Perseverance, Publishing and the Urge to Write

Written by James Van Pelt

Discouraging news about the publishing business has pummeled the writing community lately. Beside the frightening specter of Norman Spinrad’s misadventures with his publisher, and the ongoing fracas with Bantam over the Star Wars novel contracts, other high profile harbingers of trouble for veteran and novice writers lurk on the horizon.  Spider Robinson, for example, has posted an open letter about his thoughts on publishing, and none of his thoughts sound hopeful. An eleven-year SFWA veteran recently vented his frustrations with novel publishers in a resignation letter to the SFWA Forum. Paula Guran of Dark Echo also lately bemoaned the state of the publishing industry in her e-mail newsletter.

For many, particularly those who earn a living or hope to in this business, things have never looked bleaker, and appearance mirrors reality well in this case. More people it seems are writing science fiction, fantasy and horror than ever, and fewer places accept the work. The cutbacks in “mid-list” authors in the book publishing market, and the disappearance of major short story markets are well documented.

Because of these trends, numerous authors and want-to-be authors are despairing. Comments like, “You have to know someone to be published,” or “The editors only print their friends’ work,” are common. A former student called me last week, completely down in the mouth about her writing. She said, “I’ve been working for years and seen no success at all, just one rejection after another. I think I ought to quit.”

I told her that if publishing was the reason she was writing, then maybe she should quit, but if publishing was the main reason she was writing, then she’d probably never be published anyway. Publishing is the result of perseverance, luck and talent, and it should be almost totally removed from the urge to write.

It’s true that the odds against placing a manuscript have never been higher. Scott Edelman at Science Fiction Age reports that he reads 1,400 to 1,600 stories every two months to choose the six or seven stories for print. Numbers are higher at Asimov’s, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Unagented novels at the major publishing houses are also coming in record numbers. An acquiring editor at one of the major houses told a kaffeeklatsch group at this year’s WorldCon that to handle the crunch of manuscripts she once rejected 26 novels in 25 minutes. Literary agent Donald Maass reported that he, like many other agents, is receiving hundreds or queries and manuscripts. So from a numbers stand point, the odds look bad.

Fortunately, manuscripts are not chosen from a numbers stand point. They aren’t plucked randomly from the pile like some kind of literary lottery; they are evaluated (as hard as it is to believe that a novel could be evaluated in less than a minute).

Why this is good news is that rejecting 90% or more of the work is easy. Of the thousands of manuscripts, some significant percentage are by people who are sending in their first story or novel (or by people who don’t seek feedback on their writing, so that everything they write is essentially their first work). When they are rejected, they quit. Writing, after all, is a lonely sport that requires a certain mix of determination/vision/anti-social tendencies to continue. Not many people can sustain the effort in the face of rejection. My guess is that if someone kept a data base of all the authors who submitted stories, a surprising proportion would only appear on the data base once.

Then another significant percentage of manuscripts are obviously poorly written. They betray themselves in the first couple of sentences and require no more reading. I edited The California Quarterly, a literary magazine, for two years, and most manuscripts revealed their ineptitude on the first page. Writing skills don’t come easily to most, and even massive improvement won’t raise these writers to publishable standards.

Those two groups, the first-timers and the poor writers, make up the bulk of the slush pile. After that are the earnest middle-of-the-road writers whose skills are adequate (but not great), who don’t have interesting stories to tell, or they haven’t learned how to make the story interesting.

So, out of a thousand manuscripts, not many remain that are worth looking at. Certainly fewer than one-hundred.

More good news is that, for the serious writer with a modicum of talent, getting into the top 10% of the stories in the slush pile isn’t that difficult. All that is required is perseverance and the capacity to learn; two qualities that most people lack. The persevering writer doesn’t give up. He/she keeps producing new work and submitting the old. George Scithers once rejected a story of mine with this helpful advice: “I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this story that you were working on your next.” Fortunately, I was.

Connie Willis says that at one point before she’d published her first story, she had eight manuscripts in the mail to different markets. One day she checked her post office box, and in it was a slip telling her to pick up her mail from the postmaster. Instead of a package or something pleasant, however, the postmaster handed her rejections on all eight stories. Crushed, she considered quitting, but because she’d made it a habit to address envelopes to the next market for each story, she decided to slip the rejected work into the new envelopes and send them off. Eventually, she says, all eight works found publishing homes.

I have never sold a story to the first market that saw it. However, last year I sold a story that had been bounced thirty-one times previously.

Writing publishable work also requires the capacity to learn and to improve writing skills. Too many unpublished writers take their old skills to a new story, figuring that their last rejection was the result of just telling the wrong story. What would serve them better, and move them closer to publication, would be to work on their skills. What ought to be different on their next writing project is not the topic but their ability to accomplish the task. Writers who are dedicated to improvement study successful writers, seek feedback on their own work, and look to make definite changes in their style.

Perseverance and growth will pull a writer into the top 10% quickly. As far as publishing goes, however, the real challenge and the hard pull is to get into the top one-half percent. But the slush pile is thinner than it looks.

I told my dejected student that if publishing was the main reason she was writing, than she’d probably never be published. Writing her stories and marketing her work should be separate hobbies. Getting one too entwined with the other will surely damage both. When she started writing it was because she felt she had stories to tell. Her hope was to bring her passion, vision and voice to the stuff of her imagination and the materials of the world so that she could explain herself to herself and others. If she is ever to have a chance of being a published writer, she needs to be a writer who writes even if there is no hope of every being published because the act of writing is more important than the fate of the writing.

As far as marketing the work afterwards, it’s a distinct and different activity. I talked to a writer from the south-west who told me that she’s on Greenberg’s short list for writers who are invited to submit work to his anthologies, and her stories have appeared in several of them. She got that connection through an older pro who was a friend of hers. She also told me, however, that she was envious of me because she’s never made an “over the transom” sale to a magazine. At the same time I was pumping her for information on anthologies, she was trying to discover if I had placed work in magazines through connections or some sort of secret backdoor. She told me that she had concluded (just to make herself feel better) that a previously unpublished writer had NO chance of getting into those magazines, since all the sales were to friends of the editors.

I had to tell her I had no connections. I just write them and mail them. The news made her look somber.

And I don’t have any connections, really. I have shaken hands with editors at conventions. I once stood in a small group that was talking to Gordon Van Gelder. I’m one of the faceless hundreds who shake hands and stand in groups.

So, I’m back to my starting position on these marketing matters, which I think philosophically, motivationally and artistically is the place to be. I write the best damn stuff I can, tell the stories I want to read, and if they never sell, stay happy with what I have done.

I heard an anecdote once attributed to Stephen King. Someone asked him what the secret to writing success was, and he said that it was easy. “You just need to be in the right place at the right time. Since none of us can know when the right time will be, our job is to get to the right place and stay there.”

I’ve always liked that quote.

Someone is getting published everyday. Even in the novel industry, there are hundreds of authors. When I walk through the genre section at Barnes and Nobel, it is forty feet long and six feet high. New titles rotate through constantly. If one disregards media tie-ins (and why would one?), there’s still an impressive number of new books.

The magazine market is somewhat analogous. Despite some magazines’ disappearance, there are still numerous markets. Chris Holliday’s on-line market list shows twenty professional and twenty-seven semi-professional magazines. Although the competition is fierce, editors must find new work. Someone will write the stories that the editors find.

Selling a work presents incredible challenges, but publishing or not publishing should have nothing to do with the impetus of the stories, at least for us who are not making a living at it. In fact because publishing is so unlikely, it gives me the freedom to write anything I please. I recently sold a story to Realms of Fantasy that was a writing experiment on my part. I didn’t think it was commercial at all, but I liked writing it.

I sent it out because I have this second hobby, submitting the work. Marketing feels exactly like fishing to me. Most of the time, nothing happens, and I begin to believe there are no fish in those enticing holes I’m tossing my lure into. Then, every great while, I get a strike. When I took education classes they called that occasional hit, “sporadic reinforcement.” Turns out that it’s the strongest motivator, and it sounds like fishing to me.

The odds don’t stop me from marketing. I like the hobby. I even think some of my stuff is good enough to find a market, so I keep trying. On the off chance that meeting someone at a convention might help, I go to those too. Maybe some day a tired editor will pick up one of my manuscripts and think, “Oh, yeah. Van Pelt. He’s that pleasant fellow I met in San Antonio,” and at least be in a charitable frame of mind as he reads my story.

But I’m not betting on it.

In the meantime, I have a story that’s been bugging me. I really want to explore it, play with it, discover what it has to teach me and what it has to say to others. I think I’ll go to work on that hummer right now and make it sing.

Copyright © 1998 James Van Pelt. Reproduction and distribution specifically prohibited. All rights reserved. First published at SF Central. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.