Why we write and why we publish
by D. J. Herda
IN THE WRITERíS DEN
Herda is sitting at his desk, swiveling in
his chair, his pipe smoke rising lightly from the bowl into the soft
illumination of a lamp in a distant corner.
When I began freelance writing at the
tender age of 14, I wanted to believe that I would become a hot-shot published
author within three or four months--you know, a real child prodigy, an
ingťnue of world-class distinction, a literary scion, practically. Amazingly
enough, it came true.
Herda pauses briefly.
Well, part of it came true. I did
Herda clears his throat, looks around, and
Course, the rest of it I missed by a long shot.
Well, still. I mean, trying to get
published when youíre 14, when youíre still only a kid, barely a freshman in
high school. Thatís a little ambitious for anyone, donít you think?
I do today, but only because I know better. Back then, it was just a matter
of time. A week or two or three or six ... how long does it take for a
manuscript to wing its way from Chicago to New York? How long does it take
for a contract to come back? You sign it, send it off, wait another few days for the
fifty grand advance,
and itís a done deal.
Interviewer, interjecting, motioning toward several of the authorís books on
the shelves hanging over his desk.
Well, you did all right in the end. How many books have you published, now? Forty? Fifty? I mean, you certainly canít complain. Most writers would give
their right arms to do what youíve done.
Sixty-eight or seventy. I lose count. Just about the time I bring a new one
out, one or two of the old ones go out of print. If I canít go to Amazon and count them there, I just canít keep track.
Wow. You must be proud. You really were an ingťnue.
Herda looks suddenly animated. He shakes his head and swivels away from the
Interviewer, pauses, then swivels back. He grabs a pen from the desk
and shakes it at the Interviewer like a teacher at the lectern.
Ingťnue, my ass! I was too afraid not to write. Writing was my world. I fell
in love with writing at first sight and never could let go. I ate, drank,
and slept the notion of becoming a famous writer. Not just any writer, you
understand. Not a newspaper columnist or a magazine
feature writer or, God forbid, some goddam advertising copy writer who
spends his life penning a bunch of clever ditties about some goddam can of
Campbellís tomato soup or something. Not that kind of a writer. But an
honest-to-God published author with a best-selling book to his credit and
lots of money in his pocket. That was my way out. It was the only hope I saw
The interviewer squints and leans forward.
I ... I donít understand. That was your way out of what?
You donít get it, do you? I was dumb, I was smart. I was frightened, I
was emboldened. I was a kid, I was an adult. I was introverted, I was
extroverted. I was a nobody, I was a somebody.
The Interviewer shakes his head.
Iím afraid Iím not following you.
Herda looks over at his books, at some thirty or forty of them sagging
ominously on the shelf above a dust-encrusted bust of Shakespeare.
I was all of those first things before I became a writer.
I was all of those second things after.
The author peers into the darkness.
I was everything I ever wanted to be once I'd become a writer. I was
nothing I ever
wanted to be when I wasnít. As a writer, I'd have the world at my doorstep. I'd
have life opening up before me. I'd have opportunity, love, respect, fame. I'd
have women throwing themselves at my feet, for chrissake. Womenóat the age of
fourteen! I canít imagine I would have known what to do with them, but I
sure as all hell would have had a good time finding out.
The Interviewer squirms uncomfortably in his chair.
Well, when did you finally get published?
Published, or published with a book? I got published at the ripe old age of
twenty-two. I didnít see my first book in print until two years later. Maybe
three. Worse, still, it was a dog. It was non-fiction. I wanted to be a
novelist. I didn't want to write non-fiction. I hated it. But ... I figured one book is better than no books at
all. Besides, it might be a way of sliding into fiction writing somehow.
It was the first book you ever wrote?
Herda grins, his eyes growing distant. The grin fades suddenly and his eyes
First? First? It was my fifteenth or twentieth! Iíd written that much before
I ever saw a by-line. Iíd written every day, every night, often all night
long without a momentís sleep, written and packaged up my writing and sent
it off to New York and waited. And waited. And waited some more. And then,
when the waiting was done and the news finally came in the form of a sealed
envelope with a publishing companyís logo in the corner, I tore into itóbut
not without stealing away first to my little garret, not without squirreling
away somewhere from my parentsí sympathetic eyes. I had to go off alone before I could
muster up the courage to open it. Because I knew what Iíd find when I did,
and I didnít want them to see my face. I didnít want them to see my
disappointment. Most of all, I didnít want them feeling sorry for me, saying
something stupid like, Why donít you give up this writing business? Itís not the end of
the world, you know.
And that was the worst part? Having to hide your disappointment from your
Herda shakes his head. He pauses, looks down at his feet, cradles his head
in his hands. Softly.
Dear Author, Thanks so much for your recent submission. While we found it to
be well written and interesting, Iím afraid itís not something we have a
need for at this time. Our decision in no way reflects upon the quality of
your submission. Good luck in finding a suitable publisher for your work.
Sincerely, The Editors
The author raises his head and leans forward slowly.
Do you know how many pre-printed rejection slips like that I received from
the time I began writing at the age of fourteen until I published my first
magazine article eight years later?
The Interviewer shakes his head.
Well, neither do I. But I know it was enough to destroy mere mortals. I know
it was enough to bring stronger men to tears. I know it was enough to make
me pray to God each and every night. Dear God, if I canít be a published
writer, please, please, please take my life back, because I donít want it
The Interviewer clears his throat.
What kept you going? Through all those rejections? What kept you going back for more?
Awkward pause. Herda turns away. Softly.
My need to be somebody.
* * *
To write or not to write ... that is not the question. We all know
we have to write, and most of us know we have to publish. We crave seeing
that by-line in print. We long for recognition on the street, in the
office, from friends, relatives, and strangers. We want somebody to come
up to us and ask us for our autograph. We need somebody to come up
to us and ask us for our autograph.
Are we sick? Are we depraved, abnormal, bounding on the very fringes of
lunacy? Probably, but no more so than any other artist.
Artists in all disciplines share one very peculiar yet universal need: to
create. Strangely, that very act of creating is often not enough. We
also need to share. We need the applause that comes from a fine
performance, the accolades following a brilliant concert, the rave reviews on
the heels of a first major novel. We need all of that, most of us, because
of who we are ... artists.
When I was a kid, I used to think that being an artist meant being somebody who
did something artistic, like painting, sculpting, or writing. As I grew
older, I came to realize that artists aren't artists because of what they do;
artists do what they do because of who they are. And that is the beauty
and the agony of it all.
So, the question is begged: are you an artist who is satisfied without a
by-line? Or are you an artist who craves publication, attribution,
recognition? If you are the former, I feel sorry for you. And envy.
You will never know the thrill that comes with seeing your writing in print,
seeing your by-line staring up at you. And you will never know the agony
that comes with one rejection slip after another.
It must be nice, writing for the mere sake of writing, being satisfied with the
act for the very purity of the act, itself. It must be a simple, warm,
wonderful feeling. But, for the rest of us, we need to get busy.
Today Write a query letter or a book proposal. It
should take you no more than 15 - 30 minutes. Keep it short and snappy.
If you're not sure how to proceed, check out
Writing a Winning Query Letter
for suggestions and format. If it's something you've been meaning to write
for a while, make it happen. Reduce the idea to a single sentence, then
expand on it from there. Remember: don't get bogged down in details!
Tomorrow Go through back issues of GEWL's market listings
and find some publishers who seem like a good fit for your project. Check
out the newsletter's
Archives to access past
issues; then click on The Mag Markets or The Book Markets for each newsletter.
Try to find at least six viable candidates. You can also check out
Writer's Market and other market listing sources, available at bookstores
The Third Day Check your query letter or proposal one last
time for typos and phrasing, and then print out a copy to all the publishers on
your "viable candidates" list. Include an SASE and send them out.
Of course, the hard part follows--the waiting. But, if you follow this
advice every week for one full year, you'll end up with 52 different proposals
and more than 300 letters out circulating. Before long, you'll find a
publisher's reply in your mail box at least weekly, and probably daily.
Sooner or later, one of them will say, "Hey, I like this idea. If you can
hold it to 3,000 words, I'd like to see it on spec."
The rest ... is up to you.