Saturday, March 12, 2011

How to Get Published [1]

As an undergraduate, I majored in creative writing, which was very cool until my final semester when I realized that as an undergraduate I was majoring in creative writing. What can I say? The job fairs weren’t especially looking for a dude with a handful of (mostly incomplete) stories. All the better, since I didn’t own a suit.

I needed to publish something, that much was clear—I mean, it’d be a start—and all of my workshop professors had an opinion on this, though often convoluted and a bit too philosophical for my tastes. I remember towards the end of that semester, one of my teachers (a heavyweight in the industry who I swear must’ve popped out the womb publishing short fiction) was asked the burning question—How do I get published?—and without skipping a beat he let us know that getting published was like climbing the tallest mountain in the world. Barefoot. Twice. No—make that three times.


But then one weekend I was browsing a book store and came across the answer to my concerns. Squeezed somewhere in the reference section was one of those colorful idiot manuals, or dummy guides, or stupid kits, to—that’s right—getting published. Finally! I thought. Here was the step-by-step chunk of concrete I’d been looking for. Forget the mountain, I’d have an income by Monday.

Well. I’ll save you the suspense. The answer guide contained no answers, and I’m not really sure what I was expecting (Free manuscript inside! Easy to use formula—just plug in the character names and submit!). In fact, the book brought to light a whole new mess of things to think about (and forget the writing part), industry FYI’s presented so casually you’d think finding an agent was as easy as taking a shovel and choosing a good place to dig. I trashed[2] the book eventually, after flipping through another fun, yet totally useless chapter titled, I believe, Movie Adaptations: Dealing with Directors.

Clearly this book had been written for Stephen King, Grisham maybe, but certainly not Johnny B.A. with a resume the size of a bar napkin.

Life goes on of course and I’ve had some luck since then. I use the word “luck” on purpose—yes, because I’m modest to a fault, but also because it saves me from having to provide even a slice of insight on the matter. If there’s a code to all this I have yet to crack it. I’ve had stories published in journals that I didn’t think stood a chance. I’ve had others that were supposed to change the face of fiction, rejected so fast the SASE was still warm upon arrival. I’ve met with agents who still get excited at the idea of short fiction. I’ve met with agents who’ve told me TV specs—now there’s your gold mine!

Who knows, you know?

I teach creative writing here in Chicago and each semester I’ll have students ask me the burning question, and each semester I have to stop myself from formulating a ridiculous analogy about climbing mountains and walking the moon and defying gravity (read: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know!). Instead, I’ll tell them what one of my mentors at Iowa was kind (or lazy!) enough to tell me one evening when I was no doubt running my mouth over petty things (as MFA students will do):

“Just keep writing, man[3]. Send it out I guess. But then forget about it. Write more shit.”


So. How do you get published? First you write, I think. Then you write some more, and then some more, and then you send stuff out to journals with cool names, and on the way home from the post office, before forgetting about the whole thing and moving on, you buy a lottery ticket, knowing damn well that if you had to direct your karmic goo in one direction, you’d pick publication and two contributor copies over a million bucks any day of the week. Because you’re crazy. And you write. And what a warped and wonderful process it all is.Oh, and when you finally do get that movie adaptation (and you will), you might want to check out that dummies guide to publishing. You’d be surprised, but there are some serious dos and don’ts to dealing with directors[4].

[1] My grandmother, bless her diabetic heart, likes to answer all questions love, life, and everything in between with a simple “Quien sabe”, a phrase that translates to one thing, sure, but can mean anything else from “Who knows” to “Who cares” to “Shut up” to “Why you asking me anyway?”

[2] This is a lie. I still have the book and I read it often. Ironically, I like to think, but not really.

[3] This particular author wasn’t young exactly but he liked to say things like “man”, to loosen the tension maybe, keep things informal, like “Hey stop crying, man, I was only kidding when I said your story is busted from the ground up.”

[4] Rule #43c: Ah what do they know anyway?

1 comment:

Alexis E. Santi said...

I wrote an essay about this a while back for those who are interested in some other angles that this very smart post iteriates.

Wow, this had me rolling "resume the size of a bar napkin" oh sheesh, I laughed hard.