Friday, August 17, 2018

No Straight Line

by Jean Roberta

Students in my creative writing classes sometimes ask me how to get published, as though I could give them clear, guaranteed instructions. All I can say is that aspiring writers have to keep writing and keep sending their work to people who could publish it, but probably won’t. Unless the aspiring writer chooses to plunge into self-publishing, which is also not the rainbow that leads to a pot of gold.

My own literary career, such as it is, shows chaos at work, or it shows that I’ve never found a clear path through the ever-changing publishing jungle.

At age eighteen, in my last year of high school, I submitted a short story to a student writing contest run by a major financial institution, Canada Permanent Trust. My story was about an American girl (thinly-disguised me) moving to Canada with her family, and meeting a British boy whose family is moving out. The story is really about changing influences on Canadian culture, which was a popular topic in Centennial Year (1967) and for the rest of the decade.

To my amazement, I won for the province of Saskatchewan, and was flown to Toronto, where I met the other eight provincial winners. The girl from British Columbia won the national prize, but I didn’t complain. Since the contest was clearly meant to tap into Canadian nationalism, and I had only been in the country for two years, it was generous of the judges to reward me at all.

I hoped this major award (with some media coverage) would launch my Literary Career. No such luck.

I wrote a lot of poems, and a few short stories, but didn’t know where to send them. I also made a lot of pen-and-ink drawings, some enhanced with coloured pencil. My mother told me she thought my drawings should be published somewhere, but I didn’t know how to get launched as an illustrator who had never studied visual art beyond high school.

All art, even the most imaginative, comes from somewhere in the artist’s life. However, most of what happened to me in my twenties (the 1970s) seemed unspeakable. I was raped on a university campus before there was any public discussion of universities as hotbeds of sexual abuse, and before male violence was attributed to males -- except in a few radical-fringe feminist circles which were easily discredited. I was in a brief interracial marriage and became a divorced mother.

I didn’t know how to write anything publishable about my experience.

In the 1980s, I sent a batch of poems to a local publisher, who combined them with a very different batch by a woman I had never met to form a slim volume of verse. There was a reason why two unknown poets were thrown together: the Canada Council for the Arts (roughly equivalent to the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S.) had stopped funding “chapbooks” (slim volumes by individual poets), but they would subsidize small presses that published the work of two or more writers together.

Several of my other poems appeared in small feminist journals which didn’t pay their contributors. Then, oh joy, a one-woman lesbian press accepted my collection of short stories for publication. Unfortunately, I found typos in the text.

I hoped my lesbian stories reflected the current zeitgeist, but the reviews in small queer and feminist publications were contradictory. One reviewer said she liked my stories, but she thought it was unrealistic that none of my characters showed the influence of Second Wave feminism. Another reviewer said she also found merit in my stories, but thought they were too drenched in feminist theory. She thought I should lighten up.

I was living with my young daughter in a housing co-op for low-income single parents, mostly women. The co-op consisted of four small apartment buildings, each with an elected leader who reported to an elected board. I became part of the power structure.

By then, I had a social life in the local lesbian community and a part-time job in a collectively-run alternative bookstore that carried lesbian romances from Cleis Press and post-apocalyptic fantasy novels about all-female societies.

The combination of my life and my reading-matter inspired my long fantasy story about an all-female community which is increasingly divided by cultural/ethical differences among the four quarters of the village. Vesta, my narrator (elected governor of the farmers’ quarter), is desperate to prevent a civil war which would make the women's village vulnerable to the male-dominated tribe nearby.

Vesta is secretly attracted to another member of the Governors’ Council (who runs the hunter/warrior quarter, i.e. the “leatherdykes”) who wants to heat up her sex life. Aside from the mutual attraction, Vesta can see the advantage of a political alliance.

Most of the women who elected Vesta to office are against violence on principle, even in self-defense – and they define “violence” broadly. They refuse to acknowledge the protection the hunter/warriors are providing for the whole village.

The most influential hunter/warriors think the vegetarian peaceniks are amusingly soft and helpless. Needless to say, the mothers in different quarters have vastly different standards of child-raising. The women who don’t have or want children think there are too many in the village.

Job chauvinism in the women’s village takes various forms. The construction workers and mechanics think their skills are absolutely essential, and some of them matronize the cooks and seamstresses as hobbyists, while dismissing the artists and shamans as flaky. The condescension is resented. And not everyone worships the same Goddess.

I wasn’t really making anything up. I hoped this story captured the complexity of contemporary relationships among women.

I sent this piece to the one-dyke publisher who had published my short stories. She wrote back to say that the story needed a lot of work because the narrator was "very weak." She said she would be willing to read a completely revised version.

Apparently, neither “feminist” nor “lesbian” had the same meaning for all readers, even within “lesbian-feminist” circles. I didn’t know how I could write any narrative that would feel authentic and also meet the approval of an editor.

Then I saw a call-for-submissions for lesbian erotica from Lace Publications of Colorado. I wrote and sent off three stories, and was delighted to get a written acceptance from two editors who said all three of my stories were accepted.

Then the publishing company went bust.

History repeated itself ten years later. In 1998, I was blessed with two paid months off work, and I decided to make the most of it. I spent eight-hour days at the brand-new computer that my sweetie and I had acquired, composing a lesbian novel full of sex scenes and local colour. I sandwiched in one of my first three erotic stories as a chapter in the novel.

I printed off the 56K manuscript, stuffed it into a manila envelope and mailed it to Masquerade Books in New York. This was the one erotic publisher I knew of. No answer.

After several months, I sent a follow-up email, and got a response from an editor who informed me that while there was much to admire in my novel, she had rejected it a long time before.

I re-read this message several times to find its essential meaning. An erotic editor (my third, so to speak) had found something to admire in my writing. But she had rejected my whole novel, including the story-within-the-story, without letting me know.

This seemed like a coded message from the Oracle of Delphi: portentious but hard to understand.

Then Masquerade disappeared into thin air, like Lace Publications.

I joined the Erotic Readers Association, as it was called then, and felt the warmth of an on-line community. The public site included calls-for-submissions, including one for stories about lesbians and their sex toys.

This call amazed me. I was a veteran of the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s, in which women could be exiled to Siberia for suggesting that womyn-loving womyn could enjoy any device that resembled a penis. So I wrote a story that featured a hand-carved, well-shellacked wooden dildo, artfully designed not to look like anything available in sex shops.

I mailed my story to California editor Alison Tyler, who reported in the ERA lists that since the publisher, Masquerade, was deceased, the anthology might have to be cancelled. Bummer.

To my relief, a British publisher offered to publish, and my story was accepted with almost no revisions. In due course, a paperback copy of Batteries Not Included was mailed to me. I was between the covers with famous sex-writers!

Since then, I’ve gone beyond lesbian erotica, and have had a variety of sexually-explicit stories in print anthologies as well as a novella and a few single-author collections. From time to time, I write and submit a non-erotic story in response to a call-for-submissions, and some of these have been published.

I still can’t predict which of my stories are more likely to be accepted, and which will offend or disappoint an editor or a reviewer. Realism or authenticity (from my viewpoint) seems to be no excuse.

When submitting something I’ve written, now usually by email, I’m reminded of a little rhyme I first heard in childhood:

“I shoot an arrow in the air,
And where it lands, I know not where.”



  1. What happened to your political fantasy story? I'm sure I've never read any of it, but it sounds great.

    You shouldn't be so shy or dismissive about self-publishing. There are lots of us around ERWA who would be happy to help you. At this point in your career, you shouldn't have to cater to some editor's particular prejudices.

  2. Thank you, Lisabet. I’ve dipped a toe into the water of self-publishing (or hybrid publishing) by posting several things on Excessica, including a collection of 5 related stories that were all first published in Cleis Press anthologies.

    My political fantasy story was never published, and I left it behind when I began focusing on erotica. I could dust it off and possibly turn it into a novella, which might be easier than paring it down.

    I’ve actually had a lot of luck getting pieces accepted after an initial rejection.

  3. The publishing world is certainly still in chaos. I've been published for 9 years, and some of the houses I was accepted by were sold, with various bad results. Some major houses, that I was aspiring to, despite being turned down by them, closed unexpectedly, and disappointed many who thought they had "made it" by getting accepted.

    I haven't tried self-publishing, except for a free novel on Smashwords that I hoped would encourage readers to want to read the other novels in the series. All that got me was emails asking me to send them the other books for free as well.

    But we keep on plugging along, hoping for a break. Things may never settle down. I guess chaos is the way of things.

  4. Lol, Fiona. I have a shelf in my office at the university that I labelled “Dead Publishers” in Gothic font. That’s where I keep contracts & other correspondence I can’t bear to throw away from publishers that disappeared. I never thought Haworth Press would be one of them. Other defunct publishing outlets are represented there too, such as various cool magazines and the illustrated website “Ruthie’s Club.”

  5. I had a short story in Oysters and something, and that's gone now. Ironically, though my short stories are not my first love, I've actually earned more money from them, than from my novels! Ain't life strange?

    1. Oysters and Chocolate. Did you know it’s still listed on-line? As I remember, it was supposed to be temporarily suspended, but never came back to life. I sent something there just before it shut down, so I never got an answer.

  6. I was right there with you regarding publishers closing down. Masquerade, Haworth (not so much closing as merging with another company that wanted nothing to do with fiction just after I'd got a contract for an alternate history anthology--we had a informal club for a while, "Orphans of Haworth.") And Suspect Thoughts Press, so right-minded about publishing worthy work, so mudded when it came to business. And Alison Tyler's Pretty Things Press. I might have thought I was a jinx for publishers, except that so many other writers I knew were in the same situation.


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