it’s a trip . . .

tips, quotes, insights, and lessons about writing and publishing learned the hard way

Archive for Publishing

on winners and non-winners, also known as losers

from losers to winners in an inning

from losers to winners in half an inning

I don’t have a lot to say in this post other than sharing an important personal observation I made and felt sink into my bones after the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series Wednesday. A local cable interviewer was talking to one of the players.  (In case you don’t know, Philadelphia fans have died a thousand deaths over the last twenty-five years because our teams either never get to the championship rounds or have choked miserably the few times they did. Philadelphia is forever fighting the perception that it’s a city of losers).

Anyway, one player essentially said (I can’t remember which one), “Winning the World Series has given us so much cred. You’re just not a winner until you win.”

I know the same holds true for writers. Sure we can all tell each other we’re winners in God’s eyes, which is great when one is facing her eternal reward, but not so great, say, when one is going face-to-face with bullies and people who dismiss you because you haven’t made it.

It only takes one published book to change all that–to go from wannabe to winner, to earn that cred most writers richly desire and many deserve.

As someone new to writing and publishing (I’m a toddler in dog years), I know I don’t have the cachet of a published author. This week I presented my workshop for the Literary Festival on writing flash fiction at the university. All the important people at the university couldn’t attend–my boss didn’t show, the president took me off his calendar, and a close friend and supporter never showed up either (although some other “lesser” colleagues did, for which I am eternally grateful, which I say sarcastically, because I’m very happy and humbled that they came).

I got an email from a high school friend who had seen my workshop in the paper and said, “Oh, I really wanted to come but I don’t have my lesson planning done for the afternoon.”

Oh, well . . .

If I were a published author, I doubt she would have brushed off my workshop. What she and others don’t know is that I feel I’m on the cusp of being published, that sooner rather than later, some literary agent will snap me up, and one of my books will get published.  I know it in my heart and my bones. Maybe not this year, but soon. Heck, I’ve only been at this creative writing stuff for three and a half years.

But until that time, I just have to accept that others have a dimm ed perception of my value as a writer, that I’m not a winner in their eyes until I’ve won.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Justice is wonderfully motivating.

It’s a reality of the times we live in, and perhaps each era before us. If the Philadelphia Phillies can endure all the injustices they have–I mean just last year, everyone was calling them “the losing-est franchise in the major leagues” after the Phillies franchise accumulated its 10,000th loss in franchise history–I guess I can suffer a few slings and arrows for a little longer, too.

You’re just not a winner until you’ve won.

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Literary Festival pearls

pearls of wisdom

pearl of wisdom -- no E-Z pass to publication

This month, the university where I work is hosting a literary festival. Two of the presenters this week, both published authors, impressed me, and I came away from their presentations with a few pearls to share with “It’s a Trip” readers.

Author and Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo spoke to a crowd of 100+ Tuesday night. He is a man of good writing habits, setting aside time to write every day. Okay, he’s a full time writer. But anyone can carve out some time to write every day or every other day. And if you can’t or if I can’t–I think I am talking to myself here–I don’t know how I can expect to have success as a fiction writer.

Russo also read a story, which illustrated that some people look at things and find them funny and some don’t, and that he gravitates to the humorous in any situation. But that doesn’t make his take on life any less valuable than a serious person’s vantage point. I certainly am drawn to humorous, so I felt validated by his assertion that good writers can be funny, too, that they are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes I try too hard to be funny–I’ll concede that–but I do feel as though my writing has been  unfairly discounted because it’s funny. The judge in my long-running fiction contest over the last several months discounted my pieces as less worthy because they were funny.

Russo’s sharing his own vantage point he comes by naturally was validation for me to keep on being me.

The other writer/presenter who impressed me was Rachel Pastan. Rachel also is a creature of good writing habits despite having two school-age children who provide many distractions. Rachel’s publishing career is also a testament to perseverance. She wrote two novels which were never published, but she kept at it and finally published THIS SIDE OF MARRIED in 2003. Then she had to work hard to get a publisher to pick up her next novel, LADY OF THE SNAKES, in 2008. Rachel even suggested that it’s harder for a novelist to publish the second time around, that authors lose that luster of newness. I always thought it was hardest to get published the first time around. Hmmm.

She has impeccable credentials, including an MFA from U of Iowa’s Writing Workshop, the finest creative writing program in the country. But she still had to work for her success and is committed to working hard for her career.

Yes, as if we didn’t know as much, there’s no E-Z Pass to publishing success. I just like to remind myself of that from time to time.

rules are good until they rule you

Earlier this evening, I read an online article from an online digest for writers that included submission tips for querying an agent, most of which I had heard many times, including this one:

3. Make sure your work is edited, revised and polished. Rewriting is a crucial step to bettering your work, so be sure to have trusted peers give you an honest critique, or consider seeking a professional freelance editor to evaluate it. And never query an agent for a novel until the work is complete.

A good rule to follow, on average.

However, sometimes hard and fast rules can be too hard and fast. Often newer writers, myself included, cling to rules so steadfastly that it’s just plain silly or shortsighted to do so, and we end up cutting off our noses to spite our faces in the process.

Here’s an example.

I had some back and forth conversations with an agent who expressed an interest in my writing though he passed on the work I was pitching. He encouraged me to try writing something he could sell, for starters, citing a few writers for me to read, perhaps to emulate.

So even though he didn’t pick up my romantic comedy, I was hardly discouraged. I was encouraged. And I got an idea for a book in the genre he said he could sell and pitched it to him with only three chapters complete, fueled by a  tremendous fire in my belly for the theme of my book.

He wrote back to me thusly:

“I’d be happy to see it when you have a substantial portion completed. Say 100 pages?”

When I mentioned that I had a 100-page partial ready to send an agent on another writing site, everyone flipped out like I had just confessed to freebasing cocaine.

“NO!!!! Don”t do that! Never send a partial if your ms isn’t finished. Learn to listen to people smarter and more experienced than you (you pewling spawn). Agents never request partials of unfinished manuscripts from unpublished writers. Learn the rules. Follow the rules. Blah, blah, blah.”

(I added the ‘pewling spawn’ part because ever since Captain Hook said it in Peter Pan I’ve wanted to use it–you get the idea.)

gakk!

gakk!

I was shocked that this torrent of censure was unleashed on me without anyone bothering to ask me what exactly the agent had requested.

Unbeknownst to these folks, I heard that rule at least 50 times since I began writing creatively, and I said, in my defense, “Well, just a minute. The agent said, (and I quote) that he’d like to read my partial.” And referred them to the response he sent me verbatim, listed above.

Still they expressed their incredulity at this request.

Funny. I had taught English for ten years and reading comprehension for five, but I wasn’t smart enough to interpret the meaning of sixteen words in two sentences?

Can you spell condescension?

I’m a rule-following gal for the most part and especially dutiful when I’m trying to get something I really want. I’ve broken some rules in writing (though not deliberately–sheer ignorance), but I’d never do something deliberately to jeopardize my success as a writer.

Nor will I follow a rule blindly when it would absolutely be of no advantage to me to do so. If agents make the rules, aren’t they at liberty to relax them when it’s in their best interest? Isn’t the writer at liberty to respond accordingly when it’s in her best interest to do so?

Only a complete and utterly gutless moron would decline to send 100 pages of a unfinished manuscript if an agent (gasp) broke his own rule or bent the industry standard and requested it.

Though I have my flaws, being gutless isn’t one of them.

In fact, I had read on other sites that this agent really likes to take on a story, which some writers may not appreciate, but I certainly would. Coming from him, such an overture makes sense. I did my research, which suggests I’m not a moron either.

I thought we all read enough allegorical dramas (The Handmaid’s Tale, for one) about what happens when people or a society becomes more concerned with following the rules for rules’ sake than about thinking logically and independently about their allegiance to certain rules. Well, at least I have.

No, I haven’t sent off that partial yet even though I have more than a hundred pages because I don’t think it’s strong enough. But if I get 100 pages where I want them, I intend to send them.

Because an agent asked me to. Because rules are great until they need to be overruled.

‘platforms’–not just for Olympic divers

Platform diver

Platform diver

Recently I saw the word “platform” used in an agency’s Web site with an application to fiction writers. Usually you associate platform with non-fiction. Gatekeepers (agents/editors) need to know your platform–what makes you the best person to write that non-fiction book. Are you a specialist in that subject? Is that topic part of your ethos?

Anyway, this agency suggested fiction writers provide evidence of their platform by including their publishing credentials. Call it the “bio” paragraph, the “cred” paragraph, the “I-have-the-chops” paragraph. All fiction queries need one.

If you are lacking in the cred/chops/platform department, I have three words for you.

“Get yoself sum.”

Which leads me to mention an odd and disconcerting incident that took place during an online mystery-writing workshop I signed up for this summer. We had a “free” half hour since one of participants didn’t submit her work, so the instructor announced he was using the next half hour to talk about short stories. He asked whether we were writing them.

One of my classmates stormed out of the class that evening, never to return, incredulous that the teacher wanted to talk short story. Her argument was that there were loads more relevant literary elements related to the novel, such as point of voice or character arc, that our class could and should be discussing. He never got a chance to explain himself. What a pity.

If you intend to shop that novel you’re working on so feverishly, you better make sure you have as strong a platform as you can to support your query. If you don’t have other publication credits, I have four words for you.

“Better get yoself sum.”

Now some of you may be thinking that unless you publish in Glimmer Train or the Sun or the Missouri Review, why bother including any publications in your bio paragraph?

I’ll tell you why. Few newer writers are going to be published in the elite eight of literary journals. Few of us are born writers–despite what MFA programs may tell you. It’s a craft that can be learned. Start submitting your work to less prestigious publications with an eye toward progressing along that prestige continuum.

You’ll gain more confidence with each acceptance–the validation you receive is very important and ekes into your submissions and pitch letters–all the while improving your craft.

After I wrote my first novel, I realized I had no fiction or creative non-fiction publishing credits to list in my platform paragraph. So I devoted the next full year to writing and submitting short work. Lo and behold, two years later, I had a bio paragraph that showed I was a serious writer. Have I been published in Glimmer Train? Not yet. But I have been published in the Christian Science Monitor. I never would have had the confidence to submit my work nor the requisite understanding of craft had I not submitted my work to other lesser-known journals first.

When I took an online workshop from Writers Online Workshops (WOW) with Gloria Kempton (a fine instructor who is published–see the first sidebar–tip of the week), she said my bio paragraph should get me some attention.

Though THE SHAKER PROPOSAL hasn’t been picked up yet, I’ve gotten a lot of bounce from my query letter. I’m not kidding. Keeping up with agent requests has been challenge since I started shopping the book in March. That bio paragraph was a factor.

Just this summer I applied to the Algonkian Pitch-and-Shop Writers Conference. Before you are invited to register you have to send them the pitch for your book and your author bio. In my acceptance letter, conference organizers said, “You are obviously a serious writer . . .”

I’m suffering through an ongoing short story contest this summer just to develop some new short work to pitch since I spent all of the last year working on my novels.

So, take your platform seriously, fiction writers. And to the woman who couldn’t see my workshop teacher’s connection between writing short stories and writing novels, open your eyes and ears or you’ll never learn from your betters. Not to mention that you will have missed an opportunity to better your platform.

If you want to improve your platform but don’t know where to begin, try Duotrope Digest, an electronic database of literary publications, also my tip of the week.

the werewolves have it . . .

Yesterday I got a form rejection letter from an agent I queried about my latest book (commercial women’s fiction). She enclosed my snail-mailed query with her rejection, which listed a host of reasons for passing on any work they receive using bulleted points, such as “we don’t handle that genre,” “your manuscript needs polishing,” etc.

Regarding my particular query, she had circled the bullet explaining that she was overstocked with fiction manuscripts and memoirs and that the market for these books is hard to crack, for agents, too.

Actually, the form was not at all personal but helpful. I’m glad she enclosed it. Any feedback is better than no feedback. (Of course, had she told me my manuscript needs polishing when I only submitted a query letter, I might still be scratching my head.)

So if chick lit, hen lit, bling lit, and glitz lit aren’t selling, what is? Some agents I queried told me that suspense/thrillers/romantic suspense are selling and that I should write one of those. And we know Americans are buying–$30 billion in book sales in 2007. And even though sales are off that mark in 2008, that’s still a hefty chunk of pocket change. So what is everyone buying? Lots of text books, trade paperbacks, and audio books. And guess what else?

Surprisingly while perusing the deals via the Publishers Marketplace website, I learned that werewolf stories are selling. A casual site search revealed that at least nine werewolf novels were sold (some in very good deals, according to self-reported data) in the last twelve months.

one of many fashionable werewolf books

one of many fashionable werewolf books

Not too shabby.

Apparently, some genres and sub-genres of fiction are selling. If you’ve got a werewolf or vampire manuscript sitting on a shelf, dust it off, polish it up, and send it off while werewolf novels are in vogue.

Just why readers across the globe have a lycanthropic appetite for werewolf stories would make an interesting post, too, but definitely one outside my purview.

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  • my author bio . . .

    I began writing creatively three years ago, fueled by midlife and a Curves' addiction. Since then, I have published short work in The Christian Science Monitor and Sirens Magazine in the same year. How's that for versatility!
    Sirens Magazine

    Sirens Magazine

    Also the Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, The Giggle Water Review, Alighted, Wet Ink Press, America's Funniest Humor, Brilliant!, Laughter Loaf, Flash-Flooding, and the Greensilk Journal where my short story, "How I Boinked John Cusack" won editor's pick.
    The Greensilk Journal

    The Greensilk Journal

    My newest novel, THE SHAKER PROPOSAL, has received numerous accolades, the latest a fifth-place in the 2008 annual NWA (National Writing Association) Novel Contest.
    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    I am a marketing professional by vocation (but not by choice). My husband and I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—the sounds, sites, smells, and flavors of which are a never-ending source of literary inspiration.