My first poem was purchased for publication long ago when my older son was a toddler and my second son was just born. It was a happy day with cake and sparkling cider toasts and wishes for a soon-to-come book contract. And while there have been other published poems and articles, and a wonderful MFA experience, and a lot of good kidlit work, that book contract hasn’t come. Now, I find myself with a college freshman and my youngest recently accepted to college for next September.
Two years of consecutive college applications have taught me that the statement, “It’s not you, it’s me” applies not only in the search for higher education but also in the publication process.
When a school reviews applications, they are looking for a student that fits with their institution. But even if a student meets the requisite standards for testing, essay writing, and grades there are other things the admissions committee looks at. Maybe they need a poor white male ballet dancer from Maine. Maybe they need an African-American clarinet player from Arizona. Maybe they need an Asian-American female who wants to study theater and play field hockey or an international student who can pay full price. The point is, they have specific slots in their list that no family connection or college consultant could anticipate.
The manuscripts come in…the rejections (ahem) declines go out. A few of them even meet the requisite standards for craft and story. Since a publishing house is a business with a limited budget they have limited slots on their spring and fall lists for new books. That means even if you have a great agent, she cannot magically make more room for your book on an editor’s list. Like the college or university, there are a lot of pressures on a list that writers might not consider.
Here are some things that I’ve heard in my most recent job at a publishing house. We need a beach book for summer tourists. We need a book with mountains on the cover. We need a book that’s more gifty. We don’t have enough stories about modern women. We have too many memoirs. I just got a book from X, I’ve always wanted to work with her. I got a great manuscript about Y, but I’m afraid it’s too much like the book we did last year that isn’t selling. We just lost book Z to another publisher so we need a clean manuscript we can rush that checks the same boxes. And the ever-present, I’ve been sitting on this manuscript for six months, and I just can’t make a decision. These water cooler and hallway discussions, in addition to data about what has sold in the past, influence the acquisition process.
What’s a writer to do?
Perhaps you’ve heard this before but the best thing you can do is: work on your craft and write. Persistence can be painful. When other writers (even dear MFA friends) get announcements in PW, and stars, and awards, acknowledge them with love. Then, acknowledge the green-eyed monster who might show up. Welcome her in for tea. When you’ve cried in your mug, and she’s done with her pastry, kick her out. Here are a few persistence tips that I’ve tested for you:
Take deep breaths. Try to “find your calm” (phrase from Lita Judge) about publication. You wouldn’t be so far in this blog post if you didn’t love writing (or illustration). Meditate on your intention for writing (or illustrating). That will keep you going.
Go to a museum or gallery or a reading. Art in makes art out.
Go for a walk or a yoga class or anything that forces you out of your head and into your body. I’m taking a tap class that’s bringing me a lot of joy.
Take a workshop, listen to a podcast/lecture, or read a writing craft book that jump starts you and forces you to see creative solutions to any manuscript issues you’re having.
Think positive. I have pages in my journal that have the sentence, “I am a professional and productive writer,” over and over and over again. Sometimes we need to convince ourselves.
And finally, write!
Anna E. Jordan is a poet, writer, illustrator and editor. She was the recipient of the 2013 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery award and has an MFA from the Writing for Children and Young Adults program from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Read her blog at Creative Chaos and follow her on Twitter @annawritedraw.