The Truth About Having a Book On Submission: Part 1

It’s kind of like Fight Club. The first rule of being on submission is: you do not talk about being on submission. The second rule of being on submission is: you do not talk about being on submission. No one tells you this explicitly. My agent never emailed me saying, “This is the part where you shut your mouth, okay?” But common sense (and for me, a little bit of superstition) says that you don’t talk about things that haven’t happened yet. Especially really, really big things that you really want to happen.

So if your book is being shopped around to publishers, you don’t blog about the almost-yes’s or about how long you’ve been waiting (it’ll always feel like an eternity anyways, even if it’s just a week). You don’t tell Twitter friends if one publisher has shown interest in your book for fear that they’ll change their mind and you’ll have to turn around and tell friends, “Oh, false alarm.”

You don’t put all the insecurities that come along with being a writer on submission out there because you have Thick Skin and you will wear it like a badge of honor. You sit and wait quietly and patiently, trusting in the support system of close friends, family, and your agent. When you finally have news, you share it.

Except I kind of cheated. Somewhere along the way before my book sold, I wrote blog posts about being on submission, about the sting of rejection, about the obsessiveness that sometimes came over me, and the things that kept me going. I just never published them (until now).

Over the next several weeks I plan on sharing these secret posts with you. There seems to be a lot of information out there about what it’s like to query agents, but not much about what it’s like to have your agent submitting to publishers. And while there’s a lot of overlap between the two experiences, in many ways they’re completely different. There’s the excitement of being one step closer to that elusive book deal, of having an agent on your side. There’s the agony of knowing the number of publishers you can submit to is finite, that you can’t just keep trying tens or hundreds more till you find the one, like many of us do when searching for agents.

During the year and a half that I was on submission, I felt so close! (awesome) and yet so far away (major bummer) from my goals. I was caught in what I eventually called the “hope and mope cycle” (E deserves a medal for putting up with me). There were days when I appeared perfectly calm but on the inside I was moping around like this:

There were days when the hope was like a drug—it kept me elated and high, only to make me crash when it was nowhere to be found, replaced entirely by fear. I thought the worst thing that could possibly happen was that my book didn’t sell. And when it didn’t, when Brandi and I started talking about the next book, about starting this process all over again, I realized I was wrong. The worst thing that could happen wasn’t my book not selling, it was me not writing another one. And another one. And even another one if those didn’t sell.

One day, when I was feeling particularly hopeless, my best friend since high school put it this way: “So? You’re a writer. Wasn’t your plan always to write books? Plural? Not just one?” He’s a bit of a smart-ass, that one. But he was right.

So I started writing another one, even as the first one was still on submission, and a strange thing happened. I realized that the fear of my book not selling was actually a fear that I only had one book in me. Each day that I wrote, I chipped away at it. The new story became my new source of hope, and unlike that needy, nagging hope I’d had previously, this one was steady and nurturing.

I went from being a writer on submission to being a writer again. A writer, writing. Imagine that.

What Writers Can Learn From Mad Men & Their Dirty Little Words

This post was five seasons in the making, fermenting over the years as I’ve watched AMC’s Mad Men and been left speechless, over and over, by how well-written it is.

A warning: although I’m a couple episodes behind this season, this post may contain spoilers for those of you who haven’t caught up yet, either.

But there’s a moment in a recent episode of Mad Men that I just have to write about. Not just because the writing’s perfect, but because it shows what makes great writing. It’s all in the choices we make. The writers could’ve chosen to go one way. They went another. And that (as Robert Frost would say) has made all the difference.

To set it up, Sally, Don Draper’s pre-teen daughter, is tagging along to a gala in which her father is receiving an award. Don’s partner, Roger Sterling, is going solo, so he takes it upon himself to be Sally’s date. It’s adorable, and innocent, and throughout the night as Roger teases her about how she’s had too many “drinks,” how she needs to help him remember people’s names,  and how pretty she looks, it’s clear that Sally’s enjoying it. What little girl doesn’t want this kind of attention? She’s at that age where she’s anxious to be a woman, but too young to truly understand everything that comes along with it. She basks in the illusion of being the apple of Roger’s eye.

But of course there are other women at this party, and one in particular who clearly has her eyes on Roger. They drink, they flirt, they end up sneaking away to an empty room, where conveniently enough, there is a lone chair for Roger to sit back on and enjoy as the woman pleasures him. Poor Sally wanders off and catches them, then quietly sneaks away undetected and dumbfounded.

That evening, while everyone’s asleep, she calls a friend, her one true confidant. Since she’s staying with her dad in Manhattan, her friend asks how the city is. Sally answers with only one word.

“Dirty,” she says. And the episode ends there.

Most shows would’ve had that conversation play out very differently. They would’ve had Sally tell her friend about what she saw, and how it made her feel. But in one word the writers of Mad Men not only got it across, but they kept me thinking about it after the show was over. Days and weeks later.

Because they chose not to tell us everything, they left me with so much to think about. I admire this kind of writing because these choices aren’t easy to make. We wonder if we’re giving the reader (or viewer) enough when we go the subtle route. We worry that they’ll draw the wrong conclusion. If we don’t draw them a map, will they get to where we want them to go? But if we do, won’t it be a boring, unpredictable journey for them?

Great writing is carefully crafted to leave just the right amount of hints. But even then, not everyone will interpret them the same way. That’s part of the beauty of writing and being read: the work is a breathing thing, it’ll take on a life of its own (many lives) depending on who’s reading.

As writers we can only control how the story’s told, not how it’s read. We have to make a choice to focus on what we can control: the writing (always the writing).

This Is What Happens When You Watch All the Star Wars Movies & the Documentary in the Span of Four Days

For one, you don’t seem to mind incredibly long titles for your blog posts.

Also, you learn a thing or two about not giving up on a creative vision.

Before any of you start feeling sorry for me, watching all six movies was actually my idea. E has a tendency to play movies like one would a new album—to have it as background noise to ignore. I have a tendency to get sucked into them (and how can you not with a theme song like this?).

Revenge Of Return Of The JediHe started with the original, and when that ended I was wide awake and insisted we watch The Empire Strikes Back. By the next day, when E thought I’d had my fill, I was already on a roll. Why watch two if you’re not going to watch the next? And after watching the original trilogy, why not watch the prequels leading up to it?

As we watched all the pretty neon lightsabers clashing and wooshing through the air during the fight scenes, I couldn’t help but imagine how ridiculous the actors must’ve felt as they were filming it. They basically just had these white wooden poles that made an awkward clanking sound when struck together. Those guns with the cool laser beams shooting out of them? They were glorified toys. And before the music, the sound effects, the visual effects and the editing added their magic touch to the film, being on set probably felt a lot like walking into a cheap Halloween haunted house. Except with costumes no one could make sense of.

So imagine my delight when we started watching the Making of the Trilogy documentary and got to see behind-the-scenes footage and the actors’ commentary. Did you know they shot most of the original movie in London? The English crew members thought Lucas and the cast were just shooting a silly children’s film. The actors often had no idea what their lines meant (Harrison Ford has been quoted saying, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.“) R2D2 was constantly breaking down. The studio was threatening to close the whole production down because they were way over schedule. And the first time Lucas went to check on his visual effects team (because the VFX would tie everything together, right?!) he was less than impressed.

All signs pointed at no. No, this isn’t such a good idea after all. No, this isn’t going to magically come together. Even after all the scenes were shot and the movie was edited, that first cut was a distaster. Apparently it lacked urgency. It was boring and confusing. While most people would give up at this point and accept they’ve made a bad movie, Lucas and his team hired a new editor and started over. The movie’s release date was pushed back several months. People started suspecting it’d be a flop.

Before watching this documentary, I never thought I’d incorporate Star Wars into this blog. E and I often poke fun at George Lucas, because he has a tendency to tinker with his films so much that he makes them worse. But I have to give him credit for actually seeing his vision through. No one around him understood what he was trying to do. They couldn’t see what he saw in his mind, and what’s worse, they didn’t think he could pull it off. Every single day he worked on Star Wars, he could’ve decided to give up and no one would’ve argued with him.

But he pushed through. And then the movie came out and broke every record imaginable.

Yoda would sum up the lesson here in a very wise, oddly-structured way. But I trust you all don’t need me to point it out.

Creative Commons License photo credit: JD Hancock

I Once Shot a…

I once shot a self-portrait for my high school photography class that I thought would be very artsy. My hair was wet because I’d just showered, and the long black tendrils looked like they were crawling over my shoulder like vines. I set up my tripod and took a shot of myself slouching, capturing just my chin and upper body.

A few days later I was walking around the park and took a shot of actual vines. I had the brilliant idea that I would do a double exposure in the darkroom. The actual vines over the figurative vines…it would be genius, I tell you. Genius!

I spent hours in the darkroom trying to get it just right. This was always my favorite part of the process. While you waited for the image to manifest in the fluids, there was always hope. You hoped that the image developing would match the one in your mind. You even dared to hope that it would exceed your imagination.

When the photo finally developed, I stepped out of the darkroom, the paper still dripping, to get a better look.

It was crap. Really, it was way too ambitious for my skills at the time. The blacks were a dull gray, the vines didn’t blend together like I hoped they would, the model looked bored and like she needed a nap.

So I trashed it. I literally put it in the trash and went back to the darkroom, determined to move on to more traditional photos. When I came out, my photography teacher had salvaged the photo and set it to dry. She called me over and said, “This isn’t very good, but I think you can still do something with it. Have you thought about painting it?”

Up until that point, I’d painted very few photos. My feelings were that if you wanted something in color, shoot in color. If you wanted it in black and white, shoot in black and white. But the more I thought of it, the more it made sense for this picture. I’d been trying to do something a little on the surreal side , so why not straddle the possibilities between colors?

The result was an image beyond any I’d envisioned. I went for the blues and the greens, giving my self-portrait an underwater look. I titled it Mermaid (even dotted the i with a heart; I was still in high school, after all), mounted it and turned it in to be graded. The next week, my teacher told me it’d won Best In Show in a county-wide photo competition. I didn’t even know she’d entered me.

I don't know if the image still holds up (it's been ten years) but I do love what it stands for.

Things I learned in photography that year, aside from the ability to see the world a little differently?

Take risks and don’t give up when they’re not going as expected. They wouldn’t be risks if they were predictable. Keep going past your comfort zone and let the risks surprise you.

P.S. Thanks to Emily Suess for the “not your typical writing prompt” that inspired this post. It’s part of the Writer’s Week writing contest she’s holding on her blog, and I’ve donated a critique of a query letter + first 30 pages a manuscript as part of the first place prize. Interested in entering? Learn more about the contest here or learn more about my writing critiques here.

When’s the last time your work surprised you?