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.


  1. The process is indeed similar when going indie. The rejections are more diffuse – seeing days go by with few or no sales may not have the punch of a form letter of a publisher, but they still sting. And you have to learn to put out the right lures to bring readers in. Patience and stubbornness are also a must. The chances of hitting it big, or even make much of a splash with one book are small; each additional book increases those chances. And often you do everything right but the fish ain’t biting that day (or year).

    And I totally agree that there are a lot of people (both trad and indie) who want to be writers a check of a lot more than they want to actually *write.* The ones whose Twitter output vastly exceeds the number of words they actually have out for sale, for example. The self-appointed guardians (or is it grauniads) of literature who can’t seem to manage to finish a novel.

    The actual process is a slog, it’s something you do on days when the muse ain’t whispering in your ear, or you are tired because you came home from your day job and if you don’t use those couple of free hours before you have to go to sleep (or take the trash out, or help the kid with homework) are all the time you’ve got to get some work done. It’s not about signing books at conventions or going to panels or dispensing wisdom on social media. It’s about sitting down in front of the screen and making stuff happen. Sometimes it’s magic, sometimes it’s like trying to open a door by banging on it with your head. But if one waits only for the magic moments, the novel is likely to sit in a drawer or hard drive, unfinished.

    But if you’re patient and lucky, sometimes you catch a big one. And it’s a nice feeling when you do 🙂

    1. Say on, Brother (or Sister), say on! Preach it! The summer sales slump coincided with being kicked by the muse into two and a half novels (finished the second half of the third one last week. Life intervened) and I kept wondering where were all the sales? Why weren’t the fish biting? I’ve been writing all summer, I’m sweating blood, researching, trying to get good stories out into the pond, but where’s my 18 lb rainbow trout? Where’s my 40 lb salmon?

      1) The novels are still on my computer, waiting to get into the publishing line. 2) Summer sales slump, just like the past two years. 3) The fish are still biting, people are buying my books, but it’s the steady cast and reel, cast and reel, rather than sudden-onset “holy moly it’s a 30 lb. bass!”

      1. My summer was disappointing as well. In my case, my not having a new release from January to June didn’t help a bit, but even in June-July the new book didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. But the best cure to a writer’s problems remains “Write MOAR!” I’m going fishing this month, and I’m aiming for full commercial trawling mode 🙂

        1. Summers tend to be bad for me, but I tried a multiple release this year and it worked pretty well. Now I can sit a round and fuss and think “But it would have gone so much better if I’d waited till mid-September!”

          1. But that means we get another Directorate book in September, right?

            I sorted my Kindle into author order; you are by far the winner – and I realized I Kindle Unlimited rather than bought two, which I promptly fixed, so you got double for those 😉

    2. They want to have the benefits of being a published writer (fan base, critical acclaim) without the effort that comes along with actually doing something to earn it.

      1. Yep. A lot easier to virtue signal on FB and have their posterior kissed by assorted sycophants than, you know, sit down by themselves in a quiet room and actually do their job.

        1. like a certain acquaintance that ‘wrote his first novel’ in 1995. He’s written three or four at this point, but none are on Amazon.

  2. Aww! Do I have to release them? Can’t I at least keep them until they’ve read everything I own?

    Oh, you say they tell other fishes, er, readers out there? Well, Okay.

  3. Well, in the past year and a half I’ve gotten two contracts and I’m on the verge of a third. I’ve also been working hard to make sure that those aren’t a fluke.

  4. Butt in the seat is right… Finished/published one, 45K into another… I write every day, 4-6 hours. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes the next day I delete most of it. But I’m in it for the long slog. One short submitted for possible inclusion in an Anthology next year, but I’m not holding my breath.

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