The Trashcan Returns
“The Inevitable Sequel!”
“How NOT to be a writer embittered by perpetual rejection”
© copyright 2001 by Travis Heermann
The reader will find this installment to be somewhat less caustic than its predecessor, as my positions on certain points have softened up just a bit. There have been two significant developments in my writing “career” since “The Trashcan.”
The first thing …
Ah, how much things can change in a little ol’ year! Well, they haven’t changed so much that I’ve landed an agent or publisher, but my opinion of the faceless masses of those folks guarding the door of the publishing industry (agents and editors) has changed somewhat. “Why?” asks the gentle reader. Because I managed to meet some of them.
It happened one weekend in June of 2000, at the Heartland Writers’ Conference in Sikeston, Missouri. That weekend proved to be one of the most incredible, transformative experiences of my adult life.
Sikeston, Missouri?! What the hell is in Sikeston, Missouri? Well, to be honest, not that much if you’re used to the big city. It’s spitting distance from Kentucky, deep down in the toe of Missouri. But I became curious during the long drive down there when I saw a billboard for a restaurant in Sikeston that boasted being the “Home of Throwed Rolls”– when I was still over 300 miles away! But its a pleasant little town in any case, and authors came from far and wide to attend (the couple given the award for greatest distance traveled came from Jamaica!). But I had no idea what to expect. I had never attended anything like this before. I had made the decision to go because I stumbled across their web site on the internet, it was within a day’s drive, and several of the guests were editors and agents. And because as a conference attendee, I got to pitch my work personally to two of the editors/agents of my choice. My first goal was, at the very least, to make personal contact with at least one agent or editor that dealt with genres that interested me. My second goal, obviously, was to secure a contract.
For the course of the weekend, the small Holiday Inn in Sikeston was taken over by around 150 writers, and I was kind of nervous and withdrawn at first, because I didn’t know anybody there, and because I’m a bashful person by nature. But I knew that if I was to make anything happen this weekend, I would have to make it happen. That meant I would have to be more outgoing and assertive than I was accustomed. That first evening there was a mixer where attendees could get acquainted somewhat informally. The vast majority of writers seemed to be either romance, mainstream, or western writers, so I felt a little out of place, until I had the good fortune to stumble into a conversation with some folks talking sci-fi and fantasy.
I introduced myself to the group, and found myself among two editors and an agent! The two editors worked in the nonfiction arena, but the agent was from New York, and she happened to be the one for whom I was scheduled to pitch my story the following day! She and I hit it off immediately. Our tastes were so similar I was astonished. As we talked old sci-fi, new sci-fi, fantasy, horror, Star Wars, Star Trek, and writing. I was fascinated by tales of authors and celebrities she had known. She asked me to tell her about my writing, so I told her about the idea that was taking shape in my brain (Tears for the Ronin before it had a name). Before I knew it, three hours had passed. Perhaps I was perceived as glomming onto her, but I couldn’t help it. Here was a person in the beating heart of the publishing industry, who had once accidentally scared the crap out of Stephen King, been schmoozed by William Shatner when he was pitching Tek War, been summoned by Cher. She was sympathetic to my earlier misfortunes (see “The Trashcan”). And she was interested in my work! When the evening finally ended, I couldn’t wait to pitch her The New Eorthe Trilogy the next day. Before the conference had officially started, my first goal was already achieved! So I spent half the night polishing my presentation, and I was so gratified when she told me to go ahead and submit the entire work to her office. And she wanted to see Tears for the Ronin, too.
The days of the conference were spent in workshops of various kinds, with subjects like “Writing a Killer First Page,” “The Basics of Plot,” “How to Make your Characters Real People,” “Staying out of the Slush Pile,” etc. The workshops I found most helpful were those where my work was critiqued by agents, editors, or published authors, and hearing them critique the work of other authors present. This was extremely helpful in a couple of different ways. First, someone in the industry spoke frankly about what was wrong or right with the particular selection that they read. Second, it gave me the opportunity to hear the work of dozens of other unpublished authors, who were there for the same reasons as me. I could somewhat objectively place my own work on a “totem pole” with others. “Okay, my stuff fits about here.” It let me know how I was doing with respect to the writing skills of others. This was very encouraging, because I was “there.” Any self-doubts I had possessed about my writing ability due to my earlier misfortunes were dispelled, because my stuff was as good as or better than most of what I heard all weekend, some of which was by published authors. This is not to say that I was the best. Far from it. I heard some outstanding prose that weekend, and the works I entered in the Writing Contest did not do well. But I didn’t feel too badly about that, because the works I entered were some of my earlier stuff, and the critiques I received were invaluable in helping me to fix things with those works.
There was also an “Open Mike” night, where authors gathered in the hotel restaurant to read their works aloud. I was nervous, but I didn’t care. I had just written the first chapter for Tears for the Ronin a few days before, and I wanted to hear what people thought of it. In a field dominated by “literary” excerpts and “down-home” anecdotes, mine was one of four genre pieces read that night. The others were hard sci-fi, heroic fantasy, and erotic horror. I think there were about five or six total sci-fi/fantasy/horror writers total, including myself, in the entire field of around 150 writers, so my company was small. In fact, I would venture to say that my historical fantasy set in medieval Japan was the most unusual story that anyone heard that weekend, except for maybe the horror-porn. And one of the last handful to be read. I finally got my turn around 1:00 am. I had never read my work aloud to a crowd before, and I have no real experience with acting, but I did my best to read dramatically and to give the individual characters their own voices. My ten minutes was over shockingly soon. When I stepped down, to polite applause, I received many nods of appreciation and positive comments from the people I passed. More and more, my self-doubts were swept away.
During one of the lunch breaks, another bit of good fortune landed flat upon me out of the blue. The restaurant was filled with authors in groups of four, sitting at their tables. Since I was acquainted with practically no one, I was sitting alone, feeling a little forlorn and bereft, when a good old boy from Tennessee asked if he could join me. Holy shit! He was one of the agents here as a guest, also with whom I had an appointment to pitch my work the next day. I could hardly believe my luck. The only thing that would have stunned me more was winning the lottery. He was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, and it was easy to see why he was in the business of selling. He could have sold refrigerators to Eskimos. Before lunch was over he asked to me to send him my work. Later that weekend, during some of his workshops that I attended, he spoke to me directly in a crowd of other writers, as if we were old buddies.
As each day of the conference passed, all these writers grew more and more friendly. As the workshops and readings and critiques went by, we were getting to know each other. Through the works we had presented, we had allowed others into ourselves, others who were just like ourselves. We had opened up. Complete strangers were coming up to me to talk about my writing, and I was doing the same with those I thought were especially interesting or well-written. People who otherwise had absolutely nothing in common were gabbing away like old friends. By the end of the weekend, the nervousness and uncertainty I had felt initially were gone. I knew now that I had it in me to be a writer. The encouragement I received that weekend is still with me, over a year later. If it is within my power, I will be going to the next Heartland Writers’ Conference in 2002.
One thing that was made very clear to me during this conference was that I had been very wrong about something in my previous diatribe, “The Trashcan.” You don’t have to be published to get an agent. The agents and editors I spoke to were attending this conference looking for people to sign! They are actively looking for the next Stephen King or Anne Rice or Danielle Steele. If your work is good, they’ll give it a second look. The better it is, the longer the look, and they might actually consider signing you up. But I was right about something, too. Personal contact is absolutely the key. Obviously you can still get published using the “deluge of query letters” method, but a personal relationship gets you in the door faster and more effectively than any query letter.
So what were the benefits, in the end, of attending this conference? What did I learn? First, I made contact with several people in the publishing industry. I guess, in the business world, they call this “networking.” These are people who will know me the next time I send them a manuscript. Second, I got a very real sense of “how I’m doing.” I was able to compare my work to that of others in a somewhat noncompetitive setting, and determine whether I still have a distance to go in my writing abilities. Third, I learned a lot about the mechanics of writing, from plotting to characterization, some of which put into words all the things I had been doing intuitively. It helped me look at my books objectively, mechanically, to fix the things that I couldn’t quite put my finger on before. Fourth, the encouragement and camaraderie of other writers was a great boost to my morale. Fifth, the personal advice I got from agents and editors will be invaluable help in getting my books published.
So you’re wondering now, what happened with those two agents?
We’ll start with the good old boy from Tennessee. Due to some health problems, he was unable to get back to me for a while, but he made it up to me by cashing in a favor with an editor at a New York publishing house. He pitched my book to this editor, and if the editor ultimately rejected the manuscript, he was to provide a critique as to why. Unfortunately the editor rejected it, but I was stunned when along with the letter I received from the agent, there was a copy of the editor’s critique. The agent believed he could sell my book, but his health had forced him into semiretirement, and he regretted that he couldn’t take me on. So, if I might use a baseball analogy, “Here comes the pitch, he swings, HIT! Ooo, that’s one’s fouled back. Strike one.” Do you remember what I said in my rant in “The Trashcan” about the things I wanted? I have them now.
The agent from New York also ultimately rejected my book, but she was kind enough to offer a detailed critique, which will be invaluable when I get back to working on that one. “Here’s the pitch … the swing! HIT! Fouled away into the bleachers. Strike two.” I sent a letter of thanks for her personal response, and pitched Tears for the Ronin to her. I received another personal letter from her, saying she was very interested. So I polished up what I had finished, and sent it off …
I’m still waiting to hear, fingers and toes crossed … “Here’s the pitch!… He swings! …”
The second thing …
When I was a kid, I was forever nagging my parents to play games. Life, Risk, Clue, Stratego, and others. About the time I discovered Conan, Tarzan, and John Carter, I also discovered Dungeons & Dragons. Wow, you can combine stories and games! What an idea! I’ve been hooked on role-playing games ever since, and have branched out into miniatures war games and non-fantasy role-playing like horror and superheroes. (Yes, I’m just a big kid at heart.) These days, I have mostly left D&D behind in favor of deeper, darker subject matter, but occasionally I have cause to go back to my roots, as you will see. Also, being a writer, I’ve always thought it would be fun to write for the gaming industry. At this point, I should say that I have no illusions about my work being “high art.” I intend it to be fun to read, and stuff written for the gaming industry will be enjoyed by the people who play the games. And I really don’t care where my work gets published, just so long as it is published. I need published credits.
So, all this being said, I have been trying to do some freelance writing work in the gaming industry for the last couple of years. To accomplish this, I pretty much devoted myself to using only the direct, personal approach. I went to GenCon, the biggest convention in the gaming industry, and spoke directly to the people in the industry. I focused most of my efforts on Alderac Entertainment Group, because they publish the games I most enjoy. I joined their Bounty Hunter demo team, and it became my privilege to teach and promote their games. Over the course of two years, I came to know a few of the folks at Alderac on a personal basis, and when I approached them about doing freelance work for Alderac, they were really helpful about putting me in direct contact with the right people. So in February of 2001 I was astonished when I got a phone call from AEG one evening, asking me if I would do some freelance work for them. HOT DAMN!! You bet I would! “Great! We need two D&D adventures by a week from tomorrow. Five thousand words each.” Whoa, I thought, ten thousand words in a week! A daunting task with a deadline. This is unfamiliar territory … But I knew I could do it. Who needs sleep anyway? Adding a further complication, I hadn’t played D&D in almost fifteen years, and the game had just been released with 3rd Edition rules, substantially revised from 1st Edition, which I knew from my youth. So I drove all over town at 9:00 o’clock on a Thursday night to track down the rulebooks I needed, giddy with excitement. They had asked me!! Over the course of the following week, I found the time amidst my full-time job and a class to crank out 10,000 words by the deadline, and I made it with a day to spare. A couple of months later, when I saw the first one in print, I felt a pride almost as good as seeing The Ivory Star in print for the first time.
You can find my two adventures, “The Illusionist’s Daughter” and “The Lash of Malloc,” on AEG’s web site, www.alderac.com. Look under Adventure Keep modules.
One other note, at GenCon last year, I introduced myself to an editor from Del Rey, who was there looking for books to sign! I pitched my work. He was interested, and he asked me to send him the complete manuscript, not just an outline. I am still waiting for a reply, ten months later. The extended time without any reply obviously does not encourage me, but I try to find solace where I can. “Well, at least it hasn’t been rejected yet.” In any case, it was a great opportunity, one I intend to repeat at GenCon this year.
So, what is the exhausted reader to take away from another of my rambles?
Make it personal. If you’re serious about a career in the writing business, go to writers’ conferences, conventions, whatever it takes to meet the people you need to meet face to face. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get lucky. My time is coming. It has become a quest!