How Betsy Mitchell, Sheila Gilbert, Diana Gill, Beth Meacham, Jim Minz, Tom Doherty, and Other Publishing Legends Helped Launch My Writing Career
"The writing style is strong... The ideas are interesting and the writing good," wrote Betsy Mitchell, who went on to become Editor-in-Chief at Del Rey. "The fantasy world you have created is truly wonderful and rich. Your characters seem real and full of life," wrote Sheila Gilbert, who is a co-owner of DAW Books. Both were written in reply letters after the editors requested the full manuscript for Keeper Martin’s Tale, my debut novel of epic fantasy. This was the 1990s and these heady statements, even though they ultimately ended in rejection letters, were the fuel that drove my writing.
To say that Keeper Martin’s Tale made the rounds in the 1990s is an understatement. My queries went out month after month, year after year, and usually one submission at a time while I waited and waited and waited for a response. Rarely, like a white whale half seen in the distance, but frequently enough to keep me motivated, my queries were answered with requests to see the full manuscript as I mentioned.
Over a period of years and with a variety of manuscripts, including fantasy, sci-fi and more, I received exciting responses from Diana Gill, Beth Meacham, Jim Minz, Toni Weisskopf, Betsy Wollheim, Terri Windling and others. One requested full manuscript submission even made it all the way to Tom Doherty, founder of Tor Books.
These types of requests and responses often came with letters that had handwritten notes or notations signed by the editors themselves where they’d say wonderful things. One executive editor said "It's a creative, provoking, and above all, thoughtful story," before going on to talk about how hard it was to launch a new book or series by a new writer.
How hard it was to publish an unknown was a frequent mantra. The book is very good but we want more, another. Some suggested I try breaking out with short stories, a collection or nonfiction first, and then once published try to publish fiction. Undaunted, I framed and pinned up some of the best responses and rejection letters as I went and used them as inspiration to keep writing. Other writers I knew weren’t even getting past the query letter. Meanwhile, I was getting regular requests for full manuscripts.
One editor finally told me quite matter-of-factly that the story I created wasn’t right for the publisher’s line of books. Epic quests like Terry Brook’s Shannara were what publishers were publishing and readers were buying. The publisher didn’t quite know what to do with the type of story I had written.
Keeper Martin’s Tale and the other Ruin Mist books were, at their heart, a story of intrigue between two powerful families: The House of Alder and the House of Tyr’anth. Epic quests were a part of the story, but they weren’t the story.
Versions of the books that got the best response were the ones where I submitted the story of Adrina, Vilmos and Seth as separate chapters. Chapter 1 began Adrina’s story. Chapter 2, Vilmos’. Chapter 3, Seth’s. Chapter 4 continued Adrina’s story, Chapter 5 Vilmos’ and so on. But even though the approach attracted, I was told repeatedly in the end that the approach would never sell. No one would buy a book where the story switched to a different character every chapter, especially when later in the books there were so many different characters. Any reader of current fantasy fiction knows how wrong they were about that.
Wrong or not, their words directed my efforts and my writing. My first big break came because of the frequent insistence that I try breaking in with nonfiction or other types of writing, that once I was published and a known quantity I would have an easier time selling my lengthy fantasy epic and other works of fiction.
The break came when I sold an editor at Macmillan on a proposal for a technical how-to book. At the time, I was one of a select few with a strong background in writing and substantial technical expertise in this new experiment called the World Wide Web. Originally, I was supposed to just be a contributor to a book in progress, but the acquisition editor liked my approach, ideas and writing so much that eventually my approach was adopted instead and I took ownership and wrote over 800 pages of the 1000-page work.
The book became a top-seller for the publisher and put me on the bestseller list. I was immediately asked by Macmillan to write another book. That second book became a blockbuster bestseller and my career as a writer was established in grand style. My biggest moment back then was when I walked into a Borders and saw two floor-to-chest-high stacks of the book. Now, this was also a 1000-page book, but it was still a sight to behold. That book and the ones that followed sold like hotcakes at $49.99 - $79.99 each, and that was the 1990s.
Twenty years later, I am now the author of nearly 200 full-length works of fiction and nonfiction. My books have been published and/or distributed by nearly every major publisher. The big ones at least, including O’Reilly Media, Simon & Schuster, McGraw Hill, Pearson Education, Microsoft, and Random House.
Not bad for a guy who spent all those years with his face pressed against the glass, trying to break in.
Thanks for reading, I’m William Robert Stanek, Microsoft’s #1 author for nearly 20 years, and author of over 200 topselling books.
Stay in touch with Robert Stanek by connecting on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/robertstanekauthor or on twitter at http://twitter.com/robertstanek.