If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have sort of created a Brand™ around being transparent about how writing failures have affected me, usually in long threads that should be blogs. They weren’t blogs because in 2019 I shut this website down due to, well, a perceived failure.
I have always written about failure, even before anyone knew me for being that writer who writes about failure. I just didn’t have a platform then. Weirdly, I didn’t have a platform to talk about failure until I succeeded. The four times I didn’t get into #PitchWars no one paid me any attention, then I got in and talked about all the times before when I hadn’t, and people started listening. All the posts I wrote on this very blog about how I was getting nowhere with querying went mostly unread until I finally got my agent when THAT post was shared dozens of times and read by thousands of people.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful that people are listening, and that I have this platform to talk about rejection and failure and how hard this whole publishing thing is, but I still feel the voices we need to hear most are ones who are not yet successful.
Because regardless how long you’ve been at this, when you DO finally get there, it’s nearly impossible not to see all the struggle through a rose-colored lens. It’s hard for me, even now, not to look back on the past two decades of pain and loss and fatigue and failure and not think well… but I’m here now. And I learned so much. And built so much character. And maybe it’s for the best because maybe then I wasn’t ready for all the different reasons one isn’t ready. And maybe the advice that the only way to TRULY fail is to quit isn’t wrong and everyone does get their happily ever after as long as they keep trying. Toxic positivity is a hell of a drug, y’all.
Some of this might be true, by the way. A lot of it, even. It can also be true that when you’re in the middle of querying despair this is about as helpful as “Just keep going, pal!!”
What might be helpful is hearing the real stories from real people in the thick of it just like you. People who are not Cinderella stories. People who are struggling. Who might need you to read their words as badly as you needed to know you’re not alone. People you can connect with.
That’s what I needed for many, many years before I found success. Before I found my yes. But I had no platform. That’s the terrible cycle of this thing.
So, I am here to loan people mine.
You, querying author who wants a place to tell your very own querying journey story, will submit it to me via email. In the email, you’ll give me some basic information about you, the book you’re querying, how long you’ve been querying, and if you wish to remain anonymous, use a penname, want accreditation, whatever. I will read the post, make sure it follows the rules below, edit for anything minor grammatically or to shorten if necessary, let you review the edits, and if you’re okay with them, I’ll post your story on my blog and Twitter. This will give you a space to connect with other writers in your position (if you want) or at least have your story out there (if you don’t). It will also give other writers a place to read stories like theirs so THEY feel less alone in this hardest of querying things.
No bad behavior directed toward agents, editors, publishers, or other industry professionals of ANY kind. This is intended to be a place to talk about the journey, not to rage against industry professionals. Please keep it professional, or I will not be able to accept your submission.
This is a space for folks to talk about their struggles with traditional publishing only. Please no submissions related to self-publishing.
No submissions that are racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or intolerant of any marginalized group will be tolerated. This is intended to be a safe space for all.
This is intended to be for authors who ARE NOT AGENTED only. If you’ve self-published or published with a small press but are actively querying for an agent, you’re good!
Please make sure to include all appropriate trigger and content warnings.
No one-size-fits-all advice! As we all know by now, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to query, so if you have a tip to share, please make sure not to frame it as a universal. Tips (especially ones that are helping your mental health and might help others) are absolutely welcome, just not framed as This is the One True Path, please!
If you are providing images please make sure they are freely sourced, public domain, or you have been given permission to use them. We are all artists, let’s not infringe on one another’s intellectual property. Also, alt text for accessibility is highly encouraged.
I am going to try to publish one (1) story per week. If for whatever reason I get inundated, I will announce on my blog and Twitter that submissions are closing so everyone has a fair chance to have their story heard. That means this will be first come first serve (as long as you follow the rules).
Please try to keep your posts under 2,500 words where possible.
Be kind!!! To everyone but also me, heh. I work full time and am going to do my best to facilitate this in my small spare time so if I run behind, sorry!
I reserve the right to modify and/or add to this list as situations pop up, so I can preserve the integrity of the premise.
Interested in submitting? Woot!
Please send me an email to email@example.com with the subject line SUBMISSION: [Name of your blog post]
In the body of the email, please include any biographical information you’d like to include with the blog (or, if you’d like the blog to be kept anonymous, please specifically so indicate). Please also include any basic information about the book you’re querying or general info about your age group and genre. Don’t include anything you wouldn’t want included on the internet! So if you’re cool with a logline that you’d put up in a Twitter pitch event and want me to preface the blog with that, send it my way. If you’re not, please don’t feel obligated to do so, this is all about YOUR comfort.
Also in the body of the email, NOT as an attachment, please include the text of the blog you’re submitting for consideration (bearing in mind the above rules).
The last thing you want when you’re querying is more querying. Please do not think of this as querying. I am not gatekeeping, I’m content moderating only. I’m not judging your posts based on anything other than the above rules and possibly my time if I have to close submissions which I will be transparent about. So when I’ve received your post, I’ll email you back as soon as I can letting you know I have it, and I’ll review it and be back with you shortly. If you’ve followed the rules, I’ll send you whatever edits I might have for your consideration, then let you know when your submission will post based on how many others I’ve received ahead of you!
When it’s your day, please feel free to share wherever and however! I will categorize all of these posts under the blog as Not the Darling and on Twitter as #NottheDarling so your post will be called NOT THE DARLING: [Title of your blog].
If for whatever reason I can’t accept your submission because I feel it’s breaking one of the rules or it is hitting a note that I think might hurt someone on the other side of the screen (or YOU, remember publishing is small), then I’ll tell you why that is and give you an opportunity to revise and resubmit if you want. Or not. Totally up to you. But IF I send something back please know I really just want this space to be welcoming and kind to everyone, including you, and I don’t want anything to go up on the internet anyone regrets later.
Still have questions? Concerns? Please feel free to email me, hit me up in the comments, or message me on Twitter!
Authors note: For those reading who might not be aware of what it is currently going on with the strike, please read HarperCollins Union’s press release and other info (including how to donate to the strike fund) at their LinkTree here. For purposes of this post, it should be understood that to “Stand in Solidarity with HarperCollins Union” as an agented author means that you have agreed to withhold submitting your book to any HarperCollins imprint until such a time as the bargaining unit employees have a new contract. For me, this means that if the union is still on strike by the time ALL HER WISHES is ready to go on submission, my agent and I have agreed we will not submit it to HarperCollins or any imprint of HarperCollins to honor our commitments to the strike (my agent has signed a similar pledge in relation to agenting, so we are 100% united in this commitment).
1/26/2023 Update: I started drafting this blog post a few days ago with the plan to publish it on day 56 (week 8) of the strike, which is today. Today, finally, HarperCollins management has agreed to mediation. THE UNION IS STILL ON STRIKE. HOLDING THE LINE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER.
In my home, #Unionstrong is not just a hashtag on Twitter. It is a lifestyle. My grandfather was a steelworker from western Pennsylvania. My grandmother was a charge nurse in a nurse’s union during a time when many women weren’t “supposed” to be working at all. Much of the rest of my family has union affiliations running through their blood as deep as the coal dust from the mines they find themselves in. My partner is a shop steward for a local Teamsters Union. I have spent many a night sitting with him at our kitchen table, pouring over their contract and proposals while he texts his crew about whatever is going on in negotiations.
Interestingly, as it relates to my union affiliation, I spent over a decade of my career on the other side of the table: the management side. Before you skewer me, let me explain. I was a paralegal and benefits specialist for a law firm that had a unique relationship with labor, because we served as co-counsel to a ton of Taft-Hartley funds (multi-employer benefit funds that must be overseen by an equal number of management and labor trustees). We were not union busters; we were there to cultivate genuine relationships between management and labor.
You know, like how it’s supposed to work.
I have updated this post because today, finally, HarperCollins has agreed to mediate. But that still means that they went 55 days without saying a word. It means that their employees are still on strike for day 56. That’s eight weeks. Eight weeks that these employees have been without pay. Two months. Think about that for a second. Think about what going two months without pay would mean for you and your family.
Now, think about the fact that this is a bargaining unit consisting of 250+ employees across editorial, sales, marketing, publicity, design, and legal whose average salary is $55,000 a year in New York City. You know, the most expensive city to live in in the United States. The city whose median home price is $850,000 and median rent can be anywhere between $1,900 to $4,500 a month. Source and Source and Source. Doing a little rough math for taxes based on that tax bracket and factoring in New York City taxes, assuming standard deduction, you’re talking about a take home pay of about roughly $1,600 biweekly if you don’t have deductions for things like healthcare, 401(k), a health savings account, or a flexible savings account, etc. So, less than that, really. Or an inability to have insurance. Or save for retirement. Cool options.
Now, think about donating to the strike fund HERE.
That’s all based on that $55,000 average salary that HarperCollins Union talked about in their press release. But the wild thing is that isn’t even the point of contention! While there are a few things at issue*, when talking cold hard cash the thing the union is striking for here is to increase the starting salary from $45,000 a year to $50,000 a year. A measly little $5,000 a year. Listen, I know my day job is in software, so I’m obviously a gluttonous snowflake who doesn’t work and feeds on the wokeness of the masses or something, but I’m telling you $5,000 a year for new employees to a company that reported $487 million in revenue and $39 million in earnings in its last quarter (a BAD quarter) is not a lot of money. Source.
*Union security being one which when I tell you how hard I laughed, like omg please union security clauses are standard and a non-issue, in a decade plus of doing this kind of thing I have NEVER seen a union security clause disputed like what is even happening there? Please explain, HarperCollins.
Oh wow, so I went wandering a bit. Sorry, I fell down a capitalism rabbit hole and couldn’t seem to find my way out. Give me a moment to just reset here…
Right so that’s all well and good but probably if you’re here you know all that. Well, you might not have known that specific level of detail on the math because that was maybe a little intense, but you probably understood the basics of HarperCollins is a big company that makes a lot of money, New York City is very expensive, and these people are underpaid because LOLZ who isn’t. Thanks, America.
But back to me, because this is my blog, and I’m here to talk about why I personally stand in solidarity with the HarperCollins Union despite the fact that it is scary as shit as a baby author to be like hahahaha no, who needs you, Harper? And your… million imprints. I… definitely… do not. Heh.
Wow, they just keep going, huh?
Anyway, I would be lying to say it wasn’t terrifying to have those imprints just POOF off your submission list when you’re a baby author. Still, when I had The Call with my agent, high on my list of priorities was that Keir knew I was with faer in the commitment to not cross the picket line. I knew Keir had signed on to the open letter put out by agents late in 2022 declaring they would withhold submissions from Harper in solidarity, and I wanted faer to know this was also my desire even though it was scary.
Because I believe in unions, like I said. They are a deep part of my life. I believe in fair wages, even if I don’t believe $50,000 is even pushing it far enough, but hey, it’s a start. I believe in diversity, and I believe it is more than a trend or a marketing tool, but if we want to make it more than that, we will have to work harder and be better and do the right thing even when it is the hard thing. Lord do I know that. I also understand the complexities behind making a profession passion-based and how it disproportionately excludes marginalized groups. I myself almost had to leave my publishing dream behind because of my disabilities. I got to the point with writing and querying and writing and querying and working a high-paced, full-time job to pay the bills that I was so burned out I was throwing up blood. I had migraines so bad I couldn’t get up for days at a time. I almost had to be hospitalized. I found myself at a crossroads: Keep it up or die. Pay the bills or publishing.
Too many of these employees are facing similar choices and publishing is already their full-time job.
We are watching publishing professionals leave the business in droves. Agents, editors, publicists, marketing folks. They’re burned out. They’re working multiple jobs, eighty hour weeks, and they barely have two pennies to rub together in the most expensive city in the world. This trickles down to authors and querying writers. Less opportunities, less people to advocate for us, longer wait times, heavier lift on what kind of work we have to produce but yet smaller advances. The list goes on.
What hurts one of us, hurts us all. That’s the whole point of a union. Stronger together.
So yeah, looking at that list and knowing those are opportunities potentially missed is scary. But what’s scarier is knowing that if I don’t do something in whatever small way I can might mean that in the end, we all lose. And that’s a future I simply want no part of.
Author’s Note: This post is about traditional publishing. My days of self-publishing are behind me, but that comes with a whole other dynamic and set of ins and outs to explain to people. Godspeed me, having to do this multiple times with multiple methods now.
So we all have that friend or relative (or twenty) who has no idea how the hell publishing works. My mom thinks my agent is a publicist. My dad doesn’t understand editors work for publishing houses. Everyone in the world thinks that now I have an agent, my book is soon to arrive on the shelf of their local Barnes & Noble within the week. You too have friends, family, and coworkers like this. I know you do because I have never met a writer who doesn’t. And also because publishing is a legitimately strange business, so it’s perfectly reasonable that people who are not glued to Twitter/Querytracker/Publishers Marketplace don’t understand how it works.
For you, and your struggling family, I have created a primer. Complete with visual aids if that is your jam. Let’s start with a very bare bones flow chart, then break it down, shall we?
Okay, so I know you, writer, understand all of this. But your well-meaning family doesn’t. And if I’m guessing right, no matter how many times you try to explain it to them, they still aren’t getting it. So let me break down some of these steps highlighting some of the most frequently asked questions I hear from non-writers and how I’ve navigated explaining them.
STEP ONE – WRITING BOOKS AND QUERYING
Writing books is mostly simple enough but querying really seems to confuse the shit out of people. And it’s hard to blame them. It’s confusing. Even for us. Who among us has not been tripped up by unwritten querying etiquette? Right. So here are some of my go-to favorite tips for trying to explain the whole querying thing to Uncle Donny three schnapps deep at Thanksgiving dinner:
Remember to tell them about the free bit. I don’t know about your family, but a few members of mine seem to get really hung up on the amount of unpaid labor that goes on in publishing. It could be the Steelworkers and Teamsters in them, but they seem convinced they must have it wrong about the free bits. Remind them. Often if necessary. In the simplest terms you can. In my household, I caveat almost everything with: THIS IS A FREE PART.
Compare Querying to Corporate. Query letter means nothing. But most everyone has prepared a cover letter and a resume. Many people have had to either take a skills test of some type or provide a writing sample. I have found this simple conversion to be handy in comparisons:
Query letter = Cover letter
Synopsis = Resume
Sample pages = writing sample
Keep it Simple. I have at this point entirely given up trying to explain to people who are not in publishing how requests work. Partial? Full? Meaningless. Pointless. Throw them out the window. Celebrate your wins with the people who get it. Is it mildly annoying that my dad STILL doesn’t understand what the difference between a full and partial is after I’ve been doing this for approximately 100 years? Yes. But not nearly as annoying as it is trying to explain it AGAIN. The people you love will be there to celebrate with you when that partial turns into a full turns into a call turns into an offer turns into a… you get the deal (ha! there’s a pun there!). Absolutely celebrate every win, but in my experience, cultivating who you celebrate the wins with can drastically improve your overall mental health and make the wins themselves much more enjoyable.
STEP TWO – AGENTS, SIGNING, AND SUBMISSION
Thissssss is where we really start to lose folks. Because at this point, if you’re having a normal querying journey, you’re probably a few (or more) years in STILL DOING FREE SHIT. That is admittedly weird in most every other business. Like even in the worst (US) economy most people are not job searching for 3-5 business years. Hopefully. But that is a totally normal thing to be doing in publishing. Add to that the part about how getting a literary agent is actually just ANOTHER free step and people are just checking out on you (or perhaps checking your temperature for a fever). Some ways I’ve found that can sort of help explain some of this:
Remind them that a new book or new revision means starting over. Just because I’ve been querying for three years or five years or ten years doesn’t mean it’s the same book or the same revision. Explaining that is helpful. “I decided to pivot and am trying to pitch a new book to literary agents. That means starting over from square one but hopefully this idea will hold more traction.” See, I say pitch instead of query. Again, query does not mean anything.
Literary Agent Comparisons. Most people do not seem to understand what a literary agent does. Some useful comparisons:
Real estate agent – They sell books instead of houses, they don’t get paid until they sell my book (to a publisher). Don’t forget to mention a BIG KEY DIFFERENCE: Except they exist in a market where there are waaaaaaaaaay too many houses and not enough buyers, so they’re only going to pick the nicest, fanciest, best ones (where your book is the house).
Recruiter – They are trying to land me the gig with the publisher and don’t get paid until they do so. BIG KEY DIFFERENCE: Except they exist in a market where there is like 1 job, 5 recruiters, and 100,000 potential applicants, so you (the author) have to apply first to the recruiter before you can even try applying to the actual job. This is probably a more accurate comparison but if the person you’re talking to doesn’t work in white collar corporate America it might not be that helpful.
Again with the free stuff. Yeah, you’re going to need to tell people that literary agents don’t get paid until you do. Call them a middle man. Remind people that yep, I am FIVE YEARS into pitching this book and have just gotten someone to agree to try to sell it. Correct. And they don’t get paid until they do it. Yes.
The Call. Call this an interview. Plain and simple. That’s really what it is anyway. The agent’s chance to interview you, your chance to interview them.
Celebrating. When you do finally sign with an agent, you’re going to celebrate the shit out of that win (as you should). This is going to confuse people though, especially if you’ve been querying for approximately forever. Because they’re going to think you’ve sold your book. Because really, why haven’t you? It’s been like… a decade. This is your opportunity to ignore the fuck out of them. Please refer to my earlier comments about cultivating the people you celebrate with. If your family calls your agent a publicist, or people blow up your Facebook or Teams messages wanting to know when they can buy your book, laugh and move along. Now is not the time to waste energy educating or get frustrated with people’s lack of understanding. You can do that all later. Now is the time to wear your tiara and celebrate.
Submission. Godspeed. Do we need another chart? Okay, yes. If only to break this long ass post up. I swear I write short books. Long tweet threads. Long blogs. Long emails. Short books. Do with that information what you will.
Submission is like Querying 2.0. Probably at this point even the people who love you most have dead eyes. They’re starting to wander off, checking their phones for the latest updates on… literally anything except this. Might be time to just go ahead and admit defeat. But if not, you can pull out the good old rinse and repeat methodology. Basically, submission is like querying version 2.0. Except, pause for effect, there is MAYBE MONEY AT THE END.
STEP THREE – ACQUISITIONS
We are really only on step three, huh? Well, hopefully people have perked up because I mentioned money. We’re getting somewhere (finally). And yes, we are. Below are some optional steps to discuss about acquisitions if people have started listening again. If not, you can probably get away with simply saying acquisitions is when an acquisitions editor at a publishing house (the person with the buying power) acquires (aka buys) your book. Huzzah! BUYS! Money has arrived. I mean sort of, you know there are exceptions here but like for the basics let’s assume you’re getting some kind of advance and finally, finally, dear sweet baby Jesus, finally get paid. And so does your agent. Whoop!
Types of Sales. If you really want to get into this, you can tell people about the different types of sales traditional publishing has to offer, but I would recommend keeping it as short as possible so as not to get that dead-eyed stare coming back. Just keep letting them follow the money without getting too bogged down in the details:
Regular Sale – An editor read your book, liked your book, offered to buy your book. Sweet.
Auction – Multiple editors read your book, liked your book, and WENT TO WAR for your book. Admittedly, this is the scenario most of us are dreaming of but our families are like, “Whatever, greedy, money is money you’ve been doing this for free for 87 years are you really going to be picky?” And they are not wrong.
Pre-empt – Multiple editors read your book and liked your book, but one in particular really liked your book and decided to avoid the war they would make you an offer you couldn’t refuse and buy it before there could even be a war. For the publisher, this is sort of like that button on eBay where you can buy the item for the set price to avoid the risk of getting bid up at an auction, but you could also lose out on getting a lower deal. You as the author, of course, get the bird in the hand. This is also a Very Excellent outcome. Guaranteed any outcome that results in you no longer doing this for free anymore is an excellent outcome to your loved ones.
Advances. Okay, listen, we all know that advances are a lot to process. Not all publishing houses offer them, how they’re paid out is ridiculous. That publishing houses can take them back for sometimes no reason is wild. Want to explain earning out to someone not in publishing? No you don’t. Just tell them when the publishing house buys your book you get some money in advance and then some more when you fulfill other contractual obligations like turning in the final draft and the book going up for sale. Might also be worth telling them this is going to take a lot longer than they think (like all things publishing) and no, when your book sells they will not be seeing it stores near them in the next couple of weeks and/or months. Don’t we wish.
Editing (again). Time for that good old rinse and repeat situation. Just… repetition is everything in publishing. I’m going to have a chart about that here in a minute to summarize. Skip to the end if you want that because you, just like Aunt Darla, are getting glassy-eyed with this post. Yes, dad, I have to edit this book again. With someone who has the title of editor this time, though. Which is new. (Unless you’ve had your book edited professionally before you queried, which is also a thing that happens that I don’t even have the spoons myself to get into but am not knocking, to be clear).
STEP FOUR – FINISHING
I have a not very good title for this step because I have never found myself remotely near it (yet), but my friends have, and I’ve been in (?) around (?) traditional publishing long enough to know what goes on. So I have summed up all the fine tuning bits that make your book sparkle into a step called “Finishing.”
Line Editing. Yep. More of this. Just like… tell them it’s edited a lot. By lots of different people. Many of whom are underpaid and overworked. Remind them to support the HarperCollins Union.
Copy Editing. Rinse and repeat.
Title. No, you don’t get to choose your own title. Tell your family to get over it. No, cousin Susie, trust me, I don’t care what your friend from the office said or did or read on the internet, getting to choose my own title is NOT worth bootstrapping it on my own and self-publishing. Trust me. Oh boy, trust me.
Cover Design. Don’t get to do this, either. But someone who knows WAY more about the market and Photoshop does get to do it. It will be great. And if it isn’t, you will act like it’s great.
Formatting. The book is formatted (!) into a book looking thing (!) This is when you will finally be able to answer that annoying question every non-publishing person in your life has been asking you since you finished your first draft: How many pages is it? They probably don’t care anymore, because it’s now like… six years later, but you’ll be able to tell them.
STEP FIVE – LAUNCH
In my flowchart I labeled this “Marketing/Sale” because there are a few steps that happen in-house before the official go live date for your book, but the most important part of this step is:
Marketing. LOADED QUESTION. PASS. Mumble mumble marketing stuff maybe there’s a lot of gray area TikTok mumble mumble not a lead title mumble mumble eARCs bloggers mumble mumble. OKAY, BYE IRENA, THERE IS STILL MORE PROMO THAN SELF-PUBLISHING, YES. But marketing is fraught and no, I really don’t want to talk about it that would need more words than you want to read because you’re probably already sick of me, right? MOVING ALONG.
Pre-events. Yeah, kind of same as above. No one wants to hear about the debate around whether it’s pronounced A-R-C or
For the record, though, it’s totally the latter.
Distribution and Sale. YES. MY BOOK IS FINALLY AVAILABLE. IT IS OFFICIALLY PUBLISHED. AND MONEY. IT IS TIME ONCE AGAIN TO TALK ABOUT MONEY! We have arrived! You can BUY my book now! And review it, and add it on Goodreads, and do all the things you’ve been waiting to do! Here are some extra points to make now that we’ve reached the finale:
This whole process from start to finish if everything went absolutely perfectly and not a single thing ever went wrong (LOL!) would take 2-3 years. At best. Like if you fast drafted the cleanest book you’ve ever seen and threw it into the trenches and got a million requests right out of the gate and signed with an agent immediately and the book was almost perfect and went on submission right away and editors loved it and WENT TO WAR and pushed it through as fast as possible, you could MAYBE have a book on the shelf in 2-3 years.
This absolutely never happens to anyone. I mean maybe like three people ever in the history of publishing. More likely it is going to be a 5+ year process.
You will not be paid for most of it.
Neither will your agent.
You’re not quitting your day job anytime soon sobs.
You’re going to do the same things over and over and over (a chart on that is coming, I promise).
Publishing is not a meritocracy. It’s about luck and persistence and honestly privilege since it’s overwhelmingly white, straight, cis, able-bodied, and male. No, Uncle Earl, I do not give a shit what you think you saw on Fox News about book banning or white dudes not being able to sell their books. They can. And do. They’re fine. Sit down.
Royalties. Remember what I said about trying to explain earning out? I stand by that. Just… don’t. Royalties are sort of similar. We don’t want to talk about royalties. But if you have to, keeping it simple might go something like, “If I meet contractual obligations I’ll start to earn a small percentage of every sale after a certain point. The publisher keeps most, my agent gets about 15%, I end up with an amount less than that. Nope, I do not want to debate that with you.”
If you’ve been keeping track, there’s a lot of repetition in publishing. Which you and I know and can appreciate. But sometimes seeing it laid out can help people who don’t come from inside publishing understand where and when it’s happening, so they don’t think you’re just… I don’t know, working harder instead of smarter or some other corporate jargon that cannot be applied to this business. So, as promised, here is my repetition chart!
And because I know this is probably The Most Important Thing to most people’s Nephew Ryan who is surely not a 24-year-old techbro running a startup in his mom’s basement just dying for the chance to mansplain to you about how you should really quit it with this “starving artist” thing and “get a real job” I present for you the Publishing Money Flow Chart.
Did I do a good job summarizing this succinctly? Checks the wordcount. No. Did I work out some deep-seated family issues I appear to have? Yes. Also, I made some pretty charts perhaps you’ll find helpful when next you confront one of YOUR family members who “just doesn’t get it” despite your 87th explanation of querying. At the very least, I hope I made you laugh a couple times as I tried to untangle this messy business we all know and love and so fondly call “Publishing.”
2023 Update: This post was originally posted in 2019. It was the last post on my website before I shut it down. Now that I reactivated it to tell my very own How I Got My Agent story, it seemed fitting I leave this here as well, as a reminder. This is not always (or often) an easy journey.
Trigger/Content Warning:This post is sad. It is coming from a really dark place and is my mental illness speaking through me. If you’re not in a good place for that kind of dark content, please tread no further, I would never want the expression my mental health to hurt someone else’s.
You know the posts about How I Got My Agent? A lot of your favorite authors have them on their website. Most of them are stories of victory over adversity. They’re about the pains of the querying trenches all being worth it. They’re about how there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. They’re really cool and often so inspiring.
This post isn’t that.
I’ve been crying for three days. I can’t stop. Every time I think I have it under control, it starts again. My throat burns, and I’m having trouble breathing my sinuses are so choked. I can’t sleep, can’t taste the food I eat. When I go to the gym, I end up sobbing so hard I can’t keep going. The other day after another unsuccessful workout, I curled into a ball on the yoga mat I was stretching on and fell asleep. Things aren’t good with me.
I’ve been rejected. Again. From Pitch Wars, again. For the third time. It’s a new manuscript but the same results. This book was a bright and shiny beacon I was so, so proud of. But I was proud of the last one, too. And it was rejected twice from Pitch Wars and received 27 form rejections or spots of silence after that. The last manuscript didn’t receive a single request from a single agent I submitted to. It seems like this one is headed down the same path.
After I was sure I wasn’t going to be getting into Pitch Wars, I braved the querying trenches once more. I want this so bad. And this manuscript, I assured myself, is different. It’s special. It’s so much of me that someone has to see it for what it is. I have worked so fucking hard.
Not hard enough. I received my first form rejection within 24 hours of sending the first query. Here we go again.
I laid under my desk at my day job where I work as a paralegal, surrounded by smart people I really like but who I’m so jealous of because they will always be more important and make more money than me because they have a piece of paper I don’t, and I wept. And when one of my coworkers found me, I blamed my period and ran to the bathroom to continue crying alone.
This isn’t my period. I haven’t gotten my period in three years. The doctors say it’s stress. Stress I put on myself, or the world puts on me, I can’t be sure anymore. So no, this isn’t that. This is something else. This is the raw, ripe, stinging pain of rejection after rejection after rejection with no shining hope at the end of the tunnel. I am not good enough. I will never be good enough. I am what I am and what I am is not sufficient.
No one tells you about this part. No one records it. It’s not hopeful or pretty or tied neatly with an HEA and a bright red bow at the end. It’s bad for your look to look like no one wants you. But it’s the truth. And if I had a brand, which I don’t because you need to have a product to have a brand, it would be truth.
Here’s the truth. We aren’t all going to get agents and book deals. There are far more of us than there are of them. We aren’t all going to be able to live the dream and make enough money writing to quit our day jobs and pursue our passion. So we need to have contingent dreams. If I could give any young writer advice it would be that: Have another dream. Have something else to care about. Have something else to pay your bills and sate your passion. Search for it if you have to. Demand it of yourself, even if it doesn’t come naturally, even if you’re sure the only thing you’ll ever want is to be a writer. Find. Something. Else.
For me, something else is photography and fostering kittens. Sometimes, something else can almost be my day job. But whatever it is for you, don’t let writing become who you are. Let it be part of you, but not all of you. Save some of you for you.
And when you’re down, find a way to get back up, no matter how hard it is.
Author’s Note: I know I promised this blog yesterday, but it’s been hectic! But! Here it is, alive and well! It’s not edited well because I just flung it up in a rush, but I did the thing, which is great because this post is about YOU doing the thing!
For a good chunk of my writing career, I thought when people said, “Kill your darlings,” they meant that writers should kill their favorite characters. So I took that “advice” and ran with it. For awhile, I literally killed my favorite characters as a writing exercise, or a weird point of pride. Including at the end of romances, which um… did not go down well with romance readers (as it should not have, sorry, early readers at this life stage!)
I was younger then, and like a bright-eyed student thirsty for the knowledge of those older and therefore (I assumed) wiser than me, I took every bit of writing advice I could glean. When I had it, these gems, these treasures, these bits of knowledge that would surely make me Leigh Bardugo famous, I attempted to use them all.
As you might suspect (since I am not Leigh Bardugo famous), a lot of that advice has many interpretations and is quite subjective. A lot of it simply didn’t work for me. And if I’m honest, some if it made me really hate writing.
“Write what you know.” This is the oldest one in the book. Every writing student and aspiring author knows this one. “Write what you know” and “Show don’t tell” might be tattooed on the inside of my eyelids for how often they float through my mind.
I am not going to recreate what has already been done (both poorly and well) here. Google “Write what you know is wrong” and take everything you read with a grain of salt. Be especially careful about white dudes defending cultural appropriation for the sake of “art.” (Read: their Very Important™ writing). Not all of it is wrong, though. But “write what you know” can mean a lot of things. It doesn’t have to mean you can only write your memoir (although, if you have the urge to do that, do that, I need more memoirs to read!) “Write what you know” in the young adult spectrum might be more akin to, “Stay in your own lane” which I wrote about a few weeks ago. “Write what you know” could also mean that the most powerful writing you’ll do is when you’re writing about an experience that is intimately familiar to you. We all have unique experiences that only we can bring our perspective and voice to. But you also don’t have to do it all at once. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to be “Well, I’ve put every important thing on the page in this very first book and now I’m all dry and whatever will I do? I know nothing else!” Because I mean, that’s silly. We’re always experiencing and learning new things.
And now you’re probably wondering … wasn’t this post supposed to be about rule breaking? Why did you just spend 500 words defending The Rule? Well, partly it’s because when I was looking for a quote about writing what you know being flexible, I found all these articles about write what you know is wrong, and they espoused a lot of “cultural appropriation is okay for art,” and I got mad and had to come to The Rule’s defense. But it’s also partly because I wanted to make the point that all these “rules” are subjective. They can be used, and tossed aside, and bent, and broken, and rocketed into the sun strapped to a Tesla. As long as you have a book you’re proud of at the end, however long it takes you to get to that end, then you’ve done the thing!
Speaking of however long it takes, let me talk about one of the rules that isn’t that subjective and which I think is garbage (for me). Please keep in mind I mean in all of this for me. I always hesitate to give writing advice to anyone because everyone is so different. This advice is probably really helpful for some people. I have friends and professors and mentors who swear by it. But it doesn’t work for me, and I want to assure people here that if it doesn’t work for you, that is okay. You can still be a writer/author/creator without some a lot of this.
The advice goes thusly: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” This quote is attributed to writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse, but it has taken various forms across the years. Most of my writing professors used to advise taking at least one hour per day to write. To put your ass in the chair and get it done. To ground out words even if they sucked.
No shade to my professors, but as it turns out, academia makes a nice butt cushion. In my experience, 12-16 hour workdays don’t leave much time for the butt in chair exercise every day. My workdays start with household chores at 6:30 a.m. and don’t usually end until 8 p.m (on a good, 10 hours at work, workday). That doesn’t really leave much mental or physical energy for butt in chair time. I know people who get up even earlier to put their ass in a chair, and I admire that. But I have night terrors. If I go to bed at 11 p.m. and wake up at 6:30, with my nightmares, on a good night, I’ll be living on 5 hours of sleep. This is my life. Every day.
I’m not complaining, and I don’t want pity. It’s just my life, which is different than every other life. My life doesn’t have time for butt in chair exercises every day. That’s okay, though. As it turns out, I’ve been able to write 4 1/2 books in less than 4 years just writing when I can. Sneaking it in here and there when work is slow, taking days off solely to write, staying up late on days when I have the energy, putting a lot of time in on the weekends. But it’s not every day, and it isn’t consistent. Sometimes, I’ll go months without writing. I have to put food on my table and my primary job is what does that. No matter what though, I still get back to doing the thing.
And you can, too. You can do the thing. You don’t need every single “rule.” You can tell sometimes. Some stories need more telling than others. You don’t have to write every day. You can write stuff you don’t know (again, I mean like write about six-legged ponies, not cultural appropriation). You can write in tenses that aren’t active. You can throw jargon all over your damn page. You can write sentences so long even lawyers’ eyes will bug out at the sight of them. You can write how you want to write. It is your story and your voice and your art. There are really no “rules” to writing in the end. Only guidelines. Take what works for you and phooey on the rest.
That said, what is your favorite writing “rule” (especially if it’s one you’ve come up with for yourself?)
When we talk about “agency” in literature, we are usually talking about the protagonist of the story: (1) having the ability to act in his/her/their environment, then; (2) acting.
Well, as it turns out, not for me.
Agency is something I always have to write into my manuscripts after multiple drafts. My critique partners and beta readers always come back to me telling me my characters don’t have enough (or any) agency. The character is supposed to move the plot, not the other way around. It’s a concept taught in every 101 creative writing class.
Yet… it always eludes me.
Struggling with agency is a common problem for a lot of writers, but recently, I’ve been thinking about why it’s such a reoccurring problem for me. You see, it’s not one character or one book or one series that lacks agency for me. It’s all of them. Even though I should know better. Even though I write thinking this time I’m not going to have to edit agency into my character. Thinking this time I’m going to get it right. But I never do, and I have to wonder why.
I think the answer comes from another definition.
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape
I’ve written about my C-PTSD and how it relates to my reading and writing experiences before, but though I’ve previously connected the two things, I never made this particular connection.
It’s hard for me to write agency, because my mind is wired to believe I have none.
My C-PTSD stems from childhood abuse. That’s all I’m really willing to share about that out here, exposed on the internet, but for purposes of this post, I think it’s important that it’s understood this trauma occurred when I was very young and went on for a long, long time. It shaped the way my brain behaves. Seriously. Physical changes in my brain happened and those things impact my worldview. Deeply.
Though I’m older now, and I have agency, and I go to therapy to unravel and unpack all this trauma, I still struggle. I have an extremely difficult time making decisions. I get overwhelmed easily. When I’m in a dangerous or even mildly upsetting situation, I freeze or disassociate. I have the ability to control my environment, but I struggle to do so. It’s uncomfortable, and it makes me nauseous and anxious.
Because deep down, I don’t understand agency. Agency is, at its root, having some kind of control or influence over your life situation. Something I never had. And if I’m honest with myself, it scares me.
My reactions to the world taking hold of the reins for me are much better. When someone dies, for instance, I’m the most level-headed person in the room. Not being in control is something I’m intimately familiar with and have learned to navigate beautifully. Which is… different.
I started to write unhealthy there, then changed it. Because maybe it’s not unhealthy. Maybe it’s simply different. Maybe it’s how I operate. And maybe that’s okay.
And maybe this is all to say that while I believe agency is important (and I do write it into my manuscripts where it’s needed), lack of agency might be just as important with some characters, and is something I would love to see explored further.
Can you tell a compelling story if your character has no agency? And how should we even define agency? Can’t agency be taking actions to survive, even if they’re not active actions? What if agency, for some characters, is not acting but freezing? What if agency is not striking back, but appeasing? What if agency is looking at a hopeless situation from which there is no escape, but hoping for one anyway?
Author’s Note: For the past few days I’ve been in Tennessee at a workshop hosted by Madcap Retreats about writing cross culturally. It was an incredible, eye-opening experience, and I’m only sharing a snippet of what I learned there, so I highly recommend you participate in one of their workshops if you ever get the chance to.
There are ways to create narratives of hope that don’t feel like a lie.
~ Leigh Bardugo
To fully understand this post, you’ll need to watch this video (there’s also a transcript, but if you can watch I recommend doing that).
The idea of a single story is (obviously), not mine, but over the weekend, it was one of the concepts that hit nearest my heart. There are single stories for every marginalized group of people. In the video, you’ll hear some of them. During my workshop, I heard others. I’m not going to talk about the stories of others, because you should listen to their voices for that. What I am going to talk about is what the single story for me has been, why it’s hurtful, and why that matters to your writing (and mine).
For those who might not follow this blog regularly, I’ll start by telling you that I’m a twenty-nine year old, cisgender, female. I was raised outside of Philadelphia. I’m privileged. Most people would not think of me as part of a marginalized group. Mostly, I don’t think of myself that way.
I do, however, suffer from complex post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, touch aversion, and agoraphobia. I have an invisible marginalization which I can usually hide, but it affects every aspect of my life.
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional or physical trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape. (Source). PTSD and CPTSD are slightly different in that PTSD can result from single events, or short-term exposure to extreme stress or trauma whereas CPTSD is generally associated with long-term trauma. That said, most people don’t know what CPTSD is, so I typically tell people I have PTSD.
When I do “out” myself, the most typical question that follows is, “What war?”
This is the single story in action. (If you haven’t watched the Chimamanda Adichie video or read the transcript yet, go ahead and do it now. Here’s another link. Seriously, it’s that important.)
PTSD is most often associated with veterans. That’s the single story literature, television, and film have created for us. And because of that single story, my experience somehow seems less valid. When I don’t play into people’s perceptions or expectations, my experience is diminished. Surely, I must be faking it. Surely, I must be overly sensitive. Surely, nothing can be as traumatizing as war. Surely, my experience doesn’t matter.
For years, I resisted fighting against this narrative because it felt like fighting against veterans who have PTSD. The single story of PTSD made me feel like I had no right to voice my own experience because by telling my story I was challenging their story. This is not, however, the case. I’m not challenging the narrative at all. There are veterans who have PTSD. But there are people who are not veterans who have PTSD as well, and their stories deserve to be told too. We can tell multiple stories without threatening others. We, as people, deserve more than a single story. We deserve more than two or three or ten stories. Every story gives us a fuller life experience.
The above example is contemporary, but the single story concept extends beyond as well. It permeates every facet of literature. In fantasy, especially young adult fantasy, there is another single story narrative pertinent to PTSD that’s repeated over and over, and it is this: Broken Girl meets The One and is fixed through the curative power of Love.
This narrative hurts me. It is a dangerous lie.
Growing up, I often escaped to fantasy worlds to help me cope with what was unraveling around me. I still do. But especially as a young reader, I internalized much of what I read. And this narrative, the “Broken Girl Cured by Love” narrative, buried itself deep. So deep I didn’t realize how much it had shaped my behavior until this weekend, and to be honest, I’m still trying to untangle a lot of it.
What I have realized, however, is that I truly believed I could be cured by love. In fact, up until recently, one of my primary criterion for a partner was that I could spend a night with them and not suffer nightmares. I was sure that somewhere out there someone existed who would save me from my nightmares. This internalized narrative that I picked up from fantasy books is harmful to me in real, tangible ways.
One of the ways my PTSD manifests itself is through touch aversion. When I’m touched (especially by a stranger), I experience physical symptoms. My heart rate rises, my breathing shallows, I become dizzy, I grind my teeth, I sweat, my pulse hammers in my ears so I can’t hear properly. Often, I freeze, completely debilitated by terror. Sometimes, I lash out, verbally or physically. This is not a comfortable feeling.
Yet, because of the Broken Girl Cured by Love narrative, I’ve put myself in this position time and time again. I’ve retraumatized myself while I search for The One To Defeat The Nightmares. I’ve spent nights with people I was revolted by hoping this time I’ll find The One. This time, the Magical Cure Love will save me from my PTSD. I’ve numbed myself with drugs and alcohol while I try to find The One Who Wields the Cure Love, hoping that when I do I’ll be able to be touched without the need for chemical alteration.
It has not and will not ever happen. Love is not a cure for PTSD. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope; it simply means this narrative is not the “hope” people like me need. The lie of this single story has damaged me, and I don’t think it takes much extrapolation to understand it could damage other people, or to see the damage done could be more extreme than it has been in my case.
One of the main takeaways from my weekend workshop is that words are powerful, more powerful than we might realize. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers and that is to tell the Truth as best we can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty, but it is our duty to try, to put in the work, and to hopefully do no harm.
There is no such thing as a single story of the human experience, and it’s far past time we stopped trying to tell one. As Daniel José Older told me over the weekend, “It doesn’t have to be sexy.” I suppose the Truth hardly ever is.