Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How To Get Published, Part One: My Portfolio Is Not Magic

I feel really dumb writing this post, which is probably why I’ve put off writing it so far.

I’ve had some things published. This is true. It also does not make me an expert, in the same way that someone who has been on a jr. high swim team could be an Olympic commentator, or a student who read the Cliff Notes version of Plato’s Republic should apply to teach a history of philosophy at a local college. It would take the résumé padding of a compulsive liar to convince you that I can say anything definitive on this subject.

What I can do is share from my own experience, because I’ve noticed that a lot of people new to the writing world want to know how it works. I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you the small corner of it that I’ve come into contact with. Please note that I’m still learning and stumbling through this too, and at times, I don’t do the things I know I should or follow my own advice.

People who get published aren’t some rare, brilliant, disciplined group of people. They’re people who came to this often-mysterious thing called freelance writing, worked hard, poked around at different things trying to figure out what on earth was going on, and eventually figured out what worked by trial and error.

Trial and error isn’t always fun. So this blog post is supposed to be the anti-trial and error. That is, if you haven’t fled several paragraphs because of my lengthy disclaimer. (I swear that my self-esteem is just fine. Really.)

Over the next few Wednesdays, I’m going to de-mystify the process of getting published in a way that isn’t in a textbook, because I think there’s more to it than the sheer logistical details.

Scenario 1: Amy is a freshman writing major at Taylor University. She is told that people can get published in magazines and stuff, and that the Writer’s Market Guide is useful. Since she has a copy of the Christian Writer’s Market Guide, she flips through it aimlessly a few times. And doesn’t do much of anything at all.

Then, over spring break, in a burst of willpower, she makes a list of manuscripts to send in to various publications. She takes out a few things she’s already written (a short story and three drama scripts) and pages through the Guide looking for places that might need something like that, especially magazines she has read before. The Guide sends her to websites, which all have writer’s guidelines buried in obscure places like “Contact,” “FAQs” or “About Us.” It’s kind of like picking locks or some other spy business to find them, and she gets pretty good at it after a few tries.

In the process of looking through the Guide, Amy bookmarked some other publications that looked interesting. Now she writes an article, another short story, and a one-act play, then drafts a query letter for a place that said in the guidelines that they wanted one. This takes much longer than she thought it would, and spring break is almost over.

Amy edits everything she has written several times (especially the short story, which needed 1000 words removed to fit the word count). While her mom goes through and tears apart everything she wrote, Amy addresses envelopes and writes cover letters for the places that said in their guidelines that they wanted them, even though she doesn’t really know what a cover letter is (the Internet gave a surprising amount of varying answers—apparently no one really knows what is going on with those things). She sticks a self-addressed stamped envelope inside all of the envelopes because they also told her to do that.

One of the publications prefers email submissions, so she does that. Then she kills several trees by printing everything out, and stuffs manuscripts in the envelopes and mails them before she can talk herself out of it, because what on earth was she thinking, anyway?

Amy goes back to college, wishing she had spent spring break in a tropical place like everyone else instead of writing. She never wants to see words again.

A month goes by. One of the short stories was rejected in a vague email. Another few weeks pass. Mom calls, excited, because a letter has come to the house from Clubhouse Magazine, which Amy read as a kid. Amy allows her to open it, knowing full well that Mom has held it up to the light and already knows what it says. Sure enough, the other short story was accepted and will come out the next summer. Cool!

She later hears that one out of the three scripts she sent to a drama magazine was accepted for a Christmas collection. Whee! Bake some cookies and play “Jingle Bells.”

Amy signs some contracts, gives up her social security number for tax reporting purposes, figures out what kind of rights she’s selling, and gets two checks in the mail.

Much later, she gets the actual print version of her work and makes copies for her portfolio.

She still hasn’t heard back about the article or one-act play, three years later. Waste of a stamp.

That’s it, people. That is the mysterious process of how to get published. It’s actually kind of boring, heavy on the research and light on the magical incantations.

There are probably a lot of questions about this process that I didn’t get into (“How do I write a query letter?” “How do you use the Market Guide?” “When should you sell ‘All Rights,’ and what exactly does that mean?”). But you can ask me or a writer that kind of thing in person or in an email so it can be more specific to what you need. This was just to give you a big-picture look at what getting published looked like for me.

It’s hard work, and it’s terrifying if you’ve never done it before, because you don’t know what’s going on and what won’t work and how you’ll feel if everything you write is rejected. Most writers I know have experienced all of these feelings and more, some of which verge on panic, but I’m not going to talk about those so I don’t scare you away.

Hopefully this helps a little bit. Now that you’ve seen the overview, next Wednesday, I’m going to give more a of a hodgepodge of random tips and observations from freelance writing experiences from later years of college. Then I’ll get into how I got a book contract. And if I have anything else to say the next week that I didn’t already say, I’ll say it. (Don’t you love my organizational and outlining skills? Now you have a specific and accurate idea of what will be posted on this blog for almost a month.)

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