Furrballs & Pearls
Published in Byline Magazine as “Pearls that Get you Published”
Charles Atkins, MD
At four-thirty on Monday morning my cat throws up on The Chicago Manual of Style. This is not an omen, I reassure myself while cleaning it up and moving on to the morning’s writing.
This time in the dark, while the rest of the world sleeps is when I work on novels, map out marketing strategies, answer emails from my agent, publisher, and publicist and hammer out the next column or article. These are words written when my brain is sparking to life under the kindling effects of the day’s first cup of coffee. I never know where the words will lead me, but that’s the excitement of writing while half asleep. At seminars when people ask me how I do it, I tell them that the secret is one of trusting the process and trying not to think too much. Don’t think . . . write.
The Chicago Manual of Style, from here on marred with a small brownish stain, was a concession to my first agent who harangued me about my ignorance of the comma, “Buy a book, learn this and move on,” she instructed me after receiving a three-hundred page manuscript with the same comma error repeated several hundred times,
My path to becoming a writer, and now a published author, is constructed of thousands of such mornings. I’d always wanted to write a book, but I’d never had the discipline, at least that’s what I’d thought. Then came medical school, internship, and residency. Like eight years of boot camp they trimmed away all of my self-defeating habits with endless chapters to memorize followed by sleepless nights on-call. As a writer this discipline gives me the stamina to start a book on one day and finish it two to three months later. It’s easy; each day is a thousand words, and don’t skip days.
For the past couple years I’ve taken that writing to the market place. It’s like jumping hurdles; each one brings me further along on the road. Pearls of wisdom, like luminous guideposts, help steer the process. It’s a path that others have been down, but it’s obscured and like those three-D images that appear when your eyes have sufficiently lost focus, the way to publishing is not always clear.
So what are the pearls?
The first is the basic, “writer’s write.” If you don’t make time on a regular basis, it’s not going to happen. The book won’t get written, the screenplay you’ve been carrying around in your head won’t make it to the printed page, and that groundbreaking article on the perfect orgasm will never make it to Cosmo. All of the successful writers I’ve encountered have a writing habit. It’s best to put something down on paper everyday. Beyond that, like other habits, it’s helpful to set up a regular time and place. The “when” is unimportant, but it should be daily.
The next pearl has to do with creativity, and how to avoid writer’s block. My understanding of creative process is what allows me to sit down at my computer and have perfect faith that what I’m going to write will make sense, and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. As a psychiatrist, I have years of experience in seeing what shuts down creativity. The number-one killer of the muse is criticism. More often than not, it’s internally generated. When I worked at Yale providing counseling to graduate students, I mentally divided them into two groups, those that whizzed through their theses without a problem and those that stalled out. I found that the stymied pre-docs were critiquing their work as they tried to create it. Invariably, they found it wanting; it wasn’t good enough, or important enough, or what their supervisor wanted. These self-critical messages made it impossible to maintain the creatively mushy brain state that allows for interesting writing. This phenomenon was articulated for me at a creative writing seminar where the instructor encouraged us to write without editing. You can always edit later, but when it’s time to do a rough draft—for me at least—the goal is to get it down on the page. If it’s horrible I can always come back later and burn it.
So once you have a book written, how do you take it to market? The first piece of advice I received about publishing was from another physician author. He said, “Publish something small first, like a short story. It’ll help build your credentials.” He was right, but this also falls under the category of easier said than done. This became my introduction to rejection letters. Like most authors, I have received many of these. But rejection is not all bad. In amongst the form letters that assure me it’s not my writing but simply, “does not meet our requirements at this time,” are often helpful hand-written lines and paragraphs that let me know the real reason. Sometimes they steer me in the direction of another publication, and sometimes they clue me in to some key element that I need to incorporate. Maybe it’s not a rejection letter after all, but a request for me to redo the piece in a manner more in keeping with the needs of the publication.
The first novel I wrote, a medically based-action-adventure-gay-themed-romantic-comedy thriller—now safely buried at the bottom of a drawer–received the following comment scrawled in the margin of a quarter-sheet form letter, “this is very unprofessionally formatted!!!!” I overlooked the three exclamation marks, told myself it was written by someone with the emotional maturity of a seventh grader, but I did take the message to heart. I bought a book on manuscript formatting. Sure, I’d double-spaced and laser printed, but my headers were wrong and all of the other conventions that separated the pros from the amateurs hadn’t been observed. It was a great, albeit snotty, rejection letter, that helped me clear a hurdle.
A rejection letter, and the emotions it can fuel inside of us, is a potential pitfall for many would-be authors. I often hear people talking about the one or two times they submitted something and had it returned. They feel devastated and defeated. For some, they never clear this hurdle. Rejection has an annoying way of finding deep resonance within us. This is where some careful reminders can help us stay on track. Rejection is not personal and more often than not, the piece we sent really isn’t right for the publication, or they have no space to print it, or they just ran a similar piece, or…When I started submitting articles and essays, I told myself that I was doing well if one in ten were accepted. That’s now down to about one in three. Rejection letters are part of the business of writing, not to be confused with the art of writing; it’s important to keep these separate. When I receive a rejection letter, I read it, file it in a folder, and forget about it—unless of course there’s something handwritten that is useful. They’re not something to stew over. And as another author told me about rejected pieces, “don’t let them sit longer than twenty-four hours in the house.” What he meant was, look the piece over, revise it if necessary, and then send it somewhere else.
The next step is critical; if you want to get a book published you need an agent. When I started I wasn’t certain that this was necessary—haven’t we all read such success stories? But then I met the ex-owner of a publishing house at a conference. He set me straight with two sentences, “Sure we read unsolicited manuscripts. But in the twenty years I ran **** Press we never once published one.” It was a pearl not to be overlooked. I refocused my efforts, bought a book on the subject, wrote a succinct query letter, and got an agent.
Once I had representation the quality of rejection changed. No longer were manuscripts getting returned from editorial assistants, but they now came back with letters from senior editors and vice presidents. And then, wonder of wonders, we got a nibble, and then another, and then a two-book deal.
Now that I’ve entered the realm of the published—my first book came out last year and I have another coming out this fall–I face a new series of hurdles. But as before the pearls are dropping and I’m just the little piggy who’s going to pick them up.
I now spend considerable time on marketing and publicity—a subject that fills many books and more in-depth articles. What I’ve learned is that I am ultimately responsible for how my books sell. New authors, in the age of cost-conscious, downsized publishing houses, must not depend on the marketing department. They will provide some basics, but on beyond that you’re on your own. But here again, there’s a road. I do a lot of talks, charity events, and every television and radio interview I can land. An author friend of mine refers to it as being a “publicity slut”, where she’s been on Oprah seven or eight times, I’m not about to argue.
As I look back through this article, I can’t help but think, “what an awful lot of work this is.” And that’s the truth. I write because I have to, because it’s a passion–a labor of love. As a psychiatrist, I am all too aware that most people move through life with no passion. So I pay attention to those things that nurture my craft. I practice daily, and listen to the wisdom of those that are further down the path; I find this works.
Bio—Charles Atkins is a practicing psychiatrist and author. He has written both fiction and non-fiction. His latest mystery–VULTURES AT TWILIGHT (Severn House) will be released in the UK in January 2012, and May 2012 in the US.