Encounters With Monsters

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 16 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

PRISCILLA FLEW BEHIND SEAMUS, just above him, off to one side, safe and carefree. Her filoplumes, tiny feathers that tracked the angles of her plumage, signaled neither discord nor danger.

Everyone honked for joy, as usual in migration. Priscilla loved honking her way south beside Seamus, their offspring behind them, their friends all around them. Even more, she would love flying back home in spring to raise a new brood of fuzzy goslings. Seamus would be with her all the way, to father her chicks and guard them.

The long V of the squadron veered, flew lower, wheeled. They came down on a pond of water that had a broad field of grass beside it. Priscilla had been here before. It was a good place to rest. An open place, where you could see scary visitors when they were still far away. Scary animals, scary birds. Or monsters.

Priscilla feared monsters most. They walked on two feet like geese but had no feathers. They had long legs, ungainly bodies, gangling wings. Their call was not a proper honk but a garbled bellow. Priscilla had seen monsters many times and had always steered clear of them. It comforted her to know that Seamus and the other ganders kept lookout.

The squadron stayed at the pond three days, eating grass from the field and weeds they plucked with their beaks from under water. On the second day, monsters came near to throw rocks. Their featherless wings useless for flight, the monsters used them instead for mischief. They could pick up stones with their forked wingtips and hurl them great distances.

The geese near the rock-throwing monsters leapt into the air and honked.

Bigger monsters came then, twice as big as those that threw rocks. They bellowed. They shook their wings at the smaller monsters. The big monsters chased the little monsters away. When all the monsters had gone, the geese settled back down on the field and pond. 

Priscilla was glad the rock throwing had ceased. It would be nice to stay another day or two. She wandered to the very edge of the field, where stood a thicket of woods. 

Night was falling. Soon it would be dark.

Seamus honked suddenly, as loud as he could. Priscilla’s filoplumes prickled.

A red fox trotted out from the woods, his head low. Priscilla was nearer to the woods than any other goose. Seamus flew right past her and landed in front of the fox. He stretched out his neck and honked. Other ganders joined him. They all hopped forward, hissing. The fox turned tail and trotted back to the woods.

Priscilla stood spellbound as Seamus and the others drove off the fox. A dark form swooped into view above her. She honked out a scream. 

Sharp claws jabbed her wing. A huge owl was trying to carry her off in its talons, to make her his dinner. She honked and beat her wings as hard as she could.

Seamus heard Priscilla’s screams. He flew straight at the owl, who struggled to lift Priscilla off the ground. Seamus crashed into the owl, pecked with his bill, and beat with his wings. 

Priscilla was pulled off the ground. The strong talons squeezed her wing. Something broke, her wing jolted. Help! she honked. 

Other ganders joined Seamus, bashed at the owl.

The owl opened his fist and flew off, chased by honking ganders. 

Priscilla fell to the ground, crying. 

Seamus landed beside her. He touched her hurt wing with his beak. Then he huddled next to her to keep her warm while she shivered from fright and pain. The two of them hunkered in the field, beside the pond, away from the fox’s woods. Seamus kept a sharp watch on sky and ground all night long.

Geese leaving. Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash.

The next day, Schuyler, the squadron commander, said it was time to fly south again. When the sun sank low, Schuyler took off from the pond. A hundred geese rose with him.

Priscilla was not in the squadron as it circled over the pond, ready to fly south. She could not fly. She lifted her head with longing as her friends stretched out their wings, formed a long V, and departed. 

Seamus remained on the ground beside Priscilla. He stayed to guard and protect her.

The squadron had left them lonely.

And in peril. Seamus did not stray far from Priscilla’s side. He stood sentinel, his white chin strap sweeping both ways as his head swiveled to scan field, pond, and sky.

If the fox came back, it would be hard for the two of them to fight him off. 

What if the monsters came again? That could be even worse, because monsters were bigger than foxes or owls, and they could throw things. The thought made her filoplumes itch.

As one day led to another, Priscilla could only walk around the field, her limp wing trailing on the ground. When she swam in the pond, it was better. The water held the wing up nearer her body, where it hurt less.

She ate grass and weeds, but still she got weaker. Seamus brought her food. He gave her a shiny, wiggly thing that he caught in the water. She gobbled it down. 

But the air was colder. The ground was colder. The water was colder; at the pond’s edge, it turned to ice. What would they do when the whole pond froze over? How would they get through the winter with all their friends away in the south?

A lone monster loitered one day by the fox’s woods. Seamus stood erect, alert, his head level at the top of his long neck. He honked.

The monster frowned and watched the two of them. Then it took a scary black thing in its wingtips. It held the black thing before its eyes. Priscilla shivered. 

Seamus honked again, twice, and took a step forward. The monster slouched away. 

The next day, Priscilla weakened. She could not get up to drag her broken wing over the ground. Seamus brought weeds from under the pond. He laid them on the ground near her beak and made a hopeful noise. Eat.

She did not feel like eating, but she tried. 

More monsters showed up. A gaggle of monsters came into the field from all sides. Priscilla and Seamus were alone in the field. They knew who the monsters were after.

Priscilla struggled to her feet and stumbled toward the water. It was her only way to flee the monsters, since she could not fly. Seamus stretched out his neck, bobbed his head up and down. He ran back and forth from one monster to another, honking, hissing, beating his wings. But the monsters kept coming on.

Priscilla collapsed. A monster threw something large over Seamus. A moment later, Priscilla’s world went dark. 

She felt herself lifted, then dropped into a small, dark space. She tried to move, but walls enclosed her. She was bumped. She heard a strange sound and felt more bumping. 

She heard a gander’s honk. She knew it came from Seamus. He did not sound happy, but it made her happy just to hear his voice. 

After more bumps and swaying, light chased the dark away. Priscilla blinked and saw a monster in front of her. She honked in terror. She had never been so near one of them. 

It squeezed Priscilla with its wings. Pain shot through her injured wing. The monster lifted her out of the small, dark space into a bigger place. Roomier—but it was still a monster place under a monstrous sky—a sky of white, full of small black dots. Parts of this monster sky held strong lights, like little suns but not so bright.

Two monsters stood her up between them on hard, shiny ground. The monsters bellowed at each other. Priscilla quaked.

One monster reached out its wingtip to torment Priscilla’s broken wing while the other one held her still, throttling her neck just below her white chinstrap. She saw that the tips of their wings forked into many branches that could move together or apart to hold things. The monster holding her bad wing wiggled it, moved it this way and that. The pain was intense, but it went away when Priscilla fainted.

When she awoke, she was tied up. But the monsters had made a poor job of it. She found she could stand and move around. Her bonds only trapped the one bad wing. Priscilla smiled to herself. The monsters’ cruelty had actually made her feel better, because the bound wing now clung to her body and did not drag on the ground.

They picked her up and carried her to another place that had a different kind of monster sky. They put her down on a bed of soft straw. But Priscilla paid scant attention to that, because Seamus was there.

The two geese came together neck to neck. Seamus wiggled for joy, and Priscilla did too. The monsters left to do their dark deeds. By evil magic, the light left at the same moment the monsters left. 

Priscilla did not care. She did not need light. She snuggled up by Seamus and went to sleep. 

The light came again, bringing the monsters with it. Priscilla and Seamus honked at them. The monsters bellowed back at them, but Priscilla thought that in this case they bellowed just for show. By honking, Seamus and Priscilla had shamed the monsters into bringing food. They left corn and wheat on the ground, then went away again. 

Priscilla and Seamus ate. They had earned this meal by standing up to the monsters. 

Priscilla heard a splash. Turning her head, she saw Seamus swimming. Even though this prison field was not very big, it had a small pond. Seamus and Priscilla ducked their heads under the water but found no delicious weeds. Of course. The monsters had made this pond as a place of torment. But the chance to swim pleased Priscilla.

One day followed another. Sometimes the monsters took Seamus and Priscilla to a different field, a big one with fresh air, sunshine, and a normal sky of blue. But the air was cold, and there was snow on the ground. When the monsters chased them back into the smaller monster field, Priscilla grieved the loss of open air, but at least she felt warmer.

The days piled on each other. The monsters sometimes untied Priscilla’s bad wing, but then after they looked at it they tied it up again. After many times, they seemed to give up on the idea of binding her wing at all. Priscilla stretched both wings for the first time in ages.

But now, just when Priscilla had regained the use of both wings, the monsters no longer took the pair of geese to the place with the open blue sky. They kept them under one of their monster skies all the time. 

Priscilla began to lose hope that she would ever see the blue sky again. She would never fly through that sky in a squadron of geese, never reach home, never raise a new batch of downy goslings. Why even try to eat the grain the monsters brought?

Seamus waddled around their little field, looking up at the strange, bumpy sky in this monster place as if he hoped to see a V of homeward-bound geese. But this bumpy sky could not hold such a thing.

One day, when the monsters came, Priscilla’s feathers stiffened in alarm. Something was amiss.  

The monsters chased Priscilla and Seamus around their small field, drove them into a corner, and grabbed them with their hideous unfeathered wings. They stuffed the geese into small places, like before—separate small places for Priscilla and Seamus. 

But these places did not seem so dark as before. Priscilla could see out in front. She stuck her beak out, but something stopped it. Something thin and cold, with square spaces between. Still, she could see. Maybe she could see a way to escape.

The monsters lifted the geese in their small places and put them down on something. Then came strange noises and a lot of bumping. Then they were lifted back down. 

Priscilla peered out and knew where she was. 

It was the pond with the field beside it and the fox’s woods. The place where the monsters had seized them so long ago. Blue sky above the pond. Warm air filled with sunshine. And all over the field—geese.

Priscilla must act. At last, a chance to escape the monsters. She flapped her wings and honked like mad. Seamus, from his small place, did the same. 

Their raucous protest must have confused the monsters, because the thin, cold grid in front of her swung outward, and then nothing blocked her from the sky.

Priscilla burst out, all fury. The monsters bellowed, but she flew right past them.

Seamus broke out too. 

They flew away from the monsters and landed among a hundred geese who waddled around the field. They looked for friends, listened for voices they knew. 

But they saw none, heard none. They did not know this squadron. 

Strange ganders approached, necks coiled, heads low, and hissed at them.

Then Seamus raised his head and swiveled it around. Priscilla scanned the sky. She heard a far-away honking, one which included their friends’ voices. She heard a clear call from Schuyler.

Their own squadron came and circled the pond. Priscilla leapt upward and climbed the air toward the squadron, honking in joy. Seamus flew just behind her. 

Schuyler! called Seamus.

Schuyler honked a return greeting. 

Their friends opened a space on one side of the V. Seamus and Priscilla claimed it. With the field and pond occupied by another squadron, Schuyler gave the command to fly on to the next rest area. Priscilla followed right behind him. 

Priscilla’s heart raced as she rose with her friends to cruising altitude. All foxes, owls and monsters defeated, she was back where she belonged, headed with Seamus for their northern home and a new brood of fuzzy goslings.

#

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A Story

Read Time: 10 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

My Own Special Touch

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

SHE SQUANDERED HERSELF IN PROTEST and fell to the ground, undone.

“Damn!” Roger set the inner cover, sticky side up, on the grass. He flicked her sting from his wrist with his steel hive tool. You’ve got to scrape them out quick. One time his whole hand had swollen hard and red like a red lobster claw for half a week, from a sting left too long. 

He felt bad for this little darling, who had been squeezed as he laid the cover on the top box, whose alarmed response had spelled her doom. Workers are sacrificial creatures, not built to survive long. Any sting is a suicide mission. 

“Damned bees,” Roger grumbled. “Don’t know why I put up with them.”

Wellthere’s one reason, staring me in the face. Melvina Foster stood by her clothesline, there across the fence, sour as a crabapple. She grimaced as if in pain. A bit of a wasp herself.

He gave back her stare, then turned away sublimely indifferent, picked up the inner cover, and placed it back on hive number six. 

He was dead sure that Melvina had authored the anti-bee ordinance proposed last week in the town council. “Bitter, vindictive old bitch,” he muttered under his breath.

“You! Roger!” An eldritch screech. Did the old bat have super-hearing, too?

He approached the fence with all the swagger he could muster, which he had to admit was considerable. His smooth, untroubled stride pleased him no end. 

She pointed at a lump of wood in his yard. “I see you steer a wide berth around that old stump. I should think you’d have sense enough to remove it.”

“Tain’t a stump, it’s a log. I’ll move it when I’m good and ready. Was there something else you wanted, Miz Foster?” 

She stood sideways, laundry basket under one arm. She shifted to stand a bit taller, winced as she did so. Maybe she was in actual pain.

He pursed his lips. “You all right, Melvina?”

“I was just wondering how many more of those death traps you plan to install.” 

“You mean my apiary?” He scrunched up his face and scratched his chin. “Well, let’s see, I’ve got plenty of fresh cedar boards for new boxes. I do enjoy the woodworking. Keeps me out of mischief all winter, you know? Who knows how many new honey factories I’ll be ready to deploy next spring.”

Her mouth set in a firm line. “You’re baiting me, Roger Fjelstad. I won’t rise to the bait. But consider yourself warned. Some day your bees will attack a small child or somebody with an allergy and put them in the hospital. Or worse.” She clucked with concern for her purely imaginary sting victim. “How will you feel then, Mister Honeycomb?”

“These are the gentlest little Italian honey bees in the world, Ma’am. Don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”  

“That’s what you always say.”

“Because it’s always true. Listen, Melvina Foster, you’ve got no idea what honeybees are about, how they work, or how to coexist with them. Why don’t you come over some time? I’ll introduce you.”

#

He spotted her as soon as she turned the corner. Since the fence between their backyards had neither gate nor stile, she had to scuttle around the block. Roger couldn’t help but notice she looked more off-kilter than usual.

When she turned up his front walk, he rattled his newspaper. “And how are you today, Melvina?” He leaned back in his wicker chair and looked down his nose at her.

“I’m calling your bluff,” said Melvina Foster. “I’ve come to meet your bees. Bet you thought I wouldn’t.”

He laid down his paper. “Ain’t you scared you’ll get mobbed to death by a swarm of African killer bees?” 

She threw him a spiteful look. “You said yours were from Italy.” 

He sighed and stood. “Benvenuto alla nostra domee-chee-lay.” He spread an arm in welcome.

Limping through the house en route to the backyard, Melvina said, “This looks just like it did when Doris was still with us.” 

Roger stopped and stared at her. “Yeah?”

“I mean, you haven’t changed one thing.”

“Maybe I like the way she had it.”

“Except you’ve let it go to seed.”

 “There, you see? I have changed things. Added my own special touch.” He gave her a grin that he hoped was savage.

#

In the backyard, she wouldn’t go near the hives.

“Come on, what’s to be afraid of?” Roger asked, standing smack dab in the flight path of a hundred foragers. “They’re just bees.”

“I can see them fine from over here.”

He lifted a hive lid, removed the inner cover, pulled a frame partway out.

She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Don’t you have one of those veils? Don’t I see you over here sometimes in a regular beekeeper’s outfit?”

“Veils are for sissies.” 

She made a wry face.

He pinched a fat drone between thumb and forefinger. “Yes, I do have protective gear. I admit I’m a sissy sometimes. Mainly when I do something invasive, like collecting honey or giving mite treatments. The girls can get a little tetchy.” He carried the drone over to where Melvina stood.

As he came near, she poised for flight, like a sprinter on the starting blocks.

“Relax, he can’t hurt you. No stinger. This one’s a drone.” He opened his hand to let the bee crawl around on his palm. “Go ahead, you can pet him. See how fuzzy he is?”

Eyes open in wonder, she leaned over his hand, within a foot of the confused drone. 

“You might spare him some sympathy. He’s an orphan.”

Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “An orphan? You’re pulling my leg.”

“I would never pull your leg, Melvina.” Heaven forfend. “All drones are fatherless. They grow from unfertilized eggs.”

“Is that a fact.” 

He flicked his hand and the drone flew off toward the hive.

She looked uncertain. “I guess I could stand closer. If you’re sure I won’t get stung.”

He gave her a frankly evaluative stare. “There are no guarantees in life, Melvina.” He led her back toward the hives. 

Halfway there, she stopped and looked down. “Just a rotten log, didn’t you say?”

She gave it a sharp kick. Dozens of insects flew out from underneath.

“Ow! Help! Oh, help!”

“Run, Melvina!” He sprinted away from her but still felt a couple of nasty stings. “Come on, quick!” 

Waving her hands in panic, she flung herself crabwise into the screened back porch as he held the door open for her. 

Roger slammed the door shut behind her. He swept his hands around her face and shoulders as she swatted at her bare legs. He grabbed a magazine, rolled it up, and chased down a couple of mad aggressors. 

“Sit down,” he said. “How many times you get stung?”

“Hundreds!” She lowered herself onto a battered hassock.

He frowned. “No. Not hundreds. Breathe slowly. Can you do that?” Pink blotches had blossomed in several places on her face and neck. 

He kept an epi-pen in case one of his bees should ever sting someone with a real allergy. He wondered if he should get it now. 

She took a deep breath, in and out. “It hurts, you . . . degenerate!” 

“Nobody said it didn’t. Couple of ’em got me, too—I just run faster than you. Listen, can you breathe okay?”

“Of course I can breathe.” 

“I mean, your airway isn’t closing up, is it?”

She opened her eyes wide. “Airway? Am I in danger?”

“That’s what I’m asking. Do I need to get the epi-pen?”

She concentrated on her breath. “No. I just hurt all over. My heart is fluttering a bit.”

“You maybe took thirty or forty stings. Once they start in on you, all you can do is run. Each one of those little bastards can sting you over and over again.” 

“Well, you and your damned bees owe me a big apology.”

He bridled. “That’s defamation. Wasn’t my bees. Them were yellowjackets that stung you. Not bees. That’s why there’s no stingers to remove from your hide.”

“Yellowjackets?”

“German wasps. Ground dwellers. They’ll attack anything, anywhere, any time. You uncovered their nest. Now you see why I haven’t moved that log.” 

She bolted up from her hassock. “I see that you’re a menace, is what I see! Bees, wasps, whatever, they’re a danger to the neighborhood. We’ll put a stop to it. Good day, Mister Mayhem.” 

She marched out of the house, down the street, around the corner.

#

From his front porch he watched her go. She steamed down the sidewalk straight up-and-down, nothing off-kilter now. Propelled by righteous indignation.

His bees were threatened, through no fault of their own, by a vindictive bill on the council’s agenda for next week. It was sponsored by Matt Grosswisch, one of the five council members. But Matt never had an original thought in his life. Melvina had put him up to it.

She had not always been this way. Roger remembered when Melvina had been a vivacious, even daring, young woman. Sociable, too. It was her husband, Jack, who had been the town’s chief pain-in-the-ass in those days. Self-important, officious,  hidebound, and narrow-minded—he had it all. 

When Jack died of a heart attack at age 50, Melvina seemed to have been passed the torch of self-righteousness. She lost her amiable qualities, traded them in for the responsibility of making others’ lives miserable at every turn.

He sighed and went inside. 

As he stood in the center of the living room, looking all about him, he had to admit that Melvina was right. He had let it become shabby. It would not have gone downhill like this when Doris was here. She, and she alone, had made this a home to live in. 

Oh, God, how he missed her.

Well, at least he had his little Italian darlings. Until next week.

#

Roger stood on Melvina’s front stoop. He rang the bell. Having heard no sound of a chime inside the house—and his hearing was extraordinarily good for a man his age—he banged on the screen door. He knocked again, scuffing his knuckles in the attempt. He began to fear that she had come home, gone inside, suffered a delayed allergic reaction, and died. Maybe I should have brought the epi-pen.

The door swung open. There stood Melvina. Frowning, as best she could with her nose and lips distorted and swollen. 

He presented a pink bottle with a flourish and burst into song: “You’re gonna need an ocean . . . dum, da-dum, da-dum . . . of calamine lotion—”

“Have you gone crazy?” She bunched up a fist and shook it in his face, but he did not flinch.

“Take it, Melvina. Right now it only hurts, but in a day or two those stings’ll itch like crazy. You’ll need this. Plus all the Benadryl you can tolerate.”

She uncurled her fist and took the bottle. 

With his other hand, Roger presented his second gift—a heavy jar of golden liquid. “Here. This comes from the bees. They want you to know there are no hard feelings.” 

She snorted. “That’s big of them. Seems to me I’m the one who should harbor a grudge.” 

“God dammit, woman! Are you going to go around that way all your life?”

Her mouth fell. “All what way?” 

“Chip on your shoulder.” He stood, holding the jar of honey, in what amounted to a posture of pure supplication.

She let out a sigh. “Well. To tell you the truth. It seems I may owe your bees a little gratitude after all.”

He resisted the urge to ask.

She looked almost shy, like a school girl. “Ever since, I would swear, almost since the moment of the attack, my knees have been free of pain. First time in years. I’m at a loss to understand it.”

“Funny you should say that, Melvina. Exact same thing happened to my knees when those yellowjackets stung me last month. Instant pain relief. And long-lasting.”

She smiled, nodded. “That’s good to know.”

“It’s such a benefit,” Roger said, “I’m ashamed to admit it was those damned yellowjackets done it, not my bees.”

“Whatever,” she said. Her hand closed over his offering of honey.

Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #5

Today we resume our series, “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”

Step Five: Submit

Previously, we urged you to embrace your role as literary lion, to write something, to seek honest feedback from readers that you can use to improve your text, and to form supportive friendships with fellow writers and others in the literary community.

A lonely pen. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

But sooner or later, you will wish to submit your work for publication. 

So here, in Step Five, we offer tips on getting your work accepted and published. Of course, you may choose to publish it yourself, as Walt Whitman and others have done. However, we shall leave self-publication for others to address. 

Here we will focus on traditional publication, a process in which you need somebody—most likely a stranger, and often more than one stranger—to say yes. 

FUNDAMENTALS

Fiction and nonfiction take somewhat different paths to publication, but in all cases there are certain overarching principles you should observe.

  • Submit only your best work, in its most polished form.
  • Research the publication, publishing house, or agent to make sure you are submitting an appropriate piece.
  • Address the editor, publisher, or agent by name, not “Dear Editor.”
  • Find the applicable submission guidelines and follow them. Every periodical, book publisher, and literary agency posts submission guidelines on its website.
  • Communicate cordially, courteously, and professionally. Never whine.

Now let’s look at the submission processes for fiction and nonfiction.

FICTION

Fiction is usually written before it is sold. You have an idea and you develop it into a manuscript that says what you want it to say. Then, with completed work in hand, you begin to shop around for a publisher. 

Short Stories

If you have written a short story or a short-short story (“flash fiction”), the process is simple. You seek out magazines or literary journals that publish fiction, or contests that award prizes for short stories, and you submit.

Pay close attention to submission guidelines. Usually they’ll want the complete manuscript with a cover letter stating something about yourself. Most contests, and some publications, charge a small reading fee, but plenty of others do not.

Some journals and magazines pay money for short fiction, but many highly respected literary journals pay nothing. You write for the prestige of publication in their pages. But that feather in your cap may pay big dividends later.

Novels

With a whole book—a novel or novella—the process is more complex. You will pitch to a publisher, usually to an acquisitions editor at a publishing house; or you will pitch to a literary agent who might agree to represent your work to publishers. 

“Why do I need an agent if I can submit directly to publishers?” 

Almost all books accepted by the Big Five publishers and their many subordinate imprints come to them through established literary agents. The only practical way to sell your book to Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, or Macmillan is through an agent. That’s why you need an agent.

But here’s the Catch-22 of the publishing industry: It’s difficult for an unpublished author to get an agent. 

Not that you shouldn’t try. 

But while you are pitching agents, you can also pitch directly to many smaller publishers—independents, regional publishers, and specialty publishers. These presses are just as real and legitimate as the Big Five. They are more numerous, and they may be more responsive. Many books, perhaps yours, naturally “belong” with a smaller publisher.

Note: Make sure you know whether you are dealing with a traditional publisher, who will own the publication rights and pay you a small royalty on each book sold, or with a fee-based publisher who charges you money up front to publish your book. Either arrangement is okay, but a publisher who tries to take money at both ends may not be your best partner.

Whether you pitch your book to an agent or directly to a publisher, follow the submission guidelines. You will need three well-honed documents:

  • A one-page query letter, briefly and powerfully characterizing the contents of your book and telling a bit about yourself as author.
  • A synopsis of your book’s plot, about one page single-spaced—no more than about four hundred words.
  • The first part of your manuscript. Most publishers or agents will want to see the first ten pages; or they will ask for the first chapter or the first two chapters.

Some agents and publishers want to see only the query letter. On that basis alone, they will decide whether or not to ask for more. So make sure your query letter is great.

Some want you to send the synopsis along with the query letter. Some want the query letter, the synopsis, and the first ten pages. Send what they ask for—no more, no less.

Do not throw these documents together casually or on the spur of the moment. Put as much work into their composition as you gave to the manuscript itself.

It will seem unfair that, having spent a year or more writing an 80,000-word book, you must now encapsulate the same story in a synopsis of 400 words! But remember, Dear Reader, life is not always fair. And a great 400-word synopsis may get an agent or editor to read your 80,000-word book. So get to it.

Since agents and editors may take their first impression of your work from its first ten pages, you might think it’s a good idea to go back and revise the first ten pages one more time, to make them as compelling as possible. If that’s what you think, you would be correct. Make it so.

Oh! And then, by the way, go back one more time and make the rest of the book as good as the first ten pages.

Remember, we said these steps to literary stardom were simple. We never promised they would be easy.

NONFICTION

What if you write nonfiction? 

If your nonfiction is of the special kind known as personal memoirs, the submission path for most agents and publishers will resemble that of fiction. 

All other types of nonfiction follow a different path.

The model for nonfiction is: Pitch the work first, get a deal—or at least an understanding—and then write it. 

Articles

If you’re thinking about a short piece like a magazine article, send the editor of the magazine a brief query letter—usually by email—describing the content of the article you hope to write, pointing out its timeliness and likely appeal to readers, and stating your qualifications as its author. 

Give the editor a fair amount of time to respond—at least a couple of weeks—before following up with a cordial note reminding her or him of your original query.

If the editor says no, say “Thank you” and move on.

If you get a positive response, it will come in one of two forms. You may receive a definite assignment, which is an offer to buy the article, provided you write and submit it by a given deadline. The editor will specify a “kill fee” to be paid if you deliver the piece as promised but for some reason it is not published.

Formal assignments usually go to established writers. The next best thing is a general statement of interest, such as, “Yes, we’d like to see it.” Such a statement does not guarantee your piece will be bought and published, but it means the editor would like to publish a piece like the one you have proposed, if it’s well done.

If an editor says, “Yes, we’d like to see it,” your best move is to get back to the editor right away to seek further guidance. Is he or she looking for any particular angle? What is the preferred length? Is there any sensitive area where you should tread lightly? When the editor answers even one or two intelligent questions of this nature, you now have a blueprint for the piece. Write the article as specified in that conversation, and how can the editor say no?

Books

What if you want to write a whole nonfiction book?

The same approach applies. You pitch the general idea and get a commitment before you write the work. 

Instead of a magazine editor, you will pitch to a book publisher or a literary agent.

And instead of a simple query letter, you will submit a book proposal—a multi-page document outlining the book’s scope, organization, potential audience, and marketing possibilities. The publisher or agent may give you a very specific format for submitting this information. If not, there are good books and articles readily available on how to prepare a book proposal.

A successful proposal will result in a publishing contract. You will then need to write the book and turn in the manuscript by a date certain. Contract provisions will cover what happens in the event of non-performance by you or the publisher or in the event of creative differences with respect to your execution of the work.

Caveat

“Can I submit the same material to multiple publishers or agents at the same time?”

Yes, or no. 

Pay close attention to what you read on the publisher’s or agent’s website, and use common sense. 

Agents receive thousands of queries. Even the most conscientious agents are sorely tasked to respond to all of these queries. Many say, right on their website, “If you do not hear from us within eight weeks, consider that a pass.” If you are an unrepresented author sending a cold query, you need not wait for an agent’s rejection before querying another agent. However, do not query two agents in the same agency at the same time.

Some journals want to have time to read your short story before you submit it elsewhere. They don’t want to invest time and effort evaluating your work, only to learn someone else has bought it. So if they promise to respond within a period you can live with, submit the piece and respect the editor’s prerogative. 

Other publications are okay with simultaneous submissions, asking only that you let them know promptly if the piece is accepted elsewhere.

Book publishers live in a world of simultaneous submissions. In fact, some agents, when in possession of a great manuscript, will try to start a bidding war between two or more publishers. If you’re querying publishers directly, you may do the same.

Keeping track of what’s okay with whom is part of your job as a writer. Let your conscience be your guide. Treat others as you would like to be treated, but remember that you and your work work have value.

A Final Thought

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, short pieces or books, the process of seeking publication is frustrating because (1) there are thousands of worthy manuscripts seeking publication and (2) the market for literary content is highly specific and differentiated. 

Robert M. Pirsig in 2005. Photo by Ian Glendinning, licensed under CC BY 2.5.

Each agent or editor has a particular list of wants and preferences, which your piece may not match. That does not mean your work is worthless. 

Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times before finding a publisher. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance scored 121 rejections. Both of these books became classics and sold millions of copies. Persist. You only need one agent or editor who lights up when reading your work.

But here’s something to think about. If it will take 300 submissions to get your work accepted, what would happen if you went back over your query letter, your synopsis, and your manuscript itself, and made them even better than they are now

Maybe you would cut that down to 100 rejections. Just sayin’. 

Submit, submit, submit.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step Six: Platform” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author