It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog. I was off finishing a big revision on my middle grade novel (that’s a book with an audience aged 9-12). This is my second novel I’m hustling to get published, but it’s the seventy-fifth I’ve written (just kidding, it’s the ninth, but with all the false novel starts I’ve had over the years, it feels like I can claim a higher count).
I’ve dreamt of being a published author since before kindergarten (At age 5, my biggest ambition was to be the next Ann M. Martin. Or if not that, to run a babysitting club that occasionally solved mysteries involving secret passages. These are still my biggest ambitions). But as I grew up, talking about the author dream was like saying I wanted to move to Hollywood to be an actress—it was met with a lot of warnings that to go down that road would mean rejection and unemployment until I finally, tail between my legs, retreated home to find a “real” job. Instead of interpreting this as, “Okay, I should make sure I have a day job as I pursue my dream,” I took it as, “Everyone will be waiting for you to fail and it will be super embarrassing if you even try. Shut it down.'”
But then, I graduated college into the recession and couldn’t find a “practical” job. I was already living at home unemployed, so hey, the utter failure part had already hit. I wrote my first manuscript with the goal of publication in between sending out job applications, bought a few books with variations of, “How to Publish a Novel,” as titles, and found a treasure trove of “how to’s” and query package critique forums online. I proceeded to learn about the publishing industry in a trial by fire sort of way.
Here are some of the things I learned:
You will be told you must have a “tough skin.”
Practically speaking, you start the publishing fiction process by having a finished manuscript you think is “ready,” meaning it is the very best you can make it and, while you will expect some edits, you could see it being put on a shelf at B&N as is. Then, you create a submission package that includes a query letter, the first few pages, and maybe a 1-2 page synopsis. The query letter is kind of like the back cover of a book: a catchy blurb that’s meant to introduce your story, a little about you and your (perhaps nonexistent) accolades, and the basics about your novel (age group, genre, word count). You research your agents, pick some that you think will love your book, then send off the query package, close your eyes, and hope.
I sent my first query package out to about ten agents. I told myself that after reading so much about how common rejection is in this process, I knew to expect it and would be totally cool about it. After all, I’d read over and over and over again how professional aspiring authors had one quality above all: tough skin.
I did get form rejections in response to some of my query letters and I, in fact, was pretty cool about it. That was easier because one of the agents requested a partial (in this case, the first three chapters). Deep inside, something danced a dance and said, “See? I secretly knew I was amazing at writing and OMG I’m about to get published!!”
About a month later, that agent sent a rejection letter. She did not want to see more.
I cried. Deep inside, something covered its face and said, “I’m a complete fraud. I secretly knew I was terrible and an amateur and should never have even thought of being published.”
What I learned is that having a tough skin doesn’t mean you don’t feel the blow of rejection. But it does mean you open that rejection letter the next day and read the one vague critique and think about it. And you do the same with the next rejection letter that has a morsel of feedback. And you invite critiques from other writers and readers. And you take those comments and you edit and you keep trying, keep editing, and keep learning. You keep going.
Feedback is a dying tradition.
You’ll see agents and industry experts telling aspiring authors to listen to the feedback they’re hearing in their rejections and use that in their edits. When I queried my first novel in 2008-2009, while many agents could be queried by email rather than snail mail, I was still always at the post office paying a groan-worthy amount of money to send my pages to those who requested partials or fulls. And sometimes, I did send queries out with real stamps from the mailbox.
When I started querying my second novel in 2013, I noticed that most agents had moved to a fully online mode of querying and submitting partials and fulls. At first, I did a happy twirl while the post office wept at the loss of my credit card swipes.
But as rejections came through email instead of by letter, I found they were missing those morsels of feedback that had both confused and guided me through revisions of my first manuscript. Many times, no response came at all. The internet has made it easy for anyone who’s done a NaNoWriMo project to blast it off to agents for free, fast, and in bulk. Agents now have more to read and less time. I also suspect that when an agent received a box with someone’s precious pages inside, they knew that writer had invested money into that attempt to land an agent and possibly felt more obligated to explain why they were saying no. In 2008, while I definitely got form rejection letters in response to queries and sometimes even partials, the writing community was appalled when we heard someone got a form rejection on a full manuscript. This year, I got form rejections on fulls that agents requested in person. Times have a’changed.
So what to do? I am lucky enough to have an amazing beta reader who will squee when I’ve done something well but will also bluntly point out where I’ve written trash. I’ve also done some manuscript swaps, but not going to lie—it’s tough to get knowledgable feedback from the industry these days and you may feel lost about where to go if you’re getting “no”s. You may have to do a lot of searching to find a trusted, knowledgable beta reader.
You’ll get a lot of questions about whether you’ll self-publish.
Self-publishing is an awesome tool these days. If you can make it in self-publishing, you get to keep all of your profits, for one. It’s a great forum for those who want more control over their final product or want their book out on their own timeline, those who are very prolific writers (especially in the romance genre), non-fiction writers, and more.
But to make it in self-publishing is a real challenge in terms of getting readers to even find your book and it’s not a great mode of publication for everyone. I write for kids and teens, a demographic not heavily represented among those buying self-published books. For one, kids aren’t usually searching through the self-published section on Amazon with credit cards ready. Kids are often finding their books through school libraries, book fairs, or through seeing what other kids are reading at school. Their parents, who are doing the buying of books, are likely skeptical of letting their kids have the freedom of reading something that hasn’t gone through the filter of a legitimate publishing agency (don’t want something that looks like Magic School Bus to end up being more 50 Shades of Grey). Even teens, whose world is more online and are better able to judge content, just haven’t shown up as a huge consumer of self-published fiction. I have theories as to why this is the case…
(Now is when the original asker will give a disinterested, “Oh,” and start up a conversation with someone else.)
You will be asked many times about the timeline of things and you will not be able to answer.
When do you think you’ll be done with your revisions? Hm…I guess when I figure out how to make my second chapter not be garbage? 3…days? Years?
How long will it take for you to hear back about your queries? Anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 months to never. One of those for sure.
When will you start your next novel? Well, I have written down ideas for like 5 novels, so bam, check that one off the list! Oh, start for real? Well, I’ve outlined half of one and have done some free writing to explore character voice but the only scene I’ve written’s going to have to be scrapped, so…yester-morrow?
It’s not as scary as you think to call yourself a writer.
For the longest time, I refused to share with anyone that I was trying to get published. I was sure if they heard I was getting rejections, they’d take that to mean that a professional had determined I sucked. So when people asked what I did with my days (remember, unemployed and living at home), I’d be weirdly vague, as though I were actually a spy and the CIA had forgotten to give me a cover story. “I do stuff. You know, just keeping busy in general ways that people do. Anyway, tell me about your employment and how to get one of those job things I keep hearing about!”
But when I was set up on a blind date, I panicked. Because obviously a very traditional first date question is, “What do you do?” and me saying, “Absolutely nothing,” felt awful because I have one of those ambitious go-getter personalities that felt very self-conscious about my current state of affairs. I wanted to cancel the date because of it. I said to my mom, “What am I going to say? ‘I do nothing?'”
I will never forget my mom very firmly telling me, “You’ll say you’re a writer.”
I actually scoffed. But my mom called me out on it. “You’ll say you’re a writer. Say it.”
The words felt awkward and stupid. “Imwriter,” I mumbled. But my mom insisted I say it like I was proud. So I practiced. And on the date, when the question was asked, I said with fake confidence, “I’m a writer. I write children’s books and I’m trying to get published.”
And my date genuinely said, “Wow, that’s so cool. So…like Twilight or Harry Potter?”
Yes, there are the moments when you awkwardly have to explain that no, you’re not published, you’re trying to get published, and no, one can’t just get published, you have to find an agent willing to represent you and then a publishing house has to want your book, and no, you’re not really looking into self-publishing because, see, the target readership is not economically independent and wait-no-come-back!
But the biggest thing I learned about trying to get published was to be proud of the fact that I’m trying to get published. Because it’s not easy. You get knocked down. But, Chumbawamba style, if you get back up again, they’re never gonna keep you down.
And yeah, it is pretty damn cool.
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For more about finding inspiration and the grit it takes to create something from it, check out the “Inspiration and Perspiration” category to find interviews with people working hard to share their creative passions with the world.