McKelle George On Finding An Editor That Gets Your Book

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 McKelle George, author of SPEAK EASY, SPEAK LOVE, releasing September 19th from Greenwillow. McKelle is a reader, writer of clumsy rebels, perpetual doodler, and associate librarian at the best library in the world. She mentors with Salt Lake Teen Writes and plays judge for the Poetry Out Loud teen competitions (but has no poetic talent herself). 

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

Quite a bit! I’d been an acquisitions editor with Jolly Fish Press (and now Flux), so I knew what things looked like in an acquisitions meeting on the other side. I had a lot of author friends go through this before me—and also it calms my neurotic brain to research, research, research (I think I read every entry in this blog series, for example).

Did anything about the process surprise you?

Not much about the actual process (see above), but it’s hard to know what it actually feels like until you’re in it, to be honest. The anxiety, the excitement, the pain. You won’t be able to completely prepare for that until you’re there.

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

No! Ha ha, my agent wouldn’t let me. She told me what houses/imprints she had sent to, but not the actual editors (precisely to keep me from internet-stalking them). After she had about six or so responses, she’d send them to me and then I’d learn who had read my ms.

This turned out to be a good thing. One editor at Scholastic was basically the dream editor for my book. She loved Shakespeare, she loved the 1920s, and she’d been asking my agent about my book for months . . . but in the end, she rejected it. If I’d known all this before, I think I would have been religiously researching everything this editor had every written or said online, built up ridiculous expectations, etc.

The rejection still hurt, but at least it happened all at once—instead of a drawn out process that ended poorly.

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

We went on two rounds, and the first (13 editors) took about five months to hear back from everyone. I think the first responses came in at about six weeks. The second round went faster, but that was because I had an offer after one week, from an editor who’d asked for a revision from the first round. It took probably 3-4 weeks after that for the rest.

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

Yes, yes, write the next book. Everyone says that, and for me personally, it’s what works. The best way I deal with publishing anxiety is by writing. But that doesn’t work for everyone. I think the nicest thing you can do for yourself is to take your feelings seriously. They’re not silly or out-of-proportion or invalid just because “everybody” has them. Take the time to figure out what you need to do (whether it’s writing something else, setting up a system with your agent, distancing yourself from publishing altogether, etc.) and do that.

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

Okay, I’m going to combine this question with the next question (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?), because for me, they’re related.

So, SPEAK EASY, SPEAK LOVE was rejected by 24 publishers (if I’m counting correctly . . . I might have missed one), and it took almost a year to sell the book. And I guess they were what people call "nice" rejections? What I got a lot of was: “Her writing is great, please send me any other project she does, but I just don’t think we can sell a 1920s book.” Many editors, at least in the first round, also said they struggled a little with the plot’s ending (which is what we revised before the second round). Marketing-wise, it was a hard sell. It’s a standalone historical. And there isn’t really any YA 1920s book that’s done spectacularly well.

But what I internalized hearing all of this was that, yes, maybe the market for standalone historicals tended to be an uphill battle . . . but for a truly exceptional book, they would fight that battle. And mine wasn’t. Even mentally knowing everything I know about this business and how subjective it is and how little an author can ultimately control, emotionally all I took in was: “Your book is just kind of crap, no one is that excited about it, no one ever will be, and you are simply not good enough to be published at this level."

Which surprised me, because usually I take rejection and criticism pretty well. I'm happy to revise my work and during the query process, I was able to say, "Okay, not that one, but maybe the next one!" and move on without taking it personally. There was something about the submission process that felt so final.

After the first round, there was one editor who asked if I'd be willing to rewrite the book (because, again, she liked my writing, not the genre) in a contemporary setting. In retrospect, I don't know why I agreed to this. I wrote it in the time period I did for a reason and the characters were definitely informed by their environment. Anyway, I struggled with a few opening chapters for this different book before calling it quits.

Then I set to work revising the manuscript for the second round of editors. Having internalized twelve plus rejections, I had basically decided that my book was terrible as it was and I wrote a 70K draft of essentially BRAND NEW WRITING in three and a half weeks and showed it to my agent.

My dear agent—who by the way took my efforts of trying to write an entire new book not once, but twice, in stride—sent me a PDF with all of the rejections combined in one document. She was not, in fact, trying to kill me, but made a point of highlighting that all of the feedback focused on how much they loved it . . . but just couldn't take it on for this or that reason. Her point was to show me that my book wasn't completely awful and I didn't need to scrap the entire thing . . . just maybe fix the ending some.

It took about a year for SPEAK EASY, SPEAK LOVE to sell—but that includes a five month period of three revision efforts (one successful) which was the equivalent of me kind of desperately flinging last-minute options because I thought the manuscript was bad and wouldn't sell otherwise.

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

It felt surreal. By this point, I had decided that I, like many authors, was not going to sell my first book. And I was okay with that! I was feeling pretty crummy about the manuscript and ready to try with something new—something better!

When we went on the last round, my agent said she had some editors lined up but if there were any she'd like me to sub to, let her know. In 2013, I attended a YA bootcamp at my local indie bookstore, The King's English, and Martha Mihalick (now my editor) was one of the guest instructors. She was awesome in the bootcamp, but also I'd just started working on SPEAK EASY, SPEAK LOVE. We workshopped hooks and pitches for our WIPs, and I remember her saying something like: "Now, Much Ado About Nothing in the 1920s, that I could sell."

So, Martha was the one editor who I knew had it before she sent a response. Another editor made an offer (one from the first round who liked the revision) and a few weeks after my agent nudged the rest, she sent me an email with the subject line: MARTHA WANTS TO TALK ON THE PHONE

I sent back a super ecstatic email... and then my sister called and said she had a flat tire and could I come pick her up. !!! The reason this was excruciating was because at the time I didn't have a smartphone. There was no way to check my email after I left the house. I was freaking out!

So I had to wait... but then I called my agent, who prepped me for the call with Martha, then I called Martha, who was wonderful. I barely knew what was happening. Instead of saying the 1920s was a bad idea, she was saying she thought it was really smart to set the retelling in that time period. She understood my book, right from the beginning. And then another call from my agent a few hours later to say that Martha and Greenwillow had formally offered! I was excited, but also I remember Katie (my agent) saying, "You're a lot more calm about this than I was."

But I wasn't calm. I just have a complete inability to process emotion when someone is watching/listening. Which means I had a delayed reaction that resulted in abruptly bursting into tears while I was brushing my teeth that night. ANYWAY.

Also now I had to do a mental backtrack, because I'd been So Ready to move on from this book, and suddenly I had a reason to be excited about it again. It was strange. Good strange. 

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

Yes! We didn't want to announce until I had a title (we changed it from what it was during the submission process; formally A MERRY WAR), and that took a long time. In fact, it still didn't have a title when we announced, but it had been five months so we just did it . . . On the other hand, while I didn't announce it formally online, I very happily told anyone who asked about it, so a lot of people knew at that point. :P