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 Meg Eden, whose work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Poet Lore, and Gargoyle. She teaches at the University of Maryland. She has four poetry chapbooks, and her novel Post-High School Reality Quest is forthcoming from California Coldblood, an imprint of Rare Bird Lit.
How much did you know about the submission process before you were out on subs yourself?
As soon as I became serious about writing (around freshman year of high school) I started sending my writing out for publication. I'm the kind of person who doesn't read instruction manuals and learns with my hands: I have to just jump right in. I started submitting to literary magazines and agents --I don't think I really researched much on how to do it, I just did it. The most research I did really was grab a copy of The Writer’s Guide from my library, take pictures of the listings for agents that might like my novel, and then I sent it off to them. When I sent my first novel out, I had some experience having minor publications in lit mags that I was able to put in my query letter. I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning (especially w/ lit mags—I remember one place was like “You spelled Philippines wrong”). I look back at my old query letter, and there’s a lot I’d fix. But I’m proud of myself too—I threw myself out there, and I did get my first agent my junior year of high school, which I think is pretty cool.
Did anything about the process surprise you?
When I got my agent, I thought that that was the end of my “hard” journey, that I’d found my “happily ever after”, but that wasn't the case. My agent was really great, and I was so lucky to have her. She became a vital mentor, hand-wrote notes all over my novel, and carefully edited it with me for several drafts to make it stronger. She believed in me, and I still have the letter the head agent of the agency wrote to me when it was accepted, that my agent spoke highly of me. If I hadn’t gotten my agent then, I don’t know where I’d be as a writer, and I know it’s done wonders for my confidence.
We got an editor who wanted my book, but she couldn't convince the house. I had that agent for about five years, and no sale. I guess I was surprised to learn that just because you have an agent doesn't mean a book will sell, and that it can be such a long process. Initially, my goal was to have that novel published before graduation. Ha! As if I had any control over the process. ☺ That’s what I learned—that very little is in my control when it comes to publication. All that is in my control is to submit, so I submit like crazy.
Did you research the editors you knew had your ms? Do you recommend doing that?
When I had an agent and she sent my book to editors, she told me who she was sending to and asked if I was alright with that, and I was like, sure! I think if I was still working with an agent, I would probably research the editors more, and get a sense of if they’d be a good fit for my work, or what it might be like to work with them. It's really important to have good chemistry with your editor--it's like a marriage in a way. You have to work together on so many different levels for a long period of time. So any way of getting an idea of if you could work with them I think is really good.
However, like I said, I broke it off with my agent when we weren't really getting anywhere, and I wanted to go in a different direction. I like having the control over the submission process. I’m a go-getter and I’ve really enjoyed being my own “agent” in a sense. In that situation, I’ve done a lot of research, directly querying small press editors and getting a sense of who might be a good fit for my work. I enjoy this because I really know who I'm choosing and feel really happy with the editor I'm working with now. I like that the power's in my hands now, so I can submit where and when I want. I think when I had an agent I felt like I was a princess in a tower, waiting powerlessly for my prince to come. Now, I feel like I have a little more control and awareness over the process.
What was the average amount of time it took to hear back from editors?
I honestly have no estimate on that. Some people replied quickly, most took a really long time. I really try to distract myself after getting something sent out, either by sending out more things and/or working on something new. I find when I keep myself busy, every acceptance letter is an exciting surprise. ☺
What do you think is the best way for an author out on submission to deal with the anxiety?
Submit and write more! I submit poems and short stories to literary magazines all the time. I try to have at least 100 things out at a time. This means I'm not sitting around, waiting for news, but get nicely surprised now and then with replies. It also gives me a chance to get more acceptances--I've checked it, and for litmag submissions I get about 1 in 10 accepted. So if I submit 100 things, I'll probably get about 10 acceptances. It's easier to send out those small things than books, so it's a nice balance. I try to have one fiction manuscript out in the world at a time (sometimes—rarely—two), one poetry manuscript, and some individual pieces out at magazines. It takes a long time for editors and agents to get through all their submissions—they have quite a bit to get through, and want to treat each submission with respect—so I find this way, I can use that time to let my work sit while I work on something else. It also lets me switch between projects, giving my fiction a “break” sometimes to focus on poetry, and vice versa. So I guess I’m saying it can help both my bio and my creative stamina.
If you had any rejections, how did you deal with that emotionally? How did this kind of rejection compare to query rejections?
I'm very used to rejections. I keep a folder of them on my computer, and have a physical folder from when people still sent out paper submissions. My Submittable account currently has 758 rejections in it (and this isn’t of course including hard copy, email and other submission manager rejections).
That novel my agent worked with still hasn’t found a home, and my debut novel “Post-High School Reality Quest” is technically the thirteenth novel that I’ve written. I’ve sent out several of the others and none of them have found a home yet. Many of them need some massive re-hauling (remember, I started sending out in high school). I don’t know off the top of my head how many rejection letters PHSRQ got, but it must be at least 20 or so I’d imagine. I’ve had a few existential crises over my rejections, but try to distract myself by sending something new out, binge watching some Downton Abbey or Degrassi, and/or getting a pep talk from my husband, who says I’m a great writer and I need to get over myself and keep writing ☺
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 getting feedback--that's the jackpot! An editor's feedback is great because it means they want the book, and they want to make it better. Depending on the beta reader, this can be the case as well, but beta readers aren't invested in the same way editors are--editors are tied to the book as well, they want it to succeed. I think realizing this is really helpful for taking the feedback to heart.
My editor asked me to cut one of my characters out of my novel—and being a character-driven writer, he might as well have asked me to saw my arm off and give it to him! It was the most emotionally challenging thing anyone’s asked me to do, but my husband reminded me that for my editor to take the time to talk to me about these edits (we had several phone calls about this) and to want to work with me to make the novel stronger means he really cares about the book and wants it to be the best it can be. I cut out the character, and I can proudly say “Post-High School Reality Quest” is so much stronger for it. I’m so grateful to my editor for asking me to do such a hard thing. It’s made me grow as a writer, and helped me open up to new ideas for my work, even seemingly inconceivable ideas like cutting out my beloved characters ☺
When you got your YES! how did that feel? How did you find out – email, telephone, smoke signal?
I got an email a couple days after sending my book to Bob (from California Coldblood). Maybe I’m exaggerating, maybe it was a week, but seriously--he read it in a crazy short amount of time. Then he called so we could talk about it more. He said he loved it, and I could tell how excited he was about my book: not just by how quickly he responded, but also in his tone. I realized in that moment even if Bob’s the only person who ever reads this book, it’s been a success. I knew right then that “Post-High School Reality Quest” would be in good hands, being with CCB, and that Bob’s passion for it would make it shine.