So, a friend of mine is in the process of getting divorced. It’s not been a pretty situation. There have been angry accusations, and every possible sort of recrimination cast to the wind, names and anger thrown like stones and shards of glass, all of which leads up to a court date within the next month or so.
I asked my friend how everything was going. The answer I got speaks volumes: “After all of this, I just want to know how everything is coming down. Win or lose, I want to know the answers and then I want it done with.”
I can understand that. Anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript, or a short story, or even a proposal for a short story and anticipated being published at some point in their futures can understand the feeling.
It’s the knot of anxiety that settles into your stomach and twists the flesh it finds into new and uncomfortable shapes. It’s the little voice in the back of your head, the one that starts whispering about all of your shortcomings when earlier it was telling you about how someday people will recognize your brilliance. Self-doubt comes lumbering up and sits on your chest, making it hard to breathe, hard to think about anything at all except the story you sent off, the one that could make or break everything you’ve been dreaming about for as long as you can remember. And yes, you know it probably WON’T change your career, but that other little voice keeps telling you it could, maybe, this time, be the one.
It’s inevitable. There’s a line they use a lot in the military, which sums it all up: Hurry Up and Wait. Get the stories written, submit the stories and then…
And wait some more.
That’s the way these things work. That’s the way they’ve basically always worked. At least when you’re starting out. After a while, if you’re very lucky, it changes and things speed up a bit.
I could mention names. I won’t. I know at least three different authors who have called or written publishers and said “This is taking too long. I am hereby withdrawing my submission to your house.”
Not necessarily in those exact words, but that is what they have done. They lost their patience. They forgot what every writer needs to never forget. We are not the only writers in existence. We are not the only writer that any editor has to deal with.
You met an editor at a convention? Cool.
The conversation went well, and the editor said yes, please send me an outline, the first three chapters and a self addressed, stamped envelope? AWESOME!
You sent off the manuscript following the guidelines as presented in various magazines, online at your favorite sites for checking guidelines and as your friendly neighborhood editor gave them to you? BRILLIANT!!!!
But after waiting for the length of time the guidelines mentioned, you haven’t heard back? Welcome to the club.
My advice? Kick back and wait some more, because it won’t get any faster. Not for a while at least. Maybe not ever. Oh, sure, send a query. If you were lucky enough to get an e-mail address, you can check every few months. Don’t expect an immediate response.
Editors are busy. From time to time they’ll spend a few hours answering emails, but there are so many other things they have to do, like looking over the mountain of manuscripts sitting on their desk, on the floor next to their desk and spilling over the sides of the slush pile they have in the back corner of their office.
Trust me: None of the editors who had manuscripts pulled by the writers ever lost sleep over the opportunities they’ve squandered. At worst, they felt a quick flash of guilt, but even that is probably less painful that having to turn down yet another attempt by a name they recognize from previous submissions. In the words of one editor: “Every time someone tells me they want their manuscript back, I send it to them. It’s just one less I have to look at.”
It’s not an attempt to be a big meanie. It’s just the nature of the beast. Now one of the things I wanted to point out with this little essay is that patience is a virtue. It’s a minor virtue, granted, but still a necessary one.
You send off a short story to your favorite magazine’s fiction editor and wait two days before you start bombarding that editor with queries, e-mails, or phone calls, and the likelihood of you ever selling said short story to said editor is a big fat no chance in hell. It sucks, but that’s the way these things work.
Ah, but Jim, there are other ways, aren’t there?
Sure. Go ahead, bring up the self-publishing thing again. You know good and damned well that I’ll shoot it down. But what the hell, we’ll entertain that for a moment. On one of the boards I haunt from time to time a discussion about freelance editors came up today. Here’s the notion as it usually works in the industry (or more accurately, the peripheries of the industry): You write a manuscript, spend a few weeks/months/years of your life on the thing, and then you send it to a book doctor. Hey, look in most of the magazines for fledgling writers and you’ll find a plethora of ads from people with “25 years of experience!” or even up to 100 years worth of experience if you combine all of the editors together.
Here’s a new twist on that old notion about self-publishing: To avoid the pitfalls of so many typos sneaking past, one of the people on the board suggested hiring an editor to look over the manuscript and then self-publishing. Then you’re avoiding all of that hideous waiting and honing skills stuff and getting right to the satisfaction, right?
I’m going to sidebar here for a moment, because there’s an anecdote about this that I feel a need to bring up. Not all that long ago, a couple of gentlemen who were with the same writers group invited me to lunch. I was under the impression it was a social meeting and so I brought along my wife and enough cash to cover the meal. The pleasant aside was that they actually picked up the cost of our lunches, because what they wanted to do was pick my brain and possibly get an endorsement from me. Okay, I’m game. I listened to their pitch as we dined.
What they wanted to do was offer a book editing service. “What can you put on the table for new authors?” I asked.
“We have over thirty years of experience as writers,” was the answer I received. You could see their chests swell with pride as they said the words.
“Really? How do you figure?” I looked from one would-be book doctor to the other with genuine curiosity, and paused to chomp away on my lunch as I waited for an answer. See, that puzzled them, because I was apparently having trouble with their math.
“Well, I’ve been writing for seventeen years, and he’s been writing for fourteen. That’s thirty-one. That’s over thirty years of experience.” Ah. Now I understood their reasoning.
I nodded, took a sip of my iced tea, and asked a simple question that knocked the foundations of their logic to the side. “What have you had published? No, wait, what have you been paid for?”
The two freelance editors looked at each other and then at me. I in turn tapped the page they had shown me that listed the rates they would charge for their editing fees. “You want to charge a lot of money to help out other writers (and in their defense, they believed they could help younger, newer authors with their manuscripts. I will concede that much.). Let’s look at this logically, shall we? I’ve been down the publishing road a few times, and I’ve seen a few contracts, looked them over, signed them. Judging by your rates, if I wanted a complete and detailed edit of my manuscript, it would cost me something like two thousand dollars, maybe as much as four thousand, because I’m a wordy bastard and you’re charging by the double spaced manuscript page.” I took a moment to breathe, because I could feel my blood pressure wanting to rise and the volume of my voice wanting to join the mad rush to the top of the scales.
“Guys, I didn’t get paid that much for my first novel. Hell, I didn’t get paid that much for my second novel.” Yeah, that sort of took the wind from their sales. Despite the very generous offer to give me a finder’s fee for every single writer who came to them with my recommendation, I had to turn down their business proposal. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with myself.
Again and with feeling, their hearts were in the right place. I genuinely believe that. But seriously, that’s the sort of stuff that screws up everyone involved. The gents in question had been published several times in markets that did not pay more than an occasional copy. They had also been published in the annual book put out by their writers group. They had never been paid professional rates. How could I then, in good conscience, endorse them as the people to make the careers of younger, less experienced writers who had also never been published in a professional medium?
And folks, I suspect that MOST of the self-proclaimed book doctors out there have around the same level of experience as the gentlemen who bought me and my wife lunch that day. Yes, there are exceptions. They are probably as rare as truly successful self-published authors.
There are legitimate methods of learning the business that have absolutely nothing to do with going to college. You can apprentice. There are seminars, there are weekend long sessions that can be eye opening and enlightening. There are panels at conventions where you can learn from some of the best in the industry (okay and some of the not -so-best, too) There’s the tried and true method of submitting, getting rejected, doing rewrites and then submitting again and again and again as you hone your skills and refine your style. There’s building a series of connections, networking, and, after a while, building a reputation as a professional.
Or you can self-publish. Hey, listen, go to Myspace.com and look under the writing section and there are at least a dozen different hyperlinks to different sites that will help you publish your own book and get it a place of honor with Amazon.com and maybe even a few book distributors. You can even get a really cool clip art cover. You go right ahead if you want to. I assure you, I will not be one of the seven people who actually buys your novel, but far be it from me to step on anyone’s dreams.
(Update: Okay, so the world is changing. Go to JAKonrath.com and check in on what the man has to say. He’s making a very nice living as a self-published author and he has a lot of sound advice.)
Or, hey, you can be a professional.
Okay, that ends our sidebar. Back to the subject at hand. No one likes to wait. No one ever wants to wait for half a year or more to get a rejection, either. It sucks.
Know how I sold my first novel? I had been doing freelance work writing role playing game supplements and one of the guys working for the company was starting up his own publishing house. For a change of pace, he actually had some chops and a bit of business savvy (read: he had experience in the field, cash flow, artists for book covers and distribution deals already in place. Oh, and cash flow. He was paying me.). He asked me if I had anything he might be interested in. He had clarified very carefully that he didn’t want the standard genre tropes, but something that was different. I told him in turn that I had a novel that had been turned down by Stellar Books (Not the real name of the major publisher) for being “too complex.” That part in quotations is a direct quote from the rejection letter.
He took the manuscript and he read it. Later, a few months after the taking, he made me an offer and I accepted it. It was a low offer, and some of the stipulations in the contract would NEVER make it into one of my contracts today, but we all take risks when we’re starting out. Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they blow up in our faces, (more on that another time) but we all take chances.
There’s always a right way and a wrong way. Actually there are multiples of both. You are the only person who can decide the right direction for you, but along the way, try to remember that if writing were easy, everyone would have novel contracts. It ain’t rocket science (barring science fiction, or course) but as with everything else in life, it takes time to get it right.
And it takes that minor virtue I mentioned a while back, patience. There are no miracles out there to guarantee you a sale. John Skipp covered that a few days ago and if you missed it, you need to go read his last essay, because, damn, he nailed it on the head. No one can take your manuscript and turn it into gold without having spent a good deal of time looking it over first and even then, no matter what they might be promising you, they can’t sell it to the publishing houses for you or guarantee that once it is sold, it will become a best seller.
There is no set way to speed up the process of writing a novel. There are no quick fixes. Pay attention to the biography of your favorite writer/actor/singer/artist and the one thing you’re likely to hear from most of them is that their “overnight success” took years, not days.
Yeah, yeah, I know, there are exceptions to every rule. Don’t walk out there expecting to be one of them. You have to work for it. You have to have the patience of a saint and you have to continue with that patience, even after you’ve succeeded in selling a dozen or so novels.
So, Jim, how long do I wait?
Ah, that’s another story for another time. But as a starting point, check out the submission guidelines and assume that whatever they say the waiting period is, it’s really at least twice that long. The waiting game sucks, boys and girls, but it’s also the only game in town that’s worth playing.