Getting Published. Really.

© 2007, The Oregonian

I wrote and published four paperback originals from the year 2000 to 2004 (this after six unpublished manuscripts dating back to the Jimmy Carter era… I was truly an overnight success). With this class of books – some call them beach trash, others call them grocery store books; I call them a career — which in the business of bookselling are like B-movies, they appear, they have their run and then they go away, fated to the occasional spotting in a used bookstore. At the core of my dirty little secret is the fact that my publisher, Signet, threw me under the literary bus after three singles and a double in a game of home run derby, critically-praised all, and despite two new manuscripts and a new agent, I’m still out there on the streets schlepping, right alongside the very people who have paid to listen to me teach them how to break into the business.

This is like David Hasselhoff telling a group of fourth-year drama majors how to audition for a Mamet play. He’s been produced on stage and screen – the equivalent of being published – so they’ll listen. And I do know how to write a book that works, that much is not in dispute. It’s just that the shelf-life of my caché to keeping doing it is getting a little thin. At least until my next book comes out. Until, my fifteen minutes endures more as a teacher of writing than as a practitioner.

When I broke in, both as a published novelist and as a writing workshop teacher, there was another instructor on the local scene named James Frey who had a reputation as the Leona Helmsly of aspiring authors, someone with the wit and demeanor of Dick Cheney and the sensitivity of Simon Cowell when it came to giving feedback. At first I was aghast when I heard stories of his cruelty… how could anyone rain on this parade of ambition and burgeoning talent, how could he crush their James Patterson dreams with his insensitive casting of their work into the abyss of the proverbial wannabe slush pile? But I get it now. Not that I approve – I don’t, I still believe that anyone willing to take on the daunting task of writing a novel or screenplay deserves the same respect as someone who, say, wants to erase world hunger – but I do understand the frustration. Because no matter how hard we pound the fundamentals of structure and character and theme into their neophyte literary sensibilities, no matter how clearly we spell it out and urge them to dig deeper into the darkness of their own experience to bring blood and tears to the page, we still get – let’s be real here – drivel in return, and we still get asked when our next book is coming out while we’re at it.

The drivel keeps coming not because they don’t try, but because writing a good novel, one good enough to publish, is incredibly, unthinkably, hard.

That said, the key to getting published is simple. Write something completely fresh and original, not derivative of what you think might sell. Understand the basic criteria of the game, they are inviolate. Don’t listen to anyone who says it’s either good or bad. Just keep writing. And for God’s sake, try to find a way to enjoy yourself as you do.

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