>Should I Look Older Just To Be Put On Your Shelf?

>(Doctor John Lambshead has chosen to step down from the blog because he is overcommitted. I can’t say how sorry I am to see him go and hope he comes back often to post as a guest blogger. We do understand, though, that his health is more important and the last thing we ever intended was to cause him additional stress. Without John, we judged it best to use Saturdays for a “Saturday Morning Post” in which we hope to bring you interesting guests and sometimes just one of our team posting something. And so, I’m back on Wednesdays.)

Due to the extraordinary interest in my “the road to publication” post for Darkship Thieves, I thought I’d do a quick “how they got sold or didn’t” post for books.

Why you ask? Because I’m an exhibitionist masochist. I want you to see my pain.

No, seriously, the reason I want to do it is because when I was just breaking in all this was a mystery to me. I had a vague idea books got bought, but I had no idea why or how. For all I knew, the sky opened, a flock of angels came out and anointed the chosen one.

I know what you read in the books. Forget what you read in the books. Actually forget what I tell you too, as far as a model for your own career goes. I broke in ten years ago. It is not that I can’t give you useful advice, it’s that my advice might be so outdated as to be counterproductive.

Take e-publishing for instance (seems like everyone is, one way or another.) For years now, I’ve told my fledglings not to go that route. I told them it’s a waste to throw away their first publication on that. Ditto for self published, small press, etc. But lately I find the books that sell to the big houses with a big budget and plenty of promotion ARE the one whose authors first established a name in one of those venues.

It was like when I was starting out and all the older professionals AND most how to books told you not to look for an agent till you’d sold two or three books, to show you were a “going concern.” Realistic in the seventies when most houses kept and read a slush pile. Not so much in the nineties when the only way into most houses was through an agent, any agent. And that, even I figured out after perusing the writers’ market.

The only alternative I know to having an agent submit for you is to attend a lot of cons and workshops where editors are and pitch directly to them. Of course, if they say they want to see it, you can send it in. It’s no longer unsolicited. I don’t know. I’ve yet to see an elevator pitch work. Even when editors give a writer an opening, it’s so hard to sum up a book in two lines that if you manage it it often has nothing to do with the actual work, and that gets rejected. Seriously, I know buys from elevator pitches happen, but I don’t personally know of any.

The technology and business policy change and things change with them so fast that any experience in this field is only passed on in the default. In fact, if you try to replicate my experiences, it is sort of like preparing perfectly to fight the last war.

However, while particular tactics and weapons can’t be taught, the feel of it can. And it is the feel I find it harder to instill in my fledgelings, as I stick them in their little biplanes and tell them to take off in the face of a storm of rejections.

I hate to sound like an old timer, but I am one, and war stories do serve a purpose. The business might change in the details, but the facts of what it takes to make a career in this field remain central, short of a wholesale collapse. (And I’m not that pessimistic. Yet.)

First, a disappointing, sobering fact – ninety percent of careers in this field last ten years or less. And always have, as far as I can figure out. I can tell you why or at least give you half a dozen good guesses.

The field is too demanding and yet you get no respect – try explaining to your barber, your minister, your mother (MY mother!) that you labor in a skilled trade. “But anyone can write” is likely to be your reward, closely followed by “I have this great idea for a book.” Done properly the field eats your life. You breathe, eat, read and experience in order to write. It’s somewhat like a marriage without the sex, like a vocation without the religion. It isolates you from friends you’ve had for years and who simply don’t “get” it. In the end you find that, like sufferers of some dread disease, the only people you can truly talk to are other people who share your condition. You have “dinner” and “movie” and heaven knows what parties, but all you do is talk. About what you’re working on, what the conditions of the field are and how it’s changing.

Oh, yeah, and top this off with the fact that once the product leaves your hands it is totally out of your control. The cover, the placement, the push behind the book account – easily – for 80% of a book’s success. Your twenty percent is still vital. When someone picks up that book, you have one chance to hook them, so it better be your best work. Even if most people will never see it on a shelf or know it exists.

Children, the sane people never GET into this field. The ones who can sort of see sanity if they squint leave within ten years. Me, you, the rest of us… we charge giggling past that sign that says “Abandon all hope.” So, listen to my tale about the sudden fires and the rodents of unusual size. Oh, yeah, and bring over your tankard. It’s hard to cry in your beer without it.

I started, lo mumble years ago, on a bright sunny day. It’s all my husband’s fault. I’d always said I liked to write, and sometimes even called myself a writer, kind of like you might call yourself a genius, but never, ever, ever have to prove it.

And then – mumble, mumble mumble – I married this evil man who one day told me “I don’t believe you’re a writer. Writers write every day. “

Well, you know, you can’t tell a woman stuff like this. I had to either give up that writer name – and I worked really hard for it too. Sometimes I wrote ten pages a year – or put my typing fingers where my mouth was.

We’ve already determined I am not sane, so in I marched, flags flying and cannons blazing. Into a brick wall. You see, it’s sort of like being in a strange country (say, Portugal to me at this point) and being told “go buy a toothbrush” (would you believe in some places in Portugal the logical establishment to acquire said object is… the pharmacy? No, neither did I.)

So, I bought the Writers’ Digest magazine and the Writers’ Market and anything else that had WRITER on the cover. (Still don’t know how to assemble the genuine WRITER perpetual motion machine!) And I read.

Children, I was SO green that for a time I finished my stories with a “30″ because some book told me to.

But I wrote. Sometimes a whole three shorts and a novel a year. And I … Well, I sent the short stories out. To the magazines listed in Writers’ Digest as publishing science fiction and fantasy. Which is how I got my first rejection.

I was twenty three – please remember this, and promise not to hurt me, if you should find me in a dark alley – and I wrote my first – I THOUGHT – publishable short story. My husband told me it was good and a guy who read Gor hated it. So I figured, winner.

Out it went. And… back it came. But it came back with a handwritten letter from the editor. Yes, handwritten. Telling me that the story was good, but not at all what they published. So he… – PLEASE don’t HURT ME – sent me a free copy of his magazine. From Great Britain. At his expense. And asked me to submit again.

I was twenty three! I didn’t know! I thought “Umph. If my story were good, they would have bought it ANYWAY.” And the story and the magazine went into the drawer.

And then I wrote a novel. No. I wrote six novels in quick succession. All in the same universe. I learned a lot on these novels. Or at least I like to tell myself that, because they are – all of them, collectively – unpublishable. No, not only unpublishable. They are unpublishable with bells on and a hand outstretched and a little voice calling “unclean, unclean.” And it’s not even that I wasn’t reading what was being published at the time. When we were first married books – and particularly sf/f books – were a huge part of our budget. Plus I visited the library twice a week. It’s just that I separated what I wrote and what I read. I didn’t think they should touch. After all, writing was all pure inspiration and what I wanted to do, right? And if it was good enough they would buy it.

Seven years of this, on through the swamp. I learned about POV and how to make my characters likeable, and that you can’t have twenty voice characters in a novel that’s only two hundred pages long. I learned misdirection, indirection and things that put readers off. All on a series whose concept makes most people run screaming into the night. Fortunately, much of the time, I couldn’t afford to send these novels out, anyway. So I wrote everyday, obsessively, including when I had full time jobs, and then I put the manuscripts in a drawer.

And then I had my son and with my son some approach to sanity emerged. Not on purpose as such. I’d been “researching” Rome for seven years it was a really good excuse to buy books. Well, after three days in labor, an emergency Caeserean and a uterine infection that kept me in the hospital for a week, I woke up in my own bed, high as a kite on morphine, and with a vampire short story in my head. I hadn’t written a short story in… Eight? years, but I strapped the baby on my chest and crawled on hands and knees (morphine makes me dizzy) up the hallway and into my office. Where over the next seven hours, I typed my short story Thirst (available free as part of my collection Crawling Between Heaven And Earth at Baen Free Library: http://www.webscription.net/p-620-crawling-between-heaven-and-earth.aspx. Which ended up being the first thing I sold. But… not yet. I wrote a few other shorts then, Plaudit Cives among them.

The next two years were fraught and I didn’t send anything out. Two years later, I was living in Colorado Springs – renting a student apartment downtown – and I knew no one and had no job beyond looking after a one and a half year old. So I made it an habit of sitting down and writing when he took a nap.

Because the latest book told me to, I started writing short stories. Lots of them. And because we were slightly more flush and there was a post office RIGHT across from my door, I sent stuff out. And they came back just as fast. At this point one of the few times I’d sent the novel out caught up with me. It was three changes of addresses ago, but it found me – it was from Ginjer Buchanan at Berkley – a hand written rejection – and it said she hated my world, my characters and my premise, but she liked my writing and I had potential. She also suggested an editor at DAW (which at the time was not taking unsolicited, I think.)

During this year came my first glimmers of hope. First, I found a poster downtown – while wandering around with baby in stroller – about Imagination Celebration and actually had the nerve to send in an entry. It placed, too. Second place, admitting me to the world of other writers as a peer. No sale, but heady stuff.

Also, at work, my husband met this guy Alan Lickiss, whose wife also wrote. I already knew my friend Charles, who wrote. I’d started attending meetings of a city writers’ group, but they weren’t very good on science fiction and fantasy, so Alan’s wife, Becky, and Charles and I and a few other stragglers started our very own writers group, meeting weekly at my house.

And I got my first acceptance, for Thirst from an Australian magazine named Bloodsongs. Apparently they actually published my story, but it didn’t even come to my hands because the printrun was confiscated and destroyed. It was five years before I found out that Thirst had made it to the offices of The Year’s Best Fantasy And Horror, and got an honorable mention.

Another two years, another kid. More stories sent out. This is the period at which I tell people I often got 100 rejections by March of every year. I kept them in one of those gigantic plastic bins people store clothes in. And most of them were standard.

Thirst sold two more times. Once, it killed the mag, another the publisher. Never printed in the US until the NEXT sale.

I wrote a mumble genre novel, under the name of mumble and it won second place in mumble national contest, but it was too weird for them to publish.

So, I forged on. New house, and older kid in kindergarten, and I was – by 96 – getting personals from almost everyone, and editors signed with their first names. And then I decided to send out a story from the same vintage as Thirst. Plaudit Cives. I sent it to Absolute Magnitude. And I was SO SURE it would be a rejection that I read the acceptance through three times before it hit me that it was an acceptance. And then I screamed so loudly our babysitter came running, convinced I was having a heart attack. Six months later, I sold Thirst to Dreams of Decadence. And then I started selling, fairly regularly, a few short stories a year. And I turned to novels.

1998 was Annus Horribilis as far as novels were concerned. I submitted EVERYWHERE. And everything came back rejected very fast. I entered EIGHT entries in a contest. And none of them survived the first cut. I wrote fanfic for a while, but it lost its flavor. I wanted the real thing, dang it all.

In 1998 or 1999 (my memory is foggy) my friend Becky Lickiss more or less pushed pulled me and dragged me to the Oregon Professional Writers Workshop and I met Ginjer Buchanan who had no memory of sending me a rejection. I had two novels – one done, one almost done – ready to sell to her. Of course the one she bought was what was published as Ill Met By Moonlight, which was a workshop exercise. “Write a novel proposal overnight.” Was this something I was burning to write? Not exactly. But it was okay and I knew the subject and she thought she could sell it, so I wrote it. Gave it to my then agent – I did mention I had acquired an agent, right? – and told her to send it to Ginjer. My friend Becky also sent hers in. It was bought in a month. NOTHING on mine.

And then Kris Rusch emailed me. She’d seen Ginjer at worldcon and Ginjer wanted to know if I’d lost interest in the project. “WHAT?” Call agent. Agent tries to dissuade me from selling this novel to this house. “It won’t go anywhere. It’s not their type of thing” etc, etc. For all I know, she might have been right – who knows? BUT she wasn’t sending it anywhere else, either AND hadn’t told me she wasn’t sending it to Ginjer. And that is a fatal strike. I demanded she send it and she did. Three days later, I’d sold a novel.

Then I set about finding another agent, which involved actually going to World Fantasy for the first time in my life.

Got new agent. He sold two novels for me, which he insisted should be sequels. I’m not going to complain on that. (Shrug.) I could take the idea and make them mine. I am however going to complain about the fact that he made me rewrite my second novel to his specifications. It was the first of my novels to go out of print, and the one that sold least.

And that brings us to 9/11 and the debacle of my first novel, which sealed the series’ fate. I’ve told the story often enough. It simply wasn’t unboxed at most stores. I think people returned it who’d never even seen it.

Agent number 2 meanwhile had refused to send anything but those sequels out. And now lost interest in me completely. So, I talked to friends and got recommendations to agent number three. (If anyone is keeping score, I’ve now been with the incomparable Lucienne Diver, agent 4, for seven years. My requirements are very simple — I don’t wish to be lied to, and I want to have more say over my career than my agent does. Why did it take me till number four to find this? who know.) I’ve also told that story here. When, after two years of nothing, Baen offered me work, she said it was Baen or her. I clearly chose Baen.

I’ve also told the story of Jim asking me for Draw One In The Dark. Which I sent to him. And which sold in twenty minutes. Now, the idea for Draw One In The Dark was a dream in which I was signing a pile of books and one of the women in line told me she had discovered me through my shifter series. Of course, in the dream I assumed all the books were in that series. I might have been wrong. So I read the back to see what the story was. (Same thing happened with Plaudit Cives, btw. I dreamed I was reading it in a magazine. Then I wrote it.) I have no explanation for this. I refuse to think too hard on it. That way lies madness.

And then I got sick, was looking at my old unpublished novels and found the percursor for Darkship Thieves. And rewrote it and started posting it in diner. Toni bought that.

At the same time I had this Victorian fantasy series making the rounds and I SWEAR it had been rejected everywhere, when out of the blue Lucienne called (I was frying mushrooms. Why do I remember that?) To tell me we had an offer. And Berkley couldn’t publish anymore Shakespeare but asked me for proposals for historical series. I sent three, of which they bought one – The Musketeer’s Mysteries.

Meanwhile, during the second Annus Horriblis – 2003 – when I couldn’t give my writing away, I’d been asked if I was interested in writing for hire, a novel about a wife of Henry VIII and which wife did I want? I said Anne Boleyn. I was told someone else had it. Did I want Jane Seymour?

They were offering money. I was broke. I wanted Jane Seymour. This is the book that was written after I fell and hit my head. The concussion postponed it, and I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I wrote it in three days. A week, counting research. After I finished it, I demanded to be taken up to Denver, to a hotel, for two days – which I spent crocheting, sleeping and taking bubble baths. Who knew typing could be so tiring?

With Plain Jane I submitted a proposal for No Will But His, the story of Kathryn Howard. I heard nothing on it.

The musketeer series died. We won’t go into that. I was asked to send a contemporary mystery proposal. I sent in the proposal for Dipped, Stripped and Dead. I was also asked to put it under a “white bread” name. The suggestion of “Rye” was shot down.

Plain Jane, after being issued in mpb came out in tpb. It did well. Paid royalties. Then I got asked if I still wanted to do Kathryn Howard.

All of which brings us to yesterday — when I’m working on an historical vampire, on spec, a space opera on spec, have proposals at Baen, and have been attacked by a romance I’m trying to fob off with a proposal only — and has you scratching your head and going “So you write it, they buy it?”

Well, no. The Years Undone, my novel of the Red Baron is still unsold. As is Hell Bound, my urban fantasy. I have this fairy tale – the Rose series – which I can’t give away. Then there’s the New Age shop mysteries. Oh, yeah, and the Jane Austen/swan maiden tale. The Leonardo Da Vinci mysteries. And another half dozen projects.

So, what is the point of this long disquisition? Two points. First, there’s persistence. It seems to be the one thing to get through this war still “alive.” The second is that epublishing JUST might give me a chance to “publish” some of my darlings no one would touch. They might have no audience but… who knows? In most cases I think they’re just mismatched with the gate keepers, not the public. And it’s always worth a try.

A third point – we tend to think if we just sell the next… short, novel, series, we’ll be happy. Maybe. Perhaps.

Never happens. You sell and you trade up to bigger issues. You trade up to a knife balance of “and now how do I promote?” “What can I do if the bookstores don’t put my books on shelves?” “What if my editor has taken an unreasonable dislike to me?” etc, etc, etc. The really big bestsellers I know worry that the writing sales will dry up, because they support their families from them. I hear Stephen King keeps his teaching certification up to date.

Every time you get a rejection, rejoice. A) you’re a rejection closer to an acceptance. B) These are the GOOD old days. Once the acceptances come, your stress will only increase. Yes, the rewards too, but the stress inescapably.

You want security, buy an alarm system. You want money, buy a lottery ticket. You want to write… ah, you poor fool, welcome to the club. Put your helmet on, here’s your keyboard. Forward, march.

Be aware of what’s being published and write something publishable but not like what’s being published. Make it something you want to write, but also something you want to read and more importantly something strangers will want to read. Make sure you have first readers who tell you the truth about your writing, but who aren’t so brutal they’ll squish your drive and desire. Take advice from elder pros, but don’t believe everything they tell you. Their times and their process are/were different. Work like a fiend, but don’t let it take over the other stuff that makes you a full human being. Keep some hobbies, spend time with your family, and write ten hours a day. Oh, yeah, and keep up field reading. And remember the ludic pleasure of reading, even though it’s become work. Believe your work is vital and important and also a piece of crap you can discard if no one buys it. Learn constantly and integrate it, even as you’re writing. Keep an agent and let them make suggestions, but don’t let them run your career. Oh, and learn about advertising, epublishing, whatever in heaven’s name is going on with publishing now – but never forget you’re a writer.

And for your next trick dance – dance, you fool, you lostling, you… writer! – dance a tango on a high wire, with an invisible partner! And keep on going. The only way through is forward. There is a con bar waiting in heaven, and we have to earn our way into it.

Questions? Comments? Suicide notes?*

*your suicide notes WILL be graded.


  1. >One thing I've noticed– a point which I find fascinating and frustrating at the same time– is that for every "absolutely, positively, do not do this" rule out there… there is some success story that broke through by doing that very thing you aren't supposed to do. The whole thing feels like standing on a mountain, and seeing one path down that looks steady and solid, but also looks like it might not lead you off the mountain… and another that looks incredibly dangerous, but just might get you off the mountain much quicker. You're faced with the realization that either way you choose… you still might not get off the damn mountain.

  2. >Marshall,If you keep trying, you WILL get off the damn mountain, I promise you that. It's just that looking back your path will be one of those that scientists use to plot chaotic systems. And you, yourself, will have trouble with some bits. You'll be like "Okay, there I gave up, and then the next morning I … flew? No, wait, Big Foot carried me. No, wait…"

  3. >How about momentum? I am personally a big believer in it. I worked with a sales group once that preached momentum, that things don't, don't, and don't happen until they do. I've seen it at work which is an awesome thing. I've seen careers just seem to bust open when they were really years in the making behind the scenes.Linda Davis

  4. >Thanks for this Sarah. I have to get more focused on my writing for publication (although I have not yet ever been published) as opposed to writing for a grade, and hopefully this summer I'll get a chance to do so since I'm graduating tomorrow. But I think I might just print this out and save it somewhere. This may someday be a good reminder to keep trying after I've received my hundredth rejection letter. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. >Linda,I have no idea how momentum can be made to happen though. Yeah, sure, once stories started selling, I sold everything I'd written before. (Well, almost everything, at least short story wise. The novels were hopeless) but I don't know how that happened, except I kept pounding on the door till it opened.

  6. >JimYep, writing for publication and writing for a grade is different.The most important thing to keep in mind in writing for publication is that there might be ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong with writing and you might still get rejected. How? You just didn't hit that portion that is — or publishers consider — saleable. Your characters, setting, etc. might be perfect, they're just not what the guardians of the market want right now. Or ONE guardian of the market. Which is why you never rewrite after a rejection, unless the editor says something like "I'll look at this again if you give Pinky a little more brain."

  7. >Good-bye, cruel world. I have seen my doom, and it is dancing a tango on a high wire, with an invisible partner. And I'm clumsy… 😉

  8. >But…but… there's already more brain in my pinky than in the entire editing What I meant to say was oh, no! My suicide note failed! Does that mean I have to stay alive forever?

  9. >Dear Ellyl,I must say your note easilly earns an A for consiseness and straight-to-the-point, biting critique of the acrobatics the writing life requires.On the other hand, the beginning is cliched and there is a striking lack of emotive figures of speech. I'm afraid it's an A- or B+. Feel free to try again. 🙂

  10. >Dear Kate,Your suicide note is imprecise and indeed, lacks a formal beginning at all. Also, we're not sure what the pinky and his brain have to do with it, unless you want to take over the world.I was going to grade this note, but the faint suggestion of taking over the world AND immortality has cause me to hide under my desk, braiding my hair.

  11. >Sarah, thank you for the (as the monolgue from the show "Talking With" that my daughter just performed for her acting class put it) "lacerating self-exposure". I've had the pleasure of attending Allen Wold's writing workshop twice. He's very fond of variations on the phrase: "On the other hand, how do you feel about plumbing?"Fortunately, I'm not really doing this for the money. Don't misunderstand me here, money would be nice. Lots of it, preferably. But I'm really doing this mainly because the stories are in there, and they want OUT … and my kids went and got too old and too busy for me to make them sit still and listen anymore.Sorry, I can't manage a suicide note. I'm too much like Yossarian, from Catch-22 – determined to live forever, or die in the attempt.

  12. >Sarah,What's the use of immortality if you can't take over the world? When you get bored, you can retire and let someone else do it.Hmph! And you accuse me of fuzzy logic.

  13. >Kate, why on Earth would you want to take over the world? Too much paperwork, too many things to see to, you'd never get anything done. The power behind the throne, the fist inside the gauntlet, that's the place to be … (oh, wait, that's part of book two of the series I sent you …)

  14. >Stephen,It's for the experience, really. I mean, I don't want to RULE the world. I just want to take over the world once, to see what it's like.

  15. >Kate,Why does the idea of Kate taking over the world so forcibly remind me of this quote from the old cartoon series "The Tick"?"Can you see through steel?""No.""Can you make energy-based multiples of yourself?""Whoa! …. No.""Can you destroy the Earth?""E-gad! I hope not! That's where I keep all my stuff!"

  16. >Stephen,I'm hurt. Sniff. I'm a Mad Genius, of course I want to take over the world. It's what Mad Geniuses do. Destroying it would be silly, at least until I've built a backup.

  17. >But whom have you cast in the role of Cad???(You do grok Underdog, yes? And Simon bar Sinister?)"Cad, with this invention, I'm going to rule the world!"

  18. >Stephen,Yeah, the best position to get into this is when you DON'T need the money. But still, you know, money is a tangible measure of "they really like my stuff. They bought ME instead of beer." Which is why fan fic disappointed me.

  19. >Oh, yeah, and Stephen, stop encouraging Kate. Love the woman like a sister, really, but she's scary when encouraged.And Kate? Stop it. Just stop it or I'll make you read the book that shall not be named. Aloud. With a French accent!

  20. >Hi Sarah,I didn't take it that way at all :).My take on it:One creates momentum exactly how you did it…by banging away until someone answers. I've discovered that you never know which door will open. It might be the tiniest, little door that leads to many bigger doors.Now, the tiny door doesn't have to have anything to do with the bigger doors. I believe that just the fact that the tiny door opened at all somehow invites other doors to open.A small example is me within the last few weeks. I sold a flash a couple of weeks ago to Everyday Weirdness for just $5.42. At just under 500 words, that's a penny a word, a small door. Just yesterday I got notification that Elisabeth Waters is holding a story for the Sword & Sorceress 25 antho for further consideration. I consider this success all in itself, a much bigger door. And I've had a story at Abyss & Apex for almost 3 months which, in my experience means that it was passed up to Wendy Delmater for a final opinion. I consider it a medium door, progress if you will.Now, keep in mind that I haven't sold anything in almost two years and to have these all clumped together like this? Momentum!It's now my job to keep it going by continuing to bang.Linda

  21. >My first rejection! * dances around the room * And it has encouragement, and… Uh-oh. Now I'm in the cycle. Must go back and write more…I really am doomed.

  22. >Ellyll,From this point on, your first acceptance is inevitable.I suppose it's too late to tell you to run RUN as fast as you can from the castle and its weird thunder?

  23. >The only thing I'm bothered by is your blithe assumption that there's sanity out there in other professions. Perhaps there is, but I haven't found it yet. What I have found are sane people being driven insane by what formerly sane people are asking them to do. Otherwise, wonderful post. Thanks!

  24. >Dear Anonymous,Insane though my husband's field of computers is, ours seems crazier.But — if you're not a regular here — as I'm fond of saying, the world is right now going through a convulsion of very fast change, so every professional field is affected, though, again, perhaps ours a little more so.

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