Tag Archives: rejection

What Seeds Do We Plant?

As writers, we love to see stuff blossom. Anything, really.

Flowers? Yes! We want to see those colors, see those shapes, see that–aah, wow, yes!–stunning growth from what was once a tiny seed.

Kids? Yes! We want to see our kids–whether those we parent, those we teach, or those for whom we write–grow into confident, bold, kind, and wise human beings.

Stories? Yes! We want to see the characters about whom we care so deeply, the plots into which we pour our minds, and the conflicts through which we split open our hearts all grow, develop, and yield something beautiful.

And because we are writers, we know that stories need endings. We know that planting a seed–starting something off–can be satisfying in its own way, but were we to always stop at the Starts, we’d feel somehow aloof, adrift, maybe even…angry. (For more on anger, read Susan Vaught’s remarkable post on the emotion here.)

But as writers, our desire for strong finishes, redeeming denouements, blossoming finales leaves us, well, kind of with our hands tied when it comes to one issue: publication. We can create and craft and revise and submit to our heart’s delight, but we have no control over the endings. None.

And if you’re anything like me, this kind of hurts to admit. It feels powerless, scary, and confusing.

So when I found a line from Robert Louis Stevenson that spoke directly to that fear, I wrote that line in my journal, posted it on the wall by my desk in the classroom where I teach 7th grade, put it on a sticky note inside my wallet, texted my friends with the quote, and pretty much repeated it to anyone I met. Even grocery store cashiers.

Stevenson wrote, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”

About five years ago, my wife, Jennifer and I decided that we were going to give away most of what we owned, and bring our two-year old son abroad to live in England for three years. She would work on her PhD, and I would be a stay-at-home dad and write. I thought that some of the many seeds I’d planted as a writer would blossom at some point during our three-year excursion, helping us to have a little  more income other than the student loan on which we were going to live.

And I planted a lot of seeds during those three years. I wrote drafts of four middle grade novels. I wrote drafts of 50 picture book manuscripts. I wrote proposal packages for three non-fiction books. I wrote two drafts of literary fiction-esque novels. I wrote a slew of poems.

And then I revised many of these projects, trashed many of them, rewrote many of them.

Hands in dirt! Planting seeds! Going deep!

Dirt in fingernails! Still planting!

And I woke up each morning with that magical thought bubble: Hey, you know, well, yeah…THIS COULD BE THE DAY. 

But it never was. And as we watched electric bills pile up, “Rent Due” notices gather, and as we marked on the calendar when each student loan installment was going to come–itching for that student loan disbursement day with hopeful fear–another thought bubble began to form: Maybe this isn’t going to work. Maybe this was crazy.

And so I looked for a “real” job while my son was in preschool. I applied to janitorial jobs, substitute teaching jobs, grocery store clerk jobs, secretarial jobs.

Hey, more dirt! Digging! Fingernails dirty with job applications! Yeah!

But none of those job applications yielded, well, JOBS. In fact, none of those seeds even yielded an interview.

This went on for a long time, and eventually the only job I could find was to deliver newspapers. So I delivered newspapers. And I was a little angry about it some mornings. (Again, thank you Susan Vaught for your incredible post!) And some mornings I managed to listen to music and see the bright side of it: it was teaching me to wait, to struggle, to hope, to be looked at like I was insane by the tweens delivering newspapers, to appreciate my wife and son who did the route with me some days, hleping me feel like I really wasn’t a complete failure as a father and a writer.

To shorten what may already be becoming a belabored story: nothing happened. All three of those England years yielded no blossoms that would help us make rent, no successes to which we could write home about. And we flew back home humbled, yes, but also more together as a family. More aware of the actual journey of a writer. More ‘okay’ with failure. And more able to be honest about those emotions inside that aren’t always happy and glad and smiley (yup: again, a nod of gratitude to Susan!).

Now, looking back, those three years in England sometimes take on a resplendent glow. When books are under contract and coming out, it feels easier to look back at those three years and say, See! They were all worth it, all leading up to this point! The planting MATTERED! Dirty fingernails, huzzah!

But that would be a mistake. More than a mistake, I think it might be downright wrong–the absolute opposite of what Stevenson meant by his quote. I don’t think the planting is worth it ONLY if / because it reaps a harvest. Instead, the planting is worht it because that’s what good writing and good living are all about.

We cannot control outcomes. We cannot control blossoms and harvests. And if we see seed-planting as worthwhile only because a harvest is reaped, then I think the point of seed-planting is lost. If I go back to those years in England and reconnect with what mattered there, I would see that it was the turning on of the computer after another rejection. It was the delivery of the morning paper after another late bill. It was the relationships that formed between my wife and I, and with our son.

Those were the seeds.

And if a harvest or a blossom ever comes, in a weird way, it carries with it the danger of losing touch with seed-planting, and focusing more on the harvest. If I’m being honest? Right now, that’s my struggle. I need help from friends to go back to the turning on of the computer–to WRITE, not to CHECK on stuff. To plant seeds, not to see what kind of harvest might be reap-able.

If I don’t end each day with dirty fingernails, then am I really living? Am I really writing, after all?

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Handling Rejection

Last fall, I read an inspiring article on Tara Lazar’s PiBoMo blog by Karen Henry Clark describing her struggle to get published. Eventually, in 2010, her beautiful picture book, Sweet Baby Moon: An Adoption Tale, was picked up by Knopf. Since then, all her manuscripts have been rejected.

She concludes, “What I’ve come to understand is that success requires more than writing a great story. You have to understand your writing journey. . . . Sometimes you land in a canyon, but you can write down there, too. I am.”

On the same day, I read an article by Joelle Han in Yoga Journal titled, “How to Fail Up.” Han states, “Sometimes falling short of your goal, or even missing it entirely, is the first step toward success.” She offers several steps for dealing with failure, but I found the first two to be the most important.

But I thought I was supreme dictator.

WHY me? Why ME? Why NOT me?

First, “Sit with the misery.” Your disappointment is normal. This is the canyon Clark talks about.

Second, “Decouple your ego from your action.” As a writer, I interpret this to mean, “Don’t take it personally.” Having weathered dozens of rejections – some from editors who had accepted my previous work – I’ve become a pragmatist. Yes, you may write with all your heart and soul, but that’s not what you are selling.

Your manuscript is a product. If your agent takes it on, she believes a publisher out there may choose to invest the time and money to print and distribute it. Maybe this won’t happen. Maybe, if you persevere, it will.

Writing and revising a manuscript is like designing and sewing a unique garment, hoping to find an editor who declares it a “perfect fit.” This may take years. In 2006, I began submitting my manuscript Seeds, Bees, Butterflies and More! Poems for Two Voices, to publishers who, at that time, accepted unagented submissions. It got dozens of slow rejections. Three years later, Sally Doherty at Holt “plucked it from the slush pile. ” She loved some of the poems, but wanted some new ones on specific topics to unify the theme. Would I be willing to write them? Of course!

SeedsBeesButterflies high res cvr Five years later (in this industry, everything is slow!), Seeds, Bees was published. It received excellent reviews. Kids loved it.  Teachers blogged about it.  A five-star review on Goodreads called it “Brilliant.”  In 2014 it was named a “notable” poetry book by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Yay for me right? Holt would surely want to publish another book of poems for two voices. But no. Though the editor loved my first book, the finance people said sales – though acceptable – were not stellar. Translation: they needed a bigger return on their investment.

Wah for me! I put the second “Poems for Two Voices” manuscript aside and worked on other projects. Recently, I reread the first few poems and decided to write more. Meantime, Ammi-Joan Paquette has sold Ten Busy Brooms to Doubleday and “nearly” sold another manuscript to Sterling. (Another case of the editor loving it but the sales team rejecting it.) Joan is also circulating two other PB manuscripts that haven’t yet found the right “fit” with an editor. We’re both optimistic.

Meantime, like Karen Henry Clark, I’ll write from my canyon. I’ll sit briefly with my misery.  But I’ll keep on writing. I hope you will, too.

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PLAYING WITH NUMBERS

An article in the paper the other day pointed out that the way numbers are conveyed can influence what they seem to mean. For instance, a doctor might tell a patient that the odds of contracting a life-threatening disease will be halved if the patient takes a particular drug. This sounds pretty exciting. Who wouldn’t sign on?! But, the article went on, if the doctor points out that the chances of getting the disease are only 2% to start out with, and by taking the drug, the patient’s chances drop to 1%, the patient might re-think it (especially if she or he watches the TV ads that list every possible side-effect). The doctor could also say, with equal accuracy, that only one out of 100 patients is likely to benefit from taking the drug. Again, the patient might think, “Forget that!”

In Michelle Ray’s clever and revealing post on May 30, her numbers told a story—one with a much happier ending than medical statistics. There are certainly times when I wish I could play with the numbers. But, it’s hard to figure out how to turn the 18 months that it took to sell my debut middle-grade book into anything other than a long trek. Since it was turned down by about (I’ve lost track) 18 publishers, I could try saying that I got, on average, only one rejection per month. But, at least one publisher rejected it more than once, so that doesn’t work.

Or, since the book is about four kids, I could try saying that I only got 4.5 rejections per person. But, the book is nonfiction; so, these are real people, and I wouldn’t want them to feel bad. They’re heroes; it’s certainly not their fault the book took a year-and-a-half to find a home.

Now that it does have a home (Peachtree Publishers), I realize that the revolving door of submission-rejection/submission-rejection is not just irrelevant: it turns out to have been fortunate. I can’t imagine getting more careful editing or more support for my book than I have from Peachtree. (More on this in a later blog-post.) I hope all of us writers feel that way. It’s not that one house is universally better than another. But, one house can be better than others for particular writers or for a particular book.

Goldilocks had to reject only two chairs, two mattresses, and two bowls of porridge. Maybe she was lucky. But, even though I was the rejectee rather than the rejector and even though I was bounced 3 times as much as the combined chairs, mattresses and porridge bowls, I ended up in the just-right place, too.

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Defying Logic, Fighting Gravity, and Other Lynda-esque Kinds of Things

I’ve been thinking a lot about my transformation from writer to published author—and I don’t mean signing on the dotted line or that new tiara I bought myself. I mean getting serious. Shifting perspective. Taking action. (Maybe I need my own action figure doll?)

SCBWI had become a social world for me. I’d made friends and enjoyed the conferences. For about four years, I met with editors who had enthusiasm for my work. Each time, I went home and started something new—much to the frustration of my writers’ group. “Why are you working on this new thing?” they would ask. “I thought Editor X requested the other full manuscript at Conference Q.” I would shrug, telling them I had a new “voice” in my head.

Enter Editor Z. When I sat down for a critique, she raved about my 25 pages. What direction did the story go in? Was it finished? She actually said, “I have to have this.” Was this “Candid Camera: SCBWI Edition?” I hoped Geraldo would not host.

I proclaimed that it wasn’t done, but it would be. I don’t know if it was this particular editor, or that I was finally brave enough to see if I had what it took. But, for whatever reason, I went home with my eye on the prize. In ten months, the novel was ready to go. I packed it up, my kids kissed the envelope, and off it went. This was it. That was that. I was going to be published! Time to start planning the book launch, right?  

Ten months later, approx 300 days, or 7,200 hours, the rejection came. Editor Z had taken the time to write a very kind, gracious, and detailed letter. She made suggestions, but they just weren’t things that my protagonist would do. So, I wrote her a heartfelt note, and let go of the idea of working with her. I was devastated, and I licked my wounds for longer than I’d like to admit.

The thing that bothered me the most, though, was people telling me it was okay. That it was great to have just written a novel and, if it never got published, well…it was still a great accomplishment. I agree. It is. But it annoyed me just the same. I know people were well-meaning, but it felt like permission to give up. So, I took on researching agents like I was training for the Olympics. I had charts, ratings, and notes from writers’ blogs, Publishers Marketplace, and Verla Kay Blue Boards.

I would soon drive five and a half hours to the incomparable Flying Pig Bookstore to meet the agent that held the top spot on my chart. More than one person told me I was crazy for making such a trip. Aside from the distance, she was Erin Murphy. I was told, “She’s a rock star agent!” to which I shrugged. “Why start at the bottom?” Did I think I’d actually sign with her? Maybe not. But I was happy to take the chance to risk the, “No.”

So, you’ve heard my story. What’s yours? Are you close to finishing a ms but can’t quite get to the words, “The End?” Do you talk about querying but never actually push the “send” button? Do you spend a lot of time reading books on craft and not enough time writing? Please read this excerpt from Marianne Williamson’s quote; let every syllable sink in.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…”    (Full quote here. Thanks, Mike!)

I think most writers, artists, musicians and other creative types feel this sometimes; it’s part of being imaginative. For some of us, the difficulty doesn’t lay in the craft of writing, though. Not directly. I think it’s, perhaps, rooted in vulnerability—three facets of it.

The first facet is the upset of having someone not love your work; it’s easy to take this personally. Gosh, most writers and artists can understand that! However, it’s important to stay open to yourself and others during these times. Also, even if we pour our heart and soul into our work, it is still a product to be sold (if your eye is on publication) and that requires some objectivity. If you’re feeling vulnerable? That can be tough.

Secondly, I think those of us who struggled as kids sometimes feel like they are “less than” in some respects. The idea that we could be talented and “powerful beyond measure” can feel odd because, to varying extents, it goes against our emotional grain. It feels unnatural, like driving on the left side of the road or having a cheeseburger for breakfast. Even so, dare to be remarkable!

The final way relates to the work itself, I think. The letting go of the slice of yourself that you may be holding back. The cracking yourself wide open part—that’s your voice. That’s where you mine your gold. The parts of yourself that can make the rejection so hard are the very parts that can take your work to the next level. Maddening, isn’t it?

I can’t tell you not to be afraid, but I can tell you I know how you feel. The reason I revisited this quote after Mike covered it in his post last week, is this: When I first read this quote a few years ago, it triggered my attitude shift. I carried it in my pocket for weeks. It stunned me. Mostly, it saddened me. The quote defies logic, yet I knew it pegged my writing life. I decided that I may not get published, but I didn’t want to look back on all this knowing I’d just given up. And I didn’t want my kids to see me do that either. How many times had I told a disappointed kid who’d almost made a soccer goal, “You’ll get it next time!” I decided there were far worse things than rejection letters or not getting published.

So, ante up. Slide those chips into the center of the table. It’s a small gamble compared to the winnings—pride in knowing you have some gumption. Some guts. All the while, remember, that there are people who want to cheer you on, support you, and celebrate with you—including me! And you know what? If you get rejections, you can handle them. You can. Yeah, I know it’s hard, but you’ll brush yourself off, hone your book, and you’ll ante up again. You will. Just like I did.

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