No matter what you may think of my product, I am a professional writer. That means that I earn substantial income from the fruits of my keyboard, and I also use that keyboard to help make millions for the organizations with which I am associated (you did read that correctly). I don’t make $50 here or there, I make enough that I might find my carbon footprint suffering from the proposed cap-and-trade legislation. Do I mean I’ve got fiction-writing income like the UK’s richest woman, JK Rowling? My gosh, of course not. Do I mean like the Twilight Saga’s creator Stephenie Meyer? Oh, my goodness – no way!
I’m probably never going to get up to the income level of today’s most successful English-language authors – like J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Dan Brown.
Increasingly, I have been doing new freelance writing and art projects. With each new project and person with whom I establish a relationship, I learn a lot more about professionalism, and about how to please the desired audience.
The biggest message I have right now for aspiring writers is: think about your audience. Think about the “end user” and purpose of the product you are creating. Often, we talk about separating the creative and marketing steps of our work. But they are inextricable in the sense that, when you are writing a piece of fiction (or nonfiction), and it is intended to be published to a paying audience (subscribers, book-buyers – all are readers), there has to be some “cachet” to it. In other words: telling a good story. The marketing part comes in when deciding which market/publication is the best “fit” for the story you have told. With books, for example, publishers, whether they are new presses, or long-established divisions of one of the six large international publishing houses, have audiences, or markets, as you will, that they publish to. Most publishing “arguments” and discussions revolve around failures to reach those audiences, and the causes for those failures. That’s what e-publishing chitchats are about, that’s what chitchats about books or authors that didn’t perform are about, and that’s what “these midlist authors aren’t getting a chance to build an audience” chitchats are about.
I can turn every one of these author-centric complaints or chitchats around and say, “Show me several real examples of great books that were not eventually published, and did not eventually find its audience.” Of course, this is also “proving a negative,” and usually A Confederacy of Dunces is brought forth to illustrate this concept. According to a 2006 Slate article focusing on Dunces’ relationship to the film business, the book “. . . has always been shrouded in heartbreak. Its publication came 11 years after author John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, and it reached print only because of the singular persistence of his mother, who harassed novelist Walker Percy so intently that he finally agreed to read the lone ink-smudged manuscript in her possession.”
John Kennedy Toole didn’t stick around long enough to see what became of the book he wrote. I honestly can’t remember the story well enough to remember if his death was connected with the failure of Dunces to immediately find a publisher or not. But I rather think that it was, and this contributed to his mother’s persistence.
And this post isn’t about John Kennedy Toole, anyway.
It’s about one of the most idiotic posts about rejection I’ve ever seen, and the fact that this post and everything about it, defines “unprofessional” writer. I don’t know the author’s name – his screen name is “Scoubidou” and his free Slate blog has a picture of a wolf. He states he is “an amateur writer of crime – this crime of writing.”
OK, be your own judge about this. The blog entry is all about how a rejection experience, something we professionals experience every day, seems to have really messed up his life. The event occurred in 1986, and the blog entry is titled “F**k You, Alan Rodgers.” Yes, that Alan – the one whose well-meant and professional rejection CARD made me “quit” writing back in 1985 – one year prior to the dreadful events described in the blog post. Alan says I’ve drawn his attention to this post before. Well, I hadn’t and haven’t, because I just saw it today, and it was so “inspirational,” I’m writing it up. It’s crazy, all right, but it is textbook unprofessional, and I’m going to give this gentleman credit, he does state up front that he is an “amateur” writer.
So, here’s what Alan did. The post is unclear, but the first-mentioned rejection can only be from Twilight Zone magazine (about which the author complains bitterly for the first part of his post, and calls former Twilight Zone Editor and author T.E.D. Klein “T.E.D. Bundy”).
“My worst young experience? I sent a story in to a horror magazine. The editor was a pretty well known toff named Alan Rodgers. It came back after a loooong time with this heart-pounder of a note: I really like this, unfortunately this magazine is folding. I’m moving over to a new magazine, and if you send it there, I’d really like to publish it.”
So, “Scoubidou” recalls that he sent the story with a reminder note to Night Cry, and got a form rejection in return, and this seriously ruined his life.
I did quit writing for 8 years myself after Clarion (2 years, to be exact) – so at the same time, I got the same treatment as “Scoubidou” or similar. But . . . I don’t blame Alan, and I didn’t get a note like that, either. I happen to know from personal knowledge and experience that Alan meant that, and would never have sent that out if he hadn’t meant every word of every sentence. And as far as form rejection letter from Night Cry goes, I am no Night Cry expert, but I know it wasn’t a one-person operation. The likeliest “explanation” is that Alan didn’t see the second submission. Someone else there did this dirty deed. Or, failing that (because this “Scoubiedou” mentions pastrami or grease, etc.), “Scoubiedou’s” cover letter got separated from the manuscript (as happens) and Alan did see the manuscript but not the reminder cover letter, and the story didn’t work as well the second time around (as, sorry “Scoubiedou” – also happens).
I can share with “Scoubiedou” that Alan has always prided himself on making editorial decisions by reading a few sentences at most. At least, decisions of the “rejection” kind. You can often tell from titles, to be honest. You can tell from a lot of things.
You can tell from the use of language, most of all. Someone who has command of the language knows how to open, how to pace, how to do the basics! These are the basics, “Scoubiedou,” and the rest of it isn’t craft, it is art! It’s also taste, and common sense.
The rest of “Scoubiedou’s” absolutely bonkers post is about mostly how much he can hate on Twilight Zone and others, angst, and some moderate success with the gents markets of the day, Esquire, I think and good old Playboy.
I’m the sort of arrogant, vaguely madcap person who might, on a whim, decide to read 3-4 current Playboy stories (but aren’t they going out of business or close?) – but let’s say Esquire, because I did do that around Christmas, and pastiche up something that “feels” like what they’re publishing, send it to them, and publish it, because mimicry and emulation is one of my skills. It’s not a skill I’m particularly proud of, nor do I think it’s something that has to do with stories I would approach in a more legitimate, less off-the-cuff fashion. I realized I could do this, oh, gee whiz – about – 12-13 years ago or so. Only later did I realize the real-world connection to “selling actual work to actual people so real readers will read it and like it.”
To “Scoubiedou,” it’s all one big ball of angst – he still hasn’t the slightest idea, in his extensive trashing of a magazine that’s been out of publication for a quarter of a century (Twilight Zone) that this, like every other magazine, had an editorial purpose, slant and readership. Moreso, and different from, and a lot more complex than his trashy evaluation of it: “The fiction in there was terrible. The large majority of the stories were rewrites of Stephen King stuff, backwards, forwards, anacrosstic [sic].”
Now, as far as writing novels, or even much short fiction – I mean short fiction that’s worth something – what YOU as a writer believe in is really what you should be sending out. This callous “matching” and mimicking thing I mentioned – that’s not real writing, and that isn’t worth much money. But if you can’t get your thinking process more in order than “Scoubiedou” did – no. And truly, to his credit, he stated right up front, he was an “amateur writer of crime – this crime of writing.” Writing – and selling – fiction (and nonfiction) professionally isn’t the same as the passion for marking down words that “Scoubiedou” describes very vividly. It’s about communication, and it’s about audience. It’s about understanding, or at least, if you are starting out, picturing that audience. And it’s also about understanding simple things like the form rejection letter. All that means is that one seeks another market. And, creates enough – spending enough time in focused creation – to begin to create work that is something people will pay for. In the case of fiction, that’s “good storytelling” that will satisfy the audience. Professional writing.
I’m still famous at Literary Rejections On Display, too. Imagine that. And of writers that make money, you’ll find few more supportive of genuine individual expression than me. And few who have made fewer compromises in what they write than me. There isn’t one of those ludicrous, “mimicry” stories that I have published that didn’t turn into something very different in the end – a real story. If it did not – I didn’t publish it. I put it aside and reminded myself not to play that type of nonproductive game. I have put many projects aside that I feel are not important or worthy – things that I don’t want my name on. Money isn’t that important to me – not like that. When both meet together: that is very much the ideal goal, and something that is a “win” for everyone involved: author, editor, publisher, bookseller – and especially – the reader.