Over the past few years, in order to buy peanut butter and bread and pay rent, I’ve taken on a number of manuscript assessments for various readers. I was first put on to them by my friend Michelle MacAleese (a next-level freelance editor and consultant), and have done them as part as the recently closed Humber School of Writers Agency (now offered through Humber Publishing Services), and, mostly, as individual projects for the prospective author. Some of these authors are professionals in another arts field, trying their hand at a novel or collection of stories, and some of them are fledgling authors who are bravely trying to break into this business of writing and publishing a book.
When Ms. MacAleese first suggested I look into doing these assessments (which mainly deal with concerns related to the actual craft of writing, but go into broader concerns about publishing strategy), I did not think that I had any right or authority to be advising on those kinds of things. Still, she’d heard me run my mouth enough about the industry, and about my own challenges in getting published, to suggest that I did know a little something. Turns out that, like all of my other peers at this stage in their young career, I actually know a lot of little somethings.
You will be rejected by everyone, until, perhaps, you’re not.
It is a tough go when you first start getting rejection letters after submitting to journals, agents, publishers, and so on. Hell, it can be hard enough to take rejection in earlier stages, as far back as high school or university workshops or creative writing classes. I see fellow writers posting photos of those grim letters and talking about this still, and the best adjusted of them tend to do so with more than a little black humour and a sense that we are all running headlong into a brick wall. In busting through that wall, you will get bloody. I have a book now and another on the way, and I am still bashing into barriers, as are we all. There are even new ones that I didn’t know existed, like trying to go over a mountain, and when you crest the ridge, you see other climbs that you didn’t know were between you and where you are going.
The best thing I can tell you is to embrace that grind, to grit your teeth and keep going. It's a necessary act of defiance to simply not quit (writing or trying to publish the writing). Actually, not quitting is a good part of this whole deal.
In talking to younger, unpublished writers, I’ve heard many of these questions floated out there, whispered almost, like there’s a secret to getting through. How do you get the courage to even submit stories, to have others read them? How do you get used to rejection? How do you find a voice of your own? There is no secret. There is no shortcut, not that you can count on anyway. This is an art form, and a form of personal and emotional expression, but it is also a job in the actual work that you put in. There are all kinds of processes for different writers, but I don’t know one good writer who doesn’t put in their hours and effort, either in actual hours and words written, or in some kind of berserker style of time spent with intense, gutting focus. Then you get a story or poem or book published, and you go again. In my experience, there is no great personal moment of triumph. Instead, I’ve found that I obsess about improving the craft of my writing, building my body of work, and trying to expand its reach.
I also found that a great deal of my success came from constantly writing and submitting work. This is much the same for many of the emerging writers that I know, and that I respect. They always have something on the go, and they are always mailing out stories and getting those form letters back in the mail (or in the electronic mail). Over time you will find journals and magazines and papers that are most receptive to your work, and you can go from carpet bombing everyone on earth, to a more focused approach with submissions made to specific publications. The same can be said for submitting book-length works, but that will involve bombing your manuscript at agents and some publishers (more on the publisher bit in tomorrow's post). The more you publish the more you get on the radar of people in the business, and you eventually become eligible for grants and awards. You build toward all of this bit by bit, but that first step is to submit over and over, and keep producing quality work while you are waiting to hear back. I've always said that you should never be waiting on results, because often, that thing you thought would happen never does, and the thing you were working on in the meanwhile gets picked up somewhere or leads to some kind of opportunity.
Of course, even for authors who have been published widely, you have to find a way to live before that Twilight money ever shows up. And you find these other things to break yourself up against. Like granting programs, awards juries, particularities of the Canadian market and the publishers that control it, and your own ever-evolving obligations and aims. The approach is the same, for me anyway, in that you take your lumps and plough ahead. It can be lonely, and I really do think that there were times that I was the only one who really believed that I would succeed. THE ONLY ONE. It is an intensely personal journey, this writing life, and most of the writers that make it have a level of determination that exceeds rationality.
Do I need an agent at the start of my career?
I’m gonna give you the simple answer first. No, you do not need an agent. At least not at the start, and not when it comes to publishing a first book of stories or poetry, or even a first novel in Canada. That’s not the all of it though…
I’ve had an agent, and I know a number of writers in my position, at this stage in their career, many that have agents and many that don’t. They have all kinds of opinions on it. At best, you have an agent that is entirely in tune with you and your work, who is willing to fight tooth and nail for you, and who will tell you the truth. Agents now tend to do a ton of editorial work, in preparation for submission, and having one that is good at it is essential. You want one who will be honest with you about your writing, and more importantly, about its actual real prospects in the current market.
If your agent tells you that you are going to be a rock star, well, that’s a pretty big canary right there. Of course, this is a business, but it’s a business where very few people writing anything literary actually make a lot of money. When you are beginning your career, there is so little money that you are likely going to make your agent about one hundred dollars of your advance. For all of that work, it’s not a whole lot of dough. So, agents have many clients, and they have clients in more commercial forms that help them pay the bills. It is a very hard game for all involved, including agents and editors and publishers and suits, but you need to cover your ass and keep your focus on your own work. What it is really worth. And what your goals for the work are.
I sympathize with agents and publishers who have to make money, but I also know that they’d better be willing to put some skin in the game. The best of them all are excellent readers, and are personally dedicated to maintaining and improving the literary and cultural landscape. As my editor, John Metcalf, would say, the best writers “sweat blood” on the page. The best agents and editors and publishers better be willing to bleed a little bit as well. Many are, but many also want to have a nice apartment or savings. I live in a basement, and I write the words, and they mean everything to me. It is absolutely possible to find someone who understands this, and is honest with you about your prospects and career possibilities. If you find that person, that is excellent. But, be honest back to them. Don’t be disloyal, and don’t be a little shit about it all, but make sure you put your work first, and stay active and informed in everything that is done with it.
PART 2 will be posted tomorrow, with a focus on: Being involved in the writing community, the social media gauntlet, and dealing with large and independent publishers - Please come back then, or I will be fired and replaced by a ginger cat...
(Click above line for Part 2)
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. His work has been widely published in journals including The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Joyland, Shenandoah and The Walrus. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and his short fiction has been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories 24 & 26, Best Canadian Stories 15, and Internazionale.
Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, was published by Biblioasis in 2015. Debris won the 2016 Trillium Book Award, the 2016 ReLit Award for Short Fiction, was runner-up for the 2016 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.