GG: As I soon as I learned to read, I heard narration unfolding in my head. I knew I’d be a writer.
LH: What was your first success?
GG: My first publication was a prose-poem in a literary magazine called Xanadu.
LH: What kind of books or articles do you most enjoy writing?
GG: I like writing that’s beautiful and frightening at the same time, and that’s what I try to achieve in my own work. My best work is about the natural world.
LH: Do you have an agent? Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.
GG: Before I met my agent, I thought of myself as an artistic sort of writer, doomed to make my living at a day job while scribbling on the side. My big accomplishments were publishing a chapbook of poetry, having a couple of my songs played in a night club, and getting paid $50 for an essay in a litmag.
That all changed when Harper’s reprinted one of my essays from a litmag. It was only days after Harper’s hit the stands that a stranger named Elyse Cheney phoned. She asked if I had any ideas for a nonfiction book.
“Well, I have some essays,” I said.
“I was thinking of something more focused,” she said. She grilled me about my writing and my experiences, and before we hung up we’d hashed out a general idea for a book of essays about animals with some philosophical subtext. Over the next few months, we developed a pitch and a few sample chapters. I really had no idea how to build a pitch, because it had never occurred to me to write a nonfiction book. I’d actually pinned my hopes on finishing a novel. I outlined 31 chapters about the animals I’d encountered in the countryside where I grew up. Elyse told me to cut it down to the seven most exciting ones. We called it The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators.
A week after I sent Elyse the finished pitch, she called to tell me she’d sold it for six figures. After I applied the defibrillator to myself, I told her I was amazed it all happened so fast.
“That’s why you have an agent,” she said.
LH: What are your thoughts about marketing? Do you have any great tips on howto do it well?
GG: The biggest difference between successful writers and unsuccessful ones isn’t talent, but perseverance. My best advice is to keep going. I had a story chosen for Best of the ‘Net a couple of years back that had been rejected 62 times. I kept revising it and sending it back out.
More important, though, persevere with your writing. While you’re waiting to hear about one piece, write a couple more. Always be writing. Besides making you a better writer, it will give you more stuff to send out and thus improve your odds in the marketplace. It will also give you a more realistic sense of the relative strengths of your pieces. Some writers send out one piece, get a rejection, and feel too demoralized to go on. I say, send out a piece, then forget about it and write something better before you even get word on the first one.
Don’t think of the market as a judge of your talent, because it’s not.
LH: If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.
GG: I’d have written more. When I as young I was easily frustrated. I’d put stories aside because I couldn’t make them work or because my prose was ugly and I couldn’t get it on its feet. Now I know that the only way to get to be a good writer is to do a lot of bad writing. I’d want my younger self to apply ink to paper every chance he got, accepting that clumsy writing is nothing to be ashamed of, that it’s wholesome exercise, that every attempt at improving a line, no matter how lame the result, is a step toward some graceful line later on.
LH: Any other thoughts to share?
GG: My advice for aspiring writers is to find joy in the process. The publishing business is rarely kind to the right people, so if you are only in it for the rewards, you’d probably be happier doing something else. But if you can find the joy in the pursuit of a page that sings, you’ll have your reward, whether you succeed in publishing or not.
(BTW—For UCLA, I’m teaching a short marketplace class again this summer, among other things: https://www.uclaextension.edu/fos/Writing.aspx )
LH: I sure enjoyed your UCLA online class. Thanks for giving us your insights, Gordon.