Do rejection letters change how you write?
I don’t believe that everyone can develop a “thick skin.” I never have. Rejections hurt just as much now as they did when I was a younger writer. What has changed is my awareness of, and my ability to cope with, my reaction to rejection. Now I can allow myself to feel bad, mope a bit, and then, hopefully, move on. Because so many rejections are written in a way that doesn’t provide what we call “constructive criticism.” I’ve been teaching writers how to critique fiction in a helpful way for over a decade through The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and so I can look at a rejection that doesn’t feel helpful and put it aside as simply a “pass.”
I remind my students, often, that only they know what’s best for their story or novel, and not to take the critique of their work too seriously. Of course, you often find one or two readers in a writing workshop that “get” your work, and that is an incredible gift. But it is okay to put aside a critique or rejection and move on without taking it seriously enough to “change” your work. It is the writing that matters—the moving forward and finishing that story, collection or novel. And it is up to you, the author, to find a way to motivate yourself to keep writing. For example, when my recently published novel, Cutting Teeth, went out to editors, I told my agent I didn’t want to read the passes (aka rejections). I was finished with the manuscript and I’d revised it many times. I was already very nervous about the process and the waiting for someone to make an offer, and so I knew not reading the passes from editors was the healthiest choice for me. So, please, I urge you, do your best not to let rejection letters change your writing.
Once you get an agent, how do you know the agent is aggressively attempting to place the work with a publisher?
This is a great question! Because the answer is you don’t really have much of a role in that part of the process, which feels very strange since it has been you, all alone, maybe even for years, who has had the sole relationship with the work. Once you move closer to the possibility of publication, you have less control over the process, and, in some ways, the result. Because so many of my friends, Iowa MFA classmates, Sackett Street students, etc., have been published, I knew to expect this, and that helped a lot. Writing is a very private act. Publishing is a public act.
My agent, like many agents, did give me a list of the editors she was submitting Cutting Teeth to for consideration. She told me when she received passes, and when there was a strong maybe, which means an editor likes the book enough to “pitch” to their publisher. But it was a stressful time spent waiting for news from my agent, and days, weeks even, went by when there was no news. Writers, me included, are control freaks—we have to be in order to convince ourselves that we can shape an imaginary world with imaginary characters—so the lack of control we have during the publishing process can feel torturous, but it is inescapable.
What can you share about the author-agent-editor relationship so far in terms of things you did not expect or anticipate?
My biggest surprise (and relief) was how accepting my agent and editor were of my complex, and often “unlikable” women characters. They really believed in the book, but they also believed in the characters. I know how lucky I am in having found two women who were willing to publish these somewhat risky characters, because many of my colleagues’ editors suggest radical changes for their books. I was so grateful to be published that I was willing to make any changes my editor suggested, but all of her changes were in line with the book’s initial story. In fact, my editor’s suggestions brought out even more of the edgy and honest depiction of thirty-something women searching for their identity in their new life as mothers.
How important was the Sackett Street Workshop in terms of your securing publication (connecting with other writers, being in the public eye, etc)?
How did you manage to be profiled or be published in such excellent journals? How proactive were you about pitching yourself or networking? What was useful to you in this process?
Sackett Street is my “platform”—or at least that’s what I learned the closer I got to publication. And I’m not even certain what a “platform” means! But the fact that I had this large community of writers and readers already supporting me was a major factor in my book being published. My social media presence and the followers (I think of them as friends) helped convince publishers that Cutting Teeth was worth the investment. It is incredibly difficult for publishers to sell books, and so if a writer has a following of readers who will, hopefully, purchase their book, it makes them more attractive to publishers. Of course, I didn’t think of Sackett Street as a platform of any kind before my book went out to editors. Sackett Street is my family, my community, and I have my students to thank for renewing my confidence in writing, in myself, after that first big rejection of my novel back in 2002. It was the Sackett writers who reminded me that we write to write. That we have to learn to write before we can write a great book, that every writer’s development moves at a different pace, and that anything is possible if you write the story you need to tell.
I hadn’t published in any journals, because I had been a novelist for so many years, and it is challenging to find a home for excerpts in journals. And because I took many years off from writing to recover from rejection, to raise my children, and to work very hard on building Sackett Street. Before Cutting Teeth sold, all of the profiles of my work had been linked to Sackett Street, and I probably do feel most comfortable talking about the craft of fiction writing than talking about myself.
But, yes, I see now that I was technically “networking” all those years I was building Sackett Street, but it was more “community-building.” I was connecting with 1000s of writers because teaching craft is what I love and need to do. The added bonus was that, when I was ready to sell a novel, I had an incredible amount of connections, and because of the “community-building” we’d together for so many years in the literary world, they were so happy to help me.
Once you found an agent for your novel, how much revision did the agent help you to complete, if any? How much revision was then required by your editor?
There are all kinds of agents, and I think it is very important for a writer preparing to send out work to agents to consider this. Does he/she feel that they need an agent who is a strong and active editor, and who will, most likely, insist on several revisions before sending the book out to editors? Will he/she be comfortable with an agent who insists on major changes to the manuscript? When my first novel went out shortly after I finished my MFA (this was over ten years ago, and I am actually relieved the novel did not get published), I needed an editor who was going to do a lot of revision work with me. In retrospect, I feel like that novel needed at least another year of revisions and that it had no business going out to editors. When I finished Cutting Teeth, when I revised it many times before querying agents, I had ten years of non-stop workshop teaching under my belt, as well as many years of editing manuscripts for published writers, so I was a stronger writer and editor of my own work. This meant that it was okay to sign with an agent who wasn’t going to insist on as much revision as another agent. And, who knows, maybe the book really was ready to go out because I had worked so incredibly hard on so many revisions.
My editor had some macro changes—scenes that were missing, particularly sex scenes, and it was quite a revelation for me to see that I had, in fact, avoided writing sex scenes that were organic to the plot and storyline. I learned a lot from that. My editor asked for two revisions, but I was revising the draft again and again as I waited for her notes. I wasn’t going to let a sloppy book out into the world! It amazes me that writers awaiting publication don’t continue to revise as they are waiting for their editor’s notes, and I think the best piece of advice I can give any writer, in any stage of development, is this: Rely only on yourself. Write as if you’ll never have another person to help you edit. If you are lucky, you will, but being able to see the potential in your work, your craft strengths and weaknesses, and, most importantly, learning to be your best editor means you’ll never be alone.
Thank you to Julia for taking the time to answer these questions!