Many writers, myself included, have invested months firing out torrents of story ideas and manuscripts, hoping for the big break. But instead of raking in the cash, most accumulate file cabinets full of rejects. It’s easy to become cynical about what seems to be a closed-door, clique-driven business. When a few such jaded individuals get together to compare notes, it can appear as though a vast editorial or publishing conspiracy is acting behind the scenes to prevent all but the chosen few from gaining a foothold.
What, then, is the secret key that will unlock this foreboding fortress, the genie in the lantern that is waiting to leap out and grant your three publishing wishes? Let me unlock this riddle, and provide answers that anyone can use to penetrate the inner sanctum.
We’ll start with the wrong way to go about it (which I excelled at):
During my first six months as a full-time writer, I accumulated hundreds of rejects. I sent, manuscripts, articles and story proposals to a wide range of magazines. Result: a couple of requests to see manuscripts which were then rejected, and one “call me later.” Demoralizing to say the least. Clearly, I was a nobody.
And that was the problem – being a nobody, at least in the eyes of the editors I pitched. After all, what did I have to offer? Some in-house corporate work and obscure magazine editing credits from a distant land. Big deal. As an expert in no particular field who couldn’t produce a portfolio of recent magazine clippings or a single fiction publishing credit, I looked an unsafe bet.
Think of it this way. Would you go to the Kentucky Derby and bet all your money on a poorly groomed horse that has yet to finish a race? Then why expect editors and publishers to back an untried writer? They can’t afford to take the risk.
Further, inexperienced writers absorb a lot more editor minutes – typos, bad grammar, poorly organized work. Who can blame them for preferring to deal with people who have a proven track record of accomplishment?
That’s fine and dandy for the editors, some of you are no doubt saying, but what about us? How do we bridge the gap? While there are several possible approaches, this is what worked for me.
Serve your apprenticeship:
Fame and fortune will remain a distant dream to most aspiring writers who have not served a thorough apprenticeship. This doesn’t have to go as far as getting a job with a local newspaper, though that might help. I worked under an excellent editor at a publicity agency for a while, learning the ropes, spotting my syntactical sins and isolating why her revisions were better – smoother transitions, more ordered paragraphs, better word choice. Although this wasn’t the highest paid work, it taught me the business. When I became more professional and could accelerate my pace, the pay per article became acceptable.
While I was fortunate to scale the editorial gates in this fashion, there is always some way to make a start. All sorts of people are looking for writers – association newsletters, political speeches, articles that small businesses want to submit to trade magazines. There is writing work out there that can be captured, either on a voluntary basis or for a very low fee. The point is to build up a proven record of recent material that can be used to convince others you can do the job, while at the same time learning your trade well.
In Part Two, we cover some tips for fiction writers as well as how to gain experience rapidly even though you are new to the field.