now has. Never mind that it was the first big story covered by a young reporter named Walter Cronkite. Never mind, either, that the very last of the eyewitnesses are elderly, and the opportunity to have their story told is slipping quickly away. Those editors all responded in one short, unanimous chorus: “Never mind.”

Then Texas A&M University Press saw sufficient merit that the New York boys didn’t and published that one. It won a nice award. Which should give writers hoping to be published some proof that persistence pays off and that hope springs eternal. And, if it isn’t always quite the thing with feathers that perches in the soul that Emily Dickinson described, it is at least what keeps writers writing.

Maybe I should collect all those jilted packets into a volume titled “Great Books that Might Have Been.” Or maybe “John Wayne is Still Alive Outside New York.”

I think I’ll get busy on a proposal for it.


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