Turning Rejection into Motivation

Once again, I turned to the 88 Cups of Tea podcast to continue to explore the subject of rejection. I listened to Episode 139 – An interview with Rachel Heng.

Pro Tip: “Don’t take it personally… The literary world is about rejection.”

Rachel Heng, award-winning author of the “Suicide Club,” shared her path to publication, which involved over 300 rejections.

She approached writing from more of an academic angle, so most of her 300+ submissions were to literary journals. She also talked at length about pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree, and how she received her acceptance to a university program at the same time as she got the publishing contract for her first novel.

I assume she’s in Europe somewhere, because she said repeatedly that no one should have to pay for a degree and that if you keep pushing you’ll be able to get into a fully-funded program, and that’s kind of unheard of where I live. Sadly, we’re just not that progressive here.

Getting back to rejection…

To get published, you have to put yourself out there. The literary world is about rejection, and you have to get used to it. Don’t take it personally.

Aim for 100 rejections a year.

After the first year, she learned that rejection often has nothing to do with the quality of the story. If you are getting soft rejections with personal notes, then it’s likely your work doesn’t match the “theme” or “subject” the agent/publisher is looking for, or they may already have 5 stories on that topic. There are so many factors. The quality of the story is just small part of it.

Rachel recommends writing classes, courses, and conferences. One story that had been rejected 27 times got picked up by a journal after she workshopped it. And that story was later nominated for an award.

For pushing on, it is absolutely crucial to have writing friends who understand what you are going through and can tell you honestly when your work is good enough to submit. Your other friends may love you, but they won’t really get where you are coming from, and they won’t understand how to help you.

Rachel is a strong advocate of continuing education and pushing on to improve writing skills. In competitive programs, with low admission rates of 1-2%, many writers need to apply 2-4 times to get in.

Don’t give up. Spread your net wide. Write, apply to programs, keep pushing on.

She also offered advice on writing even when you don’t feel like it. She suggested writers find a routine that works and stick with it.

“There’s a really fine balance between pushing yourself through discomfort and not giving up but also like being kind to yourself and knowing when it’s not working, and then stepping back and giving yourself time and space to refuel before you go back to writing.”

When she was working full time and also writing, she aimed to write 500 words a day before she went to work. That would get her to a draft within 6 months. She prefers consistent and small steps.

But some work the other way. I am one of those people. I write in bursts and that works for me. Find what works best for you.

When asked about writing advice, Rachel said people shouldn’t worry over what famous writers say to do or not do.

“Don’t beat yourself up over it. If some famous writer says you need to do XYZ and I tried it and it didn’t work for me, it doesn’t mean that you can’t write. It just means you work differently, that’s all.”

She closed the interview with query tips. She didn’t offer any advice that was new to me, but it was still good to hear it, because it confirmed what I already know.

“Do your research and aim high. It’s easy to say there’s no point submitting to a particular agent, even if they are like your dream agent, but you have absolutely nothing to lose.

Do it in rounds and aim as high as possible. Even higher than you think you can get.

Don’t self-sabotage. Aim for agents who represent the work you love or who you think would be a great advocate for your work.

Try to learn as much as you can about the agents and the tailor your query to them.”

Resilience – Pushing past rejection

Today, I listened to the 88 Cups of Tea podcast, Episode 155, an interview with Julie Dao on pushing past rejection.

Pro Tip: “Get back to loving writing.”

“You can be the best writer ever, you could write the greatest story, and still be told no over, and over, and over. So you have to separate that being a writer and being an author is not always about talent – it’s about perseverance. It’s about wanting something more than anything you’ve ever wanted before and letting that desire to overcome help you push past all of the rejections.”

This interview begins with Julie’s story, her path to becoming published.

I won’t delve too deeply into that part of the interview, except to say that writing fanfiction had made her feel like becoming an author was actually possible.

In this one respect, my (short) journey mirrors Julie’s. I doubt I’d be brave enough to attempt novel writing had it not been for the incredible support I received from fanfic readers and writers.

It’s an amazing feeling having people you don’t know love your work and clamour for more.  

Julie didn’t have an easy go of it. She’d been writing for 8 years before she landed an agent, who she met through PidMad. She’d written 6 full novels before her her first novel was purchased by a publisher.

The hardest part for her was the year just prior to an agent offering to represent her work, as she had 15 agents sit with her full manuscript for over a year. She became depressed and started thinking about giving up on her dream.

Julie hit rock bottom when an agent asked for an R & R (a revise and resubmit). The agent called, didn’t offer representation, but gave Julie ideas for revisions. Julie took all those ideas to heart. She worked for 6 months on revisions. Then, after all that work, the agent rejected the story because she didn’t like it anymore.

During that year of hell, Julie found that all of the marketing parts of becoming an author had worn her down. She decided to get back to loving writing.

Julie explained, “Authors have to be marketers, but writers can just love words.”

“Being a writer and being an author isn’t always about talent. You have to separate that out. It’s about perseverance. It’s about wanting something more than anything you’ve ever wanted before. And … [use] that desire to push back all of the rejections. Because we all get rejections. No one is agented on the first try or published on the first try.”

Julie said that things got a lot easier after she realized that “rejection is an inevitable part of our business. Once I learned that being told ‘no’ is a natural and normal thing, it became easier to keep pushing on.”

While those 15 agents sat with her work for over a year, she decided to stop querying altogether. She took time to write a story just for herself. And that was the mindset that she was in when she wrote the book that was eventually published.

Julie shared that one of her mistakes was in thinking that it was smooth sailing after she had representation. The book that scored her an agent wasn’t purchased by a publisher. She received 30 rejections from publishers in the months that followed.

So, even though she’d gotten in the door, there was another series of doors that kept slamming in her face.

She said it’s incredibly important to write something for yourself first. A story you love, even if no one else ever wants it.

Julie closed the interview with this advice: “The day you give up could be the day before your dream comes true. Another day could bring something completely different. Each day is full of possibilities that you don’t know existed before.”

“So when you go to bed, and you feel dejected, just remember that the next day could bring something new. Be proud of what you’re writing and have confidence in your own work.” 

An Agent’s take on Dream Authors… and so much more

Today, I listened to the Beautiful Writer’s Podcast interview with Laura Yorke, Agent at Carol Mann Agency.

Pro Tip: “Getting published isn’t the be all and end all. It may seem like it… It can be the start of all sorts of incredible things… but if you don’t enjoy the writing in the moment while your’e doing it, then you’re wasting your time.”

I can only touch on what’s discussed because this interview is overflowing with information.

If this post intrigues you, listen to the full interview.

Some of the topics discussed:

  • What an editor needs from the author to take on their book
  • For an agent, what makes a dream/nightmare client
  • At least 50% of non-fiction books are ghost written, maybe more; likely 30% of memoirs are too.
  • If you want a job writing, be a ghost writer.
  • How often agents have to say no, and how they decide
  • How publishing has changed — it’s more like the music industry
  • The advantages of signing with a small publisher
  • What makes a best seller
  • General advice for success in the publishing industry industry

So these are the bits that either grabbed me or blew my mind.

What an editor needs to take a book

Editors need to really believe in the book that they are publishing. Not just the message. The writing too.

Even if it is an incredible and gripping story, if the writing doesn’t pull the editor in, they will pass on it. If the editor isn’t fully in love with the work, then it won’t make it past the editorial board.

An agent’s dream client

A dream client is aware of the industry. The author knows what it’s like today, not how it used to be because it’s changed a lot. The author is aware of other people’s time limits — because both agents and editors have so much material in front of them all the time, it’s insane.

And if they don’t already understand what that kind of overload is like, then they listen to the agent and they accept it.

For instance, with fiction, it can take months for an agent to let you know if they are going to represent you or not. And it can take months for editors to come back to you with a response. A nightmare client is one who is bitching about that.

When you get rejections, a nightmare client refuses to think that maybe it has something to do with their writing, or maybe it has something to do with other books that are out there on the market right now. 

An angel client says, “Well, thank you so much for trying. I know that it doesn’t always fly. It’s the way that it goes.”

A dream client is someone the agent can dialog with. It doesn’t have to all be pleasant. Just open and honest. Hear the agent out and believe them when they say they are doing their best. A dream author listens.

Some interesting facts about the publishing industry

An author is the person’s whose name is on the book. The writer is the person who wrote the words. Often the author has the market, platform, and experience, and the writer has the writing skills.

At the time of the interview, Laura estimated there were only 5,000 ghost writers in the US. She said it’s a great career. Ghost writers are always needed.

Laura estimated 50% of nonfiction books are ghostwritten.

Laura’s take on an agent’s job

Laura sees herself as a matchmaker. She puts a good author and writer together. The same is true for an author and an editor. It’s a critical part of the job. Being able to match people correctly. She does this by really listening to what her clients have to say. 

How Laura chooses clients

She said 95% of her clients are referrals. It is extremely rare for Laura to take something cold (blind).

Laura’s advice to writers without connections

Laura said, if somehow a non-referred pitch were to come her way, To even look at it, your pitch has to be well written, short, to the point, and so strong in its writing that I go, ‘Huh,’ this is (a) a really interesting subject and (b) this person can write. Those are the only two things that are going to make me pick something up cold.”

Nothing reaches Laura’s desk unless its vetted

Her agency has a stable of interns who go through all the mail that is submitted. Nothing gets to an agent unless it would be of interest to them.

Laura can’t even explain how that system works. She can’t say how many things come in a day, but about 40 pitches are sent to her from that team daily.

Authors have to sell their work

One of the first things she’s asks a client is, “What are you willing to do? Are you willing to get freelance publicity?.. .Do you have a company that’s willing to buy that book, at 10,000 or so?” She needs that info to pitch to publishers.  

The industry has changed

Publishing has become somewhat like the music industry because of digital publishing and blogging. People don’t buy books as much as they used to, and they want shorter books than they used to.

Passion used to drive this industry. Now, if an author doesn’t have a platform, it’s going to be a hard sell. “I’m sorry to say that so bluntly, but it’s just the fact of the matter. If you can’t give me ammunition to sell, then it’s hard.”

Smaller publishers, like Skyhorse, can offer partnership in building a platform, as long as you come to the table with something beautiful. 

Identifying best sellers

Sometimes amazing books that are really great aren’t best sellers. And it’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.

There are so many variables in this industry that you can not control, whether you’re the author, the editor, or the agent. All you can do is keep trying and do your best. Put all your effort into it and believing in the book.

This comes back to being that dream client. A dream client will say to her agent, “Whatever happens, I know I’m in the best hands that I could possibly be in.”

Even in the face of rejection, a dream client would say, “This sucks, but it’s nobody’s fault. I’m frustrated by it, but I know everybody’s trying.” A horrible author is one that blames the publisher, editor, or agent.

Laura says she’s still surprised by books that don’t work that she was positive would hit the best seller list. Sometimes it’s because another similar book hit the list just before it. 

Laura’s secret to success

Laura says her success comes her ability to remain present. She offers the following advice to authors.

“As much as you can, stay in the moment, and do not let anticipatory anxiety take over your work. Writing is such a wonderful and fun thing. Enjoy writing. Just enjoy it.”

“This isn’t the business you go into because you want to become famous or to do for money.”

“People say, ‘I can’t quit my job. I thought you were going to get me that kind of advance.’ What century are you living in?”

“Stay present in your work and love writing. Love it. And you will get rewards.”

How authors can find their voice

In the Youtube Ask a Mentor chats, when discussing what grabs them in the first few pages of a book, the fabulous PitchWars mentors ? consistently said it was “voice.” If you, as an author, have a strong voice, then your novel will resonate and draw the reader in.

So what exactly is voice?

It’s your style. It is what you say and how you say it.

Elton John is a great example. He knows precisely what he wants to say, how he wants to say it, and what he’s going to wear when he’s saying it.

Today’s podcast review was The Creative Penn’s interview with Julia McCutchen. Julia, former publisher and now writers’ coach and mentor, talked about developing authentic voice.

Protip: “Write from your heart but also pay attention to what the public marketplace wants.”

Julia surprised me. She said that developing your own unique style is all about being present. (You know, like “The Power of Now” kind.)

I’m continually amazed at how much advice on how to be successful and happy comes back to the concept of being present. Apparently, all roads lead to Eckhart Tolle.

We’ll get back to that meditation stuff in a bit. First, let’s talk about the benefits of developing your voice, your own signature style. Julia said that the market craves authenticity. “Authenticity is what people want from you — they want this whole real connection.”

She offered 5 steps to discovering voice (fair warning, these are not steps you can take in a few minutes):

  1. Stop, be still, and pause. Julia talked about surviving a tragic accident, which forced her to take space, reflect, and think deeply about who she was and what she wanted. She urged listeners to create the time and space needed to bring themselves into awareness of the present moment. She recommended authors do this as often as possible, many times a day, to bring us to a more authentic space. (This isn’t what you were expecting, right? I’m right there with you.)
  2. Embrace the mystery. Your conscious mind doesn’t always have the answers. Let go of desire to pin down the voice and get used to not knowing. Live with the questions until the answers present themselves. Be receptive to the journey. (Ugh, this is a be-more-patient lesson I hate this lesson.)
  3. Sharpen your senses. Work at constantly being aware of all five senses and your feelings as well. Bring awareness to the sharpness to what your senses deliver up. Listening is a very important skill for developing voice. Listen to stories and be curious, which is outer listening, and listen to what’s happening inside you, inner listening. (I’m legit on board with this. I’m all about steeping in my environment and using it as fodder for my next written work.)
  4. Explore new possibilities. Play with this practice. Don’t try too hard to get it right. Just accept that discovering your voice is an ever-deepening journey. (And we’re back to being patient.)
  5. Go with the flow. Nurture the seeds of the first sparks of understanding. When you gain clarity, allow this understanding to unfold. You’ll know when you are on track when you feel clarity and joy — you’ll be discovering your authentic voice.

Okay, so I’m not going to argue with the expert here. I believe Julia when she says that a self-reflective and meditative approach will help authors discover who they are, deep down, what they want to communicate, and also precisely how they want to share that message. That long and excruciating journey will very likely lead an author to discover her (or his or their) authentic voice.

But I’m impatient. I want my voice now!

I’m sorry. I wasn’t being authentic ? I kinda feel that I have a voice already. It may need a bit of fine-tuning though, so I’m going to focus in on Step 3, because there’s some seriously good stuff there.

Sharpening senses will lead to writing in deeper perspective. That will help me to draw the reader in more. That is what I want.

So, did this podcast help me? Yeah, kinda. I guess. Did it help you? Meditate on that and let me know on Twitter ?

TL;DR: Keep it real. Figure out who you are, and then lean in.

Review of an interview with Helen Hoang (a #PitchWars alum)

Protip: “For comps, try to appeal to women in their 30s because most agents online are women in their 30s.”

Today I listened to the Write or Die podcast, Episode 28: Helen Hoang & Properly Destroying Your Readers.

For the first 30 minutes, the hosts bantered about where they were at in the writing process. It was useful information. They had an incredible discussion about minorities’ representation in literature and especially how trans people have been treated, and they invited anyone with that experience to contact them and use the Write or Die platform to express their thoughts.

“We have to amplify people’s voices and stop speaking over them,” said one of the hosts.

That was a wonderful thing to hear. I appreciate how open minded the hosts are and how clear they are in their advocacy of people in marginalized communities.

Enter Helen Hoang — she talked about so many things, covering her journey to becoming a published author, her experiences with agents and editors, tips on submission, tips on writing romance, and she closed by sharing an embarrassing query story.

A quick recap of Helen’s journey: Helen’s first few books didn’t fly. Then she got into #PitchWars and Brighton Walsh helped her fix her story, The Kiss Quotient. She learned a lot from that. The story didn’t do well in the Pitchwars Agent Round, but she found a great agent through the query process. The book went on submission for 2 weeks, and then it went to action. It was picked up by Cindy Wong at Berkely.

The host’s response to Helen’s journey to being published: “People think that if they stumble at one point in the journey, then the rest of the journey will be completely ruined. Like you were saying, yeah, you didn’t get a lot of attention in the agent round of PitchWars, which is just one event of many events, and only one way to get the attention of agents. And a lot of people can take that to mean, ‘Oh my story isn’t good enough, so even if I get an agent it won’t do well in submission,’ but you provide that wrong, because you freaking killed it in submission.” 

This really helped me (Keira the blogger) feel better about my blunders and the haphazard way I’ve been learning about fictional writing and the publishing process.

Helen’s view on securing an agent:  “You know they say all you need is one yes, but that’s not exactly just one yet, it’s the right yes. I think my agent has a personal connection to autism and she is like especially designed to be my agent in that way, so she was able to champion the book … it was her combined with the manuscript that got me to Cindy Wong’s desk.”

Tips for submission: “Know what a query looks like. Research how to write a query. Make sure that your manuscript is as good as you can make it. A lot of queries don’t follow the standard structure, and I think just researching what a query looks like and learning how to write it in a standard structure is useful.”

Tips for Romance: “Be in tune with your senses, it’s a big part of the sensuality of it. being in your body physically and to be really aware of your emotions. Loneliness and yearning… focus on those feelings. “

“I like a romance to be a total body experience. You want your heart pumping. You want to experience all the parts of it like the love and the anguish and also physically that excitement of the first kiss, and the first time they hold hands, and the shivers and all those things.”

Tips for Plot & Story Construction: “I build the story towards the words moment that their going to have. You have to structure it around that horrible falling out moment, because that’s when you’re going to have the most dramatic impact. I need to know what that moment is ahead of time, so that I can build everything towards that so that when it happens that you are properly destroyed… very destroyed.”

Helen’s embarrassing moment: “I feel like I embarrass myself so often but they kind of just all blend together. …  When I first started querying I didn’t know the structure of a query, and it’s funny because it was actually a successful query. It was just one sentence. I wrote the hook and sent that out to a bazillion agents, and I got a request from a very good agent. And she said, ‘Okay, I’ll bite. Send me a partial.’ Then I got feedback, this is not ready.”

“Every step along the way can be seen as a learning process.”

Towards the end of the interview, Helen said, “Our characters would be boring if they did mess up… They would be super boring.”

Which I think is true for authors too… we need to screw up in our lives so that we can write our characters screwing up in theirs.

Plotting – A walkthrough of 7-point story structure

Protip: “Start where your Resolution is and then make sure that the Hook has the character in almost exactly the opposite position.”

Today, I checked out the Writing Excuses podcast. I really love that they are all 15-minutes long!

I listened to Episode 7-41 on 7-Point Story Structure. This is a screenplay technique that works extremely well for action/adventure, romance, and many other genres.

Dan Wells, who is famous for this writing approach on YouTube, gave Harry Pottery examples for the following 7 steps:

  • Hook – who people are what their starting stage is
  • Plot Turn I – the call to adventure
  • Pinch I – Put pressure on char to force them into action (i.e., forcing to use skills to make things happen)
  • Midpoint – Char moves from reaction to action (sick of running, going to face the problem)
  • Pinch II – Really put the pressure on char – as dire as possible (loss of mentor)
  • Plot Turn II – Get last info they need. Figure out puzzle. Realize the weak point that allows everything to wrap up.
  • Resolution – They do it. They win.

But stories have so many more plot twists than that! How can this possibly work?

Dan says this doesn’t restrict you to having only 7 scenes. This approach has you think of your work as 7 key moments that move from Hook to Resolution. And within each of those, you can have a mini 7-point loop as well.

Dan suggests starting from the Resolution. You want to look back and make sure that the Hook has the character in almost exactly the opposite position.

They have to move all the way from one end of the spectrum to the other to accomplish their goal.  When writing, make sure your character moves believably from one point to the next.

If you want to dive deep into this, check out Dan’s Youtube video series. He explains this process in 5 videos over an hour (I think it was part of a workshop or talk).

Overall, I really loved how quick and clear the hosts were. The podcast was informative. I will definitely be listening to Writing Excuses again.

An agent’s take on query letters … and so much more

Pro tip from Suzie: “Keep your query letter to 250 words…. Make sure every word counts.

I’m taking you back again to the YouTube Ask a Mentor Chats with the fabulous PitchWars mentors. They consistently recommended the “88 Cups of Tea” podcast with Yin Chang.

Today, I listened to Episode 151 – SUZIE TOWNSEND: On Becoming a Literary Agent. Yin dives in deep with Suzie, a New Leaf Agent.

I have a lot to share with you. This interview was seriously packed.

The first 30 minutes or so were about Suzie’s journey and how she came to be the lit agent she is today. The next 30 minutes were a deep dive into the world of agents, editors, and their slew of colleagues, including experts in translation, audio, film, and merchandise.

The last 30 minutes really caught and held my attention. Suzie talked about killer query letters and why they were so damned good.

Yin offers a Query Letter Guide at the bottom of the podcast page that includes 6 queries and Suzie’s detailed notes on what she loved about them. Go grab that now!

Here are some gems from the interview.

  • Suzie finds YA to be more trendy than MG.
  • For MG submissions, everything comes back to voice. The voice must be kid-friendly.
  • Editors are looking for a good sense of humor. It doesn’t have to be the main focus, but a healthy dose of humor helps to pull reluctant readers in.

If you get “the call” ask the agent:

  • About communication style — email person or phone person?
  • For references — one person whose book just came out and one person whose has been on submission but the book didn’t sell.
  • What do you do if we go on submission and the book doesn’t sell?
  • What departments are in house?

When talking about killer queries, Suzie said:

  • In the first sentence, explain what the main char wants, what their number one goal is, and give the reason why.
  • Keep the full query to 250 words.
  • Make sure every word counts (no extra words thrown in).
  • Your second sentence should be about where the plot is going. Bring the reader along.
  • Each paragraph should build off the one that came before it. The stakes should be getting higher and higher, especially in a plot-driven story. 
  • Avoid character soup. If you have a big cast of characters, only mention one or two.
  • If you say that you’re sending your query to an agent because she likes plot-driven work, then make sure your query demonstrates that. If you highlight something, it should be very clear in your query and writing style that your story delivers that.

Time to Toughen Up

Two days ago on Twitter, @CooksUpAStory advised authors grow thicker skin and learn to manage our works being critiqued.

I’m approaching this with extreme reluctance. I decided to start by listening to professionals critique other people’s work.

It’s a baby step, I admit, but I’m still moving forward, right?

I listened to the Red Penning Romance podcast, Episode 5: Snow Daze. Mary and Jeremy pull no punches. They are blunt and cutting, but always clear.

I’ll be honest, it was hard to listen to — but it was also valuable. If I’m going to create something and put it out in the world, some people may like it, but guaranteed many will deeply hate it.

So here’s what I learned from that episode:

  • Things have to make sense. (This came up a lot.)
  • If you give a character a unique name. Have a damned good reason for that and make that clear to your reader.
  • Times and sequences of events matter. Check for this when proofing.
  • Think carefully about motivation. What drives your character? And is that even plausible? If you were in that situation, would you do that? Can you imagine anyone else ever doing that?
  • Don’t allude to uber famous writers in your own work. It comes across as bragging.
  • Don’t use the phrase “meet cute” in your novel, even if your story is about a romance author who is plagued by the meet-cute beat.

Toughen up with me and give Red Penning Romance a go. Good advice with callous-building commentary.

Just sex, always

On YouTube Ask a Mentor Chats, the PitchWars mentors ? have consistently recommended Print Run Podcast.

Today, I listened to Episode 3: Romance Outakes. It was fun and informative.

Pro tip from Laura and Erik: “Pretend your characters are boning at all times. Just sex always. And your writing will definitely improve.

They talked about unnatural and empty dialog tags that appear in first drafts, like grinning, smiling, and shrugging. For Erik, those unnatural tags are grating. No one grins fives times in a conversation.

“Even in the first draft, which is a bit rough, the sex scenes are the best written parts, because the writer is actually thinking more and more about how the bodies are interacting in space and they’ve made that their focus  and so all this extra stupid action that doesn’t mean anything they suddenly instinctually realize, ‘Oh yeah, that doesn’t belong.’ …

And so my point here is when you’re thinking like that for your sex scenes, think about bodies and space for all your other scenes too. Make all your scenes like your sex scenes in that way. … If you start working from that perspective, you’ll get rid of a lot of … [the] empty dialog tags, a lot of this stupid gesture that doesn’t actually mean anything, and you’ll be able to cut that away and add in other sensory detail, which I think … comes really naturally to people when they’re writing about sex but less so when they are writing about conversation.”