Friday, May 2, 2008

Writing



Getting Published - Now and Then 05/02/2008
I have written two works of fiction and I am actively trying to get one, Down The River, published. The process of getting published has changed dramatically over the past five or ten years. At one time a novelist pounded away at a typewriter (or prevailed upon a skilled typist) until he or she had a manuscript. The process of creation and revision entailed laborious finger and mind work until the likes of John Updike or Kurt Vonnegut had several hundred pages of masterful prose in typescript. Tom Wolfe has his signature IBM Selectric (if you don't know what that is, don't ask). The number of submissions to publishers and literary agents was physically limited by the endurance of writers and the availability of typists. A manuscript was singular as in one original and perhaps one copy (Assuming the use of carbon paper – if you don't know what that is, don't ask.) Photo copiers came into wide use in the 1970s making the idea of an original rather quaint.

Enter the digital revolution, desktop computers, and the word processer. Even in the days of the 8086 microprocessor (if you don't know what that is, don't ask), the desktop computer with one or two floppy drives soon became a credible and efficient way to transcend the barrier of the skilled typist, muscle- or power-driven keys, a dancing type element, ribbon, and eraser or correction fluid. The writer could create, type (more accurately keyboard, now a verb), edit, and produce a clean printed copy in a fraction of the time and trouble as with a typewriter. The writer didn't even have to know how to type because mistakes dissolved under the backspace and delete keys. The programs automated carriage return, paragraphs. margins, page numbers, footnotes, and even centered titles. Everyman and Everywoman became a potential blockbuster novelist.

The digital revolution not only changed writing habits, but it changed reading habits. Books, magazines, and newspapers encountered more competition as the number of television channels grew exponentially from four or five to four or five hundred. Magazine subscriptions lapsed, articles became shorter to accommodate busier days, and publications even disappeared. The short story as a commercial product neared extinction. The number of writers increased as evidenced by the proliferation of writing schools. Fifty years ago there were two writing schools in the U.S. In the 1990s there were more than two thousand.

Book publishers and book sellers consolidated to make publishing (really printing) more efficient. The publishers slashed their lists and even established writers found themselves swimming upstream in a crowded marketplace. The bad news was that even if you were a good writer you might not get published. But the good news was that even if you weren’t a good writer, you could get published.

Prospecting 05/05/2008
Numbering among thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of aspiring novelists I have a manuscript. Now I want to get it published.

The most direct route would be to seem to send the book to publishers and wait for a reply. Or perhaps send the book to a literary agent who will use his or her liquid luncheon dates to extract a great contract and a hefty advance – less his or her fifteen percent. It’s just a function of printing and postage, right? Wrong.

First of all, the biggest publishers will not talk to, read letters sent by, or open emails from authors. And they certainly do not answer the telephone. This traffic is called “over the transom” referring to the old-fashioned ventilation window over an office door. Manuscripts were too large to fit in the mail slot so the letter carrier just threw it over the open transom to crash to the floor inside. Over the tramsome. Small publishing houses will talk to authors, but these are publishing HOUSES, as in single-family residences with an attached garage full of unsold books. I overstate, but small houses do only a few titles a year. That leaves literary agents.

The good news is that agents, and even publishers, want to meet good writers and they offer their names to books of listings that writers pay to read. The most popular one is the Writer’s Market, a thick, $50 book with thousands of book, magazine, and other publishers, and literary agents. And it has a current how-to guide for placing your book or article, writing compelling letters, and even formatting a manuscript. Even better, there is an online version included in the purchase of the book that is updated daily. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there are tens of thousands of wannabe Stephen Kings out there simply inundating agents and publishers with proposals and sample chapters. With modern word processing technology the task of preparing and mailing manuscripts and information becomes easier for the writer, but harder for the reader.

I have been doing everything I am supposed to, reading the listings, finding companies and agencies that handle what I have written (historical fiction and maybe literary fiction), and sending them letters. Sometimes the agent or publisher wants something on one page. A few want sample chapters, or a synopsis, or an author biography.

To date I have sent out 128 queries. About 10 wrote back for sample chapters or even the full manuscript (by email). I call those “nibbles.” Of those 10, one is still considering the sample chapters. All the rest either sent back form letter replies – “Dear Author. We have carefully reviewed…” – or did not respond at all. My compliments to agencies that at least have a mechanism for acknowledging the query.

I am down to about half a dozen agencies left to contact so I save this list for Friday mornings. That’s when I select two or three to send queries to. Then it’s a case of just watching the mail.


On Writing 5-6-2008
Having just related the still-unfinished journey of an author I realized that I left something out. Why? Not why I left it out. Why write? Writing should not about making money, although for many it is a living and none of us will say no to a handsome royalty check. Alas, focusing on the money will undoubtedly lead to disappointment. Writing should be about telling the story that you have inside. Getting published is one indication that the story is a good one and commercial support is a good endorsement. But telling the story is the important part.