Publish or perish, Part 1
Ah, yes, the empty mailbox...the bane of every aspiring writer; as dreaded as the legendary writer's block.
For an unpublished author, even finding yet another rejection letter in your mailbox in response to yet another of your precious "babies"--your beloved manuscripts or proposals--being launched into the cruel world to test their wings would at least be proof that you indeed exist. The rejection letter (and there are varying degrees thereof, some better than others) signfies that you ARE a writer, that your words are being received and responded to by another entity, instead of existing in a limbo-like void! But sadder still is the mailbox filled only with bills and junk mail because the would-be writer has never sent a single query or manuscript to an editor for consideration in the first place.
When I was first trying to get my work published, I experienced a daily mailbox angst. Back then, e-mailing back and forth to editors was not an option, at least not for me. I had an old battleaxe of a p.c., but no connection to the internet, which had not yet reached the user-ubiquitousness it has achieved today. So it was the old snail mail agony--and snail mail from editors could often mean weeks, if not months, of waiting for a reply.
As a newbie, I struggled mostly on my own. Since I wrote propaganda for a living for a major NYC university, I knew how to write. I could craft the blab-vertising for the Man, all right--you'd be surprised at just how many different ways there are to say something is wonderful, marvelous, flawless, and the best in the land--but for many years never really dreamed of writing freelance, for newspapers, with a byline.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE
About 18 years ago, I had my first hypomanic attack, and it was a doozy. I started hatching multiple schemes--get married and have a huge reception, teach an editing class, go for a second master's (or a second and third simulaneously), convince my Luddite boss to explore computer applications for our office as of yesterday, and on and on. But of all the ideas that popped into my fevered noggin at the time, the one that bore the most delicious fruit was my decision to take a journalism course through the university I worked for.
Although I had received an MA in English through this same university (tuition free, since I was also an employee), this particular course did more to help me understand newspaper and magazine publishhing than any class I'd ever taken before.
The prof was a great, affable guy with a lot of publishing creds under his belt. He had a bulletin board called the Wailing Wall where he posted rejection letters--including his own. He started the first class with a quote from, I believe, Samuel Johnson, who supposedly said something to the effect of "Anyone who writes without getting paid to do so is a fool."
We were taught how to research a publication we were interested in by requesting a media kit (meant for potential advertisers) which would give us inside info about the pub's demographics, philosophy, and other nuggets of wisdom so that we could determine if our piece or idea would be a good "fit" for that particular pub. This was crucial, since one of most newbies' biggest mistakes is submitting a piece or idea to an inappropriate market, wasting their precious time as well as the editor's.
I learned that for nonfiction work submitted to newspapers and mags, the professional writer will often submit a query letter rather than the entire manuscript. This letter gives the editor a little tease--telling them what the author has in mind in brief and an idea of their style, as well as the author's qualifications for writing the story, their previous publishing experience, if any, and other info. From there--especially if one has compsed a killer query--one may get an invitation from the editor to submit the proposed piece for publication.
The prof granted an automatic A to anyone who could get an acceptance from a paying market. I submitted three queries. One of these was to the late, great Spy Magazine. I received a personal reply--not a form rejection letter--that said something kind about my submission, but regretted that they could not use it. I can't remember anything about the second. With my third query, I got a much more favorable response. The letter, sent to an editor at the Village Voice, was a proposal for a humorous piece about a "lingerie party" I had inadvertently attended at my now ex- boyfriend's sister's house on Long Island. This is very similar to a Tupperware party, except that the hostess hawks cheezy underthings with names like "Kiss Me," "Thrill Me," and "Take Me," rather than the microwaveable two-quart container or the jumbo multi-piece all-purpose food storage system.
Since my query gave an example of my style and humorous take on the proposed story, the Voice editor wrote back and said that although this topic had been done to death and she could not run with it, she really liked my style and would welcome further ideas from me.
This could have been my entree into writing for a major NYC alternative paper (which would, no doubt, pay me something for my efforts and give me that much-coveted byline every writer craves.) But shortly thereafter, I descended into a deep depression and my rejection/acceptance letter was filed away.
ANOTHER GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Years later, most probably in another hypomanic state, I decided to resume my writing in earnest. I managed to get a short piece run in the "Metropolitan Diary" section of the NY Times, as well as winning a New York Press Best of NY reader's essay contest and getting a piece run there too. I did not receive payment for either of these pieces, but I was thrilled nonetheless. I had my first published "clips"--and they were good. They would serve me well when I submitted other proposals or pieces to editors to demonstrate I knew how to do it up right.
Then followed a long struggle to get more pieces in print. I read all the books I could find, and kept sending out queries. For some, I received personal responses, but nothing seemed to click. Then I heard of a continuing ed course taught bySusan Shapiro,a terrific writing teacher who was also a prolific freelancer with many NYC pub credits to her name.
I took several courses with Susan, and they were indeed the beginning of a very successful freelance run. For one of her courses, she invited a new editor from a pub each week, who gave us the inside scoop on what they were looking for, and how to approach the pub with queries and manuscripts. Sue urged us to send a follow-up thank you note to editors we were interested in writing for, and also enclose any clips we had, a formal query, and maybe a new writing sample.
I did this for two editors from major NYC mags, and established a long fruitful freelance relationship with both. I had over 90 pieces publlshed in about 18 months for these two papers and another local rag that let me write on just about any idea I could come up with. I did music and book reviews and features, as well as a few humorous essays. I had arrived--a real published writer at last, paid for her efforts!
I finally abandoned the freelance gig in exhaustion, since I was also still doing my 9 to 5 writing gig as well, and it became too much. However, I recently started this blog so I could write about anything that came into my hypomanic little mind, without an editor or client looking over my shoulder and advising me on style, length, tone, subject matter, or intended audience.
THE FELLOWSHIP AND CAMRADERIE OF THE E-WRITERS GROUPS--NOT!
Months before starting this blog--way before it ever occurred to me to do so--I joined a number of on-line writer's groups. There are a bewildering array to choose from, but I chose one nationwide group with a lot of members, and two of the more popular NYC-based ones, to start.
I soon found myself going through deja-vu from the moment I opened my in-box each day. There were many newbies who were suffering the same struggles and frustrations I had when I started out. But the difference was, perhaps, that I learned a lot of things on my own, the hard way--through experiencing and dealing with rejection, and having the guts to send my work or ideas out into the cruel world after editing and re-editing it to "perfection." I had never been a joiner, so instead of enlisting the help of support groups, I took courses with published authors and voraciously read how-to-get-published books. I learned a lot that way. And now that I had the internet, I discovered and bookmarked myriad writer's sites, e-pubs, and other invaluable resources that would have helped me immensely back in the day.
But with several of the e-groups I joined, many newbie members didn't seem as resourceful. A few had no chance, since thier sample short work or poem was filled with egregious typos, just to start. Others were so green that they worried about attaching the copyright notice to their work (completely unnecessary) lest someone steal their totally original and brilliant ideas. Some had finished, or were working on their first novel, but had no publishing experience, since they had never tested the waters by sending out a short story or article query to a real live editor. One poor gentleman had about 10 or 15 book manuscripts under his belt, but had so far, after many, many years, still not succeeded in getting an agent to acquire even one. His theory was that in the present book publishing environment, only celebs could hope to get a book deal.
Others would write in, plaintively asking for help in locating an agent for their book. Though I was not in the market for a book deal myself, a brief websearch and link-crawl led me to this essential info: never pay an agent anything for reading your manuscript. No reputable agents will charge any up front fees. There are a lot of dubious agencies out there just looking to steal a starry-eyed newbies dollars, so an agent should at the very least be a member of the Association of Author's Representatives. This was aside from the fact that a good agent was probably swamped with acquired author's works and other desperate requests for representation, so it would be tough going for a newbie to get an audience with the good ones. However, there were ways to get a foot in the door by attending writer's conferences where agents and publishers might attend, and researching which agent or publishing house a favorite author in a similar genre to your own had signed with.
But my newbie group members apparently never utilized the wealth of info literally at their fingertips. Instead, it was a sad case of the blind leading the blind, as they asked mostly unqualified members to assist them.
In fact, one of the most valuable tips I received from one of my "how to get published" books was this: Never show a story to a friend. If you show a story to friends, family members, etc. each will say it's great, but maybe change the ending, the beginning, blah blah blah. This tends to lead to head-splitting migraines and perhaps even, in some cases, chucking the thing into the bottom of a drawer and going back to pursuits offering more immediate gratification, like doing the Times Crossword or writing letters to the editor.
To me, submitting work to other newbies seemed like this sort of risky endeavor. But I needn't have worried--there was little in the way of constuctive crit to be found here. I had the feeling that many simply pushed the delete button as soon as they saw a message entitled: "new poem" or "my story." And after all, people were trying to get their own stuff read--why waste time reading other's efforts?
So a few members would post their stories daily, or even several times daily, hoping for a little instant gratification. One poor man had gathered his numerous stories into a large number of e-books, and had them with a POD (print on demand) e-publishing house/website. Many of these services involve submitting your manuscript, which will be accepted without reservation by the company, as long as you pay the fee for them to set it up.
The writer's books were definitely G-rated, and he "warned" his potential readers of this. However, when you clicked on the main site, the first thing you encountered was a book the POD site was apparently pushing hard--namely, a new translation of Mein Kampf.
When you did get into the author's little page, the books were all listed there. However, neither the publisher nor the author had made the vaguest attempt to interest the potential buyer in the works. There was virtually no description of what was in store, other than a few short sentences about the whole series. No sample chapters to draw the reader in and give them a reason for buying. No marketing/distribution plan to get the word out there. As a result, the poor guy had sold not a one.
So instead, he started virtually daily postings of his funny little stories to our group. They were a little corny, but I and others wrote in response to some of the stories. People genuinely thought they were delightfull and funny. But this group was the only forum where he could find any recognition for his efforts. I guess that's something.
THE SAGA OF DONUT GUY
Another group member posted chapters from his novel in progress regularly. I sometimes replied with encouraging comments, since I liked his style. But I didn't see much in the way of feedback from others, and even this writer never wrote as much as a thank you for my positive feedback. He also was rather pompous and full of himself, and would post recommended "reading lists" (usually some World War II related books that looked way boring). He also sent missives about his journey of self-discovery: how his characters and the plot came together in unexpected ways, etc. But after awhile, these constant self-centered messages became grating, esp. since virtually no one responded to them but me, on occasion.
There was one memorable message from this man, entitled "Craftsmanship." In it, he started with the premise that when we take our car in to be repaired, we expect them to do a good job for the money we pay them. Similarly, when he wrote--even just informally, as when dashing off an e-mail--he always strove to make it the best gosh darn note he could muster.
Then the analogy took an alarming turn. This forty-something writer started to describe his job, which he said generated a lot of money--for his employer, since he had to do the work of four people. Turns out his day gig was working the donut assembly line at the local Wal Mart, where he took extraordinary pride in his work.
Unlike donuts from other stores, he always made the extra effort to make sure his were of uniform size and shape, and generally prepared with loving care. When visiting other donut places, he was disgusted with the lack of attention being paid to quality standards. He asserted that certainly, these donuts might taste good, but because of the slipshod way in which they were made, they would never pass his lips.
I felt sorry for this obviously literate man, with his dreams of instant fame and fortune from his novel-in-progress, who spent his days trying to maintain some little shred of self-esteem while working the Walmart donut line. I'm sure it was an honest living, but somehow I wouldn't be advertising it if I were him. In any case, it made me feel even more sorry for him, alone at his computer, madly posting his chapters and random thoughts not just to our group, but to a bunch of other groups simultaneously. Again, where was the effort to put a toe in the big scary waters of the real world--to send a short work (I knew he'd e-published a little poetry) to a real live editor and see how they responded?
ATTENTION ASPIRING NOVELISTS AND WRITERS: For an inside look/reality check on how a typical editor views some unsolicited submissions, check out I Do not have Time to Read this Crap at PCQuill. Then, for uplifting inspiration, go onward to Rejection Letters (A Must Read) at the same excellent site.
END OF PART 1
IN PART 2: A GRIPPING SAGA WHICH WILL BLOW THE LID OFF THE SECRET, PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE, CUT THROAT POWER PLAYS TAKING PLACE AS WE SPEAK IN EVERY "PRIM AND PROPER" WRITER'S E-GROUP!
PLUS, A SCATHING INDICTMENT OF MY ASSHOLE-ISH BEHAVIOR WHILST PERCHED ON MY HYPOMANIC HIGH HORSE!!