Persistence Pays the Persevering Writer

My own shiny beauty. I lost my first one on the road (it might be in space now)

I keep a running list of article queries that haven’t landed a published home. Some of them are many years old, but I still like many of the ideas, and know that even an old query can still shake the right editor hand if the pitch is well-timed and properly directed. I didn’t quite realize just how wobbly-kneed the oldest of those queries is until I got an editorial yes on one that was several years old.

Today I breezed through the entire list, and saw that the geezer at file bottom was a pitch for a review on the best Palm OS-based exercise software. For those of you that exist in this world, Palm hasn’t produced one of its PDAs (a term as hoary as my pitch) since 2010, but people stopped buying them well before that, and my pitch predated 2010 by some years. By the way, if you’re wondering, PDAs have essentially been replaced by a device dubbed a “smartphone.” Who knows—they might catch on.

I’m amused by the fact that the file name of my query list is called “New Queries.” On reflection, “New and Essentially Deceased Queries” has more ring, but I’ll leave that for now. What I did want to emphasize is that if an article idea grabbed you once, grab it back, and send it out on its rounds now and then. The piece that was just accepted, by Wired UK, is about the history of the Fisher Space Pen, which wrote its way into history by its gravity-defying ink, first used in space in 1968, on the Apollo 7 mission.

The Space Pen just had its 50th anniversary (and continues to make its presence on all manned U.S. space flights), so perhaps it was newsworthy again. I’ve sent that query out to between 10–15 publications over the last three or four years, and finally got a hit.

Persistence pays, grasshopper. (Don’t think the Palm pitch will be exercising any editors now though.)

Free Circles

I’ve made the Kindle version of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, free on Amazon and at other online booksellers. Circles is a lively story about a couple of high-school doofuses who hitchhike across Canada, getting their eyes widened due to their naiveté about the ways of the road. Wise guys they are, but wisdom is in short supply. Check it out—won’t cost you a thin dime.

Trimming the Shrub

And a request for anyone who has bought my newest novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub. If you didn’t bite, it’s a Prohibition-era piece about a sozzled society reporter and would-be author who blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Crash Boston. If you have read it, please consider an online review at Amazon, or Goodreads or any other online book vendor. Reviews help a great deal with a book’s success. Thanks!

Is Good Enough Good Enough? “Settling” in Your Writing Career

Do you reach a point in your writing work where you think, “OK, I’ve had some stuff published, I’ve been read with appreciation by some people. Sure, maybe I haven’t set the writing world on fire, but my work is what it is, and I’m OK with it.”

Those were among my flitting thoughts after I got a rejection from the NY Times for a “Modern Love” column. I’d been trying to write—i.e., avoiding writing—a piece for Modern Love for a couple of years, because the Times is one of my aspirational publications, a mountain I’d looked at longingly, but always turned away, sighing, “Too high, too high.”

In one of my refreshingly non-paranoid moments, I realized that was bull, so I did write the piece, thought it was pretty good, and sent it off. But if you’ve read many of the Modern Love articles, you know that they are consistently better than pretty good. I was among the literal thousands of writers who write what they consider pretty good pieces and send them off to the Times, our timorous rabbits of hope thinking maybe, just maybe.

One and Done?

If you spend a fair amount of time writing for publication, whether fiction or non, rejection will be a side dish at your table. Whether you eat it cold or not is your choice. Many years ago, I took rejection of my work more seriously, as though it were a personal affront. But it’s always just business, unless you embezzled from the editor or something along those lines. Now, I basically shrug and move on; I’ve already sent the Modern Love essay out to another publication that prints those kinds of accounts. And I’ll send it to another if they don’t like it; as I said, it’s pretty good.

I just checked my freelance publications list for 2017: there are at least 50 articles there, a number of them in national publications, almost all of them pieces for which I was paid. A number are content marketing pieces for different clients. Most of them are pretty good.

But great? Perhaps, maybe a few.

Good Enough Ain’t

I also recently put one of my unpublished novels, Aftershock, in the Kindle Scout program. The book did OK in the voting, but not well enough for Amazon—after their review of the work—to pick it up for publication. But I think it’s—you guessed it—pretty good. It’s a book I’ve worked on (well, on and off) for years, and I think it has depth and feeling enough to earn some readers. I have another unpublished novel, a collaboration between me and a writer friend, that has merit as well.

But that brings me back to the initial question: is good enough good enough? Is my apparent pattern of releasing solid-but-not-world-shaking works a plateau? Have I settled to being a writer who writes pretty good stuff, gets published, and looks forward to weekend cocktails?

No. (Except for the weekend cocktails stuff.)

I always think my best work is yet to come. I’ve outlined a memoir of my high school shoplifting years that could be hilarious. My collaborator and I are talking about a sequel to our novel. I’ve got a bunch of queries to send out to various publications—and yes, that damnable New York Times will be among them—and I’ll try to make any and every of those assignments shine.

I’m far along in my writing life, but there’s still daylight, so I’ll keep typing. How about you?

Book Launching (Saggy Springs or Not)

Wait, is there a string attached? Photo by whiterussian on morgueFile

Wait, is there a string attached? Photo by whiterussian on MorgueFile


I’ve been bustling around (can’t you hear it?) this past week, trying to get my “how to find your writing voice” book together for publication next week, and it does make me wonder if most self-pub book launches—though mine might be more of a wayward toss—are as scattered and haphazard for other writers.

For instance, I’ve yet to fix my title, in my mind or on the page. It’s gone through a paddlewheel of possibilities, but my mind’s oar has cracked its handle here toward the end. Right now, it’s “Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See.” That’s all fine and good, and does capture some essentials of the book. But like any wavering candle, I’m subject to title-insecurity winds.

No, Can’t Be—ANOTHER Typo?
And my goodness, I’m a professional editor, and have the gall to charge people for things like proofreading. And yet, even though I’ve proofed this dang thing on the screen, proofed it in hard copy, and proofed sections on the screen again (I’m trying to sound Churchillian here: “we will fight them on the beaches …”) I’m STILL finding some typos and glitches. Gack!

There are umpty-trillion and one things you’re “supposed” to do to get ready for a book launch, but there’s not enough coffee in Kona for me to do them all (or even do most well). What I’ve done is:

  • sent out advanced copies to readers willing (I hope) to write a review
  • written sales copy for the Kindle description page
  • set up some guest posts on some relevant writing sites (which will appear after publication)
  • asked for a few blurbs from some writerly darlings I know (or know at least well enough to ask)
  • designed a landing page that still needs some guiding lights
  • and prepared cocktails on Fri/Sat/Sun eves for weeks on end

Oh wait, I always do the cocktail thing. But why break a good rhythm?

The Truth (and Good Help) Is Out There
There’s a bunch of other minor things I’m doing (eating more toast), and a number of things I’ll do post launch (eat less toast), but I won’t list them here now. What I do want to list is a few of the writers and their sites that I think give good guidance on book marketing and book launches.

Tim Grahl has a series of great (free) book launch posts and marketing lessons (like setting up an effective mailing list). And check out his good Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book

Joanna Penn always has great publishing industry/book marketing/book launching advice (in text, podcasts and video), much of it free.

Check out Sean Platt, Johnny Truant’s and David Wright’s Self-Publishing Podcast for info on how they’ve pretty much created a self-publishing empire, from tech tools to marketing to the ethos behind it all.

Naomi Dunford’s Itty Biz has all kind of juicy bits about marketing and product launching, and she’s quite funny too.

And my old pal, Joel D Canfield, has been there whenever I’ve asked some puzzler on publishing.

So, thanks to those folks for doing me solids. I’m rounding the corner on this launch stuff, and glad of it. I will probably continue with the cocktails though.

By the way, lately I’ve been making a real beauty: the Vieux Carré, an old New Orleans song of spirits that’s heady and just durn good. Note, this recipe shows it over rocks, but it’s great up as well, shaken or stirred. Maybe it will head the list at the book-launching party. Cheers!

To Thine Own Self (Publishing) Be True

Leaded type

I finished a novel in late 2012. Titled Aftershock, it’s based in San Francisco, and the 1989 earthquake plays a central part in throwing—almost literally—some disparate lives together. Nobody’s particularly comfortable in the book, but that’s the prerogative of the author—we get to torture our characters, so that we can be better people ourselves. Or not.

But I don’t want to talk about my psychological problems. (Unless you swing by with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon—I have ice on ice waiting for you.) I do want to briefly talk about publishing. Briefly, because talking about the changes in publishing is an industry in itself these days, and my adding to the din won’t land me any Oprah-time.

Bleary Queries

To this point, I’ve sent queries about my novel to 22 agents. Despite the publishing heavens being torn by demons, agents remain the middle defenders for those writers hungering for the traditional publishing route, with its still-credible distribution structure, now-flagging marketing support, and tarnished-yet-dimly-shiny “Look mom, some NY bigwigs bought my book” cachet.

Depending on the agent guidelines, those queries have included a couple of full manuscripts, a lot of 10-50 page excerpts, or just a synopsis and a prayer. So far, I’ve received 12 rejections; some of the queries are a few months’ old without response, so I’ll probably follow up on the best of those.

But the winds of change have blown their clichéd gusts through publishing’s doors, and floors. Self-publishing no longer has the “I wrote seven poems about grandma’s feet, and had them printed with a velvet cover” taint. I self-published my first novel, had a book of short stories published by a small press after that, and should no agent show real interest in my newest work in the next few months, I’ll go the self-abuse route once more. (I did always love the punchline for the you’ll-go-blind masturbation joke, “Hey, can I just do it long enough so I only have to wear glasses?”)

Resources: Self-pub Grub

I’ve been reading a good deal about the publishing industry and its earthquakes in the last year or so. Here are a few good books that have solid info on the publishing world, self-publishing and how to market your work:

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

Create Your Writer Platform

Sites with Insights

And here are some sites I read regularly that provide great resources and insights into the roiling new world of publishing.

Jane Friedman
The Creative Penn
Digital Book World

And if I do self-publish, this time I’ll have my book edited by some professional other than myself. Woe befalls the writer, even if they are professional editors, who edit their own work. That self-abuse could take the sight from any writer’s eyes, and I already wear glasses, so I know better now.

How Rejections Tell You to Keep Puckering Up

Yeah, but couldn't you have bought me a drink first?

Trying to place an article about a man who drives nails into his scrotum is a challenge. You have to find a publication that is appropriately (or inappropriately) edgy, but as a writer with an interest in circulating ideas, not so obscure as to not have an audience. And also as a writer interested in circulating cash, you would want compensation, even for a piece that might need to have dark curtains pulled over its stage.

These concerns came to mind the other day when I received a rejection notice for my memoir-style article about a night in San Francisco long ago. I’d attended what I thought was going to be a tattooing display and discussion, but its main event was an S&M demo, where aside from the scrotal crucifixion mentioned above, the artist in question sewed up his testicles over his penis with dental floss, much like a woeful pig in a blanket. Live, naked, onstage, much to my appalled eyes.

The Taste of Rejection
Where I’m going with this is not into any discussion of better choices among an evening’s entertainment (my article does that), but rather the various flavors of writer’s rejections, and how those taste on a writer’s tongue. The image for this post is a shot of my rejection folder, in all its glory. It is two inches high, and weighs almost two pounds. You might think that by my keeping that folder, I have a different—but just as pointed—sense of masochism as my pal with the pliant scrotum. By no means. That pile of “nos” is just a thing writers can step on to be a bit higher on their way to “yes.”

Looking over my hummock of rejections, you can see traces of their evolution over time. Sure, most of them are form letters of the “Dear Author, because of the number of submissions we receive, we regret that we are unable to respond personally ….” variety. But for those publications from twenty years ago where the editorial assistants or (victory!) the editors themselves spent some effort to tell the writer just why something didn’t fit the publication, the “no, buts” are longer and more developed extenuations. In the main, the handwritten rejections from the last few years are brief and pointed. They reflect more of today’s hurried and “next!” pace.

In fact, the letters themselves these days are so much more often little strips of paper, a slight ribbon that perhaps rejects a little more softly, because the “we regret” isn’t followed by the full page’s damning white space of emptiness. And as the evolution of electronic publishing is pushing paper aside, physical rejection letters are fewer seen. The ease of an electronic “no” is hastening their demise. Speaking of demise, I hadn’t gone through my reject slips for years, but in doing so, saw that many of the magazines I’d tried so fervidly to enter have shut their doors for good. Little solace, that.

Aiming High Keeps Your Head Up
But it was fun to flip through my collection, and note my ambition. There’s a partially handwritten, partially printed (from a dot-matrix printer, oh my!) sheet from 1988 on what I pushed that year: Articles to Atlantic, Esquire, Paris Review, Harper’s, Playboy and a host of smaller publications. None of those titans bit into what I was serving, but there was consolation in getting “an intriguing idea” from a Harper’s editorial assistant, and a “It’s a good one” from Esquire. A long handwritten response from a Travel and Leisure managing editor in 1992 detailing alternate publications that might accept my piece that he graciously declined. Even the form salutation from the Utne Reader: “Dear intrepid writer:”

So many of the letters are undated and don’t specifically mention the rejected article or story, so I have no idea what these limbo letters refer to, just a vagabond “no” telling me at some point I mailed, I waited, I hoped, and it was for naught. But clasping hands with those closed hands in my “no” pile are a number of yesses—the extended correspondence I had with Peter Sussman, a San Francisco Chronicle editor, much of it handwritten, about an article of mine he published about my much more extended correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. A series of letters from Lynn Ferrin, the late editor of Motorland magazine (precursor to Via) who had been trying to locate me—pre-email address—in the midst of a couple of moves. Regarding my piece on driving cross-country trying to locate a good cup of coffee, she told me, “Out of the piles of unreadable pap that come over the transom every day, by dump truck, suddenly there’s something that stirs my coffee….”

Onward!
Here’s my message: keep sending your stuff out. I’ve had articles accepted for publication that were years old, that were sent out 10 times. My rejection folder weighs two pounds, but that’s considerably less than the weight of the 200+ magazines, newspapers or books that accepted and published pieces of mine. The reject folder is just a reminder that you have to do the work, and keep doing it. I’ll pass on the advice of Howard Junker, the longtime, former editor of ZYZZYVA magazine, whose typed signature in his rejection letter is preceded by, “Keep the faith.” And whose handwritten note reads: “Onward!”

Onward indeed. Now, what editor is likely to go for that scrotum piece?