Leap of faith

The Thinker by Rodin

This blog scratches my writing itch, but most of us writers would rather be published than place our writings in a blog. Being published still means something. Today it means one or more authorities singled you out as worthy of being published, usually on paper. Publishers are not in the business of wasting money. They only publish content they believe will earn them a profit. Coincidentally, published authors earn actual money.

Being a published writer is hard and breaking into the ranks is the hardest part, which is probably why I blog. I may be a good writer, but I am not a great writer and probably will never be. I write because I must. In retirement I may have the leisure to pick up electronic pen and try writing a great novel. But I have little illusions that after it is done that it will be published.

This is because potential authors are a dime a dozen. Publishers are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts, many of them quite good, but most of them trash. At best, an author’s unsolicited manuscript will get a cursory read of the first couple pages by some low level staffer and if it doesn’t meet a niche or market or a quality standard, it is quickly rejected. Even if it meets all of these criteria, the odds are still that it will get rejected, mainly just because. Authors send out their manuscripts anyhow. A few rejection letters will crush the egos of most authors. They will assume they don’t have the “write” stuff and shuffle along disheartened toward more productive but less enthralling careers.

Writers that take the time to research what it takes to get published usually discover it’s a waste of time to send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. Instead, they try to find a literary agent to represent them. It’s the difference between getting an automated response from a firm and talking to a human being. A literary agent is a trusted broker. If a true literary agent accepts you as a client then your manuscript is virtually certain to get published.

This means that both book publishers and literary agents get inundated with manuscripts. In both venues there are the flakes out there. Vanity publishers are glad to print your book as long as you are willing to pay for it and market it yourself. Similarly, there are literary agents that probably don’t deserve the title but may be interested in critiquing your work, for a fee, or passing it on to an editor who, for a fee, will be glad to edit it, but with little likelihood that it can actually be marketed. A real literary agent is on a first name basis with editors at key publishers and knows what they are looking for. You are not charged any fees at all until a work is published. The agent typically collects fifteen percent of the royalties.

So getting a real agent is a hard bar to reach. I did have a literary agent briefly out of college. I set my expectations low for breaking into the field. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was on the air in the 1970s. I asked an agent to submit a couple of scripts for them. She agreed but they were quickly bounced back. Apparently staff wrote all their scripts. I gave up the idea of writing a great novel or screenplay and went to work instead because I was broke.

My wife, actually a better writer than I am, also wrote all sorts of stories in the science fiction, children and fantasy genres. She sent them out to various publications to see if they might publish them. Her heart was broken time and again. She too gave up. When she chooses to write today, it is for a genre called slash that appeals to the fan fiction community. Needless to say there is no money in it, but there is the occasional fan mail and recognition at a convention.

Our daughter (almost 24 years old) took up the pen naturally. Arguably, if a budding writer had to be born anywhere, she picked good parents. We provided a nutrient-rich literary soup for her. Our house is full of books. There is a newspaper on the kitchen table every morning, and various magazines to read. In addition, we exposed her early to the arts. Just last night we took her to see Miss Saigon at Signature Theater (review to come). She saw her first musical at age six but by now has seen more theater than most people do in several lifetimes. We encouraged her writing but warned her that, like us, she probably couldn’t earn a living at it. I encouraged her toward journalism, which at least pays something resembling a living wage. But no, she set her mark impossibly high. She wanted to write fiction. Worse, she chose fantasy novels, which with the exception of J.K. Rowling is a pretty limited market. We warned her that she had set herself up for a bigger failure because it was a highly saturated but limited market. It was best, we counseled, to do it on nights and weekends. You are going to need a full time job at a desk somewhere to get by.

But still she plugged away, while we fretted over her grades and her slow but measured progress in college. She did earn her bachelor’s degree in English this spring. She is still looking for a job. We did give her credit for doggedness. She finished her book, first of a trilogy, and kept shopping it around to literary agents that seemed interested in this stuff. She endured lots of rejection, crushed spirits but also occasional notes of encouragement. And somehow she kept plunging ahead. We cheered her on while grimacing privately at the probability of the brick wall she was about to hit. It was our experience that life was unfair, and no matter how good you were, most of us writers were fated to be unpublished. We certainly were. We just gave up.

Spring turned to summer, summer headed toward autumn. She seemed doomed to the fate of Sisyphus. It hurt to watch and it felt counterproductive sometimes to encourage her perseverance but gosh, she sure was good. Both my wife and I agree her writing was far better than anything we ever wrote. Meanwhile she went on job interviews far beneath her talents and wrote into the wee hours.

On Wednesday, Lowenstein Associates, a New York literary agency, sent her a contract to sign. Look for her book, Godbinder, first part of a trilogy to be published by some lucky publisher in 2014 under the pen name of J. M. Saint.

J.K. Rowling had better watch out.