by Sherry Thompson
Persistence + Networking = Publication (sometimes)
Keven asked me to recount the story of my journey as an author. I thank him for the opportunity. While I was gathering together all of the fragments of my author experience for this blog entry, I came to realize that two activities made a huge difference in becoming published—persistence and networking with others in the “industry”. Here’s how all of that worked out.
I began writing my first fantasy book, Seabird, in 1979, at the age of 33. I had several motivations at the time but one was the need to read more fantasy books. Back then, there wasn’t that much available in the local shops and Amazon didn’t exist yet. I had pretty much blown through anything that interested me. So I decided to write stories to entertain myself. After a bit of mumbling and bumbling around, I realized that I needed to write Christian or Biblical fantasy fiction. (For more about this decision and how it developed, please follow the link “The Hound, the Lamppost & the Seabird” given below.)
Writing Seabird by longhand took me a couple of years. When that stage was done, I had a typist type up my rough manuscript. She offered a few suggestions as she typed, many of which involved grammatical and punctuation errors. I allowed her to fix these with gratitude. When the typing was complete, I gathered up the approximately 500 pages in a ream typing-paper box. Next I asked my family—parents, grandmother and brother—out to dinner. When I told them I had written a novel, everyone was in a celebratory mood. We all believed that authors wrote books and then books were automatically published. None of us were exactly sure how the last part of that equation worked, but we were all very sure about the “automatic” part.
I tried to find Seabird a publisher for the next two years. This went on at a very slow pace. I would go to the library and look at Writers’ Market (or its equivalent), pick out a publisher and then mail off the whole manuscript to them. (You could do that in those days.) Three to six months later, I would get back a form rejection. Once, an acquisitions editor actually sent me a note, suggesting that I work on beefing up my main character, Cara. I did so over the next couple of months, and then sent the manuscript back to her. She rejected it because of its length. The newly revised Seabird was the same length as the original version. Sigh.
In the meantime, I was working on Earthbow, the sequel of Seabird set on the same planet. My grandmother died in the middle of writing the book, and the story became darker as a result. Maybe the rejections for Seabird also had an influence on me. In any case, Earthbow also took me a couple of years to write. Once it was finished, I tried one time to get it published—by sending the manuscript to Daw. They rejected it. I gave up looking for a publisher for the time being.
Instead I began writing The Gryphon and the Basilisk next. (I couldn’t not write.) This would have been about 1983. G&B took longer to write for a couple of reasons. It’s a much longer story. More importantly, I had learned that authors –revised- manuscripts before submitting them to publishers.
I had been working at the University of Delaware Library for some time now, but realized for the first time that the English Department offered two courses: Creative Writing and Fiction Writing, in which I might learn something about how to improve both what I had written and what I was currently writing.
I signed up for the first course, and immediately ran afoul of Bernie Kaplan. He hated fantasy. He was also a very good teacher and excellent author of literary short stories. We managed to get along, in spite of that little blind spot in Bernie’s tastes. He helped me enormously. By the time, I was taking the second course with him, Bernie had given up on the idea of getting me to write literary short stories. (Short stories, period, are virtually beyond me. Yeah, I’ve written about a dozen but most of them stink. I write long and I write fantasy, and that’s about it.) Before the end of the second course, Bernie gave in and allowed me to submit some chapters of The Gryphon and the Basilisk to the class. They liked them. Bernie still mocked my tastes, but he seemed to like those story fragments as well. He actually praised my world-building.
At this point (mid-80’s) my career took off. Any new writing virtually ceased, though I would occasionally read through my three manuscripts and make desultory revisions in them. In the meantime, I had learned about SF/Fantasy conferences and I began attending them at the rate of about two a year. While sitting in on the conference panels, I would plot how to shop around Seabird to the attending publishers and agents. On a few occasions I actually managed to buttonhole a panelist; however, this was hard to do and I got no nibbles in return for the effort.
Toward the end of my career at the library (late 1990’s), I joined two online writing groups: Critters and Online Writing Workshop. I began by submitting chapters of Seabird to both of these. For each submission, I might receive two to a half dozen critiques. Not all of were even in the ballpark when it came to good advice. I learned to pick and choose, and to pay particular attention to similar comments made by several reviewers. I critiqued the writings of other people, as I had learned in my writing classes. Over time (maybe 1997 to 2002?), I formed email friendships with several of authors from both groups. Some of these friendships still exist to this day.
I retired early from the library in May 2000. My retirement agenda: 1. revising Seabird until it was really, really publishable; 2. finding that elusive publisher; and 3. if all else failed after the first 2-3 years of retirement, I would self-publish and move on to Earthbow. Over the next year and a half, however, various crises made something of a mess of my life so I got off to a slow start on my Getting Published Master Plan.
Late in 2001, I was back to submitting Seabird on both Critters and OWW, now with a new assortment of reviewers. In the fall of 2001 I also got back into the conference thing by attending the WorldCon held in Philadelphia. In the following years, I went back to attending Philcon and Balticon and I attended my first CapClave. I signed up for writers’ workshops at these events. A writers workshop required that you send a specimen of your writing to the convention people before the con. Then, at the con, you would spend a morning or afternoon with several other wanna-be published authors, listening to various editors and agents crit your work. It could be, and often was, excruciating. While at these cons, I tried to talk to publishers and agents—using carefully planned questions during the panels or attempts to grab their attention at elevators afterwards. This scored me a few business cards but little else.
My self-imposed deadline for getting Seabird published by 2003 was drawing near.
Ack! In 2004, it had passed but I wasn’t ready to give up quite yet. Maybe at the end of 2004…
Some time in about 2004, I think at a Capclave, I met Tony of Arx Press and he introduced me to Claudio. (Perhaps, I met Claudio and he introduced me to Tony. I always had trouble keeping the two men straight.) We were both in the audience of a panel on the Inklings. The panel consisted of an expert on J.R.R. Tolkien, an expert on C.S. Lewis and somebody there to talk about the third Inkling—Charles Williams. Williams is one of my favorite authors. The first two panelists were great but the third simply did not know his subject. I found myself raising my hand repeatedly to correct what he said or to supplement it.
When the panel was over, I went up to try to corner one of the panelists. I don’t remember now if it was the Tolkien expert or the Lewis expert. Whoever it was, someone else had beat me to it—either Claudio or Tony. We talked to our panelist “victim” for a minute, and then Tony/Claudio told me that I had an impressive knowledge of Charles Williams’ writings. (I did then. Since? Too much writing, too little reading.) Claudio/Tony and I walked out of the room together, still talking. He mentioned he was a publisher.
Shebang! I gave him my Two Minute Elevator pitch for Seabird.
(If you don’t have a Two Minute Elevator Pitch, start working on it.)
Tony/Claudio said that the book sounded interesting. Did I have time to meet his partner in the vendor’s hall—Claudio/Tony? Of course, I did! I talked with them for the next hour standing by their table, perspiring freely with nervousness and the heat of the room. At the end of it all, they asked me to send my Seabird manuscript.
Well, you know, Seabird didn’t get published by Arx but it was a strong nibble. As it turned out the partners were looking for stories that read like ancient legends, preferably with liberal uses of Latin, Ancient Greek, etc. I had taken correspondence courses in New Testament Greek, so I tried to comply. You can still see traces of this in Seabird, where the Young Ones have the formal name of the Neroli and the Elder Ones are sometimes called the Peralike. However, these hastily inserted words were mere bastardized Greek.
My world of Narenta has certain similarities to Lewis’s Narnia. One of the things that we have in common is that neither worlds’ cultures or languages really connect up with Earth historically. To have Greek spoken or just written on Narenta would be to suggest that the two worlds had a common history if you went back far enough. A common God, they have of course. Not a common history.
The partners at Arx also wanted me to write more like Lewis. (I had mentioned that Lewis—and especially The Chronicles of Narnia—had inspired me greatly.) I dutifully tried to follow through with this suggestion about style. However, as much as I love Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, I didn’t like Lewis’ style in the Chronicles. It was appropriate for books written for children in the middle of the 20th century. Not for Seabird’s 21st century heroine and older reader. I just couldn’t in good conscience make all of the changes they had requested. Finally, I wrote and told them all of this. We parted in a friendly manner, and I was back to looking for a publisher. And that is what they call “creative differences”, though usually in the film industry.
This was at the very beginning of 2005, I believe. The getting-published clock was still ticking. I was way past my ultimatum date for self-publishing.