Fishing for contracts
Autumn usually means a remarkable up-tick in the quality of fishing, out here in the Rocky Mountain West. Most reservoirs and lakes see activity all year long, but you can’t beat the action once the leaves begin to change color on the trees. Biologists believe this is because the fish sense that winter is coming, and will begin to aggressively feed — as a way to store up reserves for the cold months beneath the ice. Lord knows cooler surface water temps bring the trout up from where they’ve been hiding in the hot summer. Whatever the case, the fish are biting, and it’s a great time to take a detour into the hills.
My father and I were returning from a recent jaunt, and discussing how there are few things quite as satisfying as that zing when a nice fish hits your line. We have been catch-and-release guys for decades, using mostly spoon and spinner lures. It occurred to me that getting a solid strike on a Mepps or a Daredevle is comparable — in gratifying gut-instinct sensation — to receiving an acceptance letter on a manuscript that’s been out in the mail, circulating among the markets.
And the bigger the contract, the bigger the emotional payoff. Much like reeling in a 20-inch rainbow.
Of course, lure fishing — especially shore casting — is a very apt analogy for the fiction biz in general. Especially when you’re putting manuscripts out to editors “on spec” and don’t have a guaranteed sale in the bag. Your story or your book is taking its chances. You may or may not land a big contract. Usually, you can’t just throw your book or story out there once. As with a lure, you’ve got to cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve, over and over and over again. If a given lure isn’t getting you any action in a given fishing spot, you might have good action on that lure in a different spot. Or, you can stay put, and change lures. On one recent trip to a local reservoir, I cycled through at least a dozen different types and kinds of lures — flatfish, spoons, spinners, roostertails — before I finally got an aggressive, fighting 16-inch trout. In the case of the fish pictured above, I went through six different lures, before finally landing this beautiful 14-inch cutthroat — on a lure which had never caught me any fish before, too.
Which just goes to show that a manuscript which hasn’t scored in the previous five to ten markets, isn’t necessarily a “bad” manuscript. It may simply need to cross a few more editors’ desks, before you get that marvelous zing on the line, and your in-box reflects an acceptance letter.
And the thrill doesn’t die, when you’re better known in the biz, and can more reliably count on getting positive responses. Because rejection is still part of the game, and knowing that a story can be rejected, means the sale is not a foregone conclusion. Thus acceptances — for me — are always uniquely satisfying. The sport has paid off. Like hitting a lake at sun-up, and casting all morning, just to see your rod bend over on a healthy 17-inch fighter who has taken your crackle frog spoon. It’s difficult to describe the rush, to people who don’t fish, or who aren’t interested in publishing. But outside of sex, I really haven’t found much in life that has that instantly-visceral kick. Which probably explains why I love lure-casting and slush-submitting alike.
Granted, slush-submitting is almost entirely sucky when you’re a beginner. If all you ever get are rejections — no fish, all week, all month, all year, for years on end — the whole project may seem like a dud. Who in their right mind devotes so much time and so many resources to a thing which simply refuses to pay off? For those of us old enough to remember the days when traditional publishing was all there was in the biz, the long march through our first million words of unsold prose was (and is) a very tedious, unrewarding, usually dreary exercise in seeming futility.
Which — of course — merely amps up the joy of that first acceptance.
I can tell you that winning the Writers of the Future contest was a supremely rewarding thing, that cold November day in 2009 when I finally got the winning notice. And no, I was not a first-placer. My “fish” on that day was modest. But it was a fish all the same! Years of fruitless lure-casting, and voila, I could finally say I’d joined the ranks of successful prose anglers who had come before me. I had “arrived” as it were. And arrival was a supremely gut-satisfying event in this humble author’s life.
It wasn’t the first, though. Analog magazine hit my line sixty days later, with an acceptance which in some ways was even better than Writers of the Future’s winning notice. Because I’d not only successfully competed for a slot in the Science Fiction field’s most august, well-read magazine, I’d competed against the big guns in the marketplace. Me, the shore-casting nobody with the same little tackle box he’s had since he was thirteen years old. I got my catch. Among the full-time pros with their super bass-master fishing boats and their crate-sized tackle boxes, containing nine hundred compartments and more lures, baits, and fishing gizmos than I’d ever know what to do with. Even against those guys on the water, I still got my rainbow fighter. Not only that, he was a trophy rainbow — on account of a readers’ choice award given a few months after that story appeared in print.
So, as in fishing, so too in publishing: persistence (and being willing to learn as you go) pays off.
I think it’s much the same with the new world of indie publishing, too. In this case, you’re not selling to an editor, as much as you’re selling to the world at large. You’re still casting — each book or individual product is equivalent to throwing out a line. Whether or not your item(s) reel back the customers, is a calculated gamble. Having more item(s) on the market is much more likely to get you action, than having few, or one. More casting with more lures is upping your chances of getting strikes. If you happen to hit the right thing at the right time for the market, you may have the fish practically jumping out of the water at you. But you can’t have a moment like that, unless you can produce first. And production comes down to having a plan, sticking to that plan, and not letting the “skunked” days — when the fish aren’t biting — throw you off your game.
Also, don’t be fooled into thinking accouterment is a replacement for either craft, or effort. I have known some writers who devote far, far more time to attending writing workshops and using the latest software, or creating the perfect home office for themselves, than they do actually putting words down on the blank page. I think they mistake the trappings of the writerly life, for actual writing. An all-too-easy mindset to fall into, I know from experience! Believe me.
But then, all I have to do is look at my little, abused, green-plastic Flambeau box — with its attendant bargain-shopper no-name pole and reel — to be reminded of the fact that you don’t need a $2,000 laptop with the latest genius manuscript program, to haul in a lunker. My first award-winner for Analog was written on a hand-me-down POS computer from work — during nights I hunched at my daughter’s vinyl-padded play table in the unfinished basement. Because it was the only quiet spot I could find, when the family was fast asleep.
Stephen King tells a similar story, about how when he hit the big money, he invented for himself the “perfect” writing office, complete with a mammoth executive desk that would have been the envy of any board officer at any major company. King eventually scuttled the whole thing, and went back to typing at a small desk tucked into a corner of his attic.
King didn’t need the super bass-master boat, nor the footlocker-sized tackle box, to reel in the nice fish.
He just needed to go back to basics: ass in the chair, fingers on the keyboard, distractions to a minimum, and his mind and heart focused on telling good stories that would stick in the minds of readers.