Friday, September 24, 2010

My magic thesaurus

Last week I received a standard letter from Penguin New Zealand rejecting my manuscript. This despite the fact that I've worn a Penguin Classics tote bag during the entire three-month wait. Clearly Penguin didn’t appreciate my loyalty, not to mention the free advertising.

I sensed it was a ‘no’ even before opening the envelope, the only subtle clue being that the letter was accompanied by my manuscript in a self-addressed stamped envelope. I was unsure whether to feel disappointed or relieved after a quick inspection of the spiral-bound photocopied book revealed no one had actually read it. There was no dog-earing to signal a reader’s pauses. The pages were immaculate, without a single coffee stain. And let’s be reasonable here: who in the world can read 464 pages without a hot beverage?

I will, however, give them credit for at least having an original rejection letter. Instead of the usual “We wish you the best of luck with another publisher,” they wrote: “We wish you the best of luck elsewhere.”

But I already knew Penguin would reject my manuscript. I knew this not because I’m a nobody and Penguin is the largest trade book company in the world. Not because they publish bestsellers like Homer’s Odyssey and The Bible. No, I knew they would reject my book because my magic thesaurus had told me so.

Let me explain. I’ve owned the same thesaurus since seventh grade. My yellowed copy of the Roget’s New American College Thesaurus has survived near-fatal water damage and a form of degenerative disembowelment, resulting in unalphabetically arranged chunks of pages which go from “aristocracy” to “bushy” to then jump directly to “justice” to “paw”. Despite its condition, not only is it by far the best dictionary of synonyms and antonyms I’ve ever consulted, it is also capable of foretelling the future.

Its magical powers of divination revealed themselves to me one day years ago when I haphazardly grabbed it for the Random Word technique. You know, to brainstorm creative solutions to a sticky problem, you open a page in a book and blindly place your finger on a word. (I learned the hard way that this technique is not recommended for deciding what to cook for dinner.) But what I got that day was no random word but a peek into the very future. “There are no accidents,” as the wise turtle states in Kung Fu Panda.

I’ll give you an example of my Magic Thesaurus’s eerie clairvoyance. I once had a hopeless crush on a guy. I interpreted his morning silence at the photocopier as a sign that he probably didn’t reciprocate my feelings. I interpreted his engagement to a German woman in the same vein. Nonetheless, one night I had a powerfully romantic dream that this guy and I were deeply in love; as he held me by the hand, we walked past a festive room full of people. Crimson does not do justice to the color of my face when I bumped into him at the laminator the next day. But despite all my efforts to push him from my mind, the same dream repeated itself a few months later.

I needed some help. I seized my trusted thesaurus and shut my eyes, focussing hard on my dilemma. Then I snapped it open and stabbed my finger into the lower-right corner of a page.

The word under my finger was “fate”.

My heart began hammering. Could it be that, despite the odds, we were meant to be? However, within seconds it dawned on me that “fate” could signify that we were either meant to be or not meant to be.

“A lot of help you are today,” I scolded my Magic Thesaurus and repeated the process.

“Destiny,” said my Magic Thesaurus.

If my thesaurus really had a voice, it probably would have uttered this last word in thundering notes and there would have been some lightning cracking in the background. Because that guy and I are now married with a two-year-old.

So you’ll understand why I took my thesaurus so seriously when I consulted it before sending my manuscript to Random House New Zealand.

“Dismiss,” it said.

Oh, that was painfully clear. And accurate. Two months later Random House dismissed it with the fervent assurance that a professional reader had indeed read and assessed it. Obviously not a coffee drinker.

And so it was with increasing trepidation that I consulted my Magic Thesaurus before mailing my book to Penguin. I closed my eyes and did yogic breathing as I focussed on my question. Would Penguin New Zealand give me a break? Slowly, I peeled open the book and slid down the page before my finger came to its natural resting place.

“Orange,” said my Magic Thesaurus.

“Orange?” Well, it did make sense. After all, Penguin’s logo is that loveable black and white bird against an orange backdrop. But what about the fate of my book? Instead of irreverently asking my thesaurus the same question again, I deliberated for a few moments. Then I understood. My Magic Thesaurus had chosen “orange”, Penguin’s signature color, as if to say, “Penguin is what it is. You can’t change their tastes.”

And let’s face it, I haven’t exactly written The Bible. Even if it’s just about the same length.


  1. Hmm, it seems you do with your thesaurus what i do with my set of tarot cards, only mine are meant to predict the future. How disappointing. Maybe what your book needs then is a couple of chapters of genealogy in the middle? Worked wonders for the Bible.

  2. Ah, yes, I had a set of Tarot cards too and the thesaurus is far more precise in its predictions. I do wonder if it would tell the future for other people; I've never tried lending it out but you are welcome to try it! As for my book, can you imagine if I ADDED more chapters? It would explode.
    :) h.

  3. Amazing! I particularly appreciated this: "And let’s be reasonable here: who in the world can read 464 pages without a hot beverage?", I perfecly agree with you :D
    Please go ahead, fingercrossed for you. (sorry for my english) Noemi (tazzina-di-caffè)

  4. Dear Noemi, I'm glad we see eye to eye on the hot beverage issue, fellow coffee lover! Even a short blog entry is better enjoyed with a hot drink, and I usually read yours with a cup of white tea and honey.
    Thanks for the encouragement regarding getting published. I need it daily like I need my caffeine.
    :) heddi.

  5. Dearest Sorella, I got goosebumps when reading this as I realised you were writing about my brother!!!!

    The rejections are off-putting but you WILL get published eventually. Didn't Harry Potter get rejected like 100 times?


  6. Thanks, Sharon. You always say the right thing!
    :) h.

  7. No, no, not the Tarot! You're using it like the I Ching. There must be a name for this magic-Bibliomancy? Thesauric Shamanism? English Language Oracle???

  8. Yes, Barbara, you're right - it's the I Ching system! I must confess, though, to having used the Tarot in the same way, with mixed results, naturally! I absolutely adore the term Thesauric Shamanism. Can I please use it? I'll credit you.
    :) h.