Blaylock on getting published

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Blaylock on getting published

Postby Tom » Wed Sep 16, 2009 11:01 pm

Here is the 3-09 Creative Writing newsletter from OCHSA. It contains an essay by Jim Blaylock dealing with his experiences trying to get published. This time I did delete some of the News items that concerned yard sale fund raisers and such.

I want to start off by thanking you for the positive responses to the last newsletter. I’m going to do something similar here. I’ve gotten a lot of queries over the years about the process and the difficulty of publishing, so I thought I’d chat about it. There’s more to say than I’ve got room for, but that’s true of most subjects that are worth anything at all.

First Some News:

 And speaking of Inkblot, our magazine has just been awarded (for the second time in 4 years) the National Council of Teachers of English award for best high school literary magazine in the state of California. Our students do every bit of the work on the magazine. The glory belongs to them.

And that’s it for Creative Writing Conservatory News. Probably I’ve forgotten something, but that’s par for the course these days. I said I’d write something about the ins and outs of publishing, and here it is…

A Word About Publishing
Virtually every writer ultimately wants to publish his or her work, although some writers are a little bit fussy about it. Katherine Mansfield, the brilliant, early 20th century short story writer, allegedly burned stories and novels that she wasn’t happy with. No one knows quite how much went up in smoke. Franz Kafka, who published very little during his lifetime, asked a friend to burn all of his writings after his death. The friend had them published instead. I’ve always suspected that if Kafka had wanted his work burned, he would have burned it himself. Most writers would rather their work was read and not burned, and the only way to get it read is to send it out into the world despite the likelihood of rejection. That’s not difficult to do – sending it out into the world, I mean. It simply requires a 9X12 envelope and some stamps. Getting it read, even by the editor who opens the envelope, is more difficult, although rejection (I can tell you from experience) is pretty easy to achieve.
There are literally thousands of publications and publishers out there that publish short stories, poems, novels, essays, memoirs, and every other sort of written thing. A writer puts a story or a couple of poems into the envelope, or puts a novel into a box, addresses it to a publisher (or an agent), glues on the stamps, and mails it. Some time later – 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, a year – the writer gets a reply, usually in the form of a rejection slip: not necessarily a letter, but more often a small piece of paper that’s only sometimes polite. I got one once that was the size of a postage stamp, with the word “no” in the middle of it. I started mailing out my work when I was a college student, at around 20 years old, mostly because two people told me I should – a creative writing teacher and my friend Tim Powers. (Tim had already sold a couple of pieces to magazines.) Over the next several years I sent things out regularly, and I was regularly met with rejection. I didn’t count the rejection slips, but probably I collected a couple of hundred. That’s a heap of rejection, but it’s fairly typical for writers who persevere. Most writers don’t persevere. It sounds strange to say this, but if I run into a writer who has been rejected a hundred times, it seems to me that they have a real chance of being published, if only because they’re persevering. Most writers run out of patience and steam and the desire to write, and slowly but surely writing becomes a thing that they used to do.
When I was 25, I “sold” a short piece to an obscure literary magazine. I was paid in copies. Three copies. That was fairly generous. These days, two copies are more likely. I was thrilled, by the way. A year later I sold a story to a science fiction magazine – actually sold it – for ½ cent a word. I got a contract in the mail instead of a rejection slip, and a check for a big 20 bucks. I was thrilled all over again, and in fact I’ve still got a tired-looking photocopy of the check around somewhere. After that I sold short stories slowly but surely. Science fiction and fantasy magazines generally paid 7 or 8 cents a word in those days. A story that took a couple of weeks to write might net $300.00. There’s been a lot of inflation over the years since, and $300.00 doesn’t go quite as far, but the rate of pay for most magazines hasn’t gone up. Newly publishing writers are still happy to make $20.00, or 2 copies of the magazine, for that matter.
Here’s something that will help put the difficulties of publishing into perspective. One of the hippest short story magazines out there today is a publication called Glimmertrain. It’s published quarterly, with around 8 stories in an issue. According to an article in Newsweek, it receives 40,000 short story submissions per year. If we’re generous, and we calculate that it publishes 40 stories per year, then the magazine rejects a thousand stories for every one it buys. Last year, Eric Tryon, who has taught for the Creative Writing Department for the last six years, was published in Glimmertrain. It’s enormously difficult, but evidently it can be done, and the only way to find a route through the door is to mail off your work, and when it comes back rejected mail it off again to someplace different, and then again and again until either it’s published or you figure out absolutely what’s wrong with it. Then you can throw it into the trash or else try to fix it. Then you start over.
As I said, I started selling short stories when I was 25, but although I tried, I didn’t manage to sell a novel until I was 29 – that’s 4 more years of rejection. I was 30 when it was published. Reviewers referred to me as a “young writer.” I was, actually. Tim Powers published his first novel when he was 25, and he was considered a phenomenon. When particularly young writers publish, it’s such a rare thing that their age is sometimes used as a gimmick to sell their books. Often it’s kept secret. Readers (and editors) have the idea that 16 or 18 year olds, despite their talent, don’t have the experience necessary to write compellingly. My advice to a student would be to avoid revealing his or her age. The editor simply doesn’t need to know.
Ultimately, however, there’s nothing that a writer can do to beat the system, and the system resists change. When Hemingway was starting out, he mailed his stories out to magazines and collected rejection slips, just as writers do today. So did Edgar Allen Poe and Anton Chekhov and Dean Koontz and Stephen King and virtually any other writer you can name. J.K. Rowling was paid a little over $2,000.00 as an advance for the first Harry Potter novel. (I was paid twice that for my first novel, which took me a year to write.) No one, apparently, believed very much in her book. She needed the money, and so she took the offer. It turned out to be a moderately good idea. She became the first writer to earn a billion dollars. (I didn’t earn a billion dollars.)
The truth is, publishing is a hard dollar, as they say, but then that’s true of the arts in general. The fact that the students in our Submissions and Publications class are regularly landing poems and even short stories at magazines across the country makes me enormously proud. They’re years ahead of where I was when I was their age. In fact, and I don’t mean to be modest here, lots of the students in the department are writing more and writing better than I was in high school. Talent and a sense of the craft, however, are only part of the package. Perseverance is at least as vital. If I could do it, so can a heap of our students.
And now a disclaimer: By reading this you’d think that getting students to publish was the great aim of the Creative Writing Department, but that’s not true. It’s often the aim of the student, but it’s not the aim of the Department. We’re in the business of turning out highly literate students who love the language and love literature, and who read and write for the joy of reading and writing. Those students are as likely to become lawyers or scientists or librarians as writers. I became a teacher and a writer both, and I consider myself phenomenally lucky.

Jim Blaylock
Director, Creative Writing Conservatory

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Re: Blaylock on getting published

Postby FinderDoug » Thu Sep 17, 2009 11:24 am

Tom - Thanks for this. Lately, I've been coming across little bits and pieces on writers and their work that both amaze and astound. Joe Lansdale has said in an interview that he writes three hours a day, five days a week; given his output, both in numbers and quality, that's a solid three hours.

More recently, as I've sat and stared at novels that start, run a while and then slow to a crawl, I read Faulkner's into to the Popular Library edition of Sanctuary in which he says he wrote The Sound and The Fury in six weeks. It's a motivator just to know that such things are possible.

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