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How Rejections (Lots of Them) Helped Me Find My Voice, and Eventually Landed Me a Book Deal

Rejection. Nobody likes it. Just the thought of it, makes most of us squirm and break into a sweat. But I’m here to tell you that rejection CAN be a good thing. Rejection can help us hone our skills. Rejection can teach us to persist. Rejection can thicken our skins.

In both querying and submissions, expect to get loads of rejections. It’s normal. It’s part of the process. The Twitter overnight success stories are the unicorns of the industry—sparkly and rare. For the rest of us, finding an agent and getting a book deal might take years, or might not happen at all. That’s the reality.

Because there are already tons of blog posts about querying, I’d rather focus on the submissions process. For some reason authors dislike talking about the submissions process. Generally speaking it’s a hush-hush topic. But there have been some authors out there sharing their experiences. Most recently I read a post on Pub Crawl by Julie C. Dao, author of FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, which inspired me to open up about my own experience. You can read her piece here:

In Julie’s post, she shares a sampling of some of the rejections she got. The takeaway is that sometimes rejections make no sense. Sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes not at all. But the biggest takeaway of all is that rejections are subjective—VERY subjective.

So here goes my submissions history. I got my agent Wendy Schmalz with a YA contemporary book I’d written called ADRIFT. Even though my agent loved the book, she wanted me to revise it in a major way. It took me a long while to revise. But after four months or so, my agent thought it was ready for submissions.

The first round of rejections came within a two month timeframe. Below is a sampling:

* As this stands, I think the novel would need a considerable amount of work to make Isa's chapters as compelling as Coral’s, and to develop the bond between them to make it convincing. I found the romance in Isa's storyline more distracting than interesting or helpful. Also, I feel that Tanya shied away from really delving into the psychological affect this experience would have on both girls. Deeply significant events, such as the murder of Coral’s parents, Coral's act of self-defense, and the theft of Coral’s diary, seemed glossed over. Finally, in places the prose got a little too purple for my taste.

* I’m afraid, though, that the voice didn’t wow me as much as the story. And Isa’s chapters just weren’t as compelling to me as the ones from Coral’s POV—I found myself skimming those passages to get back to the island. There’s a lot of great stuff here, but it didn’t add up for me enough to acquire it.

*I did not, I'm afraid, fall in love with the book as much as I'd hoped--I just wasn't sure what made it really stand out, how I could position it in a way that would feel different from so many of the other teen novels I'm seeing and that are being published. I needed a little something extra, whether it was a voice I was obsessed with, or a character that put me over the edge, just something more for me to latch onto. I felt like there could've been so much more emotion wrought out of the scenes here, from the attack on Coral to Bambi's dying . . . that might've been something that would have helped me. There's nothing wrong with this book, I just didn't have *that feeling*! I'm really sorry.

* This is a strong debut and I think the premise is certainly compelling. I especially enjoyed watching Isa and Coral’s intense bond unfold. Even so, as much as I admire elements of the project, I found the narrative a bit slow-going and lacking in suspense. As a result, I’m afraid I didn’t stay as engaged as I had hoped. Perhaps I’m just missing the boat on this one. In any case, I’m very sorry.

So after this first round my agent and I decided to do yet another revision based on some of the feedback. It was another major revision, but I was determined to keep on going. It took me another four to five months to get it done.

Then we were off to a second round of submissions. Almost immediately we had an editor interested, BUT when she brought it to acquisitions, it was rejected. Below is the email from that editor:

* Thank you so much for sharing ADRIFT with me. I absolutely loved reading this manuscript, which I think of as a cross between Wild and “Castaway.” The scenes on the island are masterfully plotted and incredibly compelling. Just when I thought that Coral might be okay, another disaster hit! Her character’s ingenuity will appeal to readers, and the tender relationship between the Coral and Bambi offers terrific emotional touch-points.

Unfortunately, my acquisitions committee did not give me the go-ahead to offer on the project. While they agreed that the story was compelling, they worried that it might be hard to break out in a big way. There was also concern that the scenes in the hospital were slow and unfocused compared to the island scenes. This could be revised, of course, but it was too much of a roadblock for readers here.

I’m not going to lie. I was devastated. I mean I had come so damn close, but still yet another rejection. However, I tried to remain optimistic. If this one editor thought it was good enough to bring to acquisitions, surely there would be other editors right? Right? RIGHT? Sadly that wasn’t the case. Though this time around, the feedback was better, still, the rejections kept on coming. Below is another sampling:

* Tanya's lyrical prose is gorgeous--the image of her eating the urchin with her father is so vivid, and the book is full of so many stunning visual moments like that. In theory, I like the idea of intertwining chapters of Coral on the island with those of her post-rescue, and was interested to see how Tanya would pull this off! Unfortunately, while the prose is lovely, the overall structure and pacing of the story didn't quite come together for me in as seamless a way as I'd hoped.

* I love the high stakes at play here and Coral is a compelling, strong character. Ultimately, though, I’m afraid I didn’t fall in love with the writing the way I had hoped. In particular, I worry that revealing the “after” so quickly, telling the reader that Coral survives, undermines the tension that Tanya is trying to build throughout Coral’s trials. Alas, I’m sorry to say I don’t think this one is quite right for my list at the moment.

It was after this round of rejections that I decided to write something new. I thought maybe I needed to write something edgier, darker, something that would really grab the editors’ attention. Almost immediately I came up with an idea for a YA contemporary mystery/thriller, which I titled BONES OF GOLD. It took me five months to draft it, and two months to edit it. I loved this book—the feel of it, the way I’d written it, the uniqueness of the plot and characters. I was sure this was going to be it.

Once again we went into submissions. The second time around was a lot harder. It’s really difficult to explain, but there was this doom-and-gloom feeling inside of me. Like if this book didn’t sell that would be the end of my career. The first rejection I got for this book was like a stab in the heart. The vagueness of it really killed me:

* Thanks for checking in on this one. I did have a chance to take a look, but I’m afraid it’s not quite right for me. But please don’t hesitate to query me in the future!

But then I calmed myself, and waited, and waited and waited some more. Eventually more rejections came. Below is a sampling:

* I so wanted to fall head over heels in love with it, but unfortunately I think at the end of the day the storytelling feels a bit too quiet for my list right now, and it just didn't capture my heart the way I'd hoped.

* I also thought the dreamy tone to this story was captivating and made for some very whimsical, vivid descriptions. Unfortunately, though, as I continued reading I had some trouble connecting to the prose, which I felt was a bit heavy-handed at times. For this reason, I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on this one and cede the way for an editor who feels differently.

But this one rejection in particular, from a well respected editor-in-chief of a big house got me thinking.

* The writing here is beautiful, and the book extremely compelling. However, I did struggle with who the audience was, the voice feels almost Middle Grade, although of course the content is more YA/adult.

Had my voice been wrong all along? Was I just trying too hard to write what I thought the market wanted rather than what I was really feeling/thinking inside? I thought long and hard about all the rejections I’d gotten. That soul searching, was soul crushing. I came to the realization that what I had been writing all along, wasn’t authentically me. It lacked heart, specifically my heart. It also lacked voice, specifically my voice.

I reminisced about when I was a kid. There were so many moments filled with anxiety, filled with new experiences. I remembered how hard it was to make new friends, how sometimes, I had nothing to say, and sometimes I had too much to say. I also replayed the conversations I had with my own daughter—how she saw everything in such a unique way—oftentimes the littlest things were like the end of the world, and big things were no biggie at all. My daughter also reminded me of one key ingredient in my writing that I'd been missing all along—humor and silliness. Because sometimes we just need to laugh, right?

So after a lot of thought, I knew what I had to do. I had to write a story that the kid version of me needed. That’s when the idea of my first ever middle-grade book popped into my head. The story, the characters, materialized overnight, as if they’d been part of my memories all along. THE WILD SIDE was an ode to my own experiences as a child with a somewhat nomadic existence. It was so close to my heart that the draft was effortless. I finished it in three months, and after my agent read it she said it was pretty much perfect—she loved it and wanted to send it to submissions right away. YES!

I knew in the pit of my stomach that this book was special. When the submissions process began, I was sure I would get some rejections, but I was also sure someone would LOVE it. Below is a sampling of the initial rejections:

* I love the setting and that so much of it is inspired by the author’s own background, but much as I’d hoped to love this, I’m afraid I didn’t fall in love with the writing. I’ll have to pass, but thanks so much for giving me a chance to consider it.

* Thanks so much for sharing this project with me. I’ve finally had a chance to take a look, and while there’s a ton to like about this project, ultimately, I’m have to pass. I think Tanya’s done such a lovely job showing Pablo’s growth over the course of the book, and while I did find the story to be unique, I just didn’t quite fall enough in love with it to move forward, I’m afraid.

I had only gotten a handful or rejections when my agent sent me a really hopeful email—an email that made my stomach do Olympic caliber somersaults. There was an editor who loved THE WILD SIDE, but she was asking if I would be willing to do some revisions on the first 30-40 pages. Assuming she was happy with the changes, she would send those pages to acquisitions. When I heard her feedback, and then spoke to her on the phone, I knew she was the right editor for my book. I JUST KNEW IT.

But then all of the sudden, another editor was expressing interest. He was going to bring it to the editorial board in a few days. I had mixed feelings about this as I kind of had my heart set on the first editor. Days passed, and finally my agent told me that it had come close, but ultimately the editorial board had rejected it. But this news made me happy! It was the happiest rejection I’d ever gotten. I dove into revising the first 40 pages of my book. The changes came easily; it only took me two weeks. It was coming really close to Christmas, and my agent said most likely we would not hear any news until after the New Year. Obviously she was trying to manage my expectations, but inside I knew it was going to happen. I was finally going to get my book deal.

On December 21st, I got the news I’d waited two and a half years for:

* I brought THE WILD SIDE to acquisitions today, and I received an enthusiastic green light. Hooray! I love this story--even more so since seeing the revised pages--and I sincerely hope for the chance to help Tanya bring it to publication. I promise her and you my complete dedication to the project from start to finish.

FINALLY! I had an offer—not just any offer, but an offer from a dream editor and a dream publisher. THE WILD SIDE was acquired by editorial director Joy Peskin of Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers/Macmillan.

Below is a summary of what I learned during the two and a half years of submissions I went through:

* Patience, patience and more patience.

* To survive publishing you must develop a thick skin of reptilian proportions.

* Publishing is VERY subjective.

* Stay persistent.

* Learn to take constructive criticism.

* Never write based on what you think the market wants.

* Always write from the heart.

* Voice. Voice. Voice. Finding your voice is one of the hardest challenges in writing.

* Don’t be afraid of revisions.

And lastly:

* Keep working hard EVEN after you get that book deal. The goal is to be a career writer not a one trick pony.

I’d like to wish all of you out there who are in the querying/submissions trenches good luck! Those rejections might hurt, but learn, learn, learn from them!

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