When you work a certain profession, you become acquainted with, and get to know, a lot of other industries. Policemen spend a great deal of time with paramedics, lawyers, and firemen. If you work in advertising, you probably meet plenty of graphic designers, printing companies, and artists. Farmers know the feedman, the blacksmith, and the vet.
For aspiring authors, we spend a tremendous amount of time in the company of postal employees.
This heatwave is really starting to piss me off. Seriously. I’m beginning to take this personal like. I walk to work and by the time I get to my office, sweat is dripping off my face and pooling in my keyboard. But my grandma always told me to count my blessings so I think how much better I have it than those poor souls I passed on the way who were chiseling up the street with a jackhammer. I think how lucky I am that I’m not suspended from the roof of a 15 story building on what is basically a backyard swing washing windows.
And more than anything else, I thank my lucky stars that, I shudder even at the thought, I’m not teaching creative writing for six months a year.
I had no idea. All these years, I thought Cool Hand Luke was just a fantastic movie from 1967. I had no idea that it’s actually true and that Strother Martin’s character, The Captain, was not a prison warden but actually a Creative Writing Department Chair. You too? Well, you had it wrong, just like me. He’s actually talking to writers when he instructs the new
inmates writers that “You gonna fit in real good, of course, unless you get rabbit in your blood and you decide to take off for home. You give the bonus system time and a set of leg chains to keep you slowed down just a little bit, for your own good, you’ll learn the rules. Now, it’s all up to you. Now I can be a good guy, or I can be one real mean son-of-a-bitch. It’s all up to you.”
It seems to be fashionable recently to bitch about being a writer. The annoying gnats of adoring fans, the misery of teaching creative writing, the hoard of locusts who want a recommendation or a blurb.
Most how-to-publish books are garbage. I’ve mentioned one or two that I like but the vast majority of them provide nothing more in-depth than “target the publishers you submit your work to… don’t submit your horror gorefest about alien foot fungus to Harlequin Romances” and so-called advice like that. I’ve got a shelf full of these snake oil texts and they don’t help at all. So what we’re going to try and do with Slushpile is look at some circumstances you might find yourself in, explore those situations, talk to the experts, and try to really find out some useful information. If there’s anything you’re dying to know, let me know and I’ll see what I can find out. So here we go…
In many ways, trying to publish a book is like trying to get a date when you’re fifteen years old. None of us want to admit it now, particularly the guys out there, but the reality is that everyone reading this has, at one point or another, played a message on an answering machine 16 times, applying FBI level forensic research and John Edward psychic ability trying to figure out some hidden message. Homeland Security experts don’t analyze purported audio tapes from Osama bin Laden as closely as teenagers trying to pick up some hint in a voice. “She said she couldn’t go out with me because she had to study, so that means she would like to hook up some other time, right? Or does she just not want to go out at all?”
Publishing can drive otherwise sane and well-adjusted adults to this same level of search for hidden meaning. Last fall, I did all the things that the so-called advice books suggested: I targeted a publisher, put together my query letter, included the tenuous connections I had, and mailed it off addressed to the specific editor, not just Fiction Editor or whatever. After a short wait, I received a letter back from the editor rejecting my manuscript. Or was it really a rejection? A couple of months after that letter, this kind editor was generous enough to participate in an interview where she explains exactly what it means when an editor says she can’t go out with you because she has to wash her hair.
Here’s how the submission process goes when you’re an unknown and the publishing industry hasn’t yet realized that you’re a writer. You spend hours online, or sifting through The Writers Market looking for places where you have a chance of being published. Everyone has their own strategy, their system, and when you talk to other would-be writers you share tips and strategies like old men pouring over the Daily Racing Form in the bleachers at Santa Anita.
You settle upon The Toilet Paper Review though you’ve never heard of it before. It’s published out of some small university you’ve never heard of before. Northeastern Southwestern Nebraska State A&M Vocational School or something.
Kaye Gibbons wrote an essay for the Winter 2005 issue of the The Oxford American about how amazed she is at the number of people who are writing. Or claiming to write. I feel the same way because it seems every person I meet is working on a novel, story collection, or screenplay. I always assumed that was because I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, a town both blessed and lousy with writers (myself included) like Hollywood where ever waiter has a headshot stuck in their apron. But since I left Oxford, I continue to encounter would-be writers. Every cab driver in DC is working on a political thriller and the guy who sells hot dogs at Camden Yards in Baltimore is writing a script he?Ä´s convinced is perfect for HBO’s The Wire.
Gibbons made many valid points in her article, but there’s a part that seems somewhat mean-spirited, somewhat dismissive. I am sure Gibbons is a wonderful woman and I know she is a tremendous literary talent. But when an attendant at a book festival had the audacity to ask a question about how many metaphors should be in a literary novel, a line of questioning began that Gibbons describes as a “plague.” The question itself was basic, maybe a little misguided, but Gibbons lamented that “these folks already seem to have a great deal of information about the processes of other writers, dead and alive, but I sense their hope that I might be the one with the key who unlocks the mysteries of how to get a book published.” That’s precisely what they want. They ache, yearn, hunger, jones, crave, thirst, desire and wish for the secret.
A form rejection slip came in the mail today which, given the outright silence of so many places I’ve contacted, is actually a welcome sight. Rejections don’t generally bother me. They are a fact of life in this business and you’d better get used to them, like a chef gets accustomed to hot grease popping in his face, or you’ve got no business trying this gig.
The rejection is for a story that I should just forget, but it always seems to receive positive comments so I keep sending it out. The rejection today is number forty-two for this story. It’s a race to fifty. Either fifty rejection letters in my file folder for this piece or publication, whichever comes first.
Horse trainer Felix Monserrate sent his 14-year-old gelding Zippy Chippy out to stumble through 100 straight races without a victory. His home track banned him, claiming that Zippy Chippy distorted the betting pool of any race he was in, but Monserrate continued to enter him here and there, scraping up races when he could, even running against minor league baseball players a couple of times, and losing once. Monserrate said in a 2003 interview with CBS that “every time he runs, he makes me feel good… I know he’s going to win. But when, I don’t know.”