Friday, June 12, 2015

"Advice for Writers Trying to Get Published:" or, Who Wants to be an Artist?

by Ann Starr, Publisher

Upper Hand Press is now a year old. This month we will publish Morgan Powell's magnificent CD, Morgan Powell On and Off the Score. Every day I'm in contact with our three authors who are revising novels for publication in 2016, and on Monday I'll meet with Zach Snyder to see the finishing touches on what will be our first children's book, his Clyde is Not Allowed Outside. We are crackling with energy and hatching new books as fast as we can! I'm always reading new manuscripts and discussing them with our team of editors, not to mention attending to all the work that supports the writers—publicity, funding, distribution and more.

Running a small press is consuming and whole-hearted work, but the heart  is reading manuscripts, responding to writers, and choosing whose work we want to follow. My goals are to support and advance good writers and to delight the reading public. I want to make money as I do this. But I know that without cultivating excellent writing, I can forget the rest.

I am too often stopped cold when I'm reminded that my enthusiasm about authors, their writing, and the satisfaction I derive from publishing necessarily runs up against a world in which thousands of writers are stunned by anxiety about making it into print. Alas, this anxiety seems too often to shift psychic energies away from the activity of writing to a prospect (or experience) of rejection by publishers. There is no way for me to correct the injustices of a wretched world where talent is overlooked and makes cynics of the least willing. But each of us must do what we can to focus on our own plot in this environment.

Today I came across an article from Buzzfeed: "9 Pieces of Advice for Writers Trying to Get Published." Hey, I'm a publisher, so I took
Ann Starr represents Upper Hand Press at the
Buffalo Small Press Book Fair in April
a look. Shouldn't I know what it takes to get published? I can use all the help I can get! (The URL is

The tips come each from a different unidentified but presumably published writer, posed with in their publisher's booth at a big book fair. Most are nuts and bolts: Write! they say:

*Write every day!

*Give it time. Don't rush the publishers.

*All of life is research. Use your own experiences.

*Be patient. Keep writing. 

*Read a lot. Find your voice. Be nice. 

While I don't know about the necessity of niceness, these strike me as the essentials. If you want to get published, you have to write. At length, deeply.

*You probably need an agent and you should be willing to promote yourself,

was, however, one unsettling suggestion. Hold your horses. Write first, then think about publishing. It's a different enterprise, requiring a different set of skills.

I'll confess to being one of those thick-headed persons who has never much cared for advice. Tip lists make me a little nuts since they never appear as the result of an appeal for advice. Who's asking? Such anonymous, well-intended tips stimulate the barely-suppressed anxiety in many writers, instigating a self-inventory of professional and moral defects. "Maybe I should...!" 

I recall a conversation I had with a composer one time when I was at an artists' colony. He confessed to me his astonishment that writers so easily handed their work around for advice. He would never dream of doing the same, he said, and would be disconcerted if a colleague asked for advice. 

A composition was his job, from his head alone, both creatively and technically. Central to the composer's comment was the question of authority: Would these artists write—struggle, fail, struggle, overcome— their ways through their doubts and live with their work before turning it over to others? Would they endure; would they have the patience? As I see it, his core question is something like this: Does creative process have a character-formed direction and goal (near or far away), or is it open to incursions from all sides, its end defined by negotiation?

How can you know whether comments and criticisms are valid until you stand firmly on ground you've prepared yourself by sweaty trial-and-error? The ground that you've struggled to clear and level is uniquely yours. You will show your work—not a composite of advice, much irrelevant—when some future day you are talking with agents, publishers, and editors. They will have seen nothing like it. But that day is future: you don't have to invent those conversations as you write. 

When I read a submission, all I want is to read a well-made and distinctly personal book, the result of closeted time spent wrestling with words and ideas. I'm not interested in a composite of advice from tips and rules—peer or professional—offered before the writer's ideas have had time to take characteristic shape. 

My advice to writers trying to get published? Use your dictionary, not spell check. Be aware of your sentence structure and make it propel your pages. Attend carefully to your vocabulary; use it like an orchestra. Be excited by what you wrote or have at it again and again until you are. Read your writing out loud. Look carefully at any "flaws" in your writing: They may be the gems that distinguish your work. Be cautious about dismissing anything you've been told can't work: Maybe it will; maybe it won't. Writing is a long process and anything can happen if you let it. Your "errors" may be discoveries.

There is indeed is no rush to the publisher's door. Much of what I turn down has clearly arrived too soon. Take a long time, take years, all by yourself, finding and writing and rewriting your own words. Let the manuscript cure; return and rethink it. When you discover that you finally know what you really want to do, share it with someone else, confident that you can evaluate what they may say without anxiety about being pulled off course. 

Advice at the right point can make the heavens open. Or it can dash your hopes in a way that is too often unfairly attributed to publishers. 

Advice for writers trying to get published? Send work that you wrote and that you stand in because it fits you perfectly. If a publisher wants it and edits begin, you'll come to the process with authority and clarity. What are you selling and what are you trading for the price offered? 

Did you try to write a work of art, or something to get published? Can you think of yourself as an artist and still believe that some of us love, respect, and want to publish it?

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