Monday, March 25, 2013

Reflections from the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

Alexander Slagg

Finding a Guide to Paradise

While the creative process of getting a piece of writing from shimmering spark inside your head to polished diamond on the page is often considered mysterious and magical, it’s the next step. Getting your work into print—that is the truly inexplicable process for most creative writers.

Publication is that Edenic realm where only truly successful writers reside. And any reader of the Bible will recall that there’s a muscle-bound cherub with an enormous flaming sword blocking the entrance into this paradise. Of course, I’m referring to THE EDITOR.

I’ve listened to countless conversations between writers that in one way or another ask the question: How do I get an editor to publish my work? But this is the wrong question to be asking. The better question to ask is: How do I get the right editor to publish my work? What’s the difference? Allow me to explain.

During my time as an editor at a book publisher, I worked very closely with the acquisitions editors. They were a friendly group—we had potlucks, shared gardening tips and talked about books and literature a lot (same as what writers do together). What I observed over and over was that certain editors had topics that interested them, and that they rarely strayed from these topics when acquiring titles they wanted to publish.

One editor wanted to see any book proposal that touched on health and beauty topics. Another editor was all about pet-themed books. The health and beauty editor wouldn’t bother to review a pet-themed pitch, and vice versa for the pet editor. Each editor also had his or her own views on the kind of writing they liked.

Some loved T. C. Boyle, one thought Carl Hiassen was brilliant, and another swore by Margaret Atwood. Those tastes also tended to determine the types of writers they were interested in working with. For example, a story with an animal or pet theme in the style of Carl Hiassen likely wouldn’t work for the pet editor. His tastes were more along the lines of T. C. Boyle’s writing style. This is how most editors operate. No matter how extraordinary your work is, if it doesn’t suite their personal tastes, they won’t consider it.

Even putting aside personal preferences, there’s sound business sense behind these nuanced acquisitions too. Publishing is a business. Editors like publishing work that’s successful, obviously. And once they have some success with a certain market, they will go back to the well over and over again. They have sold books there; they understand what sells to that particular niche market.

For the writer seeking an editor (or an agent, for that matter), what’s my point? If you’ve done your homework, I’m probably not offering any big reveal here. But it’s something to keep in mind as those rejection slips pile up on the corner of your desk.

More than anything else, publication comes down to matching the right writing with the right editor. Constant rejection leads many writers to throwing in the towel—an understandable response. But having your writing rejected doesn’t mean that it’s no good.

It could mean that you haven’t yet placed it in the right editor’s hands. You haven’t found that editor who shares similar tastes to your own and can see the value in your writing. And that, I think, is a healthy perspective as you consume that steady diet of rejection pie, rejection kebobs, and rejection étouffée that comes your way when sharing your creative writing with the world.

Another understandable response to publication is to view the process as a numbers game. If I send out my work to enough editors, I’m liable to randomly find the right editor for my work. This is mathematically true. Much like randomly bumping into the love of your life or randomly finding that dream job. How well does a scattershot approach work when looking for love or employment? If you have the time, by all means, try this approach.

But for those who don’t have endless amounts of spare time, finding the right publishing outlet for your work comes down to your personal interactions with others—networking. There’s no good way around it. A targeted approach is your best bet for finding the right editor. This includes doing research in one of the publishing guidebooks, utilizing online publication resources, directly contacting editors and publications for guidance on what they publish, and contacting a writer that you admire to see if they have any suggestions. It’s not fun work, but it’s the work that will most likely get you through those pearly publication gates.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at