Hello readers and welcome to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here if you missed it. And without further ado, here is the second installment in the Writing Life.
Embrace the failure. I know, it sounds counterintuitive and perhaps like every other piece of writing advice you’ve encountered on the internet and elsewhere. But there is perhaps no other more important part of the writing life than this one. Because it will be all consuming, and inescapable. Forget the general people out there who may be repelled by your work, or never even find out about it; there are yet to be legions of lit mags, online outlets, editors and publishers who all will reject your work for various reasons. This is a huge part of refining our skills. I suppose I should lead all this failure announcing that I am finally going to have a short story published this October, after a half-decade of writing them and not getting anywhere (more on where to find this particular story coming soon). This represents the culmination of getting an idea, drafting a basic concept story, showing it to a few people, getting some great feedback, rewriting and rewriting it, looking it over a few more dozen times, submitting it and receiving (at least) ten rejections, from lit mags in Minnesota and beyond, until finally it will be published by an outlet that has also published my editor, Libby Copa.
Speaking of Libby, a while back she pointed me to this essential LitHub article by Kim Liao about the importance of seeking 100 rejections per year. I know that I didn’t even get close to that with this story, and that feels pretty great but doesn’t make me underestimate the amount of work required to get even more published. If the dream is having some kind of story collection ready to go by the time my other manuscripts can get shopped, I will need to get hundreds of rejections piled over a dozen stories (at least). I have come to find the necessary rotation should be around five-six stories sent out to as many places as you can, while keeping track of them through a spreadsheet or document. And while it felt odd to have to withdraw the piece from other places I’d submitted it, I didn’t mind the reason.
This essay was also inspired by some thoughtful reviews of my books on GoodReads, which is another great resource for feedback (even if they point out errors I too have gone on about at length). And as much fun as it was to see someone created a profile just to give my first novel a one-star review, it is all a part of dealing with the fact that some people just won’t like your work. It seems hard to overcome that at first, but the more you embrace it, the more you will see how it doesn’t define you but is used to make your writing better. I have a lot more confidence now that an independent party has verified that I might know what I’m doing. This will in turn help me get my current manuscript in the best shape it can be, and eventually get it published as well. So learn to embrace the failure, for your own good.
After meandering through a few other topics on this blog it’s time to point back in the direction of advice for people who want to try this writing thing on their own. To wit, let’s start with finding a publisher.
So you’ve got your manuscript in fine form, and perhaps you even found the money to hire an editor to look over your work to find errors and make sure the tale is consistent (more on that in a future “process” post). You think it’s as good of a story as it can be. Where are you going to take this masterpiece? The first thing you need to do is consider your audience. Now this is something I struggled with at the beginning, as many new authors do, thinking that “everyone” is your target audience. As I wrote in my “finding your niche” piece, nothing could be further from the truth. Your target audience is out there, you just have to figure out who they are. Start by taking a hard look at your work, pondering who in the world would be first in line to read it. Since you are the main person who is going to know this, all I can do here is try to help fill in the gaps with my own experience in the hopes that it helps. For Our Senior Year, my first novel, I had hoped to direct it at high school kids and those of my own (ugh “Millennial”) generation. Unfortunately the book contained a good amount of the kind of stuff kids are into in high school, including drinking, drug use, and some casual sex. Between that and the copious use (again, by high school kids) of the F-word I had a difficult time getting high schools to even care about the work. I had better luck with people my age, as they were able to relate to the story. And I had even more success with those I hadn’t (but should have) considered integral to my audience: people who have gone through a similar experience with religion as the main character in the novel. I got the best overall response from these people, as they could attest to how true-to-life the situation could be. While these were themes that drove the novel from the beginning, I never thought that this would be a particular “audience” to drive the novel toward. Now I know to think as specific as possible when looking for a target group, and you should, too. Think of who is going to get the most out of this book. Will it be young children, adults of a certain age, pet owners, or literary fiction lovers? Whatever you decide, then make sure you push toward those groups with your marketing, book cover, and anything else that will gain attention. Once the target audience gets into it, others will follow (at least that’s the plan).
After you’ve figured out the target audience, the next step is to find a publisher to pitch the idea to those who deal exclusively with such a group. I’m going to keep this basic for now and assume I’m writing to people living in my own state of Minnesota. A simple internet search turns up a pretty good list of publishers right here in the frozen north. There are all kinds of niche publishers who preach to a dedicated choir, and you should be able to find one that fits your need. (I should mention here my own publisher, North Star Press, is not on this list - more on them later). What I would call the big fiction players would be Coffee House Press and Graywolf. How do you get their attention? Coffee House has open submissions once a year, which take place next March. Graywolf, having cranked out multiple National Book Award and Pulitzer winners, does require you to have an agent before you can submit. As I have yet to find an agent for my work, I regrettably don’t have much in the way of advice, but I hope to soon! Some publishers will allow you to submit work online or via email, as that’s how most of our business is done these days. Check out their respective websites to find out who they are publishing for, and make sure that aligns with your target audience. Make sure you have a word processing program that can create MS Word documents, and you will be good to go.
After the submission comes the hardest part: waiting to see what they think. In my case, I had to wait around a month before I heard back from North Star. But don’t give up if you don’t hear anything or if they respond in the negative. Just consider your target audience again, and peruse another publisher that might work better for your book. Hopefully in their rejection the publisher will give you some advice in this regard. And remember, we’re just starting with Minnesota here; there are a TON of publishing companies in New York City and elsewhere that will be much more difficult to get into but not impossible. I personally liked using a small local press because they worked with me at every step of the way and were a simple phone call or drive away if I ever needed to speak with them.
I came across North Star Press, through a writing workshop I attended in Chanhassen, a suburb of the Twin Cities. They had some information there about submitting, so I looked up their website and sent the first few chapters of my book. You can do the very same thing: just click “submissions” on their front page. They are also looking for contributors for an essay collection they will publish next year, so if you want to try out those writing chops you are more than welcome. NSP has been wonderful to work with and they have produced some outstanding-looking books for me over the past two years. If anyone reading this has something they think is ready to submit and would like more direct contact with them, send me an email and I might be able to work something out for you.
So that’s the basics of finding a publisher. What I didn’t mention in all of this is the incredibly difficult work of writing the novel and getting it edited, as well as doing the proper marketing work to ensure that the book finds success. We’ll have plenty of time to get into that over the course of the next few blog posts, but I wanted to make sure I hit this topic now in case there are people out there who have work ready to go and want to seek publication. We’ll get into the harder work soon.
Good luck to you burgeoning authors out there, and thanks for reading.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.