Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Please welcome author... Justin Gustainis!

“So, How Do I Get Published?”

It’s a question that most writers get at one time or another. Sometimes it has the undertone, of “How did somebody like YOU ever get published?” I have two answers to that question, the one I give depending on my mood and who’s asking. There’s this: “Okay, here’s what you do. Go to Harvard. Arrange to room with someone whose Father/Mother/favorite Uncle owns or runs a major publishing house. Then spend the next four years sucking up to your roomie, big time, while you write your novel.”

Then there’s the other answer, the real one: “There are three factors involved in becoming a published author: talent, persistence, and luck. And they all matter.”

My own “career,” if it may be called that (three novels in print and another under contract, and I’ve just signed with an imprint of HarperCollins to do a new urban fantasy series, for which they’re committing to three books, to start), is a pretty good illustration of this principle.

My first novel, THE HADES PROJECT, isn’t all that good a case study. It was published by a small (but legitimate – no Author House vanity press here) publisher who didn’t have a lot of money for promotion. But that book is important to the story, nonetheless, because it gave me a foot in the door when it came to selling the second book. BLACK MAGIC WOMAN was published four years later by Solaris Books, a mid-sized publisher affiliated with Simon and Schuster.

So, let’s start with the notion of talent. I suppose several dozen books could be (and have been) written about what writing talent is and how to get it. Like most aspects of personhood, it’s a combination of nature and nurture (i.e., genetics and environment), the exact proportion varying in each of us. And when it comes to writing, a big part of the “nurture” aspect involves working at it. Being good with words and having a natural understanding of story structure is worthless -- if you stop there. Look, Michael Jordon was born with certain useful skills – I imagine these included quick reflexes, excellent eyesight, superior hand-eye coordination, and a lot of fast-twitch muscle fiber. But none of that would have got him into the Hall of Fame if he had not busted his hump on the court, practicing and playing, over and over, for years.

It’s the same with writing. Sure, there are books you can read, workshops, critique groups, and classes, the value of which varies widely. But there is just one way to become a writer, my friends. It, too, offers us the pleasing symmetry of three, and can be attributed, I think, to Andre Norton. Ready? Okay, here it is: 1) place butt in chair 2) write 3) repeat. There is no other way.

Okay, that’s the talent part of our program. Now let’s consider persistence. It took me five years to find a publisher (even a small one) for THE HADES PROJECT. Did I ever consider just throwing it in a desk drawer and finding another hobby? Oh, no more than a thousand times. But I kept sending it out, to publishers and agents alike, all of whom ignored it completely – until the day I entered a novel contest sponsored by Wahmpreneur Publishing, which led to a contract offer.

Fast forward four years. I’d been sending the manuscript of BLACK MAGIC WOMAN out for about two years when good fortune smiled on me (See? Luck again). I was reading an issue of REALMS OF FANTASY magazine (a fine publication, whose forthcoming demise is to be greatly lamented). I saw an ad for a novel that looked like the kind of thing I like (a small group of hunters secretly battling vampires in the streets of a modern city). Then it occurred to me that the publisher, Solaris Books, was one I’d never heard of. The chain of reasoning that followed went like this: “Hmmm, these guys publish urban fantasy, which is the kind of stuff I like to read; the stuff I read is also the stuff I write, like BLACK MAGIC WOMAN; consequently, these guys might be interested in publishing my book.”

I checked them out on the web. Solaris was a relatively new publisher, part of Black Library, which does all those RPG tie-in novels; Black Library is, in turn, part of Warhammer, the second-biggest publisher of RPGs in the world. I clicked on “Submissions” and read, “We are only accepting queries from agents or established authors at this time.” Grrrr.

I still didn’t have an agent. Established author? Moi? Well, that depends on how you define your terms, doesn’t it? So I wrote to Solaris -- something along the lines of “I’ve written this novel called BLACK MAGIC WOMAN, which looks like the kind of stuff you guys publish. Established author? Well, I’ve had nine short stories published in magazines and anthologies – no FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION in there, but all paying markets nonetheless—and I also wrote this novel called THE HADES PROJECT. Although published by a small press, it did get some good response, including a favorable review in CEMETERY DANCE and a “blurb” by some guy named Jim Butcher (whom I had contacted out of the blue and asked if he’d read the manuscript. He graciously agreed – and liked it!). So, Solaris guys, is that ‘established’ enough for you?”

Apparently it was. I heard back from Christian Dunn, acquisitions editor at Solaris, asking for a digital copy of the manuscript. Nine days later, I get a phone call from England: “Hi, this is Christian Dunn, and we’d like to publish your book.” From slush pile to contract offer in nine days – something of a record, except it was really nine days and even seven years, if not more.

I found out later that Solaris had decided on a six-week window during which they were going to consider new manuscripts, and then not again for a couple of years. Guess who happened to contact them in Week Five? There’s luck, again. But if the manuscript had sucked, then they wouldn’t have published it – so there’s your talent factor. And if I didn’t have a policy of sending the manuscript to every publisher who might possibly consider it, I never would have gone to the trouble of finding out about the publisher of the novel I saw being advertised – persistence.

Talent, persistence, and luck. And the greatest of these is all of them.

Today, Justin is giving away two signed copies of Black Magic Woman. Want to win? Just leave a comment! The winners will be picked late tonight, so make sure to check back.

9 deadly screams:

Carrie from Wisconsin said...

Hi Justin,

Great blog and thanks for the cues. I liked the magazine Realms of Fantasy, the artwork was always fantastic. Sadly, I had to let go of many of the publications I subscribed to for economical reasons.

I looked your name up in my local Federated Library system and I am pleased to say that they have Black Magic Woman, so I can read it. I'm glad for the blog because if I hadn't have read about you and your stories here, I might have missed out!

Sadly, they don't have The Hades Project or Evil Ways yet. I'll have to do something to correct that.

Yes, I have to agree with you in that writing talent doesn't mean anything if it isn't cultivated.

As for your basketball analogy, LeBron James may be (or seem) just as talented as Michael Jordan, but until he brings his team a few NBA Championships, he'll never quite be in the same category as MJ. Of course, that might bring up the question of where's James' Scottie Pippin? Of course, it took MJ seven years to get that first NBA Championship. If he gave up at anytime during those seven years, who knows how popular basketball would be today? Would LeBron have worked as hard without MJ as an idol, who knows?

Which leads me to say that without authors working and persisting in their efforts to get published, the next generation of writers may not be motivated to work as hard themselves or may never be inspired.

I'm very thankful to The lovely Deadly Vixens for this wonderful blog. This is a true gem! That I would never have discovered if it wasn't for Heidi Betts!


Cate Masters said...

Great post, Justin - especially inspiring for a struggling author like me. Wish I could have caught Solaris during that seven-week window! I have a great urban fantasy I'm trying to get out there. Persistence, as you say, is an important part of the triad, so I'll keep plugging away. I'd love to read Black Magic Woman, sounds intriguing. Best of luck to you.

tetewa said...

Nice having you hear today, I'm always looking for new authors to read and you would be one for me!

Gracen Miller said...

Hi, Justin. It is an honor and pleasure having you with us today. Your novels sound really good and interesting.

This line of yours had me laughing and nodding my head: “How did somebody like YOU ever get published?”

I finally confessed to one of my new girlfriend that I wrote books and allowed her to read one (this was a couple of years ago actually). After she had finished reading it her reaction was something similar to, "My God! I can't believe you are this talented!"

My first thought was, "Wow! What a backhanded compliment." But seriously, I rarely tell people I write anymore because of their reactions.

Loved your blog, by the way, from beginning to end. You really hit the nail on the head with the publishing industry. It certainly helped to keep me inspired.

Sarah Mäkelä said...

Great blog, Justin! It was very informative, and I think you're spot on with the talent, persistence, and luck thing. I bought Black Magic Woman the other day, so I'm excited to read it. It's great having you with us!

Christina said...

Have to say that it was great to read this. Reasurring to hear someone point out that it isn't a hopeless process and that the more and harder that you try, the closer you will come to realizing the dream you're shooting for in the world of writing.

Julie Robinson said...

What an inspiring post for an aspiring writer! Persistence definitely seems to be a key factor.
Besides that, the premise for your book, Black Magic Woman, is right up my alley. Besides the fact that I live an hour from N.O., Salem's history and witchcraft has alway fascinated me. I was fortunate to be able to visit Salem once but would love to go again. Or at least to visit in your book!

That's interesting about the publishing company. My 17-year old son devours anything Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000---games and books---rows of Warhammer books.

Thanks, Gracen and Sarah, for introducing Justin's work to me.

Debby said...

thank you very much for gvisiting. I enjoyed reading about you. Youbooks look great.

Sarah Mäkelä said...

The winners are:

Cate Masters and tetewa

Congratulations to all the winners and thanks to all the contestants!!

All winners, please e-mail us at thedeadlyvixens@yahoo.com to claim your prize!!

PLEASE NOTE: If you have not claimed your winning book within one week, then a new winner will be picked from remaining contestants. There are no exceptions to this rule.