Taking the Plunge: Getting Published

After making every mistake possible trying to get published, figuring out why I wanted to write and what I wanted to write, I was finally on the right path. My only problem was that I didn’t have anything written that was worth submitting. I scrapped most of my older material and started writing again from the ground up. I entered the fray, again armed with my interest in poetry. I added to my arsenal a strong interest in flash fiction, and still I was rejected by quite a few places. But this was validating, because I wasn’t getting form letters as often as I had been. Editors were writing to me to let me know they liked my work, but wanted something just a little different. One of my favorite rejection letters was from Byline, in which the editor said my short story didn’t quite fit the needs of their magazine, but if I had any longer mystery stories she’d love to take a look. I should have jumped on that opportunity, but I didn’t know mystery and didn’t want to take a stab in the dark only to disappoint the editor. So I continued submitting the stories and poems I had written and revised, and continued to get the “close but no cigar” responses from editors. But they were signed, and featured comments from editors.

Eventually I decided that the problem wasn’t my writing style or my approach to publishing (It had been in the past though!). The problem was that my stories weren’t staying comfortably within the parameters established by editors. I had to make a decision as to how much I wanted to compromise. Did I want to tone the weird elements in my stories down so I could get published with some of these magazines and journals, or did I want to continue writing as I was and keep searching. Since there were literally thousands of publications I had yet to hit, I decided for the latter of these two options.

Creating a Submissions Bank

I also decided to create a submissions bank, a set of stories to submit to different publications. As I saw it, I had two choices. I could either complain about no simultaneous submissions policies and long waits for response, or I could generate a pool of stories and send one or two out every few weeks. Eventually I’d be acquiring a few responses every month while revising the rejected stories to resubmit them to other publications. Creating a submissions bank also helped when my inspiration dried up. I seem to be a seasonal writer, probably because I work spring and fall and have summers and winters off. But when I’m not writing I try to keep my skills sharp by editing for friends and students, revising my stories for submission, and getting what I have polished out for consideration.

Before bizarro, I wanted to write like Zindel.

Creating a submissions bank forced me to put submitting my work on hold. I was also getting more ambitious and my stories were getting longer. I wrote a few YA novellas and one YA novel. The novellas I submitted to small presses. The novel I submitted to agents. But, as an avid reader of Judy Blume and Paul Zindel, my YA material was pretty passé according to most. People were looking for the next Spiderwick or the next Harry Potter, not the next Pigman.

Long story short I put that material on hold after about a year of writing, revising and submitting. My novel, after shopping it around and getting a few rejections, is still sitting on an editor’s desk a year after my submission. It’s on a short list . . . I don’t think it is ever going to leave that short list, but I’m not in too much of a rush because I’m working in other genres now and doing other things.

In order to expand my submissions bank, I decided that I would start writing for multiple genres. Whichever one I finally fell into, that’d be the one I’d stick with. That or I decided I’d use different pen names for the different genres if I was lucky enough to get published. After YA I jumped into science fiction. Unbeknownst to me, I was writing what I would later identify as bizarro science fiction. My first is still one of my favorite works. I submitted it to a few (very few) science fiction publishers who accepted novellas. Too weird for them. I tweaked it and sent it into a publisher specializing in strange homoerotic science fiction and fantasy tales. Turns out I’m not very good at detailing homoerotic love scenes. I dropped the story and started writing a movie script. I was younger and figured it was time to broaden my horizons and find focus later. Then a blessing in disguise hit me. I was about 60 pages into my script. I got up and accidentally kicked the charge cord out of the back of my laptop. The battery had been dead, fully dead, for weeks. When I plugged the computer back in, the script was corrupted. It took me six months of searching the internet to find a program that could retrieve the file’s contents.

Anyway, I took it as a sign that I should go back to science fiction. I started expanding the science fiction novella, and I discovered Eraserhead Press. I have told the story in multiple interviews. I searched “weird shit” on Google. Carlton Mellick III popped up in the results. I viewed his page, and for the first time in a long time I saw a publisher that I wanted to write something for.

In the past I had written material and then submitted it to places that seemed to match. That doesn’t always work, especially if you query or ask editors what they want. Some are vague. They’ll tell you, “we’re looking for anything of high quality.” My suggestion is to stay away from places like that because what they’re looking for is a goldmine, anything that will launch their publishing house and will determine their future focus.

This book let me know Eraserhead Press was where I wanted to be.

Eraserhead Press knew what they wanted. They had a few pages dedicated to exactly what they were looking for, in fact. The books I read (one of the starter kits and CM III’s Steel Breakfast Era) matched EP’s mission statement. They also had an online application process, so I applied, thinking I’d never have a chance in hell.

I befriended a few of the folks online. Like Green Jelly, they responded. They added me. I wanted to talk to them, but really couldn’t get past the “hey I liked your book” line. I was too nervous, and didn’t know how to approach them. Sometimes I still don’t know exactly how to approach the authors I admire after befriending them. Then I end up making jokes about stomach vaginas and rubbing folks the wrong way.

A little while later I got an invitation to submit to NBAS. I submitted a set of proposals to the publisher, who kindly directed me to the editor. I thought I was screwed. I had hastily read the directions for submission and sent the material to the wrong person. As a result, the person at the top of the chain at EP saw my first fuck up. Luckily, that person was Rose O’Keefe, and she understood. I apologized several times to her, and to the editor, Kevin Donihe, whose book, The Greatest Fucking Moment in Sports, I had just read.

For me, this was probably one of the most exciting and frightening times in my life. Not only was I submitting to a place that was giving me a shot. I was submitting to an author whose book I really enjoyed.  That fear was soon squelched when Donihe wrote me back saying he’d like to take a look the complete manuscript I had for one of my proposed projects. It was the weird science fiction manuscript, the one I probably wouldn’t have edited further if my film script file hadn’t been corrupted.

I sent it to him. It wasn’t quite bizarro enough for what Kevin was looking for, but it was good enough for him to encourage me to submit another set of proposals. I had previously written a short story about a man who had been transformed into a pile of excrement, so I sent him a proposal which fleshed out the story a bit and he asked to see it. Not surprisingly, the story struck my editor as too excremental. And I’m glad, because one of the few things in terms of content people have complained about in my book is the vomit troughs. It was just too sick for them to read about. If the protagonist had been rendered from excrement, I think I would have lost a lot of readers.

It never occurred to me at this point that I could suggest revising the book. I decided to send in another set of proposals. He picked another and I wrote it. I knew even upon submitting that it wasn’t very bizarro. In fact, it was less bizarro than the first I submitted, but my style was improving and I sent it in.

He told me it was the best of my three manuscripts, but again, it wasn’t quite bizarro. My well of inspiration was running dry. I was short on bizarro ideas and didn’t think I could produce six more proposals. I almost gave up. Then, as a last ditch effort, I asked if we could return to my second manuscript. I gave him my proposal for submissions. I’d turn that boy made out of poop into a boy made out of vitreous humor. It’d make for a stronger metaphor anyway, because he’d be essentially invisible, and when someone looked through him they’d see the world through a distorted lens, which was exactly how people see the world when they look through the eyes of another. I didn’t think he was going to agree to it, but he did.

I spent some time revising the content, making no changes in terms of proofreading. I set the story in 19th-century America because I wanted to touch down on the themes I discussed in my M.A. thesis about identity loss for the factory worker.  This historical setting also made it easier to finish within the word count required for publication, because taking over “America” would only require taking over a handful of states, rather than the entire country.

From that point on, Kevin didn’t give up on Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, and he didn’t let me give up on it either. He was not just my editor at that point. He became my one-man pep rally. He became my e-psychologist. He was the Obi-Wan of Bizarro, guiding me in the ways of the writer.

But I was not the Luke Skywalker of Bizarro. I was dismissive when it came to some of the suggestions made, primarily because, like I said in my first entry, I just wanted to get something published. I just kept thinking, “ok, this is the last draft.” Not “this is the last draft so I better put everything into it and make this the best it can possibly be,” but, “this is the last draft and then I’ll be published.” That second vein of thought is a dangerous one. It’s the one you get when you’re eager to get some work out there and break into the market. You start to lose sight of your audience, primarily because it hasn’t been constructed yet. Your audience is hypothetical at this point. After you become published and see reviews and get to know the people reading your material, your audience becomes real. If you don’t do your best coming out of the pen, your audience becomes frighteningly real, and I definitely had a reality check once the book came out. Luckily, with Kevin’s help, it wasn’t as harsh a reality check as it would have been if I would have decided to self publish.

I lost sight of a lot of things, as I assume others have when they start to get close to their goal. I tasted the glory perpetuated by my delusions of grandeur. When I was about to get published, the disparity between the reality of being published and the fantasy of being published had not yet been reconciled. And the delusion can outweigh your better judgment. After getting published, the reality set in. I think at this point an author can go one of two ways, they can get incredibly discouraged when things don’t go the way they hope or they can stand up to the challenge and realize that the work is not over.

I chose the latter of those two options. My audience became real, composed of real individuals. This is something that small-press authors get more of a chance to experience. Almost as soon as the book came out and I got a chance to look over it, I realized I should have put more in pre-publication, so I decided to double my efforts in promotion. With the help of a lot of people, it paid off.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There was a short time where I lost contact with Kevin. I hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks and was starting to get worried that he had given up on me and my book. I was getting ready to head back to college and I wasn’t keeping up on things. The first year’s NBAS crew was about half way through their promotions and planning for BizarroCon 2010 was well underway. I thought, like the previous year, I wasn’t going to make the cut. Once school started I knew I’d have little time to revise and I was starting to lose hope.

Then the letter came, about a week before the summer semester started. Kevin was going to take Uncle Sam. It still needed work, which we’d resume in September, but I was on board.

This was extremely gratifying. I was going to get published. The time between that letter and the book coming out were probably some of the best times, because I knew the book was going to hit the shelves, even though I did pester Kevin a few times late at night during those months to make sure I was still on board until he assured me that I was on board and would remain on board unless I tried to harm his cat. The validation of being accepted was there. Now was the time for me to let my delusions of grandeur loose, and I wish I would have held those delusions at bay until this point instead of letting them feed my hasty and sometimes non-diligent work ethic throughout the process. I imagined how this publication would influence my writing career down the road and jumped the gun again by coming up with ideas for future books.

After Being Published

I learned to put those ideas on hold and work on promotion and getting published in anthologies and magazines. After getting published the most important thing to me was getting my book out there. Next in line was my desire to show people that I had stylistic range. Uncle Sam is written in a style unlike most of what I normally write. I generally write in first person in a casual, conversational tone. Uncle Sam was written in third person, and I tried to parody the style of long-winded authors from the time period I initially intended the book to take place in.

Since publishing Uncle Sam, my work has been accepted for inclusion in 9 anthologies, most of which are non-bizarro horror anthologies. They’re starting to hit the shelves and I’m extremely excited to show how I’ve grown as a writer. Now I’m trying to expand the presence of my material online so readers have free access to my writing and can make sound decisions about purchasing my books. I think as authors, doing this serves as testament to our confidence in our writing abilities. It also ensures that the people who would spend money on our book and be disappointed don’t have to encounter that experience. Instead they can read our online material and decide we’re not for them, which saves us from getting some harsh reviews and saves them from spending their hard-earned money on a book they might not like.

As for my next book, I’m working on a few slowly and meticulously. I’m putting more effort into these works than I did with Uncle Sam. When I wrote Uncle Sam I started with a general premise and then each night I would write 7 to 10 pages and write an outline for the next day’s writing. I didn’t have a full, well-developed outline when I started. In the long run this meant a lot of the time I could have been focusing on revising Uncle Sam for other things I spent revising the plot, working out kinks, rethinking the story and looking for contradictions and continuity errors. Simply by producing more detailed outlines and really thinking about what will happen to my characters, I have had to focus a lot less on continuity errors during revisions. And I don’t run into road blocks in which I think, “this isn’t going to work with what I did previously in the story.”

And if I do get signed on board to do another book down the road, I’m going to treat every draft like it is the last. But this time, it’s going to be the “this is the last draft and I better give it all I’ve got to make sure this is as good as possible” vein of thought rather than the “damn I want to be published, right now!” vein I worked in before.

Sometimes I think authors do their best work before they know they’re in the running for publication, or after their first book. When we don’t know if we’re going to get published we don’t generate that sense of deadline and urgency. Once we’ve been published, that “I just want something out there” mentality takes a back seat to “I want something out there, but because it is going to be out there for a long time, I want it to be as good as possible.”

I look forward to seeing how I grow over the next year, and how the editing, revising and promotion for my next book goes. Nothing is set in stone yet. The NBAS team doesn’t find out until November if they’re going to make the cut or not with Eraserhead Press. The audience I have constructed has been great. Many people have been honest with what they’d like to see change in my future work. The fact that they take the time to tell me that tells me that they’re willing to give me another chance, and I plan on making that chance count. I now count many of those who truly enjoyed my work as friends who I respect deeply. This is one of my favorite parts about small-press publishing. As my audience grows, I continue to meet more and more people. I know many of my readers on a first-name basis and have tried to foster an environment where they can be honest with me about my work.

Alright, that’s my story. Now over the next few weeks (or more) I’m going to be interviewing folks about their story. The first few folks on board are my fellow NBASers, and I’ve selected certain elements of small-press publishing I’d like them to address. First up, I’ll be getting questions out to Steve Lowe about networking, because that is something we can begin before we’re even published and it can be very beneficial. I’d like to try to get a publishing horror story, or a blunder each author learned from as well. Come back and check it out!

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