Writing Excuses 10.49: What Do I Do with This Thing Now?
Key Points: Start at the top of your list. Acceptances and rejections are not editorial feedback. Semi-pro markets can be good too! Make a list. Consider pay rate, size of audience, and shininess when prioritizing your list. Beware! The wrong agent is worse than no agent. Look for books you liked, then see who their agents were, and hunt those online. Cold submissions to a slushpile still work! Don’t pre-reject.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 49.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What Do I Do with This Thing Now?
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star Daniel José Older.
[Daniel] Hi, everybody.
[Brandon] And we are on the Writing Excuses cruise.
[Brandon] Daniel has been super nice to join us on the podcast. He has been here instructing all week and doing a fantastic job of it.
[Brandon] We’re going to now talk about the submission process. This is the last month of our master course on writing a story, and now we’re going to talk about what you do with that thing. You’ve revised it, you’ve slaved over it, now it’s time to try to get somebody to give you money for it. So let’s talk people through this. How did each of us start submitting our first stories? What did we do wrong, and what do we do right with those first stories?
[Mary] So, my first story is… I started submitting and I was very timid. So I went to low-paying markets. I love the market that I sold to. My first one was The First Line and they were great. But the second story that I sold to them, I realized after I sent it in, that I could have probably sold it someplace else. Then that point was driven home when an editor at one of the big three said, “Hey, I really liked your story. I would have published it.”
[Mary] I was like, “Mwa!” So one of the things to do is always start at the top of your list. The places you want to submit most. Because you’ll think, “I’m a new writer.” No one cares that you’re a new writer. That’s not a problem. It’s just the story they care about.
[Brandon] That’s right.
[Daniel] Yeah. I want to echo that, because I certainly… I had someone from Tor.com come up to me and be like, “Where were these stories when I was looking for stories?” I was like, “I was submitting them to smaller places.” I said it in that voice, too.
[Daniel] They ended up reprinting something from Salsa Nocturna which was really cool, and also made me retroactively kick myself in the time lapsed sort of way. Also, I would say don’t take feedback from editorials… Editors as far as rejections or acceptances as necessarily editorial feedback. Because it’s not about your writing. Often. Sometimes it is, but you actually can’t know, necessarily. Unless they’re really giving you, which is a good thing, they’re giving you a lot of actual feedback. You need to rely on your beta readers for that. If you’re relying on editors to find out how good your work is, you’re going to be miserable and think that your work sucks all the time. Most of the time, it’s more about the publication than the work itself.
[Mary] Yeah. The other thing about that is that if you are relying on editors to give you feedback and you are sending out something that you know isn’t ready, you’ve just blown that market.
[Daniel] Absolutely. Yeah.
[Dan] What he means by that, that it’s often about the publication more so than the writing, is that maybe the publication already has a story about purple koala robots. So they don’t need your purple koala robot story.
[Dan] Or maybe they’ve already got a novella, so they don’t need your novella, although your novella’s perfectly awesome and they would publish it if it were a different issue. So you can never be certain why they’re rejecting it. So just assume that it’s some really complimentary reason and keep submitting it somewhere else.
[Daniel] I would also say, don’t sleep on the semi-pro’s. Having just said shoot for the top of your list, don’t feel like disappointed that you’re being pumped in the semi-pro’s because they’re amazing. They do… Sometimes they can get away with things that the upper pros can’t, and they open up a lot of opportunities. It’s great to be pub… I was published on a tumblr blog when I was just starting out. That was awesome. Because you’re just starting to get yourself out there, people hear about you that wouldn’t… That’s where Salsa Nocturna came from, was publishing in semi pros. It got me a lot [inaudible]
[Brandon] I would say, when we say start at the top of your list, that means make a list. You can put magazines that you read and love even if… You don’t have to just look at what’s going to pay the most. You look at where you would most like to be published, and start at the top of that and work your way down. Because I know lots of stories that I’d be like, “This would be perfect for this magazine that I’ve enjoyed reading.” Maybe it doesn’t pay $.25 a word like tor.com or whatever, but that’s where I want the story to be.
[Dan] Now, I will say, also, as a slight counter to this, my first publication was in a very small market. Kind of like you said you were first published on a tumblr blog. While I didn’t get any real prestige or money out of that, it was a huge confidence boost. Huge.
[Daniel] You need those little victories along the ways.
[Mary] Which is one reason to not give up on… To not avoid the small presses, is that sometimes you do just… You just want that thing that is… With your name on it and people are reading it. I prioritize based on three criteria. Where I am in my career and actually… Varies. It’s difficult for us to say you should submit to this place. But what you should look at is… The three criteria are money, size of audience, and how shiny it is.
[Mary] Money is pretty obvious. How much does it pay? The size of the audience is useful because that helps build your audience. The shiny is very, very personal. It’s magazines that you personally want to appear in. Something… Sometimes, as Brandon said, I’ll submit to a magazine because I want to be in that, or an anthology because I want to… I want to publish something with that editor. Not because it’s going to have a huge audience or because I’m going to get paid a lot, but because I’m a fan girl of Ellen Datlow. I will submit to anything…
[Mary] That she is editing. So sometimes it’s just they have beautiful production design. Sometimes it’s just I want a publication. So you just need to… You have to know yourself where you prioritize. There was a point in my life where the major source of income was my writing, not because writing was… I was making so much money at writing, but because I was making so little money at other things.
[Mary] At that point, I had to prioritize money. Other times, where I am right now, I tend toward… To lean toward size of audience.
[Brandon] Let’s cut in here. We could talk more about this, but I want to move on to novels. Because each of us have published novels and I want to talk about our… The submission process for our novels. How did that go about when you were a new writer?
[Mary] Oh, mine is not a good example.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, it seems like…
[Brandon] I once had somebody tell me that it feels like the industry watches every way that someone breaks in, and as soon as you break in, they welcome you in, then find out how you got in and shut that door. Because they don’t want anyone… Any other scrubs sneaking in that way. So I… Briefly, it would still be interesting to hear.
[Mary] All right. So my publication story goes like this. I wrote Shades of Milk and Honey during nanowrimo and an agent that I also knew socially, because we were in a codex… Writers. She was reading along and when I finished, she said, “I’d like to offer you representation.” I had some red flags, but I was like, “Yes! Agents!” She could talk the talk about the story and markets. So I submitted it to her. She… We signed, and she sat on the novel for a year without sending it out to anyone.
[Mary] There were a number of conversations. I should have left sooner. I left, and I consulted with some friends of mine whose agents had been doing well for them, and said, “So this is my situation.” Jay Lake said, “Well, you should totally submit this to my agent, Jennifer Jackson.” Then from there, it’s more or less the standard thing, which is I submitted it… I submitted a query. I was allowed to jump the query line because Jay had recommended me. But I still had to submit a query. Then she requested a full, and then she offered me representation. I’ve been very happy since then. I will say, the thing to learn from mine is that the wrong agent is worse than no agent.
[Brandon] Yeah. Definitely. I would 100% agree with that. I sold without an agent. As kind of proof of this, I researched the publishers directly, found the ones that would take unagented submissions… I’ve told the story I think on the podcast before. Dan and I started going to cons, cornering all the editors that worked at these various publishers, started talking to them, networking with them. Eventually they would start to say, “Yes, go ahead and send me three chapters” or a query or whatever, and we would send those. We just did that for three or four years until one of them started buying our books.
[Mary] I want to say something really fast about what you said about unagented submissions. Most of the guidelines actually say unsolicited manuscripts. This is an important side door that you can get in. Because you can totally send them a query letter with no pages attached to it.
[Brandon] And you can also… That unsolicited is an important part. If you are part of the con… Going to cons and things like that… Which you don’t… Absolutely do not have to do. But if you are and you meet an editor and they say, “Yeah, that looks… That sounds interesting. Send me some. Send me whatever.” They’ll say, “Send me three chapters.” Then it’s solicited. Then any… All the doors are open. You just write “requested material” in the subject line and you send it to them the next day.
[Daniel] My story’s actually a perfect combination between the two of yours. Because I started out unagented, wrote Shadowshaper in like a flurry in a couple of months, really excited. Submitted it to Arthur Levine… Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine, where you don’t need to have an agent. Then sat back and waited. Started new projects. But in the meantime, tried to find an agent. Got rejected at least 40 times. Found an agent who I didn’t work well with… Who didn’t work well with me for very similar reasons. Left that agent. I fully agree. No agent is way better than an agent that you’re not working well with or that’s not working well with you. I was very happy that day that I walked out, I was like, “This is awesome.” Even though I had been looking for a long time, and then I found one, and then I left. It’s kind of like a really great breakup, where you’re just like, “Hey, I’m free,” in a weird kind of scary way. I didn’t have an agent for another year after that, but I knew that I was on the right path. Meanwhile, Shadowshaper was moving through the very slow machinery, and even slower, I think, from being unagented, probably, of acquisitions. I actually did and edit on it before they took it to the full acquisitions committee and… But Scholastic! I was really excited, and it was great. The editorial notes felt really right from Cheryl [from jump?], so i decided to move with that. My agent now, Eddie Schneider at JABberwocky actually came through and agreed to work with me and we signed the exact same week that Scholastic finally was like I guess we’re ready. So everything happened at the same time, and I sort of like shot up into the sky like a firework and exploded. Technically, metaphorically, whatever. That’s how it happened.
[Brandon] Daniel, did you do much networking beforehand, or just sending it out cold?
[Mary] You’ve got a pretty big social media presence.
[Daniel] But not when I was just starting… This was 2009, so I was really new on twitter. So, in small ways, but I don’t think I went to my first con until 2011 or 12.
[Brandon] Okay. So you basically submitted cold and it worked.
[Daniel] Yeah. I never met Cheryl.
[Brandon] It still works to submit cold into the slush pile.
[Daniel] But it took a long… It took until this year for it to actually come out. So that’s how sl… I think it got accepted officially in 2012.
[Dan] Mary said that her story was a bad example. Mine is a fantastic bad example. Because I found my editor when Brandon Sanderson sent my book to him. So…
[Dan] Reproduce that, audience.
[Mary] No, don’t.
[Dan] But Brandon and I more or less have the same story, because we were doing all of this networking together. Brandon sold to our then mutual editor right off, and I sold three or four years later. The interesting part about my story, though, is that with an offer on the table from Tor, I was still rejected by three agents. That is a… That’s a time when a rejection is a really happy thing, because these were people who turned down real money because they wanted… They weren’t as invested in the book as I was. I wouldn’t have wanted an editor who would just jump on the easy money. So all of my networking up to that point had been for fantasy. Because I thought I was a fantasy writer. So I’d met all of these agents and all of these editors who were in fantasy, and then I sold a horror novel. They’re like, “Well, gee, Dan. What are we supposed to do with this thing?” So it can be very good to be rejected sometimes, because…
[Dan] That just means that you haven’t found the right person yet.
[Brandon] Let’s stop here for our book of the week. Our book of the week is actually The Half-Resurrection Blues.
[Daniel] Hey. I get to talk about it now?
[Brandon] You get to talk about it.
[Daniel] Half Resurrection Blues is about Carlos Delacruz, who’s half dead and half alive, wandering around Brooklyn doing the dirty work for the Council of the Dead, which is this sprawling bureaucracy of death. Whenever they have a situation that they don’t really know how to deal with, they send Carlos in to handle it because he can pass, so to speak. In the sense that he goes to the living realm and he’s cool with living people. Dead people are cool with him. He’s friends with everybody. But he has to kill people. So that sucks.
[Daniel] Basically, he falls in love with the wrong person, who’s the sister of one of the people he’s supposed to kill, and he’s like, “I must find her.” But it… In the guy’s dying breath, he’s like, “Please protect my sister from the Council of the Dead.” Carlos is like, “Damn…” Can I swear?
[Daniel] He’s like, “I will do this. I will find her. I will protect her from myself, and then I will ask her out.”
[Daniel] That is the beginning of Half-Resurrection Blues.
[Brandon] Oh, wow. So that is written by Daniel José Older, and narrated by Daniel José Older. So if you are listening to his wonderful voice here and thinking, “Man. I could… I want 8 to 10 more hours of this…”
[Daniel] Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.
[Brandon] Then go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial, download Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older and enjoy yourself.
[Daniel] Indeed. And the sequel, Midnight Taxi Tango, is coming out in January.
[Brandon] So let’s talk about this list. We’ve mentioned the list a couple of times, of places where we would submit. Now it seems like we a little bit more haphazarded into things, but I haven’t mentioned my list. I did have a list for novels where I was submitting. This was… It started with Tor and Daw, and then Ace, and then moved down into the… Like the next string of publishers, and then the next string of publishers. After that, I stopped submitting. I had like three strings. So I did create this list like you probably would do… Like you do with short fiction. In fact, I did that with short fiction too. So how did you find the places that you wanted to submit to? How can they make a list like this?
[Mary] So I also had a list ready for… Ready to go with the agents before I went down my own special path. The way I came up with the list for agents was that I went to the bookstore and I looked at books that are books that I liked to read. Then I thumbed into the acknowledgments to see who their agents were. If they didn’t thank their agents, I figured there was a problem there.
[Mary] So I made a list of agents from that. It was actually just one trip to the bookstore. Then I went online and looked at those agents to see what they actually represented. Because sometimes you will have an agent who has like this one oddball client which is the one that you love, and they don’t represent anything like that. Or they don’t accept any new… They’re not taking on new clients. So I went… And then I prioritized it based on that. Like who I thought…
[Brandon] You went to their websites, found out what their submission guidelines were, and went from there.
[Daniel] Pretty similar story. With Shadowshaper, it was like I said, it was literally just that was the one that I found that accepted non-agent submissions, that’s the only one I sent to… It was also that it was… I was thinking a lot about Harry Potter when I wrote Shadowshaper. Kind of like Harry Potter meets The Wire.
[Daniel] Just like every book should be.
[Daniel] So it was a really wonderful happenstance that Arthur A. Levine, which is the part of Scholastic that handled Harry Potter, was also open to submissions. With Half-Resurrection Blues, that was mainly my agent with his list figuring things out. I will say real quick that I think there’s sort of a common idea that, both with magazines and with publishers, read some of their stuff, definitely do that and understand what they’re about, but I would caution against fully crossing someone off the list because they don’t necessarily do that genre. Because they… When I was trying to publish most of the stories that turned into Salsa Nocturna, there was… It was very hard to find urban fantasy short fiction online. There wasn’t a lot. Most people weren’t publishing it. I’m sure it was out there, but I wasn’t seeing it. But I kept submitting to places and getting rejected. But eventually people were like, “All right. Well, this is a good story, so we’re going to publish it.” All that’s to say that things will change, sometimes. You can’t start shortening your list dramatically just because it might not look that way right now. Be careful with it. That doesn’t mean just shotgun your stuff out there… Or machine-gun your stuff out there. But don’t be shortening your list needlessly.
[Mary] Yeah. Don’t pre-reject is what we say.
[Daniel] Yes. That’s it exactly.
[Dan] I kind of ran into that problem, just by the nature of the networking that we were doing very early on. I was going to World Fantasy and World Con and all these others. Which meant I wasn’t submitting to any of the publishers that don’t typically go to those. So Tor and Ace and Daw snd Baen, that kind of stuff. Yet Partials, that’s out from HarperCollins. It had never occurred to me that I should be submitting to HarperCollins because they never went to World Con. So I think I kind of artificially narrowed my audience in a way that I shouldn’t have in those early stages, because I kind of had blinders on and was thinking purely of convention networking. You can get around that as well by networking at different and larger conventions and going to different places.
[Brandon] Or networking online.
[Dan] Or being online.
[Brandon] A lot of editors have blogs now.
[Mary] And twitter.
[Brandon] This is a good way… And twitter. Yup.
[Brandon] We are actually out of time. I want to assign some homework, but first I want to warn you. When we come back to submissions… We’re actually going to do the Q&A episode first. So the last episode of the season will actually be a different topic from this. I wanted to prepare our listeners for that. Your homework is to make this list. The thing that you’ve written, whether it be flash fiction or a novel, and anything in between, I want you to go and research markets. Find similar stories. Find stories you have loved that share some elements, whether it be links or whether it thematic content or whatever and find out where those were published. Then find out who the editors are, what the submission process is like, what their website looks like, all of these things and make your list. That is going to kind of be your battle plan for getting this thing published. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.