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Breaking Into Publishing

Author: P.J. Rondinone
Date:   01-14-02

I sold my collected short stories, The Digital Hood, to St. Martin's Press/Picador. So... how did I break into publishing? This goes back to 1975 when I wrote and saw my first story printed in The Observation Post, the City College of New York's student newspaper. The story, Huk-A-Poo, was a surreal mess, trying hard to be clever. Still, having this distributed on newsstands all over the 20-block college campus in Harlem was an incredible high. I'd sit in the school cafeteria and watch people actually read my words. I'd watch their faces and mouths. If they raised eyebrows, or a real treat, if someone laughed out loud at what I had written -- a few did -- boy, was I thrilled. That is the first step to breaking into publishing: It's the hunger to make an impact in a small moment of someone's day.

This is why I believe it is important to get yourself printed anywhere and everywhere you can. There should be no place too small because any place that gives you readers is never too insignificant. I have colleagues who are serious academics, scholars with a capital S, and they wince and cringe at some of the small places I've allowed to print my work. But I say, that's how you become an author: Get printed in your community newsletter, PTA newspaper, or your company bulletin.

After all, if you have readers, their feedback and reactions will help you develop your craft. When I wrote for my community newspaper sometimes a neighbor would stop me in the hall and comment. One woman in my building once said that my characters spoke in ways she didn't believe. (Maybe she was right. I'd look into it, and think about it.)

But don't just publish creative work. The best advice I got was from my mentor at CCNY, Donald Barthelme. One day at a writing conference (he was going over my story to work out a grade, and I was feeling much like the tutee at the elbow of the master) I asked him, successful as he was, canonized: How can I be like you? He answered my question with a question: How many words do you think I put into print before I sold my first short story? I had no idea.

Thousands, tens of thousands... many. He'd been a reporter for a Texas newspaper long before he was known for his fiction. His message: Get words of any kind into print. That practice, he felt, that daily pressure to craft words, pays off. It's a cliché by now, but whether one writes business or technology pieces, the deadlines you face (the more your rent depends on your output), the more you'll write your creative work without facing the dreaded writer's block. You'll have a habit of deadlines. (Also, if you do write your creative work for a community center, let's say, they will give you a deadline.)

So, I moved into journalism, learning news and magazine writing. By the time I was a senior at CCNY (1977), I was a New York Times stringer -- all this to say I was still on my journey to break into publishing, which for me meant my fiction in a book with a good publisher. Only suddenly it was 10 years later, 1987, and I was writing for OMNI magazine, burning out on the same formulaic leads and subject matter. It was time I woke up. Time to quit journalism and do my real work... but the nagging question (now I had a wife): how do I pay the rent?

A former CCNY professor/friend Richard Goldstone had long been trying to convince me to go into teaching. I was long against it, seeing it as something a non-writer, a drone, did... In those days, journalist friends said, happily, "Those who can do, and those who can't... teach." Goldstone made me see what was before my nose anyway. Who was my teacher? Barthelme. Goldstone, a Thornton Wilder biographer, also reminded me that Wilder wrote his American theater classic, Our Town, while he was a teacher at a boys' prep school. So I began teaching part-time, and I lived in a Greenwich Village studio, practically a closet space, on little money.

I finally wrote my first novel, Benny My Man. It was told from a 13-year-old' s point of view and so it qualified as a young adult book. The story focused on my years in 1968 in the South Bronx, on how a friend, Benny, who was black, became my enemy, and I his, during the civil rights riots which swept the country. Benny's family, it turned out, joined the Nation of Islam, during the early period when Malcolm X's rhetoric claimed whites were devils. The day he called me a devil was the day on which my novel focused.

Anyway, this is where all those words in print pays off (including the stuff from the neighborhood newspaper). You can show an agent that you're not just a one-book writer, but that you are a writer... Agents, I see, want clients whom they hope will create successive projects. (I've done college basic-writing textbooks.) And there's question that always haunted me, too: How do you get an agent? Notice, I didn't say where do you find one. That is easy to know, but the trick is (as you may know): it's better if you can press some flesh.

I'm a firm believer and a product of the café system. (David Mamet wrote a book Writing in Cafés.) This means all those great new places nationwide in Borders and Barnes & Noble. Many writers I know like to be seen writing in cafés, including myself. And I see them, which is what I did. In my Village neighborhood, I hung out in a place called Lancianni. There I began to meet scribblers like me and one fellow, who had published a string of books, fantasy/horror/westerns, etc., introduced me to his agent who came to the café to meet him.

There it was. I told her about my book, and she looked and she liked it, and took it. For three years, she passed it around publishing houses, great and small. And even though she didn't sell it, the fact that she believed in me, when no one else did, filled my sails. She also did something equally important: After the rejections, she had me call back the editors and ask for their reader's reports. Most didn't want to share it, but some did. My agent wanted me to find out why my work was rejected:

One publisher said because my book was about blacks the whites wouldn't buy it; and the blacks won't buy it because it's about blacks, like Benny, who come off looking racist.

Another publisher said my book read too much like a memoir (which was true) and if I were a famous actor they'd be happy to take it. But who'd care what happened to Peter Rondinone?

Keep in mind, this was back in 1987.

But the best response came from an editor who said, if Rondinone would rewrite this 1968 South Bronx story as a story of 1988 she'd give it another look. It would be current and marketable. And that, my dear readers, was the most profound advice -- which I ignored! I was still young enough, and arrogant enough, to think: Me, mess with my vision? No way. I thought I was being pure....

But flash forward to 1996, nearly 10 years since my agent failed to sell my first novel. Now I had the rent plus a kid to feed... I started to rethink that advice from years ago. I noticed how Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) and Jay McInnery (Bright Lights, Big City) were snapped up because they were writing about what was happening in the 1980's. Dummy, jerk, idiot!

Turn my 1960's and 1970's stories from the South Bronx (which I was already writing) into 1990's stories. Like, duh. Gangstas and the rappers were doing (and singing about) things not much different than what I did (and my boys did) when I roamed the streets with my box cutter, baseball bats, drug deals, and blood-letting. Even learning the new street language wasn't hard for me.

I teach in a community college and I have many students from the hood. They teach me the words I need. I practice with them. We laugh a lot. "Now Mr. R," one student teased me "It's not baby's mutha, say baby's muvvah. Hear the difference?" I make friends with my students who are on second-step jail programs -- like Time Bomb, which was his name in prison. He and I rapped street in my office. I taught him my old gang words, like Daddy Lo Lo.

The rest is history: In 1996 I gave my agent my rewritten gang stories, set in the 1990's: The Digital Hood, 15 stories, almost all printed in literary magazines like African Voices. She liked them, sent them out, and in two weeks St. Martin's/Picador USA made an offer we just couldn't refuse. Twenty-five years after I wrote Huk-A-Poo at City College, I had gotten my break, a new writer at forty-three years old.

So keep in mind: It worked for me -- make your stories new, what's happening, fresh, as they say in the Bronx, 1990's. Maybe that can work.

P.J. Rondinone has recently published his first fiction with Picador USA. The book, The Digital Hood, is a collection of short stories about gangsters and rappers in the South Bronx and Los Angeles. Besides favorable reviews, the stories have been selected as one of the books for the Barnes & Noble Great New Writers series.

He has also been a journalist for such publications as The New York Times and OMNI magazine, and a screenwriter whose dramatic work has been produced and shown on public television. He is currently Director of Journalism at LaGuardia CommunityCollege, CUNY. More examples of his work can be found at http://www.peterrondinone.com.

Copyright 2001 P.J. Rondinone. All rights reserved.

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