Keynote Address: Trinity Writers Conference

Seth Margolis, the author of six novels, including LOSING ISAIAH, reflects on the long and winding path to publication.

Thank you, Trinity Writers Workshop for inviting me to participate in this wonderful event.  It’s been a pleasure meeting fellow writers these past few days – something I don’t get to do much of back in the real world of New York City.

I really struggled with a theme for this talk.  I started with writerly subjects like “The Importance of Voice” or “Building Memorable Characters.”  But I’m not sure I have much new to add to these worthy topics – in fact, I’m still learning myself.  And there have been some excellent workshops and conversations around these issues during the conference.

My agent suggested I try to be inspirational.  Everyone needs a bit of inspiration, especially writers.  But I’m not particularly good at inspiration.  When I was 22 years old, I got my first rejection letter, from the New Yorker.  So I picked myself up, dusted myself off and resolved to write more and better stories … right?  Actually, I applied to business school.  So if I can’t inspire myself, it didn’t seem like a good idea to try it on a group of smart, ambitious writers.

Which leaves me, I’m sorry to say, with the one topic I can unequivocally say I’m an expert on: me.

Professionally speaking, I’ve had my ups.  I’ve had my downs.  And I’ve had an MBA.  Maybe there’s something you can learn from my experience – this is definitely a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of talk.  And the great thing is, there’s a happy ending.  Because here I am, The Writer.

When I do readings, one of the questions I always get is “When did you decide to become a writer.”  I’ve never come up with a good answer to that, because I guess I always wanted to be a writer.  In school, I wasn’t much good at math and science, but my English papers always come back with comments like “Well written – next time, read the material.”

And in my mind, writing was always the highest calling.  Right up there with brain surgery and supreme court justice.  I always believed there was nothing more noble, more impressive, than making your living with the pen … which is what we used back then.   It was a bit of a shock, when I actually became a writer, to learn that not everyone shared my world view.  A while ago I was at a party and someone, inevitably, asked me what I did for a living.  I told him that I had published five novels, and that I also did brand consulting.  Wow, that’s really interesting, he said.  What kind of companies do you consult for?”

Long before this conversation, I majored in English in college, moved to New York after graduation, and got an entry-level job in publishing – my first way station on the road to a New York Times bestseller and … why stop there? … a Pulitzer Prize.   And that first job really gave me a great insight into the publishing process.  I was a freelance manuscript reader for a young editor at a very prestigious publishing house.  That editor is now the head of the same house, thirty years later, by the way.  Every Friday I’d show up in his office, which looked exactly the way you wanted an editor’s office to look – woody, smoky, every surface piled high with books and manuscripts.  He’d ask me how many manuscripts I thought I could get though in a week.  My job was to read them, write a one-page evaluation, and return them and the evaluations a week later.  Since I was paid 20 bucks a manuscript, and since my rent was a staggering $250 a month, I generally asked for ten manuscripts.   He’d pile them onto my out-thrust arms, and I’d stagger onto the subway and then drag them back to my fifth-floor walk-up.

I think I must have read five thousand manuscripts that year.  I was desperate to find a good one to recommend, figuring that if I discovered some unsung genius I could use it as a springboard to a glorious publishing career, which would be a nice fall back in case that Pulitizer didn’t pan out on schedule.  And there were some terrific manuscripts, though I don’t think that anything I endorsed that year was every published. There were also a lot of really bad ones, too, with cover letters that began with the inevitable “I’ve written a fiction novel which I’d like you to publish.”

It was during my year of reading dangerously that I wrote the short story that garnered the New Yorker rejection that led to my MBA.  I remember every word of that rejection, because there were only two of them, handwritten on the first page of the story: “Sorry comma no.”  I read and reread those two words, plus the comma, seeking to divine hidden meaning.  Why hadn’t he signed his name – was he afraid of embarrassment in the event that Esquire bought the story and launched my me on the road to that Pulitizer?  But even at age 22, I couldn’t make that scenario work, somehow.  I tore up the story and wrote away to business school.

I got the MBA, acquired a good job with a consulting firm and moved into a building with an actual elevator.  And then, on the horizon, a disaster loomed that, amazingly, I hadn’t seen coming.

My thirtieth birthday.

I was unmarried, working long hours, paying much too much rent for a tiny apartment, and now, compounding my troubles, I had to face the harsh reality that I WAS OLD.

Now, I hadn’t earned a business degree for nothing.  Every problem has a solution, requiring only the goals, strategies and tactics needed to reach it.  But what was my goal?  It took just a few days of introspection to find the answer: write a novel.  I guess I’d never really shaken off that notion that writing was the noblest of professions.  If I could only write a book by the time I turned thirty, I might avert the looming existential crisis.  I’d still be old, but I’d be an old writer.

So the next day I left work at the usual time, about seven in the evening, raced home, sat down at my desk and put pen to paper.  Literally.  Pen and paper.  I think I may even have lit a candle and poured myself some wine.  I was a writer, after all.  I wrote in a fevered rush, filling page after page.  Why had I ever given this up?  Why had I let “Sorry, Comma No” discourage me.  Why had I bothered with the MBA when a glorious literary career was so clearly my destiny?

The next day, my second as a writer, I raced home from work eager to resume.  To warm up, I reread what I’d written the night before … and fell into a one of the deepest funks of my life.  It was awful.  Not one of the five thousand manuscripts I’d glibly rejected eight years earlier was as bad as the bilge I’d spewed.  I threw out the wasted paper, blew out the candle – I’m pretty sure I did manage to finish the wine … quite a bit of it, actually.

And on day three I had a revelation that more than justified the time and expense of getting a business degree.  First, drink less wine.  And second, I’d had the right goal – write a novel.  I had the right strategy: write every night after work.  But my tactics were all wrong.  Because the important thing wasn’t necessarily to write a good novel.  That wasn’t part of the goal.  The important thing was to write A novel.  That’s all I’d promised myself.  To begin with chapter one and keep on going until “The End.”

So I changed tactics.  I resolved to continue writing every day, seven days a week.  And I swore that I would not reread a single word I wrote.  I’d just get the words down on paper, one after the other.  Bird by Bird, as Annie Lamott put it.  I soon hit on another  tactic that’s worked for me ever since.  To keep from going back over past work and getting discouraged, at the end of each session I summarized in a few sentences what I’d written and what I wanted to write next.

And it worked.  About six months later, a few weeks shy of my thirtieth birthday, I had written a novel.  An unreadable novel.  But a novel.  Goal fulfilled.  Existential crisis, averted.

Many, many drafts later, and after maxing out my credit card to buy an Apple IIe word processor and printer, I transformed the manuscript into something readable, which became my first published novel, FALSE FACES.  And I’ve used the same tactics to write each of my subsequent books – in fact, I use it to write emails and birthday cards.  I just get the words down on paper, as fast as I can, and worry about making them perfect later on.  It’s advice I give my two teenage children when they sit hopelessly before a blank computer screen, unable to start an essay.  Just write!  Write anything.  I tell them it’s much easier to edit an existing sentence than to create a perfect one out of the box.  Write now.  Self-edit and rewrite later. And it’s helped them bang out countless papers over the years … although they generally don’t bother with the part about self-editing and rewriting.

Now, I am well aware that many of you are thinking right now:  He’s left out the important part.  How did he get from manuscript to market?

Well, I found an agent.  Twice.  The first one, whom I met through a recommendation from an editor who I didn’t particularly like or admire, took me on after reading the manuscript.  He was new to the business … but then, so was I , and he had just closed a huge deal that had made the news.  The fact that the deal was for a beauty book by Brooke Shields should have given me pause … but nothing gave me pause back then.  He suggested we meet for drinks and named a swanky restaurant on the east side, the Water Club.  Drinks at the Water Club with my agent … I think I used that phrase about twenty times over the next few days.  “Sorry, I’d love to see a movie, but I’m having drinks at the Water Club with my agent.”  “Hate to miss your wedding, but I’m having drinks at the Water Club with my agent.”

Drinks at the Water Club turned into dinner.  My new agent was very engaging, did most of the talking, a lot of it about Brooke Shields, and most of the drinking, and occasionally, when I could, I managed to steer the conversation around to my novel and what  plans he might possibly have for it.  When the bill came, a big bill, he slid it across the table and said – like “Sorry comma no” I’ll never forget these words:  He said, “I’m assuming you’re paying for this.”

Which should have given me still more pause, but didn’t.

Weeks went by, then months, with no news from my agent.  My phones calls went unreturned.  Finally, his assistant returned my manuscript, which looked suspiciously pristine, with a note saying that the agent had been unable to sell it.  More pestering phone calls revealed that my book had been sent to, and rejected by, one publisher.  One too many for Brooke Shields’ agent, apparently.

A depressing story but with a happy ending.  I next did what I should have done in the first  place.  I sent out query letters to reputable, established agents, heard from a few of them, sent out the first three chapters to the one who sounded most enthusiastic and who didn’t have any celebrity thigh manuals on her list, followed up, when invited to, with the full manuscript, waited patiently, and was finally taken on.  That was twenty years ago, before I met my wife, had my children, lost my hair.  And she’s still my agent, the one constant in my professional life.

There’s a lesson in this, and it’s a simple one.  Follow your gut.  With that first agent, all the signs were there.  The celebrities-only client list.  The dinner tab.  The unreturned phone calls.  I wasted something like six months with him when I should have known from the beginning that he wasn’t going to work out.  He might as well have had a neon sign attached to his head blinking “Warning, Major Asshole Below.”  It wouldn’t have made a difference.  My gut told me he was bad news.  But my mouth kept repeating “I’m having drinks at the Water Club with my agent.”

In fact, every professional mistake I’ve made since then has happened because I didn’t follow my gut.  I’ve been rejected, disappointed, betrayed, let down.  But never really surprised.  You’d think that someone who makes his living by plotting – and who’s written three mysteries – would know how to pick up on clues.  Because in retrospect it’s easy to see that they were always there.  I just chose to ignore them.

So I had an agent.  Now all I needed was a publisher.  And once again, it wasn’t quite as simple as I had imagined.  I remember coming home from a week’s vacation to find my very first rejection letter in the mail, with a nice hand-written note from my agent telling me to keep my chin up and indicating which publishing house the manuscript was going to next.  At least she hadn’t gotten cold feet at rejection number one, a good sign.  I called her the next day and – another good sign – she called me right back.  “You must get used to a lot of rejection,” she said.  “It goes with the territory.”

She was right, of course, about rejection going with the territory.  But she was wrong about getting used to it.  You never do.  It’s like bad reviews.  Every writer I’ve talked to has said the same thing.  Good reviews cascade off you like rain drops.  Bad ones stick like glue.

It shouldn’t be surprising, really.  Say you’re at a party and someone says “Hey, you look great.  Been on vacation?”  You feel wonderful until someone else comments, “Have you put on weight?”

Now, let me ask you.  When you wake up the next morning, which comment will be top of mind, pressing against your skull like a migraine?  Ten to one you’ll be out of bed and standing in front of a mirror within seconds, thinking, “HAVE I gained weight?”  Most of the writers I know say the same thing.  They can quote chapter and verse from every pan they’ve ever gotten.  The raves have a way of fading into oblivion.

I did finally get that one acceptance, the only one you need.  And I’ve developed my own strategies for dealing with rejection and negative reviews.  None of them is foolproof, but they help.   First, I remind myself that writers have it easy compared to a lot of people.  For starters, we can’t get fired.  And unlike actors, who audition in front of actual people, we take our lumps in private, without witnesses.  I remember some years ago I went to a play in a small off-Broadway theatre.  The play had gotten trashed by the Times critic only that morning, I mean really torn apart, with particular venom for the actors. While watching it I marveled that the actors could even get out of bed, let alone appear on stage that  night. After the performance there was an informal question and answer session.  I raised my hand and, after commenting how much I’d liked the play, I asked the cast how they dealt with the type of angry, personal attacks typified by the Times review that morning.  There was a long, long pause.  Finally, one of the actors took the mike to answer. “We don’t read reviews. But thanks so much for filling us in.”

I’ve never had anything approaching that experience.  Writers are lucky that way, we’re mostly spared public humiliation.

I’ve also saved all my rejection letters and later, after publication, I’ve gone back and reread them with much satisfaction.  Often, the post-publication reviews entirely contradicted the pre-pub rejections.  I suppose if all your rejections carry a similar message – the characters are one-dimensional, the opening is dull, the pacing is off – you might think about taking them to heart and revising.  But more often than not they’re unhelpful.

With my third book, which was about  a child custody battle, I agonized over which of the two competing women would get to keep the child.  I literally couldn’t make up my mind.  I researched the issue from a legal and psychological standpoint and still couldn’t decide.  I’d grown so attached to both characters that I really didn’t want either of them to  end up broken-hearted.  Later, one editor wrote in a rejection letter that while she liked the first two-thirds of the novel, she could spot the ending a mile away.  I thought, “Really, you could?  Because I had no idea how the book was going to end and I wrote it.”

I suppose there are writers who never experience rejection and get only glowing reviews.  And I pray to god, please don’t every make me have to meet one of them.  I also console myself that early, unconditional success is not always the blessing it seems.  There’s a lot to be said for being out there in the world, earning a living from something other than sitting alone in a room, typing.  You lose access to material.  Except for a brief period in the mid-nineties, I’ve always worked at something other than writing.  That period of full-time writing in the nineties followed a movie deal that liberated me – forever, I thought – from workaday drudgery.  With two children to feed and clothe, forever turned out to be just under four years, and when I returned to the working world I felt like a time traveler transported to the future.  While I was gone, something called voicemail had virtually eliminated those pink “while you were out” notes.  Email was replacing the fax.  The pace of business – the pace of the world – had gone into hyper-drive while I’d been leisurely tapping out a long manuscript that ultimately went nowhere.

I returned to working, and working hard, with less time for writing – and I became a more productive and better writer. I was engaged with the world again.

So many writers who experience early success run out of material.  A sure sign that this is happening is when the protagonists of their novels are writers.  Yes, there have been some wonderful novels about writers, but not many.  Novelists don’t lead exciting lives, by and large.  And the lives they do lead are kind of hard to relate to for most working stiffs.  Writers who write about writers have too often lost their connection to the real world.  When you create a character, you have to give that character something to do, some way to earn a living.  If you’ve been a full-time fiction writer since the age of twenty-three, you’re going to have a tough time finding gainful employment for your characters.  And when you do give them a job, you may not get it right.  They’ll still be reading “While you were out” notes when the world has moved on to voicemail.

I can think of several living writers whose work has grown more and more insular as their connection to the civilian world has grown increasingly tenuous.  It seems that  half the new plays produced on Broadway are about writers or screenwriters or, if the playwright is really daring, literary agents.

For a long time, I thought that when I made that big score, got that big check, I’d thumb my nose at the workaday world once and for all.  And I learned two things.  First, that  check had better be a very, very large one.  Huge, actually.  And second, maybe the goal isn’t to disengage.  When you write to escape from your reality, then you’re essentially saying that what you do from  nine to five is just marking time, and that can be very destructive to your sanity and your writing.

Eventually, you have to find your own path through the writing and publishing maze, balancing the other parts of your life along the way.  Like many of you, I read every “How to Get Published” book there was when I was starting out.  Much of it was worthwhile, some not.  As I said before, you just have to follow your gut on what to believe and do.  If a friend or even an agent or editor suggests you change something in your work, listen carefully, consider the source, and then do what feels right to you.  If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.  I’ve been talked into a whole bunch of things that I’ve regretted, including title changes, and each time it didn’t feel right but I often did it anyway because the person making the suggestion seemed to know so much more than I did.

Don’t ignore advice.  A good writer always appreciates a good editor.  Just don’t let yourself down.

Write what you want to write, and try not to over analyze or second guess what the market wants.  You’ll almost always get it wrong.  What William Goldman said about Hollywood applies to publishing as well – No one knows anything.  So you might as well write what interests you.  There’s this assumption I hear quite often that writers of popular or commercial fiction “do it for the money.”  They sit down  and coldly calculate what sort of book they need to write to get the biggest advance and reach the most readers.  Maybe some writers do that, but I’ve never known one.  Writers of romances and thrillers and chick lit are just as passionate about what they write as Nobel Prize winners.  They have a story they desperately need to tell.  A point to make.  A score to settle.  If you’re fortunate enough to be able to write, use your gift to delight yourself.  Readership will follow.

Finally, I want to congratulate you on being here.  Just for showing up.   Because it’s not always easy telling the world “I’m a writer” when all you have to show for it is a stack of papers that no one else has read.  You’re really putting yourself out there.  I believe that telling your family and friends, “Sorry, not this weekend, I’m attending a writers conference” is every bit as impressive as telling them “Sorry, I’m having drinks at the Water Club with my agent.”  Because what you’re telling them is first, I’m a writer.  And second, I’m serious about this, so serious that I’m investing my time and my money in it.”   That’s not easy.  You’re  declaring that have a dream, that it’s important to you – and you may not succeed.

I wish I had been as brave.  I waited until I had a book contract before telling virtually everyone I knew that I’d written a book.  When my father asked me why I’d spent thousands of dollars on a computer – this was several years before Al Gore invented the internet – I told him I was teaching myself bridge.  Pathetic, right?  Learning bridge from a computer seemed less embarrassing at the time than admitting that I was writing a novel that might never see the light of day.

You’re writers and, by virtue of being here, you’re professionals.  My twenty-two year old self, lugging stacks of manuscripts on the subway all those years ago, had no idea what a precious cargo I was carrying.  But I know now.  So congratulations on being writers.  And thank you for inviting me here tonight.