Note from Aimee: This is a special edition of the Not the Darling series. Why, you ask? Because I am impatient and have so many great stories I want to get to you I can’t wait one whole week to bring them to you, obviously. Also because I think it ties in well with my post yesterday about Pitch Wars and the importance of the community ❤ Community comes in so many forms from so many places, as our next author is about to tell you.
Content Warning: This post does contain mention of full requests, but they are brief and not walls of stats but are integrated into the flow of the post itself.
Maybe the Real Publishing was the Friends We Made Along the Way
By: Ceilidh Newbury (Follow Ceilidh @ceilidh_newbury on Twitter)
Full disclosure: I have not been querying for as long as a lot of you. I have not been writing for as long as a lot of you. I started in 2017. I was 21. I always feel like a fraud because of that. I didn’t like writing when I was younger. I didn’t write my first novel at 7 years old or win a bunch of short story competitions in high school. I wrote one short story while studying culture studies, got some positive feedback on it, and decided it was pretty fun.
So, at 21, I wrote the start of a self-insert contemporary novel and stopped really quickly because… it was boring. Then, I wrote (and finished!!) an adult horror novel despite having hardly ever interacting with the horror genre. And in 2018, I went to a writer’s festival where I pitched that book to agents. I have a really terrible memory and was also going through a huge life change at that time (long story short, it was the wrong gu-uy), so I don’t remember much about the experience, except that it gave me so much hope. The agents were mostly nice, the whole weekend was full of writers just like me, and it felt right. Even as I was moving countries, leaving my cat and best friend behind, I knew that writing was what I wanted to do.
I didn’t send my first actual query until 2020. I was part way through my Masters of Creative Writing (still my favourite studying experience, especially the short story course!). I queried a YA contemporary fantasy that was four POVs, the first book of a quadrilogy, and had a not like other girls MC. It was… fun to write at the time. And surprisingly queer considering I still thought I was a cishet woman. I read blogs and threads on Twitter and listened to podcasts to get my query materials right. I submitted to mentorship programs and only had a small amount of feedback. I got nothing but form rejections from agents, but I felt sure that this was a stepping stone. I was improving my craft and practising querying for that future book that would be it.
In 2021, I queried again, this time with a book that I poured maybe a little too much of myself into: a YA contemporary with speculative elements about an asexual girl grieving the sudden death of her dad and trying to stay in love with her dream of stage management at the same time. Poor Parker got all my trauma. I didn’t query a lot of agents with this book. It hurt too much getting rejected because, well, it was so much of me, my journey to figuring out my asexuality and my grief over the death of my stepfather and the love of theatre that I’d lost after studying it at an institute designed to break you. It was hard for Parker’s story to get rejected, because it was me rewriting a part of my life I wish I had handled differently.
But, this book WAS the first one that anyone outside of beta readers had ever shown interest in. I received full requests from some awesome mentors from two different programs, who ultimately didn’t choose me, but gave me some nice feedback (and added me to a pretty cool group chat of other people who had submitted to them). And, spurred on by that, I hired one of the RevPit editors to do a developmental edit of the manuscript, which was an amazing experience (spoiler alert: this would not be the last time this editor read my work).
After all of this, I got ONE partial request from an agent who ultimately passed on the book. But that was a step up from the last book. It was proof that I was improving. And while this book had felt like the one, the book of my heart like everyone always said in agent and deal announcements, it… wasn’t. Because I wrote a better more book of my heart (and I’m sure will continue to write more and more of them).
Fast forward to last year, I’m skipping a bunch of trauma and failures outside of writing and going straight to the manuscript I’m currently querying. The YA ‘eat the rich’ fantasy that made me a runner up in RevPit 2022 and the lucky winner of a mentor from a mentorship program now defunct (my mentor isn’t though, she’s still here, and I love her). I still can’t really grasp the fact that someone read my 59k fantasy novel and thought: I can see how this could be better, and I want to help.
Because OH MAN IS IT BETTER. It is now a respectable 80k, it has MORE PLOT, it has MORE WORLDBUILDING, it’s like a whole new book! Except, not quite. It’s still got the same heart. The same anger at the world and wish that by burning it all down we could start something better. I commissioned art of these characters for the first time, and I stare at them hanging on my wall every day just thinking: they’re worth it. And what has all of this help, this encouragement, this craft work gleaned me? A single full request in a sea of form rejections (so far, at least). Don’t get me wrong, that full request feels HUGE to me. It’s my first agent full request EVER. But it is one.
A lot of people talk about the difference between querying 5 years ago and now as a decline in requests and personalised feedback. Which is ABSOLUTELY TRUE. However, because my writing wasn’t actually at a level that warranted any of those things back then, that hasn’t been the case for me. People who had been writing for years before sending their first queries in the 2010s and are still querying now are seeing themselves trend downwards. They aren’t getting requests like they used to, they know their craft has improved, that their books are good enough, but they’re getting the opposite feedback (aka none) from agents. But for me, and maybe for other writers who started querying in that decline, with manuscripts that maybe weren’t up to that standard yet, our trajectories are different. For me, a single full request is a step up. It’s small, so small, so incredibly miniscule in the scheme of request rates from years ago, but it’s huge to me. Even if querying in general still just makes me feel like this song:
https://open.spotify.com/track/3o9kpgkIcffx0iSwxhuNI2?si=XQKLieHbSAuKrha8V9KsBg&utm_source=copy-link (Numb Little Bug by Em Beihold)
Well, that took longer than I thought to explain. I’ve always been a rambler (ask literally anyone I’ve ever beta read for), and I don’t know if my journey is interesting, but it is my context. And it’s important for what I actually want to say here, which is: my champions aren’t agents (yet?). The people who really get my work, the ones who understand it and love it like I do, have so far not been agents.
When I first started, I couldn’t imagine anything better than an agent and a book deal. I hadn’t even found myself or the stories I wanted to tell yet and I was only just starting to find my people (shout out to the MelbNano Discord for being a lot of those people). I hadn’t yet discovered that anyone could enjoy my chaotic screams on their work without the promise of actual Useful Feedback™. And I didn’t realise that sometimes all I needed was someone to love my work, not critique it. I was so focused on the idea of getting an agent that I didn’t realise how important other people could be to my journey.
Remember that group chat those lovely mentors added me to after passing on my manuscript? It’s been over a year, I’ve read a bunch of their stories, and they will never get rid of me (it’s not my fault their stories are so addicting, and they’re all so nice!!). One of them even gave me the motivation to actually finish the YA fantasy that got me my mentor (seriously, without her telling me how much she loved it, I don’t know if I would have fallen back in love with it). And I regularly scream at the mentor who added me as I read their books too! And through them and their fandom I got to meet a bunch of other cool self-published writers!
Remember that RevPit editor I hired? Well, she and her cowriter were kind enough to send me their book to read after I commented on a PitLight pitch they posted. AND IT SLAPPED! And I sent them a word doc back full of incoherent babbling (a lot like this post probably) and they LIKED IT. And now I’ve read two more of that editor’s books and she’s read mine and is patiently waiting for me to finish my next, cheering me on when it feels like it doesn’t matter. And I’m doing the same for her, I’m dying to read her next book (and the next and the next). And not just that! This editor (ace like me) made a Discord for other ace YA fantasy writers (who I LOVE) and there! I met! MY OWN COWRITER!! That’s right! I’m writing a book with a whole other human, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done (even though she’s evil and scares me)!
And remember that mentor who saw potential in my tiny little seedling of a book and nurtured it and me to being a whole query-able thing? Well she is still here, still supporting me, and graciously letting me read her wonderful words (she just announced her debut book deal, and I’m SO EXCITED). She answers my silly questions and yells nice things at me when I’m down on myself. I am so fortunate to have her in my corner.
I have never been as simultaneously happy and miserable as a querying writer. I am frustrated by the publishing industry and its lack of commitment to fair pay, accessibility, and diversity (looking at you especially HarperCollins), by the way querying writers, agents, and editors seem to be constantly pitted against each other in discourse (seriously we’re all fighting the same enemy! billionaires! (btw this is the plot of my querying book), by the fact that I have read so many amazing books by so many amazing writers that have yet to be signed with agents or publishers (including mine)!!
BUT. Looking at this website I’m posting on. And looking at any PitLight event. And looking at the discussions in my DMs and Discord servers, I feel so full. I am a sappy, positivity-pass-giving simp first and foremost, and it makes me joyful beyond belief to have so many amazing friends. To have the privilege to read their work and have them read mine. To get to yell at everyone who comes near me about how talented they are and how they are going to change the world with their stories. I know they will, because they already changed my world with them.
So, I know I haven’t been writing all that long, in the scheme of things. And I’ve been querying for even less of that. It sucks so much for me, so I can’t even imagine what it’s like for long time queriers (although, I can try, because some of them are kind enough to tell me about it). I know that publishing is hard and it hurts. It hurts so damn much sometimes that we want to quit, go live in a cabin in the woods, and bury our manuscripts in the backyard under the lemon trees. And some of us will, and do, and come back, or don’t.
But even through all the rage and the hurt and the injustice and unfairness of the whole system, and the burning desire to share my work with the world that I know may never be sated even though I do want it bad enough and I am working hard enough (and so are you), I would not change this path for the world. I would not give up my chance to meet the people I’ve met and love and be loved by them. I wouldn’t trade reading their stories, their struggles, their wins, for anything. Even when I’m jealous of them. Even when I want to tear the world down just to make someone see how talented they are. Even when they give me feedback I bristle at (and then later realise is good, actually). Even when they’re busy and can’t talk for a while. They are the best thing that has come out of this journey so far, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Every story I’ve written and book I’ve queried somehow led me to the community I have today, and I am so so grateful to be here.
Bio: Ceilidh Newbury (they/she) is a queer, asexual, nonbinary writer living on Tommeginne land in Iutruwita (Tasmania). They hold a Bachelor of Dramatic Art (Production) and a Master of Creative of Creative Writing, and their short fiction has been published by Ezra Arndt, Cloaked Press, East Riverina Arts, and Sinister Soat Press. She is a fierce advocate for and creator of safe queer spaces, especially for young people. When they’re not writing or queering up the community, they can be found singing to their cats and drinking copious amounts of tea. You can also find her on Twitter (@ceilidh_newbury) or her website (www.ceilidhnewbury.com)
A bit about the book they’re querying: In this 80k standalone YA ‘eat the rich’ fantasy set in a queer normal world where magic is easily available (for the right price), an angry aroace girl and a cinnamon roll rich boy team up to destroy capitalism and become best friends. Also there’s a fat cat named Ned.