Jen Malone On Submission & The Waiting Part

If there's one thing that many aspiring writers have few clues about, it's the submission process. There are good reasons for that; authors aren't exactly encouraged to talk in detail about our own submission experiences, and - just like agent hunting - everyone's story is different. I managed to cobble together a few non-specific questions that some debut authors have agreed to answer (bless them). And so I bring you the submission interview series - Submission Hell - It's True. Yes, it's the SHIT.

Today's guest for the SHIT is Jen Malone, author of AT YOUR SERVICE, a contemporary MG coming from Simon & Schuster on August 26. Typically I cull down my visiting author's bio pages for a little blurby here on the blog, but Jen's bio is so awesome and hilarious that there is no picking and choosing that will do it justice. To learn more about Jen, sleeping in Spanish ATM booths during the running of the bulls, marrying the guy you made a fact at on the highway, and spending a some of your free time with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, visit her site. No, I didn't make any of that up. Neither did she. Now you understand why I couldn't possibly narrow down her bio.

How much did you know about the submission process before you were out on subs yourself?

I may or may not have stalked this site and others where authors talked about the sub process, and my agent, Holly Root, answered any questions I had about why she chose particular imprints/editors, so I probably knew as much as I could, though never enough☺

Did anything about the process surprise you?

I had somehow latched on to the idea that agents were the gatekeepers, so once you had one (aka: the gate was opened for you), it was only a matter of minutes before you could announce a book deal. So I think I was unprepared in that respect! That first book is now on a shelf, but I’m happy to have had the experience, weird as that sounds. I did learn a lot from the feedback: it helped me put future sub rounds in perspective and to really embrace how subjective it all is and also how many factors come into play from the publishing house’s perspective.

I perfectly understand why this is a dirty secret among authors, but I really do wish more would talk about “the book that didn’t sell” because my very unscientific polls indicate approximately 73% of us have that experience with our first sub rounds and I wish I’d known that going in so I could have adjusted my expectations accordingly! I was just at a SCBWI conference this weekend where uber-agent Jennifer Laughran described exactly that as, “sometimes the first book is like the first pancake and you have to throw it out to get to the better ones coming next.”

Did you research the editors you knew had your ms? Do you recommend doing that?

If more of them had an online presence for me to stalk, I would have definitely done it, because I’m obsessive about collecting information. But it certainly wouldn’t have changed anything one way or another. It’s not like they’re likely to tweet about the great submission on robotic dinosaurs in a love triangle they’re just dying to offer on! Most of them (or maybe this is just my editor?) are more likely to tweet about what they had for lunch! Publishing is like one giant trust exercise and I knew I was sooo new to all of it that I had to let go of this particular piece and accept that my agent is smart, talented, and, above all, has both of our interests at heart and would therefore be doing her best to put my manuscript in the right hands. The number of things she knows about the market and the intricacies of the politics at the different houses are staggering, so I bow to her sub lists. Which is not to say that I didn’t sometimes need her to repeat that to me over and over!

What was the average amount of time it took to hear back from editors?

Holly warned me that the no’s would come faster and not to be bummed out by that. It makes sense logically- if an editor likes something, he or she will typically have to get further reads from others in the office, then take it to an acquisitions meeting (which can get postponed whenever someone critical to the meeting is sick or someone is on vacation or on days the sky is blue or on days that end in Y…) so that process would take much longer than an editor reading and not falling head over heels. I was very fortunate that the first email pass Holly forwarded to me said something along the lines of “While not for me, I have no doubt you’re going to make a pile of money on this.” That was a nice first pass to get, even if it didn’t quite pan out that way! I also went on sub the day before Hurricane Sandy hit NYC (whoops!), so I’m not sure how delayed responses were from that upheaval, but I would say I started hearing back within three weeks, with the majority clustered between five weeks and three months.

What do you think is the best way for an author out on submission to deal with the anxiety?

Drink. Oh, is that not good advice? Everyone says, “Write the next book,” and I couldn’t agree more. If you’re excited about something new, your heart lets go (at least a tiny bit) of the previous project and you realize you don’t actually have all your eggs in one basket. HOWEVER. Being on sub can mess with your head and I found it hard to get momentum on something new because I was distracted and hopeful and irritable and (insert any other emotion here). Instead, I read. I tried to read books editors who had my manuscript had worked on so I could get a sense for the imprint or the editor’s tastes, but really anything that could hold my attention worked and reading always improves my writing, so it didn’t feel like “wasted time”. Next time I go on sub I’ll also ask Holly to only update me on passes on Fridays, because my iPhone was like a tiny bomb in my hand, poised to go off at any moment. Friday afternoons are a good time for bad news because the weekends are full of crazy running around with the family and serve as a great reminder that writing is only one part of my life!

If you had any rejections, how did you deal with that emotionally? How did this kind of rejection compare to query rejections?

If you had any rejections? Hahahahaha. Oh, you were serious. Okay, um, I would say it depended on the day. There were days (and passes) that rolled right off and others that stung a little bit. I got one while I was Christmas shopping and it killed my holiday spirit right there in the line to see Santa (note to self: why was I checking email then??) I do remember replying to Holly after she sent an early one to tell her how much I hated seeing her name pop up in my email because I knew it would be bad news. She responded back ten minutes later with a picture of a yawning lion or some similar variation of adorable and the subject line “Just so everything you get from me isn’t blah…” That helped remind me my agent was in my corner and wasn’t going to drop me over a pass or two! Compared to query rejections, these passes were both better and worse. Better because they often had lots of good feedback mixed with the “not for me” and worse because my dream was so close at that point and because my method of combatting a query pass was to immediately put a new query into the world to cancel the old one out, but sub rounds don’t typically work like that. I don’t exactly love not being in control of a situation- I’m very much a “take action” kind of person, so idle waiting is my kryptonite.

If you got feedback on a rejection, how did you process it? How do you compare processing an editor’s feedback as compared to a beta reader’s?

I love my beta readers to piece and they are super-smarty-pants, but editors evaluate manuscripts for a living AND do so from a marketplace standpoint as well as a “quality of writing” standpoint. I don’t think I’d last long in this business if I didn’t pay very close attention to their notes. Luckily, all of them were very kind (and kindly worded)!

When you got your YES! how did that feel? How did you find out – email, telephone, smoke signal?

I knew the acquisitions meeting was taking place that day and I was waiting by the phone for Holly to call. It felt shout-from-the-rooftops good, and also surreal! Mine was a bit different because I got the yes from a proposal that included a synopsis and the first fifty or so pages, versus a full manuscript, so immediately following the elation was, “Oh crap! I really, really hope I can write this manuscript… and write it well!” No pressure or anything!

Did you have to wait a period of time before sharing your big news, because of details being ironed out? Was that difficult?

I did indeed. It was forever (give or take a millennia). I think I had to wait two months, maybe? I certainly told my critique partners and family members, while swearing them to secrecy. I was also very excited when I got the okay to tell people in person at an SCBWI conference I was attending. And then the day the announcement ran was incredibly fun and put a really wonderful cap on the submission experience! It  really does only take one yes!!