coffee rings on manuscriptCoffee Rings and Other Things

by Wendy St Germain


When I told a group of authors I know that I was asked to write an article about rejection, they were jubilant. "At last, someone can go on record telling the world what editors are really like!" they said. "We pour our heart and soul into our work and they rarely notice. They have no idea what it is to have a dream..."

It's been said that the acid test of whether or not one is a born writer is not only how well we write, but also how we cope with rejections. True, you need a hide thicker than a rhino's to withstand the flood of return envelopes the postie so dutifully delivers, but there's more to rejection than most writers realise.

The group of writers mentioned are convinced that editors can't possibly understand what it is to dream but I'm quite certain that at least some do. I will go so far as to say that they have dreams of their own and a hint of these dreams is often evident in their methods of rejection. Unfortunately we are just as blind to their talents as they appear to be of ours. Yet if you take the time, you will soon discover that rejections are full of deep and meaningful information about the people who sent them.

In my opinion, editors fall into several categories and I have had the privilege of dealing with every kind. Take the Artistic editor. Several months ago I received a rejection that was worthy of the Archibald Prize. Some people might think that the Archibald manuscript was jammed unceremoniously into its return envelope but I refuse to believe this. This editor demonstrated knowledge of a myriad of art forms, as any open-minded individual would recognise. The bent pages revealed a unique talent for origami. From the tiniest dog-ear to the fabulous swan with one moving wing (the bottom right hand corner of one page flapped, swanlike, in the breeze as I stared at it with astonishment).

And the coffee rings!

Not just one, as some rather uninspired editors have sent to me in the past, but a range of them in varying shades and sizes from the pale decaf (in wide sweeping loops) to the rich, dark expresso in dainty, almost button-sized, circles. Indeed, on closer inspection I discovered the rare, "invisible" rings that can only be detected by a keen eye. These are the rings that wrinkle the page without leaving colour. I believe they are made by water or perhaps, for the more sophisticated editor, white wine.

The coffee rings on this work surpassed any others I've ever seen. I'm sure the editor held the page up at angles, to get the dribbles to run down to best effect. They were reminiscent of the works of Salvadore Dali - in fact the great artist would doubtless have been impressed with their "melted" look. This was a truly gifted individual who clearly had an eye for detail! One wonders how many writers have failed to recognise such talent.

Personally I believe that, to accommodate the editors harbouring artistic aspirations, we should provide at least two sheets of art quality paper with each submission, thus allowing them to fully express themselves without the clutter of our text to spoil the effect.

Another equally respectable individual is the Scientific editor. These people tend to be less artistic but reveal a brilliant mind (though a few gifted individuals do manage to include art in their work, commonly in the form of coffee rings or a small example of origami). The genius of the Scientific editor is exposed by the rapid turn around times of our manuscripts. These editors use our work to demonstrate that while the speed of light is yet to be surpassed it can, at least, be approached. In fact, I have had manuscripts returned at such speeds that it's a wonder they don't arrive in flames. Perhaps this explains the odd manuscript that simply vanishes without a trace.

Overall, the Scientific editor appears to have an unfair share of intelligence. Not only do these brilliant minds work to prove that the speed of light can be approached, but they frequently provide evidence that x-ray vision is not restricted to superheroes since, evidently, they read the entire manuscript without actually turning a page. Of course it's possible that x-ray vision had nothing to do with it and the work was read using levitation. (A4 sheets can't be that heavy for the mind to lift!). Certainly the only contact these works had with an editor's hands was to be removed from, and returned to, an envelope. Page turning could not possibly have occurred using ordinary means. But then, these are special people.

An astute author can easily tell which of the two theories was being tested. X-ray vision would not require removal of the paper clip binding the pages whereas levitation would. Paper clips always leave a crease. Since I have yet to encounter an editor who places them back in exactly the same position as I did, I know that if they are unmoved, x-ray vision was used.

At the risk of sounding like I'm boasting, (some of us have all the luck) I was once fortunate enough to receive a manuscript with a small brown ring that, on closer inspection, proved to be a burn. A colleague suggested cigarette ash landed on it but this poor soul fails to see any talent underlying her rejected manuscripts. In my opinion, the hole was caused by a failed example of spontaneous combustion. It wasn't sent back quite fast enough. Either way, any one who can read someone else's manuscripts while also completing their own scientific research deserves respect.

This brings me to the third kind of editor and my personal favourite. The Secretive editor. The Secretive editor has existed for so long - or at least their rejection forms have - that they have become legendary. While no one has actually seen the Secretive editor we know they exist, drifting through our lives (and manuscripts) like Hamlet's ghost. The manuscripts are returned in a clearly "used" condition but too clean to reveal much about the editor except, perhaps, that they are neither artistic, scientific nor even necessarily from this planet.

The rejection letter gives absolutely no suggestion of their thoughts at the time of reading. However, after much consideration, I'm convinced that the tiny dots on these letters are not, as many authors believe, the remnants of grossly over-photocopied forms, but are in fact, a secret code - possibly a variation of the Morse Code. These illusive beings know that while we will probably never decipher the mysterious code, the very presence of the paper being attached to the manuscript can be interpreted as a rejection. This much we have learned.

Having discussed the beauties of the crumpled up, coffee-ringed rejection, I must now warn you to beware. In continually submitting your work, you run the risk of not only receiving these wonderful expressions of an editor's personality and artistic aspirations (which may make you question your own artistic talents) but, dare I say it, encountering a completely different editor...The Exception.

One of my editors, let's call her "The Gem" not only failed to convert my manuscript into coffee table art, she accepted it. I've never completely recovered from the shock. This can't be blamed on The Gem having an off day because she later did it again. After several more experiences of having my work treated with respect, I began to question her motives. Was she indeed...a Professional?

Even the rejected manuscripts were returned clean, un-creased and with a letter that was not only addressed to me and not "Dear Author", (even spelling my name correctly), but also contained comments on the content, proving that she not only read it, but personally signed by her as well. Further evidence that editors do have dreams. Dreams of helping the world to obtain good books to read. Dreams of showing authors that their work really is respected.

So be warned, if you insist on continually submitting your quality work to publishers, you run the risk of Acceptance. To see your neatly typed, "double-spaced with wide margins" document converted into a book (possibly with illustrations) can be quite a shock to the system.I have been told that working long hours, late into the night, often using dim lights may just be the secret to what makes a standard editor. My poor Gem, her efficiency prevents long hours and her halo will ensure that the lighting is always perfect. As a freelancer, with a home office, The Gem thinks she's just like every other editor. With no one else around to compare her performance against, she has no way of knowing that she'll never have what it takes to be like them. Seemingly cold and unfeeling. In fact, measured against the rest, she'd most certainly be rejected, too.

I certainly won't be the one to tell her. After all, even editors are entitled to a dream.

copyright Wendy Germain


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