16, Number 2
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Pacifying the gatekeepers: or, as a writer, nothing less than your best
by Silvio Sirias
That's very nice if they want to publish you, but don't pay too much attention to it. It will toss you away. Just continue to write.
It takes a long time to publish a book.
I am blessed that publishers in the United States are interested in my work.
And I am acutely aware of this blessing.
I add the qualifier "in the United States" because both in Panama and in Nicaragua --- the countries where I've lived the past ten years --- the overwhelming majority of writers are obliged to self-publish. Only a handful of novelists from the region manage to break out of the mold to secure a contract with a publisher --- mostly Alfaguara, who seems to have a monopoly in this part of the world --- that will finance the venture and help their authors gain an international audience. But these writers are the lucky exceptions and, in all honesty, they've toiled for decades to earn their success. The cruel reality is that for most Nicaraguan and Panamanian authors the road to publication is a solitary one.
The reason I mention the nature of publishing in Central America is that my observations of the scene taught me something that has helped me become a published novelist with Arte Público Press and Northwestern University Press: a writer should never submit his or her work until it is absolutely ready, until it is as interesting and flawless as humanly possible. The mistake most young writers in the isthmus commit is that the accomplishment of completing their manuscript so exhilarates them that, since they are virtually assured of self-publishing anyway, they rush their novel to the print shop. As a result of this impatience, every year the literary market of these nations --- in the absence of publishing industry gatekeepers --- is flooded with work that isn't yet ready to see the light of print.
I could've made the same mistake, but the gatekeepers in the United States prevented it, fortunately. At the age of thirty-four, I completed a first novel titled Seeds by the Wayside. In this work I sought to tell the story of Nicaragua through the game of baseball. I sent the manuscript off to publishers, ready for the acclaim and fortune that was sure to follow. But after the third rejection letter, I started to look closely at what they were saying between the lines: that as a writer I wasn't yet at the point where they'd want to publish my work. I was discouraged, but I continued writing for a couple of years, producing two more manuscripts before I decided to devote myself again to writing literary criticism, exclusively.
The years passed, and the thought of ever becoming a novelist was discarded. But then events in my life aligned themselves where I had found a terrific story based on actual incidents, I had plenty of time to write, and I had matured in the craft to the extent where I knew when something was off and, perhaps of greater significance, how to fix the problem.
When I finished Bernardo and the Virgin I sent the manuscript off to Northwestern University Press and my "first" novel was published in 2005, when I was fifty-one. By then I had learned most of what I needed to know about crafting a novel, and the experience paid off again with the recent publication of Meet Me under the Ceiba, with Arte Público Press.
More importantly, though, I was far more mature, no longer enamored with acclaim and fortune, but more interested in leaving a legacy, in trying to write novels that stand the test of time.
What have I learned about the road to publication through the years?
Two things: one, a writer takes the first step when he or she commits to the hard yet rewarding work of learning the craft and, two, a writer is ready for publication when he or she can identify what is wrong with any passage and how to fix it.
In the interim, a writer should continue writing --- and reading, absolutely --- until he or she is ready to step into the literary world with work they are sure to be proud of in years to come.
Although the picture I have painted might seem daunting, let me assure everyone that I'd do it all over again, for every step has enriched my life.
Silvio Sirias resides and writes in Panama. Readers who live in Panama and would like to purchase a copy of Meet Me under the Ceiba can contact the author via his website at www.silviosirias.com
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2010 by Eric Jackson
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