Rosiee Thor On The Subjective Process of Submission

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 Rosiee Thor, author of Tarnished Are The Stars, releasing today from Scholastic!

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

Looking back, I was pretty woefully uninformed, but I definitely thought I knew what I was getting into. I had it in my head that going on sub would basically just be the same as querying, but with my agent in control of the inbox--and at first, that’s exactly what it was like, with my agent sending it out and fielding the rejections for me. But the similarities to the querying process pretty much stopped as soon as we started getting interest in the project. I had no idea that books had to get through an editorial team, and then acquisitions before editors could officially buy them--and while agents certainly sometimes have interns who have to love the book before the agent reads and loves it too, there aren’t nearly as many steps to the querying process as submission!

Did anything about the process surprise you? 

The biggest surprise to me was that it actually does take more than one “Yes” to get published. With querying, if an agent loves the book and wants to represent you, they can just call you and offer, but with submission, it doesn’t work that way. First, they have to take it to second reads and have other editors on their team read it--and if they don’t like it, that’s it. No deal. If they do like it, then the editor has to present it to acquisitions, which has to agree as well. There are so many layers to the process once someone’s interested, and it doesn’t matter how much an editor loves a book if their team doesn’t love it too.

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

I… made a whole tweetdeck column dedicated to the editors on my sub list at first, which I 200% do not recommend, and will never do again for any future rounds of sub. Sub is such a chaotic time emotionally, that the added stress isn’t worth it. Besides, most editors don’t tweet a lot anyway, and my best sub advice is to let your agent worry about it and to do something else instead.

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

On average, about 4 months. The quickest rejection was after about a month, and the longest was 6 months (which in the grand scheme of things is still pretty darn quick). 

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

Do. Something. Else.

Anything else. Literally a n y t h i n g. I had a hard time drafting while I was on sub, but obviously writing something new is the best option if you can do it. If you can’t draft, catch up on reading in your genre or find another project to do in the meantime that’ll keep your mind off of it. While I was on sub, I think I knitted about 12 hats… whatever gets you through it, honestly. 

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

One of the things that’s nice about sub vs. querying is when you’re on sub, rejections can be filtered through your agent. I’d asked my agent to only send me rejections if they were nice or included feedback. This meant that with every rejection, my agent sent along her own take on the feedback or reason for passing, and that really helped temper my reactions too. She also has this habit (which I kind of love) of emailing me with bad news--and she includes it in the subject line if it’s a rejection or not so as not to spook the nervous author--and DMing me on twitter with good news. This means I’m basically always prepared for whatever kind of update she’s giving me, and it stings less when it’s a rejection.

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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?

Again, my agent was great about helping me understand what was subjective about rejections and what was actually valuable feedback. We did get some feedback we considered revising for--and maybe we would have revised for it if we’d done another round of sub after that--but it wasn’t substantial enough for an R&R and neither of us felt strongly about how to go about addressing it, so we decided to sit on it.

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

I was actually home sick at the time--I’d been working from home answering calls all day and I had a kind of raspy voice and felt like I was dying. When the call came from my agent, I knew it was good news (since she always emails me with bad news) and I leapt out of my chair as if I’d never had a cold in my entire life and then jumped up and down in my living room with my dog who was so excited that I was excited! 

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

I had to wait six months to announce and it was agony. The process of getting the deal in the first place had taken some time because of timing--my now editor wanted to do a revision on the first few chapters before taking it to acquisitions, and by the time it was ready for acquisitions, it was the holiday season and no one was in the office for about a month an a half. So we had to wait until January to even find out one way or the other. Then, we went back and forth for about six months on the title--which I never even dreamed would end up being that big of a deal. It’s a lot more complicated coming up with something to call a book when there are half a dozen people who have to all agree! Luckily we landed on something everyone likes and were finally able to announce exactly one year after I originally went out on submission.

So much of the debut experience, for lack of a better term, I think is about finding your people within your debut year. I was definitely worried that I would lose out on that and everyone would already have their people by the time I was able to tell anyone, but I was lucky and there were a few other stragglers like me who had to wait on their news too, as well as some really fantastic fellow debuts who were welcoming regardless of my wait.

Writing Tough Topics for Middle Grade with Marie Miranda Cruz

Mindy:             Today's guest is Marie Miranda Cruz, author of Everlasting Nora, an uplifting young reader debut about perseverance against all odds. Marie joined me today to talk about the difficulty of querying a middle grade novel with complicated and heavy themes.

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Mindy:             A lot of my listeners are aspiring authors and many are in the query trenches trying to get an agent. So can you talk a little bit about your experience at landing an agent?

Marie:              It took me about four years to land my agent. My agent is Paula Munier of Talcott Notch. Basically my query journey probably began in 2009. I started out querying my debut, actually Everlasting Nora back then it was, it had a different title and it was called Nora's Grave. I started out with that. I received a lot of requests to read, but at the time agents just weren't willing to take a chance. I think they thought it was a bit of a conundrum in a way. First of all, how to categorize the story. They weren't sure if it was middle-grade or young adult. And then also because they thought it was a little scary too. The elements I had in the book, they just didn't know whether or not they could sell it. I did that for a couple of years. From 2009 to 2010 I queried that book and in the meantime I thought, well I, I really wanted to write a YA.

Marie:              So I wrote a YA book and this one was a story set in San Francisco this time. Because my first book, the one that came out in October is set in the Philippines. So I wrote one that was set in San Francisco about a teenage girl who has psychic powers. I queried that book for a of years, well, maybe more like a year and a half from between 2011 and 2012. And I was basically still actually querying both books at the same time. Although the first book I decided to shelve, towards later of 2011. And that's how I found my agent. In 2012 I queried Paula Munier who was new to agenting. Publishing was cutting back on staff and there was a lot of layoffs and she had been an editor. She decided to go into agenting lucky for me and she offered representation. That's how my journey began basically.

Mindy:             So you mentioned that your first book Everlasting Nora is a middle-grade. It has a very specific voice and that it was a struggle actually in the beginning to land an agent because of the fact that it does have some darker themes yet is middle grade. So people that were reading it were struggling with categorizing it. How did you come to the decision to write middle grade in the first place and when you are writing middle grade, knowing that you intend to make it a middle grade book, do you ever look at what you're working on and think that it's leaning too young or too old?

Marie:              I don't know that I approached this project necessarily thinking about whether or not this book was one thing or another. All I wanted to do was tell a story that was very honest to the character and to the situation she finds herself in. As I was writing it though, talking with my critique group, they felt the voice was definitely middle-grade, but considering the content they felt, it was more YA. And one of the, one of the comp books I had used when I was querying was Sold by Patricia McCormick, the character in that book at 12 year old girl, her father I think sold her into prostitution. And so that was my conflict initially. And I think when, when I started querying, I felt that my book was, was young adult, despite the fact that my character is only 12. It Was a little bit difficult. And when I had to decide how to pitch it to some of the agents that did come back to me at that time did make that comment that, oh, you know, if your character, she's a kid, you know, and the voice is very middle grade. But I said, yeah, so what do I do?

Marie:              Like I said, I never really intended to write one way or the other. I just really wanted to tell this kid's story.

Mindy:             It is a kind of a tough age range right there and they're capable of looking at those darker themes. But you also don't want to be impacting them in ways that are negative. Everlasting Nora is set in a shanty town in the Philippines, in a graveyard. And you deal with a lot of the harder topics in this book. So can you talk about the issues that you address in the book, some of those harder themes and the difficult topics and how you decided to frame them for Middle Grade.

Marie:              Poverty, addiction, and violence and crime. When my agent was um, pitching the book, we had a conversation and she was the one that actually said to me, you know, we need to work out the tone of this book. And she felt that the first part of my book had a different tone that was, that was more about just the poverty and about the family and about the community. And the, the second half of the book was different in tone, more violent, it focused a lot more on the crime aspect and the addiction. She said to me that I needed to do something to balance that and to make it a little bit more focused. And so there were some elements that I had in there, in that version of the story, the mom in the story didn't have a gambling addiction. She did something totally different to make money.

Marie:              One of the things that I really wanted to talk about in the story was the the black market in the Philippines. People were selling their kidneys basically. This was actually based on an article I read of someone's experience. Some of the poor people in the Philippines were being taken advantage of, offered lots of money through a middleman to donate a kidney basically, and then getting cheated out of the money. I decided to mellow that out a little bit more. Gambling addiction is not something to be treated lightly. But I thought that might be a little bit easier to understand. I had to kind of steer the story more towards the relationship of mom and daughter when the book was finally acquired and I was working with my editor. My editor is the fantastic Diana Pho of Tor Books. When I was working with her, we made the focus a little bit more family-centric at that point,.

Marie:              The issue of poverty. That was something I really wanted to sort of illustrate to show the American audience how some children in the Philippines live. It'll make them feel sad, that's for sure. I wanted it to be an experience for them just to see, to share in what, what it is to live and how to live that way. The issue of poverty, I definitely wanted to illustrate it for them to share in that experience and see what that's like as far as the addiction and some of the violence, because there is a part in the book where Nora's friend is attacked. There's theft in the novel and a certain kidnapping. I wanted to show those issues because those are some of the real dangers for children and for families that live in squatter communities. I wanted it to be as honest as possible, but in a, way that wouldn't cause trauma and I hope it didn't. Some book bloggers in the Philippines when they reviewed my book, they did offer trigger warnings, you know, to warn people to say that, you know, there is some violence in the book to be warned if you were going to buy this for a young reader. American librarians and the book bloggers abroad did recommend this for upper middle grade, more than lower middle grade readers.

Mindy:             There's some things that a 12 year old obviously is going to be able to process and handle that an eight year old is not, and so middle grade has always been that way. It's always been a tough area. Tough to write for. Tough to target, tough to market to. There's always been, I think, I mean I wouldn't want to write middle grade. I don't think I could do it. I think it's way more difficult. It's probably the most difficult in my mind,

Mindy:             Coming up, writing about tough topics for middle graders as a way to build empathy and where to find Marie online.

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Mindy:             I'm curious, the agent that did finally pick you up, was she thinking we're going to try to reframe this as YA or was she thinking middle-grade all along and what really sold it for her?

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Marie:              She really felt it was middle grade. The strength of the novel was the Middle Grade Voice. What she found, I think the most compelling, and I believe that's how she pitched the book, was the idea of the community and the story is so strong that Nora lived among people who were there to support her. I mean an absentee mom for the most part, her eventual disappearance. And then her mother's eventual illness, she found that she had friends among the people there. And so that was what uh, my agent thought was the most compelling of a story and that would make it definitely more middle grade so that it would be more appealing to a middle grade audience. It is difficult because I've been reading a lot of middle grade books lately and they do tend to skew from stories that that would definitely appeal to very young kids. Simpler stories that centered just around the family and on um, little adventures and mysteries. And then you go to the upper middle grade where it does deal with other issues. One parent who is in prison and how a child deals with that. An older sibling who went away because they got pregnant. So those definitely are for older kids.

Mindy:             Do you have any concerns when you're writing about these tough topics for the younger age range or do you think that your audience is equipped to handle it if you're giving it to them appropriately?

Marie:              I think definitely the audience would be able to handle it. Kids tend to observe and understand more than people give them credit for. Life itself is a difficult journey and there are lots and lots of kids, probably more kids than we can say who are in situations that are difficult and I think books that deal with tough issues and difficult situations could be good for them to read so they can see how the kids in the story deal with it to sympathize and connect with that, with that character and feel like they're not alone. There's a good number of kids who you know are in really good family and situations and probably have no idea what these things are like and in a way it's also good for them to read these stories with kids who are experiencing tough situations. It could generate empathy as well. In kids who don't live those lives, they may know a classmate or a friend who is experiencing those things. Reading those stories helps build empathy I think as well. Of course you have to be very judicious in how you handle it and how you tell a story, imagery you want to use, send a message, but without frightening them.

Mindy:             Very good. I agree. I think empathy is always the goal, especially when you're writing fiction and when you're writing for younger ages. I think even more so.

Marie:              I was a kid in the what in the late seventies early eighties I was living in the Philippines and so my access to books was totally different and the kind of books that we had, my household weren't children's books. So I imagine that that must be the experience of a lot of kids. I think, you know, and they're rummaging around for something to read, at least back then. And you know, they ended up reading adult books. The fact that the, there's so much available now is wonderful. You know, every, anything from the scope of realistic fiction and contemporary fiction to fantasy. Even in fantasy books, there's a lot of things to learn and a lot of things for a child to connect with. Anything that they could be dealing with or anything that their friends can be dealing with in their lives.

Mindy:             Definitely. Definitely. Last question. What are you working on right now and where can listeners find you online?

Marie:              I'm working on my next middle grade novel. I think I mentioned when I signed with my agent, I wrote a YA, so I actually have a couple of YA books. The one YA book unfortunately didn't sell. So young adults was really my passion. I'm really loving writing middle grade right now. And so I'm writing my next book. It's about a girl who finds it hard to say she's sorry and, and later figures out that sometimes the words, the things that we keep inside and the words that we hold back could hurt other people and ourselves even more. And that's, that's basically the essence of my next project. And uh, people can find me on www.cruzwrites.com

Emily Roberson on Enduring the Submission Process

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 Emily Roberson, author of Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters, releasing October 2019. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. Emily has been a bookseller in Little Rock, a newspaper reporter in Vicksburg, a marketing manager in Boston, and a writer in Chapel Hill and Dallas.  

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

I knew almost nothing about the submission process before it started, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I had read magazines, and blog posts, and books about submission, but they didn’t really say much.

Did anything about the process surprise you?

Every single thing. Mostly I was very surprised at how much it was like querying. The pitch we sent even contained elements of my query letter. I don’t know what I thought would happen, but I didn’t expect that it would involve my agent making phone calls and sending emails and pinging people.

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

I didn’t do any research on the editors who had the ms. I had met and pitched a few of them at SCBWI conferences over the years, but it turned out that those were the quickest to say no. I had secretly hoped that they would send some kind of personalized rejection, but of course they didn’t, because they meet a million people at these things, and truth be told, they probably didn’t remember me. So knowing something about them actually made it worse.

I don’t recommend researching editors, because there is simply nothing you can do with the information. For example if someone is an editor that everyone loves, then they turn you down, you feel like you’ve lost something you never actually had. Then in the opposite situation, if an editor makes an offer and you find someone online who says they are horrible to work for, what do you do then, if that’s your only offer? You might want to research the editors if you are in an auction situation, but you can cross that bridge when you come to it. 

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

We heard back from everyone pretty quickly. A stream of rejections in the first few weeks, then a few revise and resubmit requests, and the first call with my editor about a month after we went out on submission. 

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

In my experience, it’s incredibly hard to concentrate on anything when you are on submission. I would say write the next thing, because I think it’s great advice, but somehow I can never manage to write the next thing when I’m worried about the first thing. We went out on submission right around Memorial Day, and I was very distracted by the sunscreening, errand-running, dropping-off-for-day-camp life of having small kids, so that was a blessing.

My big problem was looking at social media or book news and seeing other people’s announcements. So I would recommend staying off Twitter/Instagram/Facebook. My go-to strategy for coping with anxiety is watching The Great British Baking Show. There is something about watching people do something hard for the joy of it (and a glass cake stand) that reminds me about the joy of what we’re trying to do. So I’d recommend that. 

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

I asked my agent not to send me the rejections directly unless they had something useful or helpful to share. So I didn’t actually have to read the “not right for me” rejections. For me that was a good thing. I’m bad about rereading and revisiting rejections – like what if I’d done this differently, or that differently, would it have gone better? Having my agent stop them from getting into my inbox was very helpful. For me, it felt better than query rejections, because I at least had a supportive agent. I felt like even if everyone said no, I wouldn’t be back in the query trenches with no one but myself to help me figure out what to do next. It was still rough though. 

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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?

We got several wonderful rejections, one was all about how much the editor loved the book, but at the tail end carried the message – “I’m not connecting with the main character” – which is the critique I find the hardest to manage, because it’s so individual, and there’s simply nothing to do about it. Then we had several where the editor loved the book, but couldn’t get other people on board, so that was hard.

Every single rejection at every phase of this has felt like getting dropped in cold water when you aren’t expecting it. Even the good ones are awful. I think the biggest difference between the editor’s feedback and a critique partner’s is that the editor is basically telling you why you didn’t get the job, and a critique partner (or at least a good one) is trying to help you get better. 

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

I knew for almost two weeks that the book was going to acquisitions, and I was a nervous wreck the whole time. So on the day of the acquisitions meeting, I was obsessively checking my email. Getting that email from my agent that FSG was going to make an offer was one of the best days of my life, like walking on air. I’ve been at this for so long, and I was starting to believe that I wouldn’t ever really get a book traditionally published.

In fact, before I got serious about finishing Lifestyles of Gods & Monsters, I told myself that this was my last try. I had that talk with myself that the girlfriend or mom of the rock-and-roll guy does in every movie with a sad-sack rock-and-roller who is still playing dive bars after fifteen years. I told myself that this was my one last shot, and that if I didn’t make it, I’d keep writing, but as a hobby, the way that I bake or knit or hike, and that I would stop trying to sell my writing, because it’s all so hard.

Now whether I would have followed my own advice, I don’t know. But I do know that when I got the email that my now-editor wanted to talk to me about my vision for the book, I was over the moon, but still wary. I’d read too many stories where a book got stalled at that phase. But once it went through acquisitions, and there were going to be contracts to be signed? I was as excited as I’ve ever been about anything in my life.

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

I had to wait a while before saying anything publicly, and I found it hard, but not as hard as I’d expected. It turned out that being able to tell my husband and my immediate family was as rewarding as telling the whole world. The people who are the closest to us see the daily ins and outs of trying to make it in this business, and in the best case, they are the ones who are the most excited. And I’m lucky that that’s what happened for me.