Category Archives: Damage Control

What “Rejection” Really Means

A Guest Post by David Farland

For the last few weeks I’ve been scurrying to finish up judging on a large contest. I’ve had to “reject” thousands of stories. I hate the word “reject,” because it doesn’t really express what I want to say.

Very often I will read the opening to a story and it is obviously the first work of a very young writer. It may have a multitude of problems—from simple typos, to a lack of understanding as to how to set a scene, to clunky dialog. I know that I can’t accept the story for publication, but at the same time, I wish that I could shout some encouragement to the budding writer, much the way that my mentor Algis Budrys did to a young Stephen King.

I think that people need encouragement. It may be the only thing that will spur a young writer to greater effort.

So what does the word “rejection” mean to you as a writer? I think it’s simply: “Try harder.”

A lot of fine works get rejected. The bestselling works in nearly every genre experienced rejection. Lord of the Rings was rejected by several American publishers. Dune was rejected by all of them. Gone with the Wind made its rounds through every major publisher. Harry Potter was rejected by all of the biggest houses, and Twilight was rejected by a dozen agents before it got picked up—yet all of these novels became the bestsellers in their fields.

So does that mean that these were all bad novels? Of course not. It means that the author didn’t find an editor with a matching taste, a matching vision, right at the first.

Very often when I read a manuscript that is close to being publishable, I think, It’s a shame that the author didn’t try a little harder to . . . That’s what “rejected” means to me.

I was talking to international bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton last week, and asked her to confirm a rumor that I’d heard. With her first novel, she received over 200 rejections before she made a sale. She said, “When people tell me that they’ve been rejected five or ten or twenty times, I just tell them that ‘I don’t want to hear about it.’”

Laurell has the perfect attitude toward rejection. Try harder.

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How Bad Can It Get?

If you have a writing career that ultimately spans decades, it will inevitably fluctuate with highs and lows—and so will the exultation and despair that follows such fluctuations. Contracts and literary agents may come and go. Publishing companies can dissolve and your rights lost in a morass of legalese and bankruptcy. The “Mid-List Author Death Spiral,” as it’s called, is a phenomenon well-known to several of my author acquaintances. And this is beyond the usual barrage of rejections we all have to cope with. Unless you’re prepared to go quietly into that good night, you will have to find ways to bounce back from setbacks like these—or else you won’t.

In the mid-1990s, I was one of those young writers desperate for industry validation, ripening me into the perfect fruit for the illegitimate predators out there. These were the days when the Web was in its infancy. There were no valuable websites like Writer Beware, Preditors and Editors, and the Association of Author Representatives out there waving red flags about snake-oil peddlers and con artists. Of course I was delighted when the Deering Literary Agency agreed to represent me. All they wanted was $800 to do it. I studied the contract closely, consulted a lawyer, but everything seemed legit—except for the fee. Young (erm, naïve is the more proper word) and desperate as I was, despite being broke, despite the warning bells, I went through with it.

A year passed with no word. Eventually the Deerings (an entire family of con artists) came back to me asking for another $500 for another year’s representation. More warning bells, more phone calls, but like I said, they were con artists and knew exactly what to say to get me to fork it over. So I did.

Six months later, they called me with contract offer. Joy! Exultation!

The contract offer was from Commonwealth Publications, of Edmonton, Alberta. Hmm, never heard of them before. The sample covers they sent sucked, comparable to a middle-school art class. I mean, terrible, not even by the talented art students. Warning bells, warning bells. Calls to agent—who are these people?—much reassurance. And what’s this clause they’re calling “joint venture,” wherein they require the author to contribute $3,850 to “share the publishing costs”? Oh, well, that’s a pioneering new publishing model. Authors share the costs but get a much higher royalty percentage.

So, despite the warning bells, I borrowed the money (remember, I was broke) and handed it over. This was about 1995. I was 25 years old.

I’m going to abbreviate this long, wrenching tale and say that my book, an epic fantasy titled The Ivory Star, was published in the spring of 1997, a year behind schedule. Dozens of other Commonwealth authors never even saw their book published.

Three months after publication, Commonwealth Publications evaporated. Their owner/CEO, Donald Phelan, looted the company of millions of dollars and fled to the Bahamas, leaving his company to implode and all the authors to drown in a pile of steaming excrement.

I never saw a dime of royalties.

One silver lining: the authors formed a class-action lawsuit, sued in Canadian court, and received our rights back, plus a judgment of $10 million. None of this judgment was ever paid because Commonwealth possessed no real assets, and Donald Phelan agreed to the settlement only on the condition that he not be named personally as a defendant. He was able to take the money and run, leaving authors holding the empty sack.

And about the time Commonwealth was imploding, the Deerings had decided to launch their own version of the same scam. Dorothy, Charles, and Daniel Deering formed a company called Sovereign Publishing and started bilking more naïve, desperate authors out of “representation fees” and then “selling” those books to Sovereign Publishing, which then garnered another round of “joint venture fees.” Unlike Commonwealth, however, Sovereign never published a single book, because the FBI came sniffing around.

The good news? The Deerings were all convicted of various types of fraud, and spent several years each in federal prison.

The bad news? They’re out of the pen now, and I suspect working on similar schemes, heedless of the dreams they crush.

FBI agent Jim Fischer has written a book about the case called Ten Percent of Nothing. There’s also plenty of information on Commonwealth and the Deerings on the website Writer Beware.

But there’s one more kick to the solar plexus in this Insult to Injury Extravaganza.

An unscrupulous few of Commonwealth’s former employees banded together, cooked up a scheme, and bought up the company’s stock of books for pennies on the dollar when all of the company’s assets were sold at auction to cover some of its debts. With this warehouse full of almost-free books, these people formed another “publishing company” called Picasso Publications, and attempted to present themselves as the publisher of these titles and sell the books on Amazon. Authors were never contacted nor informed of this move. As soon as wind of this spread and Amazon shut them down, Picasso evaporated just like Commonwealth did, and an unknown number of books along with them.

Whew. Long story, wasn’t it?

Try living through it.

But this is just the prelude. I still haven’t reached the point of my essay.

After three years in total of this sort of emotional pummeling, when it finally all unraveled, I had stopped writing. I just couldn’t do it anymore. As far as I was concerned, my career was a smoking wreck with a flaming oil slick trailing behind. The self-flagellation never quite reached the clinical level, but only because I found other outlets for my grief and shame.

I plunged myself into other creative avenues, such as minitature wargames, roleplaying games, video games. The storytelling urge that had turned me into a writer made me a pretty good GM. I painted hundreds of miniatures. Orc armies, dark elf armies, Norman armies, troll armies, samurai armies, Viking armies, space marine armies. I got pretty damn good at it over a couple of years.

For about two years, I didn’t write a word.

But then something happened. Not all at once, but more like someone slowly turning up the volume knob on that voice in my head that had started saying, “You should be writing,” the urge to write again slunk back like a coyote hovering around the campfire of my consciousness. Eventually I decided to feed the damn thing.

So I started on a new project. A samurai novel. I threw myself into research, into nights at the library, into reading history books and encyclopedias, and into watching more samurai films. The story I was writing became Heart of the Ronin, the first book of my Ronin Trilogy.

And over the course of the next decade, this decision—to write again—turned my life around.

With my shiny new chapters in hand, I attended my very first writing conference in 1999. At that conference, I met real agents, real editors. Lo and behold, they were just people! Kind people! Friendly people! People interested in what I was working on! One of the agents took the time to offer me some feedback on my samurai novel project, and even though she ultimately declined to represent me, I still feel very much indebted to her for that guiding hand. For the first time, I had the professional validation I had been lacking.

Writing the story that became the Ronin Trilogy led me to throw my life out the window and start over. I moved to Japan and lived there for three years. During this time, I found representation with a real literary agent, one of the big NYC ones, who sold Heart of the Ronin to Gale-Cengage’s Five Star imprint. After a decade since the Commonwealth/Deering cesspit, my career train was back on the tracks.

I returned to the U.S. then and went to grad school, like I had always wanted to. I started going to conventions and networking with agents, editors, and other writers. I wrote more books and sold them to small presses. I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2009. My train was starting to roll out of the station. Nowadays I feel like it’s moving at a slow but steady pace, with opportunities to pick up some speed popping up occasionally.

I have more books to write, and I’ll be damned if I ever suffer another setback like what Commonwealth and the Deerings did to me.

What I would like the Conscientious Reader to take away from all this is a number of points.

Lesson 1: Money always flows to the writer, never, ever, ever the other way around. Not to agents, not to publishers, not to anthologies or magazines.

Lesson 2: Trust your instincts. If something stinks, best pay attention and start digging. These days, the internet is a powerful research tool that I didn’t have twenty years ago.

Lesson 3: If you’re a writer whose Muse has scarpered off to grace someone else’s lap, whose desire to write is just gone, the urge to do so will return. Doesn’t matter if you’ve experienced your own train wrecks of whatever scale. The Writer Instinct may be retreat into a dark, little hole, but it’s still there, waiting for the coast-is-clear. And if it doesn’t?

Your heart would certainly be safer if it stayed away.

But writers don’t believe in playing it safe. We’re already insane, and we embrace it.

If it’s gone for now, trust that it will come back, and it just might change your life.

About the Author: Travis Heermann

Heermann-6death-wind-front-coverTravis Heermann’s latest novel Death Wind, co-authored with jim pinto, was published in September 2016, by WordFire Press.

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, he is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of The Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Apex Magazine, Perihelion SF, Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including content for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and EVE Online.

He recently returned to the U.S. from New Zealand with a couple of lovely ladies and toting more Middle Earth souvenirs than is reasonable.

You can find him on…

Twitter
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Avoid the Pointy End of the Sword

Anyone ever read Terry Pratchett and his Silver Horde? A sketchy band of octogenarian fighters who, despite their advancing years, still get out for the occasional job. Just to keep the blood flowing. A young man asks one of their members how they can still fight. His response boils down to this, “Be somewhere else when the sword gets there.”

These guys have enough fighting experience that they know exactly what they’re opponents are going to do. Ever.y Single. Time. So it’s easy for their arthritic bodies to be out of the way just in time to avoid being stabbed.

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Think about your life. Aren’t there things that always happen? Every. Single. Time?

For instance, it never fails that just as soon as I get my writing grove on, and I’m either busting out a rough draft, or plotting a series or editing a final manuscript, my day job decides to get greedy and they slap extra hours on me. This happens exactly two days after I’ve made a grand plan for finishing my latest book and am ready to jump in with both feet.

Of course there are the holidays. Sure, it’s conceivable that I could get some writing done in the seven weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years. I have days off, after all. My family couldn’t possibly fill all of that time, could they?

Uh, yes, they can. And then some. It’s all great—the food, the fun, the family and friends, the running about and admiring the snow as I tell my husband to go shovel. It’s a beautiful time of the year. Beautiful, but completely unproductive.

Oh, and July…don’t even get me started about July. Wait, too late. Between trips to the local Shakespeare Festival, one of the largest parades in the nation, rodeos, sprinklers, the fourth of July, the local holidays, fireworks, swimming, hiking, family reunions and then recovering from all of that, nothing gets done. Somehow I end up farther behind than when I started. Gotta love the summer.

These are just a few of my life’s tells. If these things are coming up, then I should know that I’m screwed. I should, but more often than not, I forget. My inner optimist overpowers my ornery realist and decides that I can make it work this time. I can write the rest of my novel in July. I can sneak it in between the reunion and the Shakespeare Festival. Or between plays at the Festival. Or on the fourth, when surly no one will want to do anything.

What I need to do—and have done on occasion—is change my tactics. Forget making novel progress. Instead, I’ve found that these are good times to branch out, or finish little projects I’ve been putting off in the name of getting my next novel out.

Projects like researching a new marketing scheme, or reading a couple of books in my genre so I can give my opinion on them to my newsletter victims, or picking up my disaster, er, office, read a book on craft, or browse that non-fiction research book I’ve been ignoring, or plan a random presentation for a conference…

So instead of getting sliced and diced, depending on the severity of the interruption, be ready to move. Be prepared with as many contingency plans as you can. If your July blows up, like mine does, don’t plan to have a book finished in August. Go with either June or September. If your kids tend to break out in the stomach flu every November, be ready to juggle things so that you’re not losing ground. Just change ground and start digging there. Because life doesn’t stand still so you can write. It never has and it never will, and if it does, you’ve probably consumed too much of something.

Most Times, Catharsis Isn’t Worth the Price

I get it. You’re angry, furious even. Your masterpiece has been unjustly defamed by a cruddy review. You’ve received your millionth “dear author” rejection letter. Or some idiot at your publishing house has messed up your precious manuscript as they were shuffling it through the process of becoming a best seller. Whatever the cause, all you want to do is lash out and tell the world what a moron the offending individual has been. It’ll feel soooo good to write that scathing blog post, email, or response in the comments section. You’ll be witty and cutting. It’ll go viral. You know that the Internet cannot help but see that you are in the right, that your cause is just.

STOP.

Stop and take a deep breath. Take a walk, beat up a punching bag, or scream at the moon. But whatever you do, do not click send. Not in your current state at least. As good as it would make you feel, trust me, the catharsis isn’t worth it. The Internet never forgets, so why give it something that could come back to haunt you later? Furthermore, the publishing business is a small world where everyone knows everyone else. And, everyone talks. You DO NOT want to be the unflattering email that gets passed around the office. You do not want to end your career in a moment of pique.

So, what do you do? The first step is to acknowledge your emotion. You’re mad. You’re sad. You may be right to feel that way. You may be wrong. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you feel the emotions, that you admit to them, accept them, and then own them. Acknowledge that your feelings aren’t within your control, but how you act absolutely is. You won’t be judged for being angry, but you will be judged by how you behave.

The next step is to be thoughtful and deliberate in how you will react. The situation is already bad, so what’s the best case scenario for an ending? Chances are that a bad print run, a hostile review, or an impartial rejection cannot be changed. So then, what is in your control? Perception, specifically how others perceive you. Are you going to be the drama king/queen that flies off the handle or are you going to be the suave professional that takes the situation in stride? Will you let your baser instincts drive your reactions, or will you rise above them?

Let’s be frank. You cannot use anger to win over someone who is determined to be hostile. More often than not, both parties simply make fools of themselves. If you don’t feed the haters, they’ll get bored and find the next person they can rile up. Like the wise samurai, leave them with their anger, jealousy, and vitriol. If you write the best book you can, keep improving your craft, and be a likable author, your fans will speak up for you. Their praise and fan-love will drown out the haters.

Impersonal rejection is part of the business. We all deal with it, and past rejection has no bearing on your future success. J.K. Rowling was rejected by, what? 12 different publishers? Now she’s one of the most loved and powerful voices in the world. Furthermore, there is no point in souring your relationship with an editor or agent just because your manuscript doesn’t fit their needs at this time. Throwing a fit just convinces them that you are too much trouble to be worth working with in the future. And they will share that opinion with all their friends and colleagues. By ranting at one closed door, you may destroy another opportunity.

Sometimes even major goofs can be turned to your advantage. I recently read a really suave blog post from an author I admire. He had written a short story for an anthology. Somehow, the end of his story was left out of the first run of printed books. What a big “ooops!” However, instead of expressing perfectly justifiable frustration, he publicly acknowledged that such mistakes sometimes happen. He went on to tell his fans that the publisher had fixed the problem and reordered the copies of the book, so future orders would be whole. However, there existed 50 books with the miss-print. Act fast, he urged us, and the publisher will sell you a signed copy of the miss-printed book paired with a special, one-run-only chapbook that contained the end of the story. That’s right! Only 50 of these items would ever exist. In so doing, he turned an embarrassing mistake into a collectible. Now, that’s smart business.

There are many things in this world that are beyond our direct control. Mistakes will be made. People will be hateful. Business deals won’t always go through. We will feel angry, frustrated, and disappointed when these things happen. However, how we choose to respond to these circumstances will define who we are. More importantly, it will shape how others think of us. In our media driven world, perception is power. It’s the power to sell books, close deals, and win over lifelong fans.

So you’ve acknowledged and mastered your emotions. Now you have a choice to make. Will you be the author who flies off the handle when things go wrong or will you be the suave professional? Will you be the voice that adds to the cacophony and catastrophe, or will you be the one to turn a bad situation into an opportunity? An emotionally driven outburst may make you feel better in the short run, but it often makes matters worse. So when you feel the need to unleash a heaping portion of righteous wrath, instead think… is the catharsis really worth it?