There are so many different kinds of writing–including multiple forms of fiction and nonfiction — that it’s difficult to offer general advice to a writer who wants to build a bibliography representative of his/her best efforts. But here are a few things I have learned over the years, during which I have published more than twenty stories, two novels, a memoir, and a collection of essays (which I helped write and edit).
My publishers have been Stanford University Press (a well-known academic press), DayBue Publishing (an ambitious indie press that since has gone out of business), Naval Institute Press (a solid trade/professional press associated with the Naval Academy), and many, many literary magazines, both print and on-line.
You Don’t Have to Know Someone; Just Persist
By way of beginning, let me note that the marketplace is flooded with submissions, but you don’t have to “know someone” to have your work accepted. What you have to do is send your manuscripts out over and over again, often more than twenty times. At a given point, a first reader will pass what you’ve written to a second reader who will pass it to an editor…and that editor may well say, “Yes!”
The level of subjectivity involved in such a process is so high that I cannot tell you why the first publication said no and the seventh publication, every bit as prestigious as the first, said yes. But that’s the way things work. And if your writing is not out there for consideration, it won’t be considered–so keep sending it out!
Editors Are People Too
Recently I received a note from a guest editor I did not personally know saying he was short-listing a story of mine (he subsequently selected and published it) as he worked his way through a hundred other options, many of which drove him crazy–too many vampires, or something like that. I didn’t know what to say about all the other submissions, so I chose to say nothing, just sit and wait.
But what was clear to me was that the guest editor was in pain and understood from my writing alone that I would sympathize with him. I think he made the right decision in selecting my story, but I’m sure some other authors would disagree. Hopefully, their work found a home elsewhere.
It Isn’t Rejection; At Most, Editors Decline
The point, I guess, is that a writer has to have a tough skin and never, ever think of not having the work accepted as “rejection.” It isn’t rejection. At most, editors decline, as do agents, for reasons that often are opaque.
At a certain juncture–after a lack of success that goes on for six months, for example — it’s time to consider revising what you’ve written, but this should be done on your own terms and consistent with the new perspective you have on your writing after having let those six months pass.
Then: make it shorter!
Brevity Sells Good Writing
Writing “sells” when it is good, when it circulates a lot, and when it is as short as possible. Almost all publishers hate long submissions because they are expensive to print and crowd out other good pieces or books.
To my mind, publishers sometimes take this attitude to an extreme. I have picked up several twenty-five dollar books of 150 pages (or less) and said to myself, “Who do they think they’re kidding, selling so little for so much?”
I suppose if you have a big enough “name” this strategy works sometimes, but it is only an exaggerated confirmation of what I’m saying: be brief and editors will appreciate it. The issue isn’t just commercial; it’s also aesthetic. Faulkner once said that he would have written The Sound and the Fury in ten pages if he could. I think he meant it.
Do I Need An Agent?
Agents are a mixed bag when it comes to publishing your work. I have had three well-established agents. Nothing I have published anywhere has been placed by one of those agents. Zero. I don’t doubt some agents are terrific allies and advocates, and I would love to have one help me out, but what’s the lesson?
You don’t need an agent. You need personal persistence, tenacity, and that tough skin I mentioned.
Establishing a “Platform”
A few years ago, when I was circulating the first draft of THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN, an agent said he was interested but asked what I could offer by way of a “platform” to help push sales.
Since I don’t live in New York, I wasn’t quite sure what this term meant. I thought it might have something to do with my previous publication record or reviews or professional qualifications. In this I was only partly right.
A “platform” as I now understand it increasingly means:
- What is your internet presence?
- Do you have a web page?
- Are you active in Redroom, on Goodreads, on WordPress, in Linked-in, Facebook, and so forth?
By this definition, I think I’m about 80% home, but I confess it’s a struggle. Writers often tend to be introverts. Social media outreach and personal exposure unsettles introverts. I love face-to-face conversation about books and writing. I can’t get enough of it. But at the same time I guard my time jealously so that I can write.
The fact is that writing means more to me than anything, including publishing and sales. Writing means living in a higher register to me. It means freedom and self-fulfillment. So spending a great deal of time tending to my “platform” is hard on me. I know I have to do it, but I’m not in love with it.
Let’s consider that splendid anomaly J.D. Salinger. He had great success and then locked his door for the final decades of his life. We hear that he kept writing, and I suspect he did, and I also suspect that he confirmed what I am saying about myself: for some people, writing alone is close to enough. (It was for Emily Dickinson, wasn’t it?)
But I haven’t had J.D. Salinger’s level of success, and I’m probably not as weird a guy as he was, so I have pushed my writing out the door relentlessly, and I’m still doing it, seeking some kind of personal closure to something I found important enough to labor over for weeks, months, and sometimes years.
Get Critiques From Readers You Trust
The problems I had with THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN for several years were:
- It was too long.
- I couldn’t get anyone except a close friend and a former editor (whom I paid for her opinion) to read it front to back and thereby appreciate its architecture and ambition. One very fine literary publisher held the manuscript for over a year before declining, but even that house was not considering the whole manuscript, just a synopsis and a hundred pages or so.
Meanwhile, I kept writing new things and THE MAN CLOTHED IN LINEN began to seem like the most significant thing I had ever written…that might never see the light of day.
Then last summer my older son asked if he could read the manuscript. He’s a scientist (physicist) but broadly educated, and he reacted to the novel exactly as I hoped readers would react: he “got it,” which was immensely encouraging to me.
I mentioned this to my literary older brother (a former editor, now an historian) and he said, “Let me take a look at it.” Same reaction, but a little nuanced: “This is great, but it’s too long. You need to cut it down and then do something with it.”
Remember, it’s a process, and brevity sells good writing.
AUTHOR BIO: Robert Earle was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania and educated at The Hill School, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins. He is the author of The Man Clothed in Linen: The Messiah or Herod’s Son?, a novel; The Way Home, a novel; Nights in the Pink Motel, a critically acclaimed memoir of a year in Iraq; and dozens of short stories that have appeared in literary magazines across the U.S. and Canada. Robert Earle also was contributing co-editor of Identities in North America: Search for Community. For twenty-five years he was a senior diplomat and national security official, serving in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Washington, and New York. He lives and writes in Arlington, Virginia. Learn more at http://robertearle.wordpress.com/.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund