Terence Clarke

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Prolific? What’s That?

February 17, 2021

I have been accused…wrongly…of being prolific. A book a year over the last seven years. Words and more words.

But it’s not true.

One of the curses of writing fiction is that, in general, it does not sell as well as non-fiction. The reasons for that are many and have been written about a great deal (itself another source of non-fiction.) But it is just a plain fact that, as a rule, English-speaking people don’t read nearly enough fiction.

Those of us devoted to writing fiction must accept that fact. But, if the practice compels you as a writer, it doesn’t matter. The wander of mind that fiction requires is for a writer one of its great attractions. The individualism of it. The adventures of the soul and the heart. The challenge of making something up out of whole cloth. It’s fun. Even tragic fiction is fun…to write, if perhaps not to read. You can do what you want with fiction.

But I have to tell the truth. I am hardly prolific.

After the publication by Mercury House and Ballantine Books of my novel My Father In the Night,in 1991 (my third book) I couldn’t get anything published at all. This was during the antediluvian times prior to the internet and the revolution it has caused in book publishing. So, if you were serious as a writer, you had to run the gauntlet of literary agents and the Big Four (or Five or Six, whatever it was depending upon the many corporate takeovers) of serious publishing houses. Each of those two gauntlets represented a very rough passage through which you and your fiction manuscript had to pass. In my case, I would say that I have received favorable reactions from maybe two percent of the hundreds of query letters and subsequent correspondences I have had with literary agents and publishers.

My favorite was a letter and contract I received from one New York agent who wished to represent a novel I had sent her. I was thrilled…except that her contract would seal me into an arrangement from which, if I signed, I would not be allowed to leave were I to be dissatisfied for some reason. (Although she could get rid of me, if she wished, as spelled out in the contract.) Also, the agent required that I send her every future manuscript I was to complete, into, as the contract specified, “eternity.” She would also represent any stage, film or television work that was to derive from the manuscripts of mine under her control, also into “eternity.” There was much other self-serving language, all of it to the benefit of the agent.

I think she did not understand that I was hiring her, rather than the other way around.

So, I wrote back to her, with a version of her contract that I had run through the Word “Track Changes” editing program. My edits released me from all the requirements the agent had put into her contract, except for the one that pertained to her representation to publishers of the one title I had sent to her. “After all,” I wrote, “we haven’t worked together, and I will want to see how you do with this first project.” I also added the proviso that if, after two years of her representation, she had not placed the book, I could opt to re-open the conversation about our contractual relationship, with the idea of possibly changing it.

I sent my edited version of the contract to her with a kindly letter. For some reason, I never heard from her again. Perhaps she thought me naïve.

The second gauntlet is filled with the major publishing companies. One of them, Ballantine Books, had published My Father In the Night in a trade paperback edition. When I attempted to interest them in my next book, I found that the editor who had accepted My Father In the Night had left publishing altogether. The new Ballantine editor had no idea who I was and, after an initial exchange of letters, brought an end to the conversation. 

During the next twenty years, I wrote seven books of fiction, and could summon no interest in them from any agent or publishing company.

In the meantime, the internet was born and flourished. Along with it came the flurry of software programs that put the means of production for books into the hands of the authors. It took just a few years, but that did happen. It is a revolution. It also happened that, if as an author you pursued this path and you had sales, you would receive a significantly larger royalty payment per copy than you ever would have received under the previous regime of agents and corporatized publishers. Also, the entire panoply of book distribution opportunities remained as much in play for individual authors as it was for books published in the old-fashioned way.

You also, by the way, have much more control over your relationships with movie people, Netflix, Amazon Prime, et. al., since there need be no agent intervening in the conversation.

Sensing a breakthrough, I started publishing my own work about seven years ago. I had written almost all those books during the previous twenty years. The manuscripts had resided in desk drawers, cardboard boxes, and on computer hard drives. I resuscitated them all, had them professionally edited, designed, and produced, sold in print and ebook forms, and professionally reviewed (I must say, rather favorably in all cases.)

Thus, suddenly, I was “prolific.”

Contemplating that breakthrough, I had had conversations with many writers and publishing people about this whole notion of doing it all myself. An editor whom I had hired to edit two of those seven books, who remains to this day beyond famous for his work as an editor and as a publisher, told me, “Being published by Houghton Mifflin these days, Terry, is like being able to say that you were on the roster of the 1947 New York Yankees.” An equally well-known New York literary agent who is a close friend of mine told me a few years ago, “The great literature of the twenty-first century, Terry, will have been self-published.”

So there you have it…one brief history of a prolific writer.

Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Moment Before, will be published on September 1, 2021. It is the third of a trilogy. The others are titled My Father In The Night and When Clara Was Twelve. Those two are available everywhere, in print and ebook versions, as will be The Moment Before.

www.terenceclarke.org #fiction #writing #editing #publishing


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