"if it's good news, it must be someone else's"

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Eight Lessons for Unpublished Writers

If you are unpublished, you are one of my peeps. We are a nation of a million poor saps who scratch our heads in constant angst with every killer query letter returned in standard issue rejection, while we squirm in our Costco leatherite desk chairs to take pressure off the birth of a new hemorrhoid.

For my own sanity, I'd like to share some things I have learned over the past ten years. It is the least I can do. But before I begin, I must warn you, remove any loaded guns, put the arsenic away, tuck the noose under the bed, and pull the box of Kleenex near.
Are you ready? Let’s do a little sharing then, shall we?

One: Contests

I dabbled in writing scripts about ten years ago, entering two in some smalltime but legitimate screenplay contest in Monterey County, California. When informed that both made it to the second round, I secretly allowed myself the simple pleasure of imagining my acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. When I daydream, I don’t mince fantasies. A month later, I received the “sorry but” letter for both scripts. I realized later that the second round was reserved for those scripts that were submitted in the correct format and with a payment that didn’t bounce. So much for Hollywood—I filed my acceptance speech away.

Lesson One: the second round of any writing contest only means two things: 1) your work was formatted correctly, and 2) your check/credit card entry fee was approved.

Two: Paying to be read

Undaunted, I decided all I needed was to have one of the scripts read and critiqued by a literary agency/service. I found one, The Star Literary Service in Tucson Arizona (it was before Google was around for any type of cheap investigation). So I forked up $90 to have it critiqued, believing that once read, they’d clamor to represent me. I soon received a boilerplate response with a few standard critique paragraphs essentially saying, "The writer has promise but the script is not marketable. Thank you very much."

In all fairness, having dusted off the script recently for a reread, it was amateurish but not because it was not marketable. In fact, a few years later “You’ve Got Mail” was released, a slightly modified version of my story called “Roomance”, right down to the actors I had in mind—so much for no market. The truth is, the script was amateurish because, other than the dialogue, the scene descriptions read like a Tolstoy novel, making it about sixty-eight pages longer than it needed to be. Regardless, I would have been better served if I had just played the slots in Atlantic City with the ninety bucks.

Lesson Two: if one pays an agency to read her/his work, make sure the cost can be covered by disposable income, as in trash disposable. The good ones don’t charge to read!

Three: The International Society of Poets (and all permutations)

Having felt the rush of finishing not one but two pretty lame scripts, I was somewhat satiated. Meanwhile, my full time job was becoming quite intrusive. Happy to have two completed scripts under my belt, I filed the writing away, thinking I was over it. But if you are my peeps, you know the urge to write always lurks below the surface, kind of like a life long skin allergy that suddenly bubbles up on the old epidermis just when you think you out grew the damn thing.

Well the urge hibernated for many years. And when it awoke, it was for poetry of all things. I was suckered into submitting a poem to a weekly, $100 prize contest sponsored by "www dot poetry dot com". If any of you have stumbled across this little ruse, you know what happens next. You receive an unexpected email or letter from that irascible Howard Ely and the folks from the International Society of Poets (or a handful of other related societies). Before you can say iambic pentameter, you discover you are in the semi-finals of some big contest and your poetry is going to appear in some grand Anthology.

For the uninitiated, I can’t say this any clearer. If this occurs, pick up your quill or mouse and run for the hills! It is all about collecting cold cash from gullible poets to buy a copy of a $59 heirloom quality anthology containing their poems. And if that doesn’t pull in the bucks, they take it up a notch. How about a recording of your poem read by a professional on a CD? Still not doin’ it for ya? Why not attend a Poet Society sponsored convention to read your poetry to your peers? Or buy a plaque? Or a pen? Or a glass football? Or a set of coasters? Or whatever you want to imprint your maximum-of-twenty-one-lines poem on? How about dem apples?

I must admit. My vanity leaked out a wee bit when I received that first unsolicited announcement letter from Howie. Fortunately, I was rudely snapped out of it by my son who said he thought the poem I had submitted was “somewhat pedestrian”—pretty harsh for an eight year old.

Now if I could write my query letters to agents like the folks from Poets Society write their anthology invitations, I might not be writing this piece of drivel right now. I might actually be on the other side of the publishing wall, separating myself from my peeps as fast as possible, while hopping from one terraced hot tub party to another with the likes of the Collins sisters, Annie Rice and that wild mother-daughter pair, the Clarks! Call me shallow. Don't care. Been called a lot worse.

Alas, with my vanity in check, thanks to the insight of a second grader, I matured as a writer and human being. This "growing up" is best demonstrated by the good natured fun I have had with the International Society of Poets over the past few years. I’ve been submitting really lousy poems from Inlin Freebosh, a North Pole elf friend of mine. In return for his efforts, Inlin has been receiving fantastic accolades and requests for more. He has obliged by sending worse and worse poems for more and more anthologies. There is final payback for my mature ways though. Howie and the gang named Inlin one of the top two hundred new poets in the world. It’s true! I didn’t even accomplish that! It gets better. Just last week he was officially certified as an International Ambassador of Poetry—cool certificate and all. I submit, I can’t get any more mature.

Lesson Three: If vanity is your thing, writing can be a fulfilling endeavor. There are ample slugs, I mean caring publishers, ready to turn your paper dollars into paper pages. (Note: if vanity is not your thing, visit www.vanitypublishing.info for a nice 101 course in what to look out for—lest you find yourself manipulated into purchasing a depressing, demoralizing, disappointing, heirloom-quality dust collector.)

Four: Rejection

Okay, so the poetry wasn’t very rewarding. Nevertheless, the writing allergy was back, and I was itching to scratch out a small Christmas novel about an ill-advised journey by that notorious elf, Mr. Freebosh. At the same time, I was tumbling head first towards a job layoff, looming a mere two weeks away. Frankly, there was no decision to be made. I planned to live off the forthcoming nine month severance and turn myself completely over to the urge. I took this plunge a little over two years ago. With the next great family holiday story in hand after months of writing/editing, writing/editing, writing/editing followed closely by a dozen rewrites/reedits, I started the literary agent query crusade.

I did my homework, as I’m sure you have all done. I bought all the must-have books and agency lists. I even found some fantastic query examples on the internet, one in particular demonstrating the merits of humor—something that always resonates with me. Each one pager was agonizingly engineered to open with a clever hook, which shrewdly segued into an assortment of wild, witty claims. I sealed the deal with a silky smooth story summary that led into a lengthy, if not heartfelt, farewell. The queries flew off my desk—approximately an unpublished author’s dozen—to agencies that had children’s stories listed among all the other genres they represented. You know, the typical collage of categories agencies tend to represent: war chronicles, lesbian erotica, Eskimo grilling, New Jersey destinations, and of course children’s books.

I think I must have sent the serious queries to the agents that wanted humor and vice versa. Anyway, the rejection form letters came racing back. Some were completely pre-printed, including the signature. Others were pre-printed, except the signature. Some contained personal responses in real ink, one-liners like, “sorry but somewhat pedestrian”. If I remember correctly, one reject form had a pre-printed, dried, tear-drop stain near the fake signature. All of them claimed their own personal hell of toppling query and unsolicited manuscript piles with only two hands to reject them, closing their private grief by imploring me not to give up—"there must be an agent or publisher out there somewhere for you". Gee, little did I know about their agony. Frankly, it made me feel better to know that someone out there has a more dismal life than mine.

Lesson Four: Writing’s a joy. Query rejection, a poke in the eye!

[At this point, I want to check-in with you. I’m sure there are several of you shaking your heads in agreement, possibly reminded of your own bounty of rejects. What do you do with yours? I file mine away, occasionally pulling them out to read them in worst to best order. I’m always filled with the delusion that someday I’ll be plugging my book on the public access show “Local Corner”, at which time I’ll build a small bonfire with the rejects right in front of the set's vinyl couch, dancing around the flames screaming “that’ll learn ’em”.]

Five: Agents live in secret places

However, out of the darkness of defeat, a dull beacon pulsed. There was one response from Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Studio fame that gave me pause to indulge in a morsel of hope. She actually read the three chapters I submitted with the query, and hand wrote a note back to me at the bottom of the rejection. She told me the main character, Inlin Freebosh was “charming”. I slept with the letter—stained by tears of joy and a little champagne—under my pillow that night. I slipped into a deep peaceful sleep, during which I dreamed I was firing off snappy one-liners to Oprah’s probing questions!

Filled with a renewed passion, I took it up a notch. I wrote a memoir from limited memories of growing up in the Sixties. It’s a collection of humorous stories about my pathetic uninformative years (occasionally featured in this blog). I found a way to buy another year of dedicated time, during which I learned to build my own website to get my work out there. The carrot that dangled from my flat screen monitor was the promise of the next thirst-quenching query letter I’d send off to Rosemary, my newest, bestest friend. It would be brilliantly constructed, reminding her of our past relationship and near connection. She’d be impressed with my persistence, resilience, and most of all, talent.

Well the day came not long ago. Armed with a very carefully worded query letter and best story from the collection, I decided not to just mail it but to hand deliver it. If she saw me, she’d see instantly I was marketable, someone she’d be proud to send to publishers and public access TV (channel 538).

Lesson Five: The only thing more difficult than finding a literary agent is finding their actual habitat. After a gallant attempt, I could not find Rosemary’s office. I ended up mailing it. I think she is squirreled away within the safety of a gated condo complex, possibly drowning in a sad sea of crumpled queries.

[Note: I did hear back from Rosemary. This time the response was a bit cool and aloof, almost as if she sensed a little stalking potential in my latest inquiry. I probably should have toned down the salutation, "To my sweetest angel of agents". Thank god, I didn’t find her office, she might have shot me on the spot. Oh well, I’m still thankful to her for that original response. It really did make a difference. My gut feeling is she is a real decent person and therefore a good agent to have, if one is fortunate enough. I say this under the remote possibility she might actually be reading this right now—a little pathetic sucking up can be an effective tool in the desperate hands of the miserable.]

Six: Your Own Website

I do recommend building a simple website. It helps a lot. It keeps the brain sharp—well, working anyway. It also can be an endless source of hope. My site has generated many encouraging responses. Okay, so I've received a few … um … a hundred, all right a few hundred of those obligatory "Hey faggot" emails. I have a theory they’re sent by those kind of people who spend their spare time doing Google searches for porn sites using the word "the"—unfortunately “the” happens to be one of my most creative and effective meta data keywords. Generally speaking though, a few good apples keep the many bad apples from ruining the barrel (or whatever that saying is).

Lesson Six: Building a website with a "comments" form reaps plenty of valuable feedback—much of it challenging one’s thoughts about sexual norms.

Seven: Writersnet

My most recent endeavor was to join an internet writer’s group, "www dot writersnet dot com". I figured it would be a great place to visit and chew the fat with other writers, both published and unpublished. Kind of schmooze with the goods, so to speak. So, I read a few of the discussion threads they had. Instantly, I started to notice a few things. There seems to be a high school cafeteria clique among some of the more ‘successful’ authors. Actually, that’s not fair—to high school kids. It’s more like eighth grade.

With this in mind, I did something really stupid.

I don’t know why? I was feeling pretty good I guess. I thought, maybe, if given an opportunity, the kidlets would settle down and act like the adults they surely are. Okay, so I put a query letter out there that I have been struggling over, and asked for help. Okay, so maybe I should not have titled my discussion entry, “chum for query sharks”. I don’t know why but I did. I thought it would be disarming. It took a while for the scent of fresh split infinitives to flow through the bandwidth. But before long, they appeared. One by one, they took a mouth full out of the query until there was nothing left but a few helpless dangling participles. I was chewed up pretty good but was able to swim back to my hell hole of a website.

In retrospect, the query really did suck. It was for "STILL LIVING IN THE SIXTIES", my collection of humorous short stories. Let’s face it, if you are an unknown, humor is a tough sell. And I’m possibly the unknownest. Furthermore, to make matters worse, the stories I’ve written are about nothing. It’s the old Seinfeld bit. Try writing a one-page query to hook an agent on a manuscript about nothing. For example, me to agent, “We had a funny family dinner”; agent laughing hysterically, “Stop it! You’re killin’ me with this stuff!” You see what I mean? Mission impossible.
So I took another stab at the query. Moved stuff around. Took stuff out. Added a boatload of missing commas. Trimmed the cutesy stuff. And I did it again. I doggy paddled out to writersnet reef and dropped another round of chum into the depths below. Okay, I probably should have known better than to try it again but I did. Then I did something else. Being the bonehead I am, I opened up the discussion entry with “Here Sharky, Sharkies! Come and get it!” It didn’t take long. Apparently, they stayed in the neighborhood.

WHACK!
SQUONCH!
GLUMP!

It was worse than the first time. They even ate the two semicolons, which I’m sure left a terrible lingering after taste in their mouths. They didn’t care. These were Great Writes. That’s what I’m talking about.

So there I was, trying to reach out for help, writing something that all agreed was a tough assignment, putting myself on the chopping block again, and one of the self-proclaimed suggested “at the risk of being bitch-slapped, maybe you should reconsider your career in humor”. This they call help? Some knucklehead reads two first-time queries for a difficult sell, written by a novice, and suggests the writer should give it up?

To my peeps, the unpublished, I highly recommend that you stay out of those waters.

You know, anonymity in the hands of a sociopath can be a dangerous thing. I really don’t know anything about those sharks, other than their usernames. They claim to be published writers but only a few have links to their books. Interestingly enough, those that did have websites or email addresses were the most helpful. Kind of makes you wonder about the rest. What are they hiding? Huh, "Gulliver H"?

Well, the truth is the second query wasn’t any better than the first—still quite amateurish frankly. I’ve scrapped it, as the sharks suggested. I’m working on a whole new angle that just might do it. But I have to tell ya, I’m not going back for any more “help”.

Lesson Seven: Writersnet (and other cliques like it) is the unpublished writers’ Bermuda Triangle. You innocently drift in, never to be read from again!

[Another check-in: I’ve been listening to a continuous stream of Nat King Cole classics while writing this. Does that mean anything? Am I close to the cliff? Has anyone experienced this? Just tell me Lawrence Welk isn't next!]

Eight: Paula Abdul

That brings me to the present. I’m sending my updated resume out to the corporate world, trying to spin the last two years into a meaningful, job-related experience—probably some of the best fiction I’ve written to date. The fact is I need to find income to feed this addiction. It’s sad really. At the same time, I’m trying the competition route, but a part of me, the suspicious part, thinks it is a waste of both time and entry fees. I’m also writing a bunch of political and humor articles for an ezine in a desperate attempt to publish something somewhere. Besides, it does keep me occupied and off the streets during the day, while I figure out my next project and this little employment dilemma.

All in all, I don’t know. This writing is tough stuff. What can I say? It makes those author rags-to-riches stories almost unbelievable.

Enough already, it’s time to wrap this up.

My fellow unpublished friends, those anyway who have not poisoned themselves yet, there is little one can do to stop the madness. The truth is, if you are fortunate enough to have writing DNA but cursed with an enduring optimism gene in the mix, you are in for a long, lonely, hurtful ride. A journey best not taken by the timid or weak of spirit.

I think Paula Abdul of American Idol fame said it best recently when she told a really talent-challenged crooner, “when I hear your voice ... I mean when you sing ... I mean when I look around, I love the way you stand there. You have the right outfit for that song. Never give that up”. Actually, I’m not sure that says anything best. What she was trying to say was never let the talent thing get in the way, just dress nice. Even that doesn’t make much sense. Oh well, she should’ve said, “If you love to sing, then sing already!”

I think the same holds true if you love to write.

Lesson Eight: Never use a quote from Paula Abdul as an example of anything!

2 comments:

lacochran said...

Good post, thanks. And great Paula quote. :) Have you heard she's getting her own reality show? Ack! For my thoughts on this see http://lacochran.blogspot.com

cranelegs said...

whoa wa wee wa ... is she going to give herself challenges and judge the results? they really should give her an unreality show.