(Control the little things)
With so much of your writing career depending on the decsions and opinions of other parties, it’s easy to feel powerless. Arthur Nersesian has created a framework diet for the budding, overwhelmed writer that focuses on taking hold of the aspects of your career that are controllable. Arthur received the Anahid Literary Prize for Armenian Literature and is the managing editor of the literary magazine, The Portable Lower East Side. Recently, Arthur was an English teacher at Hostos Community College, City University of New York, in the South Bronx.
The question posed to each author is – “A young author comes to you seeking advice. They’re riddled with insecurities and completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry. What are your Words from the Wise?”
AN – When young authors come to me “riddled with insecurities and completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry and asks for my words of wisdom,” I’d interpret that as they’re wondering how – or if — they’ll ever get published. The short answer is, there are no guarantees. Ultimately it’s one huge leap of faith. If lucky, you might see some cash here and there, but for most it’s trench warfare and you’re surviving on scraps. The only reason to be a writer is because you love writing: That’s it! It’s easier to make money doing absolutely anything else
Here’s how I did it: In the late 1980s, there were a couple of reference books, which still exists today, like the Guide to Literary Agents, and the LMP, that listed all major New York agents. I wound up flipping through these pages and eventually submitting my first novel — or more frequently a synopsis and opening chapter — to fifty-three of them. Six months later, I was shortlisted by two and finally selected by one. When he said he would represent me, I thought, this is it! I made it! He methodically sent my manuscript out to about thirty corporate publishers. One by one, over a two-year period, they rejected it.
I could write an incredible non-fiction thriller about how I wound up self-publishing my first novel, which would honestly implicate me in a few crimes but that turned out to be the easy part. Try going from bookstore to bookstore and hand-distributing your first work. Unless they had a consignment shelf, I usually got rejected. Even when it sold out and I was asked for re-stock, I usually wound up getting ripped off. But gradually the print run moved, and it even got a couple of early reviews.
It wasn’t until about a decade after finishing that first book that I received a barely legible postcard from a young fellow who said he was starting a small press. I thought it was a prank, but he had scribbled down his phone number, so I called it and we went for a $2 breakfast at a greasy spoon. There, he said he had enjoyed my little tome. Would I be interested in joining him in this maiden publishing voyage? Every bone in my body said, this was a bad idea. But nearly forty, single, broke, what had I to lose? With almost no expectations, the book finally came out. He sent out the ARCs, and surprisingly it started getting good reviews. It went through three printings quickly, until it finally got noticed up by a new agent who took it to a big press. Eleven years after I had written it, the book got picked up by a major publisher. Between music videos, MTV ran commercials for the book and it kept selling out. They kept reprinting it over and over and over. Currently it has sold over one hundred and twenty thousand copies and is still selling. What did I learn from all this? What could I have done differently? Nothing. I did everything I could. I wrote and hustled it as best as I could. It was all pretty much out of my control.
Over the years, I’ve extracted four tiny pearls of wisdom, little things that you can control that do slowly make a difference. First and foremost, keep writing. During those eleven years, I never stopped writing. You can’t decide if you’ll get published, much less the amount of your advance, but no matter how poor and neglected you are, you can keep writing. And by writing, I don’t just mean spitting out pages, I mean maturing, getting feedback, expanding out of your comfort zone. Every aspect of your writing grows simultaneously: With time, you do find your unique voice that they all talk about. Out of cardboard cut outs you slowly draw and dimensionalize characters. From hackneyed formulas, plots slowly emerge, growing more sophisticated and intriguing. Most of all, you learn to edit, both your best and your worst. Reading is important, but steadily writing is absolutely vital.
Second, get to know your literary scene. Meet other writers. They can be valuable resources. Become familiar with your area bookstores and check out their reading schedules. The large corporate publishers rely on agents to find potential bestsellers. But if you’re not a literary rockstar, the small indies are more receptive and offer more opportunity for growth. The newer the publishers, the more eager they are to fill their catalogs. Learn who is publishing what and how the work you’re writing could potentially fit in. Hit the larger functions, like New York’s Brooklyn Book Fair, where editors stand at tables hustling their wares. These are great place for the quick approach. Sign on to their email lists, work your way in. You don’t need to be a big personality or a stalker, but a brief chat in which you introduce yourself as a writer, a few cursory words perhaps about the publishers’ books, can be surprisingly effective, something you can build on over time. Check out their websites. They usually mention whether they’re considering manuscripts and they constantly advertise their upcoming events where you can drop in.
My third pearl of wisdom is find other streams of revenue. Specifically, look for jobs that don’t exhaust or demean you — jobs you can do while still writing. Though I was fired a couple of times over the years, the only time I ever quit a job was when it left me so exhausted I was unable to write before or afterward. Even if your first book gets a decent advance, keep in mind that if you divide that one-time payday over the years it took to write the book — minus the agent’s cut, taxes, etc. – it is usually less than a weekly pay check at a fast-food dive. My own diminished definition of a financially successful book is one that paid the rent (and only the rent) during the time it took to write it. The painful truth is, though you might see some nice pay days, you will still need to work in order to write.
As a young man, I did almost everything, from busboying to cooking, carpentry to housepainting, street vending to home attending, theater managing to legal proof reading, I taught English (and still do, ESL) to fiction workshopping. I run an affordable workshop in New York’s Greenwich Village, and invite anyone interested in joining to message me through Facebook. In short I have grabbed opportunities when and where they came up. And for the record, working while writing only made me stronger. It gave me greater value of the free time I had. It also grounded me, providing endless fodder for fiction. If I had massive trust fund and lived in spacious loft, I’m sure I never would’ve written a word.
When people are young, they are inclined to see the world in absolutes. Young writers want to MAKE IT AS A WRITER, or they are LOSERS. To me success is a daily task. At best it varies from book to book, and though it would be nice to have security, at very least, these precarious conditions do make life interesting. I won’t deny that for most, this is a tough life. You really have to want it, but it can be rewarding.
My last pearl is a little cliché, but vital. Life is a like a rocket ship. A little off course now leads to a lot off course later. Trying to bolster up or ease down with drugs or booze or even overeating — joys I’ve known only too well, but will eventually cost you in the end. Although writers are notorious addicts of every variety, consider healthy habits: jogging, yoga, or long walks. The physical release is a great counter-balance to the sedentary act of writing. It really does reduce the stress, a major cause of writers’ block, and keeps the body toned. Ultimately, if there’s any chance to reaching some pot of gold at the end of this precarious rainbow your odds are greatly improved.