It’s been a cold winter, but join Lisa Doan as she takes to the sea, in her wonderful Rejecting Rejection piece about all of the misfirings that happen to us writers. The point of writing is to survive the hits and take to the deck again and again until you make it safely back to land or go down with the ship.
Surviving the Friendly Fire
by Lisa Doan
Come with me on a harrowing journey bursting with psychological cannon fire. You know what I’m talking about, the rejection side of being a writer. (Which is the rather larger side, in my experience.) My entry onto the high seas of getting an agent, and then an editor, began in 2003.
I sat outside my tiny restaurant on the Caribbean island of Roatan, watching the slow season roll in like a depressing fog. To pass the time, I decided to write a novel for my young niece and nephew. During the long gaps between customers, I swatted at malarial mosquitoes, guzzled ice-cold Cokes, and happily scribbled away. After I wrote ‘The End,’ I noticed two things – it was very long (which I thought was a plus), and it was extremely good in my not humble enough opinion. Hello, this thing needs to be published!
The idea of publishing this very long and extremely good saga made me very happy. I could make enough money to give up my Chinese/Caribbean fusion restaurant whose recipes were all downloaded from the internet and then ‘fused’ when I couldn’t find a Chinese ingredient, so randomly substituted a local one. If I became a famous author, I could finally stop talking to tourists whose conversation starter was invariably – “Hey! You don’t look Chinese!” (They were correct, as it happens, I’m Irish/English.) It was time to get this very long and extremely good story out into the world.
As you might surmise by now, I was blissfully naïve about children’s book publishing in general, and what it pays in particular.
First stumbling block – I needed an agent. I was surprised, but undaunted. After all, what agent wouldn’t jump at the chance of signing me? I hadn’t read any children’s books since being an actual child, BUT I had just written a 350 page novel featuring anthropomorphic rats! As it turned out, agents did not jump at that chance. Except the one who did.
She was lovely. She was also an adult book agent, not a children’s book agent. She thought she might want to be a children’s book agent though. As I thought I might want to be a children’s book writer, it looked like we were a good match. She signed me, and then sent the book to a professional reader for an evaluation. Sadly, unlike me and my new agent, the professional reader was experienced in children’s books. While I was waiting to be shortlisted for the Newberry, she was writing her devastating report. And so the maiden shot sailed over the bow – I was friendly-fired from my first agent.
It felt like a lethal hit, but somehow I staggered to my feet. I wrote a second book and began the query process again. This time I was signed by a well-known children’s book agent. The book didn’t sell. Then it turned out he had taken on too many clients. (I was one of the too manys, I discovered.) The cannons blasted and I was friendly-fired again. While I was going down with the ship, I asked this agent who was killing me if he thought I would benefit from a writing program. He said he didn’t know, but if I were going to do it I should go to Vermont.
I marched to Vermont. (Other soldiers march to Valley Forge, children’s book soldiers march to Vermont.) I wrote a third book and began the querying process again. This time I signed with a super-ϋber- duper-agency. They asked me if I would tone the book down so that it wasn’t so over the top. I said no, because I knew it was perfect just the way it was. It didn’t sell – editors felt it was too over the top. That book was also my creative thesis and my faculty advisor pointed out that it was too over the top. Then I became convinced that it was too over the top and needed to be toned down. I asked the agency to try to sell it again after the revision. They said no, and told me to write something new. In an act of bravery, I mean lunacy, I loaded the cannons and friendly-fired them.
Down three agents, I started the query process again with the revised and toned-down book, even though the original manuscript had already been nearly everywhere. I signed with another children’s book agent. She submitted it to the few places it hadn’t been. It had a close call but didn’t sell. The cannons were loaded and the match was lit but, remarkably, neither of us fired.
I wrote book four. My agent didn’t want to send it out. She said it was not the right book to be my debut. (The fact is, she really didn’t like it.) I debated with her while racing across the deck to my cannon. She won and the book did not go out. I blew out the match and walked away from my cannon, trusting she was right.
I wrote book five and my agent said this was the right book and sent it out. An editor arranged a phone call with me to discuss whether it could be a series. I lighted my cannon and fired it at myself by saying a lot of self-defeating things like: I wasn’t sure, it’s a stand-alone so I’d have to change the emotional arc, blah, blah, blah. That was the last I heard of that. A year later, I went to Vermont for an alumni residency and that same editor who had arranged the call was there. After I read from it, he said, “I remember that. It’s still funny.” I said, “It’s still for sale.”
Another phone call was arranged. “Could this book be a series?” the editor asked. I kicked my cannon out of my way and said, “Yes. Yes, it most certainly can.”
Lerner Publishing acquired The Berenson Schemes. The third in the series, Jack at the Helm, releases in March.
No matter how much you fire cannons at yourself (and as you can see I am no stranger to suicide by cannonball) and no matter how many times other people take aim and fire, you have to keep going. You will be fired upon. Not just maybe, you absolutely will. Triage yourself and keep going. Don’t worry if you’re charging on deck with gauze bandages unraveling and sutures barely holding together. Just get on deck. Keep writing and don’t freak out over the friendly fire, the cannonballs can’t actually kill you.
Many would-be writers will fall and decide not to get up again. They’ll decide they can’t survive getting shot at again. Playing dead is not as straightforward as hoisting a white flag and crying, “That’s it, I’ve had it, I give up.” It’s more subtle than that. Writing time begins to fall away – there’s so much else that needs doing. A manuscript goes under infinite revisions – the point being it will never be finished. Research becomes a full time job – a great way to not write while seeming to write. You decide to take a break from it so you can come back fresh – you’ll get back to writing just after the holidays, or right after somebody’s birthday, or, or, or. Avoidance and delay are what not getting on deck looks like. Get back on deck! You have to, because if you don’t you will drag a deep sense of disappointment in yourself, and the world, with you forevermore. Emotional rejection is a first world problem. Other people, in other places, are getting shot at for real. Stitch your psychological wounds up, be glad it was just your feelings that got hurt, and be a steely-eyed writer pirate. Carry on my children’s book warriors!
Lisa Doan is the author of The Berenson Schemes series – Jack the Castaway, Jack and the Wild Life and Jack at the Helm. She received a master’s degree in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her extensive travel in Africa and Asia and eight years spent living in the Caribbean were the basis for the series’ international settings. She has hatched her share of harebrained schemes, including backpacking alone from Morocco to Kenya, hitchhiking across the Sahara with Nigeran car dealers, sauntering off on an ill-advised, one-person walking safari, and opening a restaurant with no actual restaurant experience. Her occupations have included master scuba diving instructor, New York City headhunter, owner-chef of a ‘sort of Chinese-like’ restaurant, television show set medic, and Deputy Prothonotary of a county court. Visit the author at lisadoan.org.