Thursday, September 16, 2021

Advice on "Breaking In" to Publishing

Cory Doctorow's newest LOCUS column discusses the beginning writer's obsessive quest for tips from pros on how to get started in publishing. In particular, we love to read about how successful authors landed their first sales:

Breaking In

The major premise of this article: The publishing field changes so fast that a veteran author's story of how he or she first got accepted for professional publication isn't likely to be of any practical help today. As Doctorow puts it with reference to his own early experiences, "While I still have an encylopedic knowledge of the editorial peccadilloes of dozens of publications, most of them no longer exist, and the ones that do have been radically transformed in the intervening decades." What Doctorow supplies instead is "meta-advice," advice on where to find the best advice. According to him, novice writers can get optimal assistance by pooling their knowledge of current publishing practices and trends with other novice writers, sharing what they've discovered through researching markets and submitting to editors. "Just as a writers’ critiquing circle should consist of writers of similar ability, so too should a writers’ professional support circle consist of writers at similar places in their careers."

He does offer some general guidelines applicable to everyone, a more specific, pragmatic version of Heinlein's well-known "rules." Doctorow also narrates his own "breaking in" story with mention of several publishing veterans who assisted him, including Judith Merril. He declares that an established author's most "powerful tool for helping out new writers" is encouragement.

My first adventure in professional publication (my only previous published work being limited to short pieces in our high-school newspaper), in the late 1960s when I was just over twenty years old, certainly has little if any practical application for writers today. I didn't have the benefit of mentors or networking of any kind. I knew nothing about submitting manuscripts except that they had to be double-spaced on only one side of the paper and had to include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those who've never submitted a paper manuscript). My sole source of information about the industry came from the annual WRITERS' MARKET reference volume in the public library. Today's novice writers are so fortunate to have the resources of the internet. I assembled a collection of stories for a vampire anthology, wrote an introduction, and sent the package to Fawcett in New York. After a year of silence, I mailed them a humorous "haven't heard from you" greeting card. Now that I know better, I'd never think of doing such a thing. Yet they responded promptly, apologized for the long wait, and offered me a contract. In view of my total ignorance, the editor had to explain to me how anthology payments worked and how to arrange for reprint permissions. That proposal became my first book, CURSE OF THE UNDEAD, a mass market paperback.

My first professional fiction sale came about in a more conventional manner that still applies to today's markets, other than the shift from snail mail to e-mail submissions and communications. I received a call for submissions to Marion Zimmer Bradley's second Darkover anthology, FREE AMAZONS OF DARKOVER, probably because the rudimentary fan activities I'd started doing had somehow gotten me on Bradley's mailing list. The zip code on the envelope, however, was wrong, and the letter had reached me barely in time to meet the deadline, if I worked very quickly (for me—I wasn't quite as slow then as now, but I haven't been a truly fast writer since my teens). So this sale had an element of luck, too; the submission invitation could have been lost completely. Without much hope of success, I wrote a story and mailed it just in time. To my surprise, it was accepted. After that, I had stories included in numerous later Darkover anthologies. They stayed in print for many years and, for a long time, supplied my most reliable (although modest in amount) source of royalty income.

Doctorow's "advice" for beginners may be broadly summarized in the eloquent statement, "Writers blaze their own trails, finding mentors or not, getting lucky or not, agonizing and working and reworking, finding peers and lifting each other up."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to hear about your introduction into becoming a published author, Margaret. Thanks for sharing. The publishing industry is radically different since I started as well. Sigh.