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10:05 am: Wright's Writing Corner: The Awful Truth About Publishing!

Part Two of Prospero Lost: A Writer's Odyssey
Part One can be found here



In our last installment, I finished my first novel. To understand what happen next, we need to rewind about sixteen years and take a look at some things I had been up to in the meantime:.

 

When I got out of college, I read a book called The Awful Truth About Publishing.  It laid out the world of publishing and explained the many pitfalls. I learned a lot from this book that helped me in many later endeavors, but the most important thing I got out of the book was that it said in no uncertain terms: Publishing is a Good Old Boy’s system. People get published because they know people. Look among your acquaintances, it said. Someone will be a published writer. Exploit their connections.

 

I did not have any publishing connections.

 

I decided that I would have to be the person among my acquaintances who had publishing connections. I set out to get some.

 

 

Back then, this was easier than it is now. Many more publishing people attended science fictions conventions than you often see nowadays. Recently, I have been to conventions where no one sowed up from the New York Publishing community. Back then, that was seldom the case.

 

(As best as I can tell, there are two reasons for this: one, there is less money for such things, and two, many of the people I knew as editors who visited conventions have left editing and are now writers who visit conventions.)

 

So, after graduating from St. John’s and before heading off to Europe, I attended a small convention called Hatcon in Danbury, Connecticut. For some reason, this was the very last Hatcon, which is a shame because it was a lovely convention with all sorts of interesting people. Right off, I met a number of published authors. There were also well-known artists, reviewers and all sorts of interesting characters. I still recall camping out with my brother in our sleeping bags (we arrived without a room…I went to all conventions without a room for years, until one day, probably around 1997, when John sighed and said he was really tired of sleeping on people’s floors. ) in what must have been the Green Room or the Con Suite, listening to Peter Heck sing “Walking the Dog” on the guitar. I still think of that song whenever I think of him, and visa versa.

 

(At the time, Mr. Heck wrote Hailing Frequencies, the SF newsletter from Waldenbooks, which I read religiously. Since, he has become the author of some delightful mysteries staring Mark Twain as the detective.

 

My brother’s most important moment was that he got to kiss a girl, the daughter of a short story writer from Alaska, I believe, in a pool. The most important thing that happened to me was that right after I arrived, practically the first person I met, was a publisher who gave me his card. His company was called Bluejay Books, and his name was Jim Frenkel.

 

Well, I went to Europe, and when I came back, I went to work for my dad. But I contacted Mr. Frenkel and asked for a part-time internship. I figured the best way to meet publishing people and to know about the business was to work there.

 

I worked for Bluejay Books for a month, taking the train to New York every day. At the end of that month, I got mono and was in bed for two weeks. The recovery process was slow, and I never went back to work in NYC. But during that month, I learned a great deal.

 

My very first day, I got to read the slush pile and reject manuscripts. That was a big lesson to me. First, I learned that one’s manuscript could be rejected by a recent college graduate about which the company hiring her knew absolutely nothing. Second, I learned the more flowery the cover letter, the worse the quality of the writing. I don’t know why. It just was.

 

Nearly everything in the slush pile was pretty bad. Bluejay only published quality science fiction, so I didn’t have to worry about anything that didn’t really stand out. There was only one story I read which I wanted to read the rest of (more than a few chapters) It was The Jehovah Contract by Victor Korman  It was later published elsewhere, by a smaller press, I believe. It was a story about a guy who is hired by the devil to shoot God. (I later read his King of the High Frontier, about a private space race, which I enjoyed much more. It used to be just available on the web, but I see it’s now in print.)

  

On the second day, Jim handed me a letter and asked me to type it. I did not have the courage to explain that I really could not type very well. I just did it….slowly and with a couple of mistakes, if I recall, which I subsequently fixed, but I did it. I remember being surprised that no one had asked me if I could type before hiring me. (If it counts as hiring when someone is interning for free. )

 

I learned about cover art and C-Prints, which still stand out in my mind for how much more vivid they were than the final version with the title lettering over the picture. I leaned a bit about distributing and sf authors, not much, but enough to build on later.

 

One day while I was there, Bluejay received a submission of a manuscript that came, complete with pictures, in a hand-carved wooden box. The box was gorgeous. The author sent this enormous package…and there was no return postage or even a return address for the publishing company to send an acceptance to if they had wanted to publish it. 


The employees did not even glance at it. “Why not?” I asked. “It will be terrible. Stories that arrive this way always are.” But they told me I could take a look at it if I did not believe them. I did. They were right. The writing was terrible.

 

My two clearest memories of that otherwise rather hazy period right before I became so ill were:

 

The moment on the train going in one morning when I realized I had put on two entirely different brown leather shoes that looked nothing alike…so I had a different shoe on each foot..

 

Seeing Diana Paxson come into the office whose writing I admired from the Sanctuary books.

 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0451462920/thewrighthouse

 

Some time later, probably at a convention, I ran into Jim Frenkel again. The collapse of a distributor had ended Bluejay’s days as a publisher, but Jim was still running the company out of his house—selling the books he had and sending royalty statements to his authors. Turns out he lived rather close to me at the time, I started working for him a couple days a week. (I was working at Waldenbooks the rest of the time.)

 

I worked for Jim in his house for about a year, until we moved out of the area. I did royalty statements and typed letters. (My typing had gotten better, though not as good as it is nowadays.) Or whatever he needed done. Jim was basically working as a packager now, getting ideas, writers, and publishers together. There was a lot to learn, and it was quite interesting.

 

Once in a while, if I was very lucky, I got to have lunch with Jim’s wife, the wonderful, beautiful science fiction writer Joan Vinge, uthor of Snow Queen whose Hugo awards graced their living room. She is just delightful to talk to. That was the best part of all.

 

I remember one day arriving in tears because my coat, a beautiful down coat my parents had bought me only a few months before, had been stolen when I left it in the food court at the mall. I had recently gotten married and had no money and no way to replace it. Joan took pity on me and gave me an old coat of hers. I kept it for years. Once or twice, I put it on for writing in the hope that some of her creativity would have rubbed off on it. (It didn’t really help, but it made me feel happy. )

  

Jumping ahead about eight years, John has now finished a novel and Jim Frenkel is now an agent. I won’t go into the whole story of how John got published here, but the short version is that Jim was his agent for his first five books. After that, Jim was hired full-time as an editor for Tor—surely the coolest publishing house in the universe! (Back then, I had believed this for a long time, but now Tor also published John!) John then got a new agent, Mr. Jack Byrne.

 

It was just around that point that I sent the newly finished Prospero’s Children to Jim. I sent it with the idea that he might consider becoming my agent, but by the time he received it, he was an editor.

 

All of a sudden, just like that, I had a New York editor considering my manuscript! All my “Awful Truth” inspired work had paid off!

 

Next week: Part Three: The Long Dark Waiting Of The Soul

 


 

Comments

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From:kokorognosis
Date:August 12th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
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Oooh, good thing I'm developing connections ;)
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From:damcphail
Date:August 12th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)

:::groan::::

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What am I doing wrong? My connections only seem to get me more work...
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 13th, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)

Re: :::groan::::

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That is because you are cool and multitalented.
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From:damcphail
Date:August 13th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)

Re: :::groan::::

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Ah...so that's where I went wrong, my superpowers have been revealed to the world...
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:August 12th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)

Scary!

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I'm terrible at building connections...too introverted. It just seems like such a huge and scary task -- it's hard enough to try to write something good...
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 12th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Scary!

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One of my great regrets is that I don't know an editor or agent who is good to refer people to. That's what I'd like next...so I can help friends along! (I do refer people to my editor ocassionally...but its a very long wait.)
[User Picture]
From:jdawson001
Date:August 12th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC)

Re: Scary!

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Amen. I am terribly shy...
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 12th, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)

Re: Scary!

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Well, thanks for working up the courage to comment. ;-)
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From:jdawson001
Date:August 12th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Scary!

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If I could do all correspondences and "connections" via email or other online mediums, I'd be fine. It's the face-to-face thing that scares me.

Oddly enough, I don't have a problem being on convention panels, but when I meet authors and editors in the signing rooms - or anywhere else for that matter - I turn into a bunch of goo.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 13th, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Scary!

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She M_France's note below about the short story route. ;-)
From:jarethsmommy
Date:August 12th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)

Musings

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You know, I think I know you pretty well as a friend & colleague. And it strikes me as incredibly funny that you didn't know how to type! I am so glad you've learned!

Also - you wrote that the lady is the uthor of Snow White rather than author.

I am so excited I was able to pre-order my copy on Amazon.com of your book; now I just need to open it & read it. Reading your 3 part series will make me enjoy it all the more.

You are also inspiring me to dig out a middle-school aged SF book I was writing before I met my husband.... I've hardly worked on it since I started having kids.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 12th, 2009 11:06 pm (UTC)

Re: Musings

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Hey! So nice to have you on LJ and to see your "smiling face!"

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From:m_francis
Date:August 13th, 2009 12:36 am (UTC)
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I am embarrassed to admit that I knew no one in publishing. I obtained an agent because she called me and asked to be my agent. I obtained an editor because the agent sold the book to him; and later another editor called my house and asked if I wanted to write a book for him.

But I should explain that I had been selling short fiction for half a decade by then, and had achieved a couple of Hugo finalists.

The magazines are always looking for new writers. [Because the old writers tend to shift over to novels, where there is more money.] I sold my first stuff to ANALOG in 1983, and appeared regularly for several years. Of course, I got to know the editor, Stan Schmidt. Then the late, great writer Charles Sheffield -- one of the finest gentlemen I've ever met -- told his agent, the keen and crafty Eleanor, that she should sign me up. So, after reading my short fiction, she did.

So there is an alternate route, via the short fiction market. This lets you practice your craft and build a name. The book editor will see writing credits in your first cover letter and will learn the single most important thing she wants to know about the unknown you: that you can write, finish, and sell professional-level stuff. That doesn't guarantee anything, but it will get your novel a careful reading, I think.
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 13th, 2009 01:42 am (UTC)
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A very, very good point!

John made it in this way, too. What I left out is that I did try to write short stories, but none of them were very good. ;-)
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From:m_francis
Date:August 13th, 2009 05:10 am (UTC)
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Short fiction and novels call on different strengths. A novel is not simply a short story that goes on and on. Harlan Ellison has, so far as I recollect, never written a novel. And there are others like yourself who can write novels but not shorts. A well-done short story is like a photograph; a well-done novel is like a tapestry.
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 13th, 2009 12:15 pm (UTC)
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Good analogy!
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From:starshipcat
Date:August 13th, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC)
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Amen on that -- I've tried to write some short stories set in the worlds of my novels, but I invariably end up with all sorts of spaghetti-strands of story running off the plate to parts unknown. And they aren't necessarily obvious matters of the "story" being in fact a chunk of arbitrary length torn from a larger work -- often I've got a story with a beginning, middle and end, but it's more an issue of why a character or setting has to be a certain way. It's not necessary for this story, but it is essential to the three or four novels that I'm hoping to pave the way for publishing, and changing it will totally destroy those novels.

And even when I think that I have a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, I often find when I set forth to write it that I instead have a novel squashed down to short-story wordcount, so that it reads more like a bare outline. So I end up setting it aside to expand to the length it really needs to be (and it even happens to me with novels -- in my current work-in-progress, I keep having chapters expand on me so that I have to break them in two, and I'm thinking that what was supposed to be a single novel is going to have to be broken into at least three volumes).

I've pretty much accepted that I'm a natural novelist, simply because my creative imagination is naturally drawn to the huge landscapes of historical events, rather than the gem-like little scenes of that one perfect incident in the lives of two or three people who then go on to live completely unremarkable lives. Occasionally a story will pop into my mind that's just right, that doesn't spark all kinds of questions that send my mind racing off to parts unknown and turn into a novel, but it's rare.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 13th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
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I'm glad to know it's not just me.
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From:brni
Date:August 13th, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC)
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reposted by request...

So much cleverer and planned out than my path.

"Ugh. My company's been bought. Ugh, these people really suck. Ugh, I'm unemployed. Now what? I guess I could write a book or something. Since I can't afford to buy any to read right now..."
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 14th, 2009 10:54 am (UTC)
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First: Thanks!

Second: You are in good company. The guy who wrote Tarzan and Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroghs, that's his name!) only became a writer because he failed at other things.

...and he made millions!

Edited at 2009-08-14 10:56 am (UTC)
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