by Brando Skyhorse, June 9, 2010 11:06 PM
[Editor's Note: Don't miss Brando Skyhorse reading from The Madonnas of Echo Park at Powell's City of Books on Burnside on Tuesday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m. Click here for more details.
When I was an unpublished writer in my 20s burning with envy and laziness and fear, someone gave me a Wallace Stevens quote for inspiration: "After the final no there comes a yes/And on that yes the future world depends." Now seems as good a time as any to take stock of my road to publication as some of you who are reading this may be unpublished writers who want to glean some small kernel of reality that you can nourish into hope.
My high school sweetheart started this. Either that or my mother. It's a weird connection to make, I know. My mother had a Sears manual typewriter with a sleek plastic lid that let her carry it from room to room like a suitcase, on which she clacked away at a memoir called The Beginning. I helped her make the jacket for it. It was stark white (because I was using white paper) and had a tunnel-like entrance that had blue Bic ballpoint pen ink streaking away from it. She worked on this project for years, never stopping to correct for typos, grammar, or factual accuracy. The writing brought her happiness in a way few other things did, though it never consciously occurred to me I should attempt writing for a living myself.
My first girlfriend was another matter. I'd spent a good three or four months crushing on her in 12th grade and when we at last consummated our relationship by holding hands on the ride home from Disneyland on New Year's Day, it felt as if there were an entire history about how I won the girl of my dreams that was waiting to be told. She must have sensed it too because she wanted to know all the details of my months-long infatuation. When had I first noticed her? When had I first wanted to ask her out? When had I first known that I "liked her" liked her?
"Why don't you write it all down?" she asked. "Write it like a story." It was a fascinating request and it turned out the story of how we "became a couple" required more explanations than I'd imagined. There were so many twists and turns and complications that when I handed her my assembled narrative it numbered 82 pages. I think she scoffed at the page length, which might have wounded me had she not followed up with the off-hand remark, "Maybe you could do this for a living."
Could I do this for a living? It didn't seem possible but the idea was wedged in there, right next to owning an In-N-Out Burgers and playing keyboards in an '80s synth band. It was fun, the writing. Not like work at all, but like play, building entire worlds out of words whose sole aim was to capture those ineffable pictures in my head that would run away from me whenever I tried to write them down. But how I loved chasing them! Catching one was like sunshine breaking through the clouds or the first time you had satisfying sex or whatever clichéd image runs through your head when you aren't being conscious of someone grading your thoughts or daydreams. (If you're a writer, you know what I mean.)
I took writing classes in college but never submitted to our literary journal because I thought that since I knew everyone who'd read the submission, there was something dishonest about the process. I applied to creative writing programs, then chose an MFA program. Being an MFA student was an almost guaranteed way to be published in your college's literary journal. Yet even when I was editor of our journal during my second year, I refused to submit any of my work because it felt like shooting dirty pool. Why use connections to be published? What about the individual merit of the work itself?
Then I moved to New York and worked in publishing for 10 years.
No, that's not meant to be a funny rejoinder to the previous sentence. I moved to New York and worked in publishing because it seemed like the best course of action for a young aspiring writer whose first novel — 750 pages in length, printed on expensive stock paper that doubled its thickness when submitted — had been rejected by almost every agent in New York and some in other cities, too. That's no exaggeration either. I collected 60 to 70 rejections, providing an unintended benefit when I started working as an editor. Many of the agents had remembered my submission (I assume what they remembered was my name), and that acted as an efficient ice-breaker. I set my broken first novel aside and began writing stories, all of which were submitted in a lazy and undisciplined manner. A single magazine was kind enough to scribble encouraging rejection notes but it was easy to exhaust whatever kind of encouragement I could muster from "we'd like to see more of your work." I wrote more stories whose voices didn't work, based on new writers I was reading. My stories had resolutions that seemed trite, stories I dubbed "failure" pieces because I realized they would never get published but were stepping stones to another evolution in my voice, a voice that might have a better chance at connecting with others.
Meanwhile, colleagues from my former writing workshop published books of their own, some of which would be among the biggest selling books of the past 10 years. I'd like to say I was happy for them. Sometimes I was. Other times the effect was devastating. How did I become the Joe Piscapo of my writing workshop? What had I done wrong? I was also working as a nonfiction editor in a publishing house, reading dozens of submissions a month and writing my own rejection letters. I'd failed to notice that in the service of other writers as an editor, where I worked with some of the finest authors working out there today (I include on this list Randall Sullivan, William J. Bernstein, David Zucchino, Frank Deford, and many others), my own writing was getting better, sharper. Articulating what I wanted other writers to do was teaching me what I wanted to do in my own writing. Of course it'd take me several more years to realize this.
Then, in a moment of inspiration (that is to say, anger over a book deal I read about), I sat down to outline the book I thought should be written by, well, someone. Once the heat of jealousy died away, what was left was an idea for a book that was, to my great surprise, more honest and more difficult than anything I'd attempted before. Over the next three-plus years I wrote and revised this book. There was no guarantee what I was working on would sell and many times during the process I worried that I'd gone off on a horrible tangent. When it was done, I spent an additional seven months finding an agent, during which time I continued to sharpen and revise the work. (I didn't stop revising this book until the page proofs were sent to the printers.) Add to that three months of agent revisions and at last the manuscript would be read by editors. It was sent out on a Friday afternoon. We had our first offer on Monday morning.
Sounds like your typical tale of rejection and swift publishing salvation except this tale lasted, all told, 19 years. Nineteen years of being unpublished. This book is the first work I've written that will have any audience at all. I've never been published in journals, online — anywhere — and almost all of that was my fault. Nineteen years of writing not for an audience, but only for the joy I got from the process. Nineteen years of nos" until there came a yes.
What can you glean from all this? What can you do to lessen the number of nos in your future, or at least cope with them better? Looking this over, I arrived at some conclusions. The following is what worked for me but this list is by no means all-inclusive. Some or all or none of these things may work for you and are not in a particular order because each writer wrestles with them in their own way:
- Figure out why you're writing. Wanting to be published isn't a reason. Wanting to be "famous" isn't a reason because there's no such thing as a "famous" writer. A grade-D TV commercial actor will achieve more fame and money than almost 97% of the writers being published today. Wanting to earn enough money to quit your miserable job isn't a reason because you're not going to make enough money to do so. (If you do, feel free to write me and tell me I'm wrong but by that point, you'll be too busy counting your millions to care.) Having fun is a good reason, maybe the best reason. Treat writing like the privilege it is, not a crutch or a life raft. Doing so guarantees nobody will publish your work.
- Envy is for losers. I can say this because when I was envious, I was a loser. Big time. And nothing anyone told me could sway me from feeling otherwise. But I'm gonna try here anyway. By doing nothing but the wrong thing (being envious) I thought the right thing (publication) would somehow result. It's a good thing the internet was in its infancy when I went through this phase. Otherwise you would have seen scores of ignorant, hateful, and pointless diatribes with my name attached in the comments sections of book deals reported or short stories published online. Put that anger and envy into energy that you can bring to your own work. You've got your own thing going on. You have your own work to be excited about. You don't need to focus on anyone else's.
- Focus on the work, not on social networking. I worked in publishing for 10 years. I knew my current editor socially for several years. Yet it still took me seven months and 12 agent reads before the 13th agent said yes. My current editor never saw a single word I wrote until my agent sent her the work along with everyone else on her submission list. When my book was bought, I had no platform, no Facebook page, no Twitter "presence," not even a single publishing credit. All I had was the book I'd written, and if you think that a book about a group of working class Mexican-Americans living their day-to-day lives in a small Los Angeles neighborhood is commercial gold, then the names Dan Brown and James Patterson don't mean anything to you. If you make the work as good as you can make it, you won't need to network your way to the hottest agent or editor. Let your work do the work.
- Try and read one new writer a month. I think every aspiring writer should work in publishing for a few months to see just what it is a publishing person does. This would cut down on the number of "My God, you are WAY off base" assumptions a lot of people make about the publishing business (I sure made my fair share) and would help expose aspiring writers to writers who are professionals. Professional in their approach to everything, including their writing. Being an editor who worked with professional writers was an invaluable education but since not every aspiring writer has the ability or the inclination to edit other people's work, the next best tack is to read new work. All the time. You can read the classics or experimental fiction. You can read a few pages or an entire novel. The point is to read new work, work that challenges you, pushes you out of your comfort zone, and forces you to ask yourself, "Do I like what this writer is doing? Why or why not? And could I do better?"
- Expand your reading circle to get new (and honest) feedback. Much like you can't grow as a writer if you aren't reading new writers, your ability to learn why your prose isn't working won't grow if you're getting the same feedback from the same friends and loved ones. If you're hearing the same generic comments, they either don't want to hurt your feelings or aren't interrogating the work in a way that will help you learn from your mistakes. Round up new readers. I don't care who they are or where you find them (bribe people if you must), but getting fresh perspectives on your work helps makes it better. That leads me to...
- Listen to "useful" feedback. Whenever a writer gives something to someone to read, they have one of those internal detectors telling them where the good parts are, where the bad parts are, and the parts where they tried to "cheat." That is, the parts they know aren't working but hope a reader won't notice. Readers who can spot where you cheated are giving you good feedback. Listen to it. Readers who are trying to write their own stories through you are giving you bad feedback. Ignore it.
- Work hard AND smart. It's not enough to write 1,000 words a day IF you keep making the same mistakes. Diligence is only half the solution. The other half is evolution. Your writing has to evolve. It should look, sound, and read differently now than it did six months ago. That's because your perspective as a writer should be different now than it was six months ago. You should be in a different place because you've been reading new writers, getting fresh perspectives on your work from new readers, and trying different things in your writing.
- You're not as good a writer as you think you are. (Except when you are.) Jim Jarmusch once said, "There are two traps every artist must avoid: seeking praise and fearing criticism." An unpublished writer's frustration comes in part from feeling he/she is not being recognized and someone else — a "bad" writer — is. Guess what? You're not as good as you think, hot shot. I wasn't as good as I thought I was when I was envious of other writers getting book deals. I'm not as good a writer as I think I am right now. The only time I'm allowed to think I'm better than any other writer around is when I'm at the computer screen, alone, and putting the words down. I think, Damn, I can't wait to see how this will read! In the confines of your head, let your confidence flourish and let that drive your productivity. Then when you're done, give that confidence a cold shower and a "morning after" eye and send it on its way before you revise.
- Revise (and I don't mean changing black to ebony). The more a writer clings to their prose, the more the prose suffers. Accept that whatever you write today should be written in a different way tomorrow. Cut out all those words you think are perfect. Lose entire paragraphs. Delete pages of material. Fill up that blank space with new words, better dialogue, and motivations for your characters that make more sense. Then do the same thing tomorrow. If your first draft doesn't look substantially different from the draft you're sending out to readers and agents, you did something wrong.
- Don't assume your reader can see what you see in your head. When I write, I start with a visual, an image in my head that only I can see. I write that visual down and describe everything I see about it. Often when I write something that doesn't work for a reader, it's because I haven't given them enough information to help them see what I see. I think I've given them binoculars when in fact I've given them sunglasses. Help your readers see what you see by giving them the right tools (the right words, descriptions, dialogue, etc.).
- Ask yourself: how long are you willing to work at this? And to wait for it? Did I think it would take me 19 years to publish something I wrote? No. Had I known it would take 19 years to publish something I wrote, would I have kept going? Again, no, but it might have taken some of the pressure off if I had realized that so much of success is learning something from failure. It might not take you 19 years. If you follow some of the rules above, I'm sure it'll take a lot less. Then again, it could take a lot more. Can you accept that? If you ignore everything else above, don't ignore the next and most important rule, which is...
- Have fun. One of the best writing instructors I've ever had, Judith Grossman, said this: "No fun for the writer, no fun for the reader." If you aren't having a blast when you write, your reader won't have a blast reading what you wrote. Exuberance is contagious. If this advice sounds cheesy, you shouldn't be writing.
I hope this helped. I'm rooting for you.