The Myth of the Other Side
I had every intention posting this ages ago. Ages and ages. But then school started and #PBCritiqueFest ate my time and focus like an unquenchable yet awesome black hole. Now that the dust has settled on both and I am beginning to move forward with regular interviews, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my journey after finding representation back in February. As a querying author, I always felt there was this mysterious transformation that happened to authors once they found their agent. Some metamorphosis. Once they signed that contract...
Instant author street cred.
Bunnies frolicked in meadows. Clouds parted. Doves and unicorns descended from on high.
Now they were REAL authors and their opinions suddenly mattered (just a bit more). Obviously not as much as authors who have SOLD a book, but still...a definite jump up the "ladder."
At least that’s how it felt. On the outside looking in. At times it felt like agented authors were at this super fancy party. I didn’t know what was happening inside because the windows were tinted. All I knew was that there was music, booming bass, laughter, and a guest list without my name anywhere to be found.
I always thought it was odd that authors would get an agent and then not share a ton until they had some deal to announce. And I would often wonder what their author life looked like after that achievement. I had questions that needed answers. What were their struggles? What new challenges did they find themselves knee deep in? How had the game changed? What was writing like with the added pressure of measurably greater stakes? Were the stakes greater or did it feel the same? What new things were they learning? Sometimes people ask me how I stomached 600 rejections on my path to find an agent. I’m never sure what to say. Probably because I haven’t stopped being rejected. I think I’m at 630, 637? I’m not exactly sure it’s healthy to count (but good luck not counting). The only difference now is the people who are rejecting me. Editors at publishing houses instead of agents. But in principle, it’s the same thing. And it feels the same. Our reaction to things depends on the stories we tell ourselves. Stories are everything. Since getting my agent, I’ve been telling my heart, “soon...soon, you’ll sell a book. SOON. Just wait. Wait and watch the crops grow.” After over seven months of being on submission I can’t tell that story to my heart another minute. Because that story isn’t true. It’s toxic. And it’s a recipe for a broken heart. No farmer works like hell and then sits on the porch to watch the crops grow. The illustration is pure insanity. Can you imagine? Waiting for the rain. Waiting for the sun. Waiting for little seedlings to pop out of the dark earth, while ignoring the ten million other things a farmer MUST do to survive? You do that, you starve. You die. Period. I have to confess that I am a little guilty of this foolish practice. To be fair, I’ve been more than twiddling my thumbs on the proverbial writer's porch. I write. I read and critique. I research. I juggle multiple projects. I work on this website. On the outside...I’m keeping up the hustle. On the inside...I’m waiting.
Tack it up to inexperience. Tack it up to unrealistic expectations. Tack it up to whatever, and you still get the same thing...the story you tell yourself matters. And it can either kill or sustain you. So what was the difference? What was the story I was telling myself before? The story that enabled me to cheerfully brave 600 rejections? When I was querying and seeking representation, I intentionally didn’t take myself too seriously. First, it was play. First, it was fun. First, it was about learning and enjoying the process. I told my heart, “eventually you MIGHT get an agent. Work hard but have fun and enjoy the ride. Your identity isn’t rooted in your success as an author. Rejections say nothing of your character or talent.” And that spirit of play is really key. Play is the Petri dish for discovery. The lighting in a bottle. The tiny spark in a combustion engine. If you’re having fun writing, we're having fun reading! That spirit sustained me through the two years and 600 rejections. My heart wasn’t waiting. I was living in the present and ENJOYING my time. Enjoying my stories. Did I ever slip up and really FEEL some of the hits? You betcha. I am 100% human. Sometimes I threw myself a pity party. Or I’d get my hopes up on a certain agent or manuscript or opportunity. And sometimes I had honest to goodness doubts that I was cut out for writing at all. But I always came back to the same story. To get anywhere, a train has to be on its tracks. Feel your feelings, authentically meet yourself where you’re at...but tell yourself the story you need to move forward. I’ve discovered lately that I’ve been letting my heart wait. And I haven’t been enjoying my time. And it all goes back to the story I’ve been telling myself. So if it worked so well before, why on earth did I change the story? Why exactly. Perhaps I allowed myself to believe somehow that the game HAD changed. Perhaps I allowed myself to believe in the myth of the "other side." Perhaps I believed that I was in a new season. A new chapter. A veiled, secret room I had hoped really was there.
And I need to change the story back...before it's too late.
Here are some of the possible consequences if I don't stop telling myself the wrong story. Let’s say I had sold a book “soon.” Right away. Honestly I think most authors would say, by all industry standards, if I sell a book within the first year of submission that would still count as “soon.” So even if I do that, there would be more waiting. And I would have continued to tell myself that damaging story.
And then it would come out and I would wait for the reviews or the events. The happy little faces. The sales. The awards. The next book. The next book. The next book...And on and on and on. Until I’m old and bitter. All because I chose to let my heart sit and wait. And watch the crops grow. Is that any way to sustain a writing career? Hell no. That’s the recipe for a one-off hit or a flop and a total bitter burn out of a life I certainly don't care to lead.
So I'm changing the story back. Back to play. Won't you join me? Roll up your sleeves. Quit waiting for the sun to shine or the rain to come or the crops to grow. All of that WILL happen regardless of our wanting it to or not. Regardless of our waiting hearts. So why do that to yourself at all? As best you can manage, enjoy the now. Enjoy your time. Whistle while you work and be fully present and grateful for wherever you’re at. And most importantly (and if you take ONE thing from this rambling, incoherent post)...
Don't try to write a "good" book.
Write a bad book on purpose. Write a book that should never be written--with the worst opening line for a book ever!
Ask, "what if?"
There's magnetic, endless potential in those two words.
Write a book that intentionally breaks all the "rules" of books. Just for the sheer fun of it!
Go to a library and browse without a purpose other than to touch, and smell, and see all kinds of books. Let them speak to you. Seep into your skin. Jot down any lightning that happens. Don't think about it--get it all down on paper before you edit or type a word or look at a screen!
All in all...let yourself reconnect to whatever in this life makes you feel the most alive. The most present. When we spend time there...our best stuff just might be waiting to jump out and surprise us.
So far I’ve really enjoyed this new season. My favorite thing about having an agent is that writing feels less lonely. I have someone who believes in my voice and who is working alongside me to make things happen. That kind of support is priceless. Something I’ve learned on "this side of things" is just how slow things move in publishing houses. You hear about this a lot on Twitter (almost comically so), but it is SO true. If you’re wondering what I’m up to now that I have an agent, it honestly looks pretty much the same. A lot of times it feels the same too. There is no party with music. Definitely no booming bass. There is sometimes laughter...but it's mostly me laughing at myself because I'm a massive dork. As many of you know, I keep pretty busy with Picture Book Spotlight. I’ve really enjoyed getting to share my voice and add value to the kid lit community by giving back to others. I write a lot. I critique a lot. And I read a lot. While I do that, Melissa is kicking butt and getting my work out to publishers—no news yet, but time will tell!
Ashley Congdon @AshleyCCongdon What was expected of you the moment you signed? How often do you communicate? What’s the process like when you submit a manuscript and she asks for revisions?
The moment I signed we got right to work. My biggest priority was making sure my manuscript was ready for submissions, so I continued to revise even after I had signed. Melissa never made me feel as if there was a rush--she wanted it to be the best it could be as well! We chatted over the phone about our submission strategy (who we were going to send my book to first and why etc.) and I gave her my submission history (a list of the editors and small houses I had queried over the years so we didn't double submit--I think it was only 8 and most were books I was no longer pursuing).
We communicate all the time! Usually through email or a text message, probably on average once a week. However, we have a google document that gives me updates every time she submits or changes the status of a submission. That has been very helpful.
Melissa is really great about asking for revisions. She gives me big picture thoughts and line edits as well. She is always honest (and delightfully kind about it) and offers practical suggestions. If I'm passionate about it, she will work with me to make it work. As for the process itself, it always feels like an open door policy. I send projects at various stages of development and she meets me where I'm at. It's so amazing to have support at every level and that I feel comfortable sharing work whenever and whatever shape it's in. If I'm really serious about a book I'll take my time in the revision process and wait until I've had it critiqued by various groups--always the best practice.
Kailei Pew @PewKailei At what point do you send your agent a new MS? Do you check with her to make sure she at least likes the idea before delving into a ton of revisions, or do you wait and send her a pretty polished version? (I know this probably depends on how editorial your agent is).
I think I've sent her everything from finished drafts to an idea pitch. I have gotten some feedback on books in their earlier phases and this does give me direction on how much revising I should do (if I should revise at all or just scrap the thing altogether).
Juliana Savia Clayton @kidlit_writer How often do you communicate? Did you have an initial meeting to set career goals? Does she assign you deadlines (e.g. I need a new PB by the first of each month)? What does she expect from you as far as writing queries for publishers, etc.? Thanks for sharing your insights!
We communicate often. We did chat about my vision for my writing before we even signed the contract. She doesn't give me deadlines, nope! I wouldn't be able to function if I had to submit a new story per month! Yikes! Since the submission process is a slow process, it's really about quality over quantity. I have lots of time to develop new books and no rush to put them in a submission que--we are maxed out at this point so I'd have to replace one of my books on submission and until I have something better than what is already out there...there's no point in rushing for more, more, more.
ChrisPhillipsCreator @ChrisPhillipsCR Also, mostly emails? Does she call you, how often?
We text and email mostly. We have had a few phone calls when something takes a little more time to unpack or discuss--recently I was having some revision ideas that I wanted to externally process with her, so we scheduled a phone call which was immensely helpful.
Lori Menning @lori_menning How long did it take from signing your contract to actual subbing? Did your agent want revisions before subbing?
Melissa was on top of her game, so from signing the contract to subbing was about a month. She was open to revisions before we subbed--we both wanted my first submission to be its very best before sharing it with the world. However, by that point they were minor things.
Josie Gawlowski @josieliming I’ve heard/read that some agents will request stories from authors once agented. Like ‘I want a story about friendship for valentines day’. Will this be part of your writer/agent relationship or will you always drive the idea generation?
Melissa has had a few ideas she has kicked my way over the last year--some that I've been developing. I like collaboration and certainly don't see myself as the bastion of all good ideas. There's a reason she's an agent, so I say bring on the ideas!
Dedra Davis @dadavis3 When you get an agent, do you show them all your work? Even the manuscripts that are not quite ready? Or do you only share the manuscripts that are polished? Does she give you rejections as she gets them, or do you get a monthly report?
I shared more work when she asked, before she offered--to give the agency an idea of my style. She has definitely not seen ALL my work. Some of my work nobody should see. Like ever. Because it's garbage. : ) I do share as much as I think is good...in all their various forms. But if I really like the book, I take it through the revision rigmarole. For submission communication, we use a live google sheet and I get email notifications when she has made an edit or an update.
Serge Smagarinsky @PictureBkSerge Piggy backing on that first question, would your agent go through a list of ideas/concepts to help you decide which is most marketable, etc to start working on next?
Something I did several months back that both Melissa and I really enjoyed, was make a pitch list. I gave little teasers of all the various books I had in the mix and she replied to the pitch list (color-coded, thank you very much), with her favorites and not-so-favorites and why. This was SUPER informative. It helped me to get to know her better and it encouraged me with some direction on which projects to focus on. From that little experiment we ended up with my third book we're subbing.
Jessica Whipple @Jessicawhippl17 Did you have anyone helping you with the contract? An editor friend, an attorney, a cp who has been signed before?...and was it easy to understand? Or did you need help at all?
Not officially helping with the contract. I did have a phone conversation with my author friend, Ann Ingalls who suggested some questions I should ask before signing. The contract was easy to understand and there were no surprises when it arrived--Melissa did a fabulous job explaining everything and addressing my questions prior to signing.
Sarah Hetu-Radny @Sarah3332015 How did the first few conversations go between the two of you?
I felt like I was flying. I walk a lot when I talk on the phone and it annoys my wife to no end. I walk faster when I'm excited. On our first phone call I was all over the place physically but my voice was calm and professional (didn't want to seem too eager!). It felt like an interview and I've always enjoyed those because of my background in improvisation. Love thinking on my feet. Ultimately it was fun and I generally couldn't believe I was talking to an actual literary agent.
Kaylen Wade @kaylen_wade How did you and your agent decide which PBs to put on sub first? What happened if your agent didn’t love one of your PBs enough to go on sub?
We came to the conclusion that my ninja story was the strongest--it's the one that got her the most interested so it felt like a no-brainer. Melissa not loving one of my books enough to go on sub!? Poppycock. Never happens. Just kidding! This happens all the time. Well, not ALL THE TIME. But it happens. It's all about putting out the work that has the best chance. And the books that we don't sub now are always there for the future. It's really no big deal since I know where my priorities are and I understand that we really can't sub more than a few at a time. That doesn't mean I'm not developing other stories--it's constant!
Alicia Curley @ACurleyWrites Everything instantly fell into place, right? Just kidding. Aside from subbing, were there other things your agent suggested working on? Website? Author brand strategy? A project timeline for other works in progress?
Great questions! My website was sort of in place by the time I signed in February (I had launched Picture Book Spotlight on January 31st, 2019). As my platform grows, I do share my most up-to-date stats on numbers. As for a timeline on other projects, it's really open and author-led. I try to keep her in the loop as to which books I am working on and where my focus is. It's very organic all around.
Alicia Curley @ACurleyWrites I love practical :) I imagine you'd get a checklist of "here's what we do next" but maybe that's not the case. If not, maybe you can be the one to put it into the universe!
Yes! Especially when we were "getting the plane off the ground." She helped me understand the process and our strategy from start to finish. Melissa was also (and still is) very mindful about my input in the way we did things--which houses to send to first, when to send to smaller houses, which manuscript to lead with, etc. A little less of an actual checklist, but more of an ongoing conversation, every step of the journey.
Juli @JB_Currie Expectations vs. reality? Not necessarily a practical suggestion, but probably a way to give some humorous insight that you always provide :D
Okay this might be my favorite. I think was one of those things where we think we have expectations (and that they are known), but it's only after we are in the situation do we see exactly what those were. The one thing that I remember that was about what I expected was when she offered--I got some serious butterflies in my tummy. My head kept hitting the ceiling and I don't think I remembered to breathe for about an hour. Seriously one of the most exciting moments in my life. After that...it went downhill pretty fast. Nothing but rejections and waiting...JUST KIDDING! : ) it's been a dream and oftentimes I have to remind myself that I have an agent. Very odd.
Sam Zott @sam_zott What are things that you suggest we look for in an agent? Best practices, services, time in the industry etc.
I can't speak for everyone, but what I wanted in an agent (and I what I ABSOLUTELY have in Melissa) was someone who believed in my voice. Someone who could guide me and encourage me and teach me. When we communicate, I feel like I am the most important person to her in that moment. And she is such a genuinely kind human being so I know I'm getting an authentic, and honest interaction. Look for someone who believes in you and your stories. Someone who is warm but professional. Someone who makes you feel the kind of fuzzies you always hoped you'd feel when you got an agent.
Kathryn Inman @kathryninman9 How do you get them to respond?????? That’s the only question I have right now lol
Get their attention and don't give up. If they reject you, wait a bit and send them another. See Melissa's interview about how I got her attention in the links below.
If you want to get deeper into my journey to find an agent, check out the following interviews!
Brian wrote this blog post. And this sentence. And this one too. By the time you read this, he will have written nine more picture books. Yes, nine. And three of them aren't half bad. Why don't you stop reading this pretend bio and go write some books of your own? Like now. Are you still reading this? Think of all the amazing other things you could be doing with your time! Just think! Anything. Literally any other activity. This will not end well for you. You'll hate it. You'll be mad you took the time to read this entire, nonsensical, and pointless pretend bio. You'll be mad indeed. So mad that you'll want to spit. Hey don't do that. It's gross. You shouldn't spit on your computer. What did it ever do to you? It's not your computer's fault that you wasted all of these past 45 seconds and you won't ever get them back. I guess I should just stop now because I have nothing left to...