John McNally
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WELCOME TO THE COLD, CRUEL WORLD OF PUBLISHING

With each published book, I get more and more emails from aspiring writers asking me if I could read their work, comment on it, and recommend an agent or publisher for it. Since I read fiction for a living - I teach creative writing and review books for newspapers - I (sadly) don't have time to read work by people I don't know. If I were to start agreeing to do this, I would have to stop doing other essential things, such as mowing my lawn or flossing my teeth. The fact is, I don't have time to do either of these things, either, but because they must be done, I stay up late or wake up early to do them.

This is a long way of saying, I'm very, very sorry, but I am unable to read unsolicited work, nor can I recommend such work to my agent or suggest a publishing house for it. However, I have written a book (see photo) that attempts to answer every question I've ever been asked about writing. It's called The Creative Writer's Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist, and it should be available at your local bookstore. If you don't have enough money for the book, I can offer the following advice, tips, and home remedies.



Sad John
John is truly saddened by
all the rejection in the world. 1971.

GENERAL ADVICE

This may be basic to the point of sounding stupid, but if you want to write, you need to read. I can't begin to tell you how many people write but don't read, or, if they do read, they don't read anything contemporary. Writing doesn't work that way. You need to be reading all the time - great books, good books, crappy ones.

You need to learn why one book is great and why another one is crappy, and you need to understand why IT'S NOT ALL SUBJECTIVE! I grow tired of aspiring writers who buy into the myth that everything having to do with writing is all opinion, so let me set the record straight: There are standards for the craft of writing, and some writing does indeed blow, and it's NOT just a matter of opinion. Now, of course, that's not to say that crappy writing doesn't make the best-seller list. It does - all the time - but commercial viability is a different issue from the quality of one's work. Your goal should be to learn what constitutes quality. The more you read - great books, good books, crappy ones - the clearer it should become. It's like eating at a good Italian restaurant: the more your palette is exposed to high quality food, the less desire you'll have to saw open a can of Chef Boy-R-Dee. (Furthermore, you'll start to wonder why the sauce is orange instead of red, and why the meatballs are so damned spongy.)


CHILDREN'S BOOKS

I don't have any children of my own, I don't know anything about writing children's books, and I have no idea how to submit one (child or manuscript) to a publisher. This book, however, will answer most of your questions: Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. (Be sure to buy the most recent edition.)

Trilogy of Terror
An Editorial Board Meeting with Emma, Scout, and Haley. May 2006.

POETRY

I don't write poetry, and I make fun of my friends who do. Poetry is a very, very tough market. You need to read contemporary poetry by the pound; you need to take workshops at your local college. If you don't know who Richard Hugo or Ted Kooser are, you're probably not ready to send your work out. Read literary journals, like Poetry, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review.



The Brood
Jordan and Ashley aren't impressed with most poets. May 2006.

These magazines, along with a few thousand others, are where poets publish. Look at recent poetry books to see where the poet has published his/her work, and then read those magazines.


SHORT STORIES

The short story market has all but dried up on the commercial level, but there are still scores of literary magazines that publish short stories. My advice is to read them before sending your work to them. Most people don't, and so by reading them, you've already put yourself at an advantage, if only because you won't waste your time submitting to places that aren't right for your particular story. Better yet, subscribe to them.



Haley
Haley receives word of her first publication!
May 2006

When I first started taking writing seriously, back in 1984, I spent most of my time in the library at Southern Illinois University, alternating between reading literary journals at random and writing my own short stories. This is one of my cherished memories of my writing life. I felt as though I'd discovered something no one else had. Although I don't have the time to do this much anymore, I still subscribe to a handful of magazines. (Please don't ask me which magazines you should subscribe to. Half the fun is picking magazines at random and sending in your check.)

I began sending my work to magazines in 1984. My first publication was in 1989. In the interim, I racked up dozens of rejection slips. Like it or not, rejection is the writer's constant companion. There's no sense wringing one's hands over it or analyzing it too much. Just write your next story while keeping the last one circulating.

This book will tell you everything you need to know about submitting to magazines: Novel and Short Story Writer's Market. (Again, be sure to buy the most recent issue. When I interned for a magazine, we frequently received letters addressed to an editor who had been dead for several years. This did not bode well for the writer. Advice #1: Make sure the person you're writing to isn't dead.)


NONFICTION BOOKS

Many, if not most, nonfiction books are sold on the basis of a strong proposal. One thing to keep in mind is this: the proposal should be written with the marketing department in mind. In the end, they will either embrace your project or nix it. You may love the idea; your agent may love it; an editor may love it; the editorial board may love it - but if the marketing department doesn't see an audience for the book, they may say, "Naw!" and toss the proposal into a nearby fireplace.



John Gerald and Chris
Why is John winking? Does he know the secret to publication? (The answer is, no, he does not.) 1969 with his brother, Gerald, and cousin, Chris.

Nearly all of my anthologies have been sold on the basis of a proposal. However, I have put together twice as many proposals for anthologies than I've sold. Still, that's not a bad ratio.

Here are two resources for putting together a good proposal:

NOVELS and GETTING AN AGENT

By and large, you will need an agent to get a novel published by a commercial publisher and even by many smaller publishers.

Family
Budding writer John McNally, far right in stylish hat, contemplates the importance of good representation. Circa 1985 with his brother, mother, and father.

I don't believe that this is a business of who you know. I believe that this is business based on whether you've written a marketable book.

(What's marketable? No one really knows.) My agent has never taken any of my suggestions about people she should represent. And back when I was looking for an agent, none of my friends' agents took me on based on their recommendations of me and my work. True, a word from a friend may get your foot in the door, but that's about all it will do. No one is going to represent your work or buy it because you're a friend of someone they represent or publish.

I should note here that I've written three unpublished books. Two were written before my first book was published; one was written after my first book was published. What does this tell you? It tells you that I don't know any secrets to this business. It's just a lot of hard work, putting pen to paper every day, generating pages, reading them over, reading them aloud, rewriting them a few dozen times or more, trying to make sense out of a nonsensical world, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best.

Here are three approaches to finding an agent:

  • Subscribe to www.publishersmarketplace.com and see who's selling what. This website will show you daily book sales. Don't email those agents, unless you know that they accept email queries.
  • Buy this book: Guide to Literary Agents.
  • Check the acknowledgments of books you admire (or, better yet, books that share the same sensibility as your book) and see if the author mentions an agent.

COVER LETTERS

Whether you're sending your stories and poems to a magazine or you're looking for an agent, I have always been of the mind that cover letters should be straightforward. I know that others disagree with me, but I have seen one-too-many cutesy cover letters. You run a risk here. If your letter is too personal, too off-task, the editor may wonder, "What does any of this have to do with the book?" And if you're trying to be funny and you're not, you've shot yourself in the foot before they've even read the first page of your book. My cover letters tend to be "just the facts, ma'am" cover letters. Any of the recommended books above will provide you with sample cover letters.



John's mother Margie
John's mother, two years old, worries about her cover letter. 1936.

FINAL THOUGHT

Whenever I talk about publishing at conferences, someone will inevitably raise their hand and either disagree with my advice or provide an example of someone they knew who achieved publication by doing something I suggested they don't do. What can I say? There are exceptions to every rule, and I'm as fallible as the next Joe. In my defense, my advice is based on over twenty years of my own experience as a writer and editor, but it may not be the best advice. Whether you take it or not is up to you.



John's father Bob
John's father, Bob, says, 'Take this advice, or I'm walking out the door!' circa 1957.

READING LIST

Here are some books that I would recommend to any aspiring fiction writer. These recommendations are subjective, of course, and are in no particular order.

  • On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
  • The Habit of Being by Flannery O'Connor
  • Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O'Connor
  • Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern
  • Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
  • Revising Fiction by David Madden
  • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (the entire series)
  • The Lonely Voice by Frank O'Connor
  • The Story and Its Writer by Ann Charters
  • One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty
  • Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Writing Habit by David Huddle
  • Writers [on Writing]: Collected Essays from the New York Times, Volumes I and II
  • The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
  • What If?: Writing Exercises for Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
  • The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth




John and his father
John and his father, circa 1970.

There are thousands of other excellent books on writing. These happen to be a few of my favorites.


LINKS

Authors

Julianna Baggott
Madison Smartt Bell
T. C. Boyle
Prince Gomolvilas
Haven Kimmel
Stewart O'Nan
Alexander Parsons
Richard Yates
James P. Othmer
Will Clarke
Quinn Dalton
Doug Crandell
Johanna Edwards
Sean Doolittle
Owen King
Holiday Reinhorn
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Mike Magnuson
David Haynes
Timothy Schaffert
Erika Krouse
Venise Berry
Dean Bakopoulos
Brad Land
Brad Barkley
Kelly Braffet
Michelle Richmond
Zelda Lockhart
K.L. Cook
Jonathan Tropper
Karen Stolz
Rita Ciresi
Leslie Pietrzyk
Jesse Lee Kercheval
Judith Claire Mitchell





Crewcut
John with crewcut, 1968.

Screenwriting

Done Deal
The Sundance Institute
Chesterfield Writer's Film Project
Nicholl Fellowships
Variety
Screenwriter: The Movie Writer Magazine
Screenwriters Guild of America
American Film Institute

Fiction Writing

Resources

Associated Writing Program
Poets & Writers
Publishers Marketplace
Emerging Writers Network
DVDs on Revision (featuring John McNally) and Submitting Fiction to Magazines
Publishers Weekly

Fellowships

National Endowment for the Arts

Conferences and Festivals

Iowa Summer Writing Festival
Bread Loaf Writers' Conference
Story Week, Columbia College (Chicago)
Sewanee Writers' Conference

General Reference

Literary Book Awards
Internet Movie Database
The Ultimate White Pages
Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary

John's Publisher

Free Press / Simon and Schuster

Magazines where John has recently published work

Crab Orchard Review
Florida Review
Gargoyle
Glimmer Train
Idaho Review
Natural Bridge
New England Review
Punk Planet
Third Coast
Virginia Quarterly Review

Links Pages That are Better Than This One

Virginia Quarterly Review's
Mississippi Review's
Burry Man Writers Center (Screenwriting)
Author K.L. Cook