I first started writing the summer of 1998. Back then, I was a teacher on break with three months stretching before me. After years of dreaming, I decided it was finally time to dig in and try to write a book.
For eleven years I wrote, submitting my four novels and six picture books almost exclusively to editors.* This was back in the snail mail querying age. Remember the anticipation you experienced as a child waiting for birthday presents to arrive in the mail? That was me for about a decade.
In spring 2009, I won a contest at a local writing conference. At the last minute, I’d decided to send in my middle-grade historical novel-in-verse. It was my best work, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received alongside pieces meant for the adult market.** My prize included a one-on-one with an editor who specialized in fantasy, sci-fi, and women’s fiction, a world apart from my writing. She took one look at my manuscript and asked, “Why don’t you have an agent yet?”
That’s when I started subbing to agents in earnest, sending three to five queries at a time. By May, I’d gotten my first full request. In June I got two more. In July another two. In September, yet another two.
By October, I’d had ten agents request fulls and two ask for partials. One agent liked my story, but felt some significant changes were necessary. I thought through her suggestions but took things in another direction, coming up with an entirely new, stronger ending. In the days I spent revising, two more agents requested fulls, bringing my total to twelve. I contacted the first agent, telling her I’d made changes to the story, though not along the lines she’d suggested. If she was still interested, I told her, I’d be happy to send it, but I also wanted her to know two more agents were reading the newer version. She graciously told me she’d love to see the story if the other two agents passed. One did. One didn’t.
Writing stats from 1998 to 2010, when I signed with my first agent:
10 manuscripts (4 novels, 6 picture books)
211 rejections from editors (2 fulls and 1 partial requested)
12 contests/grants (1 win)
75 rejections from agents (12 fulls and 2 partials requested)
With my first agent I sold two books, May B. (novel #4, which subbed to eleven editors and had 3 offers. It was orphaned when Random House closed Tricycle Press. The book was days from its ARC printing. Six weeks later, it was picked up by another Random House imprint, Schwartz and Wade, and went through three more rounds of edits), and Over in the Wetlands (picture book #5, which sold to Schwartz and Wade with zero rejections). After reworking several manuscripts, I officially retired most of them and drafted my verse novel, Blue Birds.
In 2013, I was on the hunt again for an agent. I submitted to three agencies and got two offers. I’ve been with Tracey Adams of Adams Literary ever since.
Writing stats for the last five years:
7.5 manuscripts (1.5 novels, 6 picture books — 3 of these manuscripts have been officially retired)
5 sales (3 novels, 2 picture books…the second picture book I hope to be able announce soon-ish!)
2 anthology pieces, including an overhauled chapter from novel #2…the one Stacey rejected in 2008!
3 grants / 2 contests (with no wins)
You could look at these numbers and get pretty discouraged. 14 years to see a book on the shelf? Regular rejection with 7 books sold? I can look at these numbers — even knowing things worked out in the end — and feel the same. I know plenty of people with a shorter apprenticeship. I’ve got lots of friends far more prolific. All sorts of authors I debuted with in 2012 have published far more than I have. Here’s the thing: Your process is yours. Your journey is yours. Each book finds its way on its own.
Two truths kept me going before I sold my first book (and aren’t bad to remember now):
- I have something unique to say (even when I’m not sure what that is).
- My work can only improve if I keep at it.
Rejection continues to be a part of the process. That’s just how it goes.
The writing life (and the publication process) is a long-road, long-view, long-term journey. There’s no other way to look at it.
So, my friends, if you are on this journey, too, take heart. There is no right way. There’s no quick fix. There is no easy road. There is a fair dose of frustration and disappointment. But there is joy and satisfaction, too.
Here’s to all the good work ahead. Here’s to the next twenty years.
*Because an agent isn’t a necessity in the children’s market (but is a REALLY GOOD IDEA), I figured submitting to an agent was an extra, unnecessary step. Perhaps not my smartest move, but it also was not detrimental, as my writing wasn’t yet ready for a sale or representation. These were my apprenticeship years.
**I also wasn’t sure if anyone would understand what I was trying to do with this verse thing. A few months before I had submitted the first ten pages to an editor at a children’s conference. She clearly was unfamiliar with the form and thought it was a rather mature picture book that was missing its ending!
Kate Burak says
Lovely, informative, and honest. You are a trooper. You deserve success. You have had rejection. You are talented. Ah, the writers’ life!
Kate, I’ve missed you! Please tell me you’re writing. The world needs more of you beautiful words.
A great post, Caroline! I haven’t had the courage to add it all up, but maybe I will now– my first book came out in 2012, too . . .
I would love to hear yours. This sort of thing always inspires me.
Okay– though I don’t keep the best records .
Michael Gettel-Gilmartin says
Thank you for sharing.
Wisdom here: “Your process is yours. Your journey is yours. Each book finds its way on its own.”
I’m glad this was helpful.
Kiera Stewart says
It’s so true — what a crazy path this writing thing is. It’s definitely not the journey I expected, but I guess that’s true of any worthwhile endeavor. I’m always fascinated to read other authors’ experiences, so thanks so much for sharing.Here’s to embracing the ups and downs of this ride (or at least a respectful, firm, yet hopeful handshake). xoxo Kiera
Would you believe I was on the Elevensies site just yesterday?? You’re so right. Any worthwhile endeavor comes with the potential for ups and downs. And deep satisfaction.
Serenity Bohon says
I *might* be crying. Thank you for shining a light back here for the stragglers. I don’t move quickly, and my faith is all but shot. I couldn’t possibly give up, of course, and this is the perfect keep-at-it.
Please, please don’t give up. You’ve absolutely got this, my friend!
Pat Zietlow Miller says
First, congratulations on your great books. Second, what a helpful, truthful post. Third, i think you’re awesome.
And I think you’re a SUPERSTAR. Thank you, Pat. xo
Pamela Courtney says
I am so proud of you. You give me hope, and so I take heart … I take heart. Because of this post, I’ve got some great summer reading and I can’t wait. You’re the best for sharing your journey with us. Now, I’ll inhale, breathe out, and get to work. Love this!
Keep it up!!!!!
Oh, goodness. Thank you for this. It can feel cliche when a published author says, “Everyone experiences rejection.” But when you give the numbers to prove it- it really hits home. Congratulations on your success. 🙂
(And on an unrelated note, I picked up a copy of “Jasper” at the library to add to my summer reading. I noticed in flipping through it that it is written in present tense, which reminded me that “May B” was written in present as well. Do you have a preference for that, see it as fitting for MG or your stories, or a different reason for that tense? I would so interested in how you made that narrative choice! Maybe a future blog post 😉 )
It’s funny you ask this. The first book I read in present tense I found really distracting…then I went on to write three of my own! For verse, especially historical fiction, present tense felt very accessible. With Jasper, who is this impulsive kid in a very in-the-moment, race for the gold world, present tense felt like the right fit, too.
Mia Wenjen says
What made you decide to part with your first agent? I am going through the agent seeking process now (just beginning stages), and I am wondering how to determine fit and longevity in an agent/author relationship. Is there anything you would suggest to find that fit? Thanks!
p.s. I have met with one agent who rejected me but we are friendly because we were friendly before I even knew she was an agent. She is also an author. I met via phone with another agent and submitted manuscripts but have not heard back so I am assuming she is not interested.
Good questions! Fit can be tricky. Sometimes you don’t fully know what you want, or you think you want one thing and realize you don’t. Your feelings might change. After you examine what you think you might be looking for — an editorial agent, for example, talk to some clients of the agent you’re after, if you can.
I think communication between the author / agent is the key factor in a successful relationship, but what this looks like can vary.
Heather Ledeboer says
I loved your two points at the end—so true and applicable to us all!❤️
Agreed. I hope you’re well!
Jerilyn Winstead says
Thank you so much for this encouragement. My agent began pitching my unusual debut novel in October, and I’ve really had to learn to trust and give it to Source to find peace. I now say “she is selling my novel.” I’ve also adopted a recommended prayer “Please use my novel for the highest good for all.” That helps me release it inside, and be at peace. For me right now it’s about letting it go and letting the novel find its way and work its magic, as you say. Meanwhile I’m enjoying working on other novel and YouTube projects, and preparing to teach workshops for the first time at our large writer’s conference (assuming it doesn’t get cancelled this year). I really appreciate this post, Caroline!
I’m so happy this was an encouragement. Here’s to that novel reaching its readers.