What do I know about writing?

Paul Kupperberg

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way
By Paul Kupperberg
© Paul Kupperberg

Last October, I finished writing a novel, on spec, working most of the previous two months on it around paying gigs. My wife read it, pronounced she loved it, and said, “At least now the hard part is done.”

To which I replied, “Writing it’s the easy part. Now I gotta sell the damned thing.”

Oversimplification? Not so much. I worked for many years for a publishing division that was part of a large media conglomerate. I did the bulk of my freelance writing for them and most of the few contacts I made were in the area of licensing. I’m not, alas, a go-out-for-drinks, make contacts and network kind of guy. I play the extrovert very well. I’m funny, quick of wit, and can be charming, but it’s not my natural mode. I think that’s true for a lot of creators. Writing is, by its nature, a solitary craft. If you mind the loneliness, you can’t do the job. I know guys who are talented enough to do the job and do it well — sometimes very well — and are all about the networking. They make buds, keep in touch, go to parties, throw parties, know this that and the other guy. People love them and they wind up with high profile gigs and TV and movie deals for their ideas.

Me, I get a drawer-full of ideas, everything from novels to kids books to a crafts book to coffee table non-fiction books and more — more than two dozen of them — that I’m trying to sell, and it’s like busting my noggin against a brick wall. Proposals go out into the etherwaves and disappear, sucked into the black holes that are editorial desks. I know, I know, I was an editor myself. There’s hardly time to get your work done, much less the dubious luxury of sifting through the slush that comes at you in waves. I try to use what little caché my name or the name of a mutual friend brings as a foot in the door, but, like I say, I’m not self-promoter. I feel awkward about it, and I can’t afford to hire it out.

Plus, I don’t have an agent.

Or maybe I do.

Like some bad sitcom character, I don’t know if I do or I don’t. A dozen years or so ago, I sold a short story to an anthology edited by a writer and his co-editor, who was also an agent. We had a common friend and saw ran into each other over the years. Earlier this year, when my previous day job went belly up, I sent her several pitches and sample chapters for some YA book series plus other things, including a self-help book. (I get ideas for all sorts of stuff. This self-help concept got me to tap out 15-20,000 words as a start, and I have more than enough material to finish it. Besides, if one of these bullshit self-helpers catches on, a brother could get rich!) I asked if she’d be interested in repping me. She seemed to reply in the affirmative, asked for resumé and CV, and explained that pitching partial manuscripts was a problem for an author with no appreciable track record. But seemed to be taking me on.


I sent her the finished novel a few weeks back, followed up after two weeks, and then again one week ago and have received no response. A few other inquiries over the preceding months had also gone unanswered.

If a writer asks an agent six questions and gets no answer, does that writer actually have an agent? It’s not a test. The answer is, he does not.

So, today, it was time to “network.”

I dug out a business card from a long-ago meeting. Editor at a Major New York Publisher. A nice guy. We also have a mutual friend in common, a writer whose books he’s edited over the years. My e-mail goes something like this:

Dear So & So, We met once, for about 20 minutes, eight years ago at a meeting with me and my boss at Publishing Co. Oh, and we also both know Mutual Friend, who I last worked with at Folded Metropolitan Newspaper. And I have this novel (150 or so cover blurb-style words of description), no, really, I have credits, closing with a plea to let me send the manuscript for him to look at and, no matter what, thanks for his time.

Next, a query to a Consulting Editor, formerly a senior boy at one of the big paperback houses, now freelance editing and consulting. He recently landed a friend of mine a licensing gig, a novelization. Does he know anyone who might want to look at the novel? Can he help?

I sent the novel along to another friend, head of a mystery line, who likes it but didn’t think it was quite right for his imprint. He will, however, look around for someone he can hook me up with.

I know another editor in the licensing end of another Big Time Publisher. We used to work together, albeit in different departments, at Publishing Co. The novel’s not in his department, but maybe he can point me to the right person there? For all the good it’ll probably do me; he’s the same guy I sent a pitch for a Licensed Property novel to in August and (at least one follow-up e-mail since) with no response.

Who else?

Cold-querying strange editors is like masturbation with sandpaper; it’s painful and you know before you start you’re not going to get a good result.

Editors don’t want to look at unrepresented material. Some of them aren’t allowed to; it’s company policy. It’s not only time consuming, it’s fraught with legal hazards, including nuisance suits from writers who think the publishing house stole his idea and gave it to John Grisham to write. The temptation to go all legal is there: a recent Hollywood blockbuster bore an uncanny resemblance to a more-than decade old short story I wrote. Shortly after that story was published I received a call from a Hollywood Producer—you’d recognize his credits if not his name—who ultimately never followed up on his query. I contacted a leading Intelligent Property Lawyer who took a look, agreed I probably have a case, but the way these things are judged by the courts, I stood little chance of winning. If this guy says you’re wasting your time, you’re wasting your time. A lot of people stay on, hoping for some Go Away Money. I don’t have the energy or the temperament for those kinds of games.

What do I know about writing? Seriously, I don’t know. A little. Some. I’ve been at it for more than three decades, seriously making an effort to be as good as I can at it for the past fifteen. The first twenty years were millions of words that would have been otherwise wasted if they hadn’t shown me how bad I was and how much I had to learn. I read writers who amaze me with every sentence, every paragraph, every idea that shapes their work. Again and again, book after book. They make me despair at my overwhelming inadequacies and give me hope that maybe I can find the same light they’ve found for my own work. These days, I’m happy for the one good turn of phrase every 10 pages, finding the right word to make a sentence work, coming up with the metaphor that explains my mind. I have to be satisfied with an end result that kind of resembles that perfect thing I’ve envisioned in my mind and have been trying to set down on paper. It’s just never quite as good.

Like sculpting, writing is chipping away at the mass of words, getting rid of what doesn’t work or which gives the piece the wrong shape, shade or texture. I will never be a Michelangelo or a Di Vinci, a Roth or a Bellows, but I don’t want to be one of the hacks who writes only for the money. Of course I do write for the money: I’ve said it before, it bears repeating: I never write for the money, but I turn in the manuscript for a check. I love being able to make a living off of what I do, and I’d love it even more if I could make a better living. I think I have the goods, but what I think would be ever more valuable is a better Rolodex and developing the ability to network.

So…

Call me!

Paul Kupperberg is a freelance writer who began his career at Charlton Comics in 1975 and has never looked back. At DC Comics, he’s written a little of everybody, from Arion to Zatanna. He is the author of several books, numerous short stories and novellas, young adult non-fiction books on subjects ranging from pop culture to hard science, online animation and syndicated newspaper comic strips. He has also been an editor for DC Comics, Executive Editor of Weekly World News and Senior Editor of WWE Kids Magazine. His latest work can be seen in the humor book Jew-Jitsu: The Hebrew Hands of Fury (Citadel Books, 2008), a short story in The Avenger Chronicles (Moonstone Books, 2008), back-up stories in every issue of Captain Action comics (Moonstone Comics), and sundry issues of DC Comics’ Cartoon Network titles and Bongo Comics’ Bart Simpson Comics. Visit him at his blog, www.kupperberg.blogspot.com.