On Submission with Mackenzie Lee

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 (Submission Hell, It's True) is Mackenzie Lee, fellow Katherine Tegen imprint sister and debut author of THIS MONSTROUS THING, a Frankenstein retelling set in 1818 Geneva, releasing in the fall of 2015.


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

Too much! Before THIS MONSTROUS THING, I had another book—the one that got me my agent—on submission, and it didn’t sell. So by the time THIS MONSTROUS THING went out, not only did I know what to expect, but I was already feeling frayed and anxious and sort of like a failure after that first unsuccessful round. I’m really starting this interview on a downer, aren’t I? 

Did anything about the process surprise you?

How quickly things happened! Since my first experience with submission mostly comprised of months and months of telling silence, I didn’t expect things to happen as quickly as they did, but three weeks after going out, I had an offer! Though it was still the longest three weeks of my life. (Also, if we’re being totally honest, I was surprised the book sold at all—I didn’t dare get my hopes up!)   

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

I did not, because I know myself, and I know that ‘research’ very quickly spirals into cyber stalking and anxiety attacks. I didn’t even ask my agent for the names of who she was submitting to because I knew I would haunt their twitter profiles, panicking every time their name showed up in my feed, even if all they were talking about was getting coffee—coffee to drink while they were reading my manuscript? Or coffee to pour all over my manuscript after they lit it on fire with hatred?!? 

The question of research is the sort that’s impossible to answer for anyone else because you just have to know yourself and your own breed of anxiety. If answers and facts make you feel more stable, by all means research. If they make you tear your hair out, stay away—you’ll be doing enough of that anyways. I also don’t know if there’s a whole lot of productive things you can learn from researching an editor, other than books they have worked on in the past, though that tells you very little about whether or not they will connect with yours. Everyone has such diverse tastes in what they read and love. 

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

Exactly two weeks after the book went out on sub, I got an email from my agent, the first line of which was “things are going well ☺”. Which is an auspicious start. By then we had a few editors interested, and shortly after that, we had firm interest from the editor at Katherine Tegen who ended up acquiring it, and an offer came a few days later. Since we sold in the first round, it’s hard to say what was average. The only rule about submission seems to be that there are no rules, and no averages. Time is no indicator of what is going on with your book, so don’t take silence as a rejection. 

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

Oh man, if someone figures this out, will they please let me know? 

I struggle with bad anxiety—my mom likes to remind me that everyone has anxiety, but I know mine is a bit more extreme than “normal” and can be pretty crippling. I was a wreck while I was on sub—I actually worried myself sick and had a terrible cough for weeks after—and I had a really hard time accessing the rational part of my brain that held all the things I knew to be true, but couldn’t let myself believe (like silence does not equal rejection and not selling does not mean you are a terrible writer). So I used one of my favorite tactics for dealing with anxiety in general: I wrote myself letters from rational Mackenzi to crazy anxious Mackenzi. You can read one on my blog. It’s definitely goofy to write letters to yourself, but this helped me talk myself down and listen to that rational part of my brain. The art of surviving submission is finding a way to access your uncrazy side and let it speak to you. 

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

Submission rejection is different than query rejection because you have a wonderful filter called your agent. I knew I didn’t want to read rejections from editors since my confidence was shaky enough, so I asked my agent to only tell me if there was good news, or if there were pieces of feedback she was getting consistently. I didn’t want to hear every little thing every editor didn’t like about it, because I knew I would overcorrect and change everything anyone objected to in my manuscript, which is crazy. 

When my first book was on submission, this strategy worked really well—my agent took all the rejections and distilled them into balanced critiques for me. If there were things that kept coming up, or a big reason that editors weren’t connecting, she would tell me and we would revise. If the reasons were things beyond my control, or something only one editor had a problem with, I didn’t want to hear it. Maybe I’m a wimp, but my tenuous self-confidence needed no further blows. 

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 think one of the hardest things about being a writer is learning what criticism to listen to. The simple fact is there are no right choices in writing, only different choices, and the choices you make for your novel will really work for some people and really not for others. But that doesn’t mean they are the wrong choices. Editors are editors for a reason—they obviously know what they’re talking about—but I think it’s important to understand that not all feedback you get while on submission is something you have to apply, or even something that would best serve your book. Another trick to using the feedback you get on submission is being sure you stay in touch with your book and the story you want to tell. Be sure any changes or adjustments you make really serve your vision for your manuscript and that you’re not just changing things out of desperation to you’re your book picked up. The goal is to find an editor who understands the heart and soul of your story, and wants to help you make that better. 

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

It was equal parts surreal and euphoric. My agent told me on a Friday that the book was going to acquisitions at Katherine Tegen Books and there was a chance they’d make an offer, but who knew how long that would take. I braced myself for a suffocating wait, but that Monday I got an email from my agent with the word NEWS!!!! in the subject line. Which I took to mean something good had happened, because only sadists use all caps to deliver bad news. I grabbed my phone, ran out of my office building (because I knew there was a chance I was either about to cry or cuss (spoiler alert: both of those things happened)) and out onto the street, which is where I called my agent and she told me we had an offer. I then spent the rest of the day getting absolutely nothing done except shaking and grinning and random bouts of happy crying. 

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

I told my immediate family and some of my close friends right after I got the news, but I had to wait a week before the announcement was official. And not to be dramatic, but it was the longest week of anyone’s life ever. I wanted to tell everyone! I wanted to scream it from the rooftops and buy a billboard with the words I SOLD MY NOVEL printed on it. It was very hard to wait, but I got such a supportive and congratulatory reaction when I finally did that it was worth the wait. The YA lit community is the best.