jmswallow (jmswallow) wrote,

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Red & Write: The Non-Event Horizon

As promised last week, here's the first in what I intend to make a regular monthly feature here on Red Flag, a series of pieces about my experiences as a writer, advice (such as it is), opinion and that kind of thing.

I figured, why not start with something uplifting and positive, the kind of blog that would inspire and empower new writers? So I’m going to write about what to do when the world ignores all the attempts you make to get published.

Click on the cut to

The Non-Event Horizon
At the edge of a black hole, there is a point of no return where nothing can escape the murderous, catastrophic pull of the collapsed star. No matter or energy, not even light itself, can resist past the line of the event horizon. Beyond it lies only silence, darkness, and the depths of an unimaginable abyss in which time itself has no meaning.

So, in a lot of ways, it has many similarities with the submissions process for writers.

You’d think, as a writer, that it would be enough of a strain on you just to actually get to the point of having something you could submit to a publisher. It’s tough enough doing the whole writing thing on its own, coming up with good ideas, being able to do stuff like dialogue, pacing, prose and so on, then formatting it in the proper manner. We bleed red to produce something we’re proud of, but that’s never the end of the battle, oh no. Then you’re out there searching for someone who might want to pay you money for it, seeking high and low, looking for that elusive market.

And when you find it, when you’re ready, when you’ve loaded your word-rocket and set it roaring spaceward in search of a new literary world to colonise... Then comes the silence.

It’s hard to let go of a story you just wrote. You send it off, and you want to know the verdict that very second. Is it good? Will I get paid for it? But those publishers and editors, they’re busy folks, and they have hundreds of people in the same place as you, sending their stories in as well. It takes time, and sometimes it doesn’t go your way. You’re rejected, and that sucks.

But here’s the thing; a no is the next best thing to a yes.

If you get a piece of writing rejected, you have something to work from. If you’re lucky, a kindly editor might even have taken the time to tell you what was wrong and how to fix it; or perhaps they were not the right market, or their books were full or, or, or a dozen other things. But they said no, which means you can go to the next name on your list of submission targets and try again. This is how you keep a story out there, working for you – and in the meantime, you put the rest of your energy into writing the next thing.

So far, so much like the kind of advice that lots of other people give. But what happens when they don’t say yes, or no, or any damn thing at all? What do you do when you realise that you have actually piloted your gleaming word-rocket into a CRUSHING MAW OF NOTHINGNESS?

True example here; I wrote a novel that I thought was pretty good. I shopped it around to a few publishers, doing the whole synopsis-and-first-three-chapters thing, I got some good feedback but no takers. But time ticked on and I was about to shelve it when from out of nowhere, an editor at one of the biggest SF publishing houses in the United States got in touch and told me how much he liked the stuff I’d submitted. He wanted to see the whole novel. Giddy with possibility, I sent him it. And I waited. And waited. And waaaaaaited.

That was in 2001. I’m sure he’ll be getting back to me any day now.

It is a question I’ve heard many writers ask – how long are you supposed to wait? Estimates can vary between a ten weeks to six months to a year, and good editors/publishers/agents will at least give you a ballpark figure. You don’t want to be ‘that guy’, right? Calling up every five minutes begging “Did you read it yet? Didya? Didya?!?” But we all have that in us, because we bled for this little thing we wrote, didn’t we? We care. And if the guy you sent it to doesn’t want it, then you should be able to shop it somewhere else.

Of course, editors/publishers/agents/et al are only human, and despite their best efforts, stuff gets lost, or they make mistakes. Or sometimes they’re thoughtless jerks who leave you hanging. You won’t know which until it is way too late to do anything about it.

A month or two after submission, if you’ve heard nothing it’s fair to send a note just checking to make sure they got it okay. Don’t go putting in a stamped, self-addressed postcard for them to send back to you, don’t make them sign for the delivery of the manuscript, because it just makes you look needy. Months of silence, and you’re okay to politely email or tweet or call the office. But beyond that? I’ve heard of writers sending their manuscripts birthday cards, care of the editors sitting on them, and as much as I love the snark, I wonder if it actually helps at all.

There’s this implied inferior-superior relationship between submitter and submitee that leads to fear of rocking the boat, especially for new writers. They’re so glad that someone is reading them they don’t want to jinx it by being even the slightest bit uppity. I was that way with my aforementioned novel. I was super-polite and patient beyond all reasonable measure, weathering assurances from the editor that they were “getting right to it” in “the next few weeks”, that my submission was “on the top of the pile” and that they were “really excited” about it. And I let years pass believing that, because I wanted it to be true. But that book never got published, and I never worked for that publisher. Instead I went off and wrote for nice people who could actually be bothered to return my calls and pay me and stuff.

If you think your chain is being well and truly yanked, don’t be afraid to retract your submission. Yeah, retract. For the longest time, I didn’t even know writers were allowed to do that. A polite letter that says, in essence, you had your chance, now I’m sending this to someone else. But just remember, this is like having a .38 in your back pocket. If you pull it, you better use it. 

So, beware the black hole, for that way lies madness and spaghettification. Some bright sparks online created This website to monitor the void-y-ness of publishers, and if you take time to network with other writers, you may be able to avoid the pitfalls of the long, long wait before it happens.

Tags: red & write, writing

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