Chris Struck talks writing.
Recently, I’ve wondered if there really are any helpful tips that I could give new writers. Sure, I’ve studied a lot of literary techniques and theory, but how helpful is yet another analysis of “what makes a great character” in a world where the evaluation of your work is subjective? Instead, I thought I might throw together a quick blog post on my route to publishing.
My circuitous, 12-year chase finally resulted in my first published book on Tuesday (6/11/19), and despite being compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alexandre Dumas, and Herman Hesse, the book sneaked past the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Time, and every other noteworthy news outlet. Unfortunately, even after writing a great book, it’s still not that easy to get the word out there, and the advice is generally unhelpful. Authors today need platforms, and the most successful launches are done by people with backing like Michelle Obama and Tom Brady. Even three years ago, the barometer I heard from Penguin reps, was “300 twitter followers.” The same advice sounds laughable now.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen the fiction industry change considerably. When I first started, you could still send snail mail manuscripts to major publishing houses. I even delivered my first manuscript, printed, to the door of a top editor at Tor Books’s home. Only a few years later, I was sending five, ten, fifteen, or fifty pages to agents that I meticulously researched as publishing houses stopped accepting direct submissions. I followed all the advice that I could find on how to write a cover letter and seemingly, less than a year later, agents were publishing blog posts about “how not to write a cover letter,” showing that I had broken all the new rules. The reality is that you can’t base a query letter on the one at the back of Stephen King’s “On Writing” and get anything but rejection. The guidelines have evolved, and cold query letters are beginning to become a thing of the recent past.
For others who have been on the outside looking in, that must seem like the norm. Advice changes as often as it is given. It’s confusing and unhelpful no matter the source. Sometimes you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for an editor or agent to spew another list of tips that after integrating into your work, fails to make a difference. I’ve met more agents than I could bother to remember, more “top” editors since that first one in the late noughties, and a variety of other industry reps – and unfortunately, the age-old, “it’s about the writing” hasn’t been my experience. Has it ever been? If it was ever about writing quality, and Moby Dick was always as good as people believe it to be, why did it take almost 80 years to get popular? While I’m not a huge fan of the book, it’s a testament to faith in literature and shows that sometimes it appears legacy is luck.
My first manuscript was not my first novel. My first novels were written in early 2010 and submitted to agents. In retrospect, I think they were good stories, maybe not perfect, but definitely, too short. Even then, short novels were unpopular, but with the rise of NaNoWriMo, they became even more so. Suddenly, the standard went from 50-60k to 80k minimum, and popular books seemed to more likely have the ATOS reading level of a 4th grader than not. If you spent any time developing subtext into your novel (not to be confused with symbolism), then your work might confuse readers and unfortunately, an agent with ten seconds, geared to not care about your book, isn’t going to take ten minutes to analyze one line. To be honest, I don’t think that has anything to do with, “why my novels haven’t meshed well with agents,” but it’s a reality of writing and publishing today. Meaning, you should probably write a simple, long book, but even that’s not a guarantee of success.
My third novel topped out at 85k words, was written at roughly 1000 words per day over about 3 months, and the feedback I received made it seem irreconcilably devoid of quality. But as usual, I took the feedback and integrated it into new novels, and some of it, especially knocks on the depth of my characters, I took as a personal challenge. Two months later, I had written two more novels (my 4th and 5th), one roughly 65k words (after cutting from 74) and another roughly 85k words, that were developed from fragments of the back stories of two of my third novel’s main characters and featured entirely new supporting characters. The feedback for book 4 was less atrocious, and the agent reception for book 5, which I thought would surely be accepted was…silence.
I went back to the drawing board, picked up some old ideas that weren’t heavy enough to be novels, and made it a 2016 goal to write 2 short stories a month until the end of the year. I made it through 18 short stories before August but stopped there. Only one of the last ones I had written had found a home, and the e-zine went defunct shortly after. Even after all of that effort, while working busy season hours as a junior auditor, I was effectively still unpublished. I took a hiatus from writing, until I wagered with a friend of mine that I’d write another short story if he would start making professional confectionery chocolates again.
So how did I get published? Instead of writing that short story, I followed through on my sixth book; it had been on the back burner, since I had written the opening few paragraphs in early April. With what later became, KENNIG & GOLD, I took a much different approach. It was no longer about reaching a minimum word count or about writing in the vogue style. The goal was to write something genuinely good and technically strong, built through classic literary techniques that had been utilized by writers such as Shakespeare and Ursula Le Guin. I came up with a loose idea, found depth through subject matter that was very dear to me (my friend Nils and his late wife Marilyn), and patterned out an outline based on developing themes through interweaving them beneath plot lines.
The result is something I’m very much proud of. And after reading it roughly 100 times, end-to-end; out loud and not; and at times in one day while timing myself, the book still finds a way of guiding me from beginning to end. Even though I had earned those 300 twitter followers, I knew that I didn’t have the following to entice Penguin to take a chance on me. They don’t throw their advertising weight behind every book anyway. I sent the book to 15 agents and received my first rejection letters (instead of just being ignored), while putting in the work to self-publish the novel, despite 80-hour work weeks.
I printed off 500 business cards, delivered most of them before the publication date of April 5th, 2017, exactly one year after officially conceiving the novel. I grabbed drinks at speakeasies, jazz bars, and cocktail lounges; struck up conversations with Brazilians, Swiss, and other tourists; and held book signing and speaking events at bars in the East and West Village that supported meaningful causes. I began writing theater reviews for a blogger and later leveraged that into writing cabaret reviews for an internationally syndicated magazine. By the time January 2018 had come around, I had sold over 200 books, an important milestone I targeted after attending a Penguin conference in 2016, and through a conference (different conference) connection, I pitched “Kennig & Gold” alongside “The Sun Never Set” (a novel I wrote in 2017) as titles to BHC Press.
BHC decided they wanted both, and I took “Kennig & Gold” off of Amazon’s former self-publishing tool, Createspace, in March, and auspiciously, I received the signed contract for “Kennig & Gold” on April 5th, 2018. In conclusion, along with a lot of late nights, a lot of in-person leg-work, and a heavy dose of schmoozy sales pitching, publishing took following through on all of that advice despite a lack of immediate gratification. I had to go through a learning curve with “how” and “what” to write about, which included novels, short stories, and query letters. I had to hone my story into a concise description and synopsis, while creating an online presence (website, blog, magazine, twitter, Instagram). And ultimately, it took networking at a few conferences to connect to the right people at the right publisher. Sometimes, it feels like trying to lift a mountain, but the important thing is that I’m no longer doing it alone.