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Persistence is the heart of publishing

I recently sent away a manuscript that’s been swimming around my computer files for years. I never thought anyone would be interested in publishing a book that starts as a travel narrative and wanders into fiction in a Trout Fishing in America meets Blue Highways sort of way.

I first started writing Trout Stories when I was working for a newspaper, PitchWeekly. I liked newspaper work. It did me well and kept my attention, mostly.

But there were moments when sitting at a desk drove me stir crazy. This is often the case when I get an office job, so it was no fault of the newspaper. I was the one who had lost my focus. So I wrote some stories between other work for the paper. I last worked for the paper in 2000, so you know how old the first drafts of this manuscript are.

Trout Stories started out as short stories, or what I thought were short stories. But nearly everything I write is based on experience, so these were autobiographical stories about some fish I knew. They slowly turned into memoirs of place and time. They grew from the initial and most fictional story to a group of more-or-less true accounts of fish caught and lost and the people who made me who I am today.

I just couldn’t imagine that anyone would be interested in such stories, and, besides, who publishes short stories anyway? I didn’t know. Those stories grew and changed over time. Every time I opened them, I changed their complexions a little. This went on for a decade and a half. I quit the newspaper. I edited books and earned a Ph.D. I published two other books.

I had people read Trout Stories from time to time. This is the way readings like this go: I give them to so and so and say, I sure would like to hear what you think. I am not looking for compliments, nor am I looking for someone to wipe them out. I want measured critique; this is good, this isn’t. But the people I give these stories to don’t ever give me that sort of critque. They are just regular people, not writers. What I usually get goes along the lines, Well, they’re interesting.

A couple of months ago, I retrieved Trout Stories from the archive. I accidentally found them, really. I thought I lost them in the march from computer to computer, from software update to software update. This time, I was surprised to see them open in my new computer program. They were a jumble of run-on lines and strange breaks, but the words were there more or less in the order I wrote them.

Of course, I went through them again. I took time to iron out all the line and page breaks, the funny symbols and punctuation, and the paragraphing. When I started editing, I lengthened some of the stories, took out contrivances I’d used when I first wrote them, and corrected all the typographical errors I could find. (I’m sure there’s a lot left over.) I saved them and put them aside again, thinking, well, that’s it for now.

Not long ago, I went to lunch with a friend of mine and told him about this odd little book and he wanted to read them. He’s a learned man, a scientist with a deep interest in literature and the humanities. At another lunch, I asked him about them.

“Why haven’t you published these?” he asked.

“Who’s going to publish such a strange collection of stories?”

“Someone,” he said. “They are good.”

I didn’t think that Trout Stories would fit into my present publisher’s catalog. It’s a university press, and though the press published my two travel memoirs, I was sure they wouldn’t touch Trout Stories.

My friend suggested that I get an agent. Years ago, when I was editing books, I tried to find agents for my travel memoirs and for a novel I wrote (that really should stay in the computer, now that I’ve looked at it again). The result was heartache and nasty letters from people who said things like, there’s no market for this, this has already been done, and this kind of writing doesn’t have a place among modern nonfiction.

They were all wrong. I found a publisher on my own (something I don’t suggest, even if it worked for me) and the first memoir was successful. Not a million-seller but good enough to keep it in print for a while. The press will publish my second book in May.

So the day after I told my friend that I didn’t think anyone would take this little book, I queried an agent, then another. While I was doing this, I thought, hey, I’d better get a firm no from the press before I go any farther. I sent a query to my editor.

It turns out that my editor no longer acquires literary/creative material for the press. She sent my query on to another editor who wrote back the very next day and said she would love to see Trout Stories.

Imagine that.

So, I have queries out to two agents, who will likely take some time getting back with me. If the press doesn’t take Trout Stories—there’s a vast difference between being interested in a book and actually deciding to publish a book—then I have some other feelers out there that may bring fruit. The best case is that the press does take the book and I have to tell the agents to piss off. The worst case is that the press tells me to piss off and I have to keep looking for agents.

The truth of the matter is that the book will find a home somewhere. After years of writing experience and having been an editor at a newspaper and a book editor, I know that the game goes to the person with the most stamina. If I have something decent, which Trout Stories is (at the very least), I just have to be persistent about getting it out there. I may have to weather a hundred rejections, but I know that if I keep it out there, it will be published.

My job now is to get to another book. I’m starting that project next week.

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