The Publishing Journey Perspective #3: Mahak Jain

A part of me never believed I could be a writer.

That’s why, I think, I decided to explore the second best thing to being a writer—the business of publishing other writers.

I wanted to know everything there was to know, and I started early. At sixteen, I started researching the world of literary agents and editors on the good ole internet. This was around 2004, during the heyday of Blogspot (remember that?). A few literary agents and editors were revealing the inner workings of the publishing business in highly useful weekly entries.

I didn’t know any writers, editors, agents, or anyone involved in that world, so it was like having access to a crystal ball.

The best blog was and still is Miss Snark’s. Her blog is so good she left it up on cyberspace for posterity: http://misssnark.blogspot.com/

From Miss Snark, I learned about query letters and foreign rights and how getting published was more involved than writing a manuscript, editing it to perfection, and then sending it off.

Instead of making me more confident—now I knew how the world of publishing worked!—my poor creative spirit just quaked and retreated. There were so many hurdles, it seemed, to getting published. The writer in me was disheartened and gave up, before she even had a chance to get started properly. Ignorance is better, I think, in the beginning.

Fast-forward to university, when I decided to intern at a children’s publishing house. I was hired as the marketing intern, but I asked the editorial director if I could read manuscripts for her in the evenings. I wasn’t paid a dime for my work, as a marketing intern or a slushpile reader, but I didn’t know how else to get a foothold in the world of publishing.

I figured that I already read in my spare time for leisure. Now I would read with a purpose.

I enjoyed wading through the slushpile, getting my hands and heart messy with an endless supply of stories. The slushpile is where the unsolicited manuscripts authors send go. Most of the writing is easily turned away. Aside from glaring mistakes, the submissions just lacked that certain…something. A talent, a spark. Hard to articulate, but as the saying goes, you know it when you see it.

Sometimes it wasn’t so easy. I remember I brought a novel to the editor that I thought had potential. It could be so good, once it was substantially revised. She agreed. She was as excited as I was. She read the book and deliberated and thought about it and I was over the roof—had I found my first book?

The editor decided, in the end, to turn it down. The manuscript raised too many questions that were difficult to answer. Was the writer up to the task of heavy revisions? Did the writer have the skills or vision to make the book what it needed to be? The only way to know was by looking at the writing itself. So I learned something new, something I didn’t learn from those blog entries all those years ago: All writing asks a question about its own potential, and only the writing itself has the answer.

Eventually, I levelled up from intern to managing editor and started acquiring and editing my own manuscripts. I worked mostly on young adult and middle grade novels. The first book I edited was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, by the Ontario Library Association. It was a dream come true—one of them, anyway.

Afterwards, I moved on to a different publishing house. Owlkids also published books for children, but for a much younger set than I was used to. I didn’t really know all that much about picture books, but suddenly, I was surrounded by them and a new kind of immersive learning began.

By then, I had been working on the books of other writers for a few years. I liked working on stories, even if I hadn’t written them. Stories, I was starting to understand, were sacred. It didn’t matter where they came from, it mattered that they existed.

But, at the same time, a sort of panic began to overcome me. It wasn’t that I minded working on other people’s stories. It was that I couldn’t handle anymore that I wasn’t telling my own stories.

There is a poem that I love, by Gwendolyn Macewen, “Dark Pines Under Water.” The last line of the poem is what I think of when I think of writing: “There is something down there and you want it told.”

Though in this case, it wasn’t so much that I wanted it told, as much as it wanted to be told. It’s like the stories were flooding my insides and bubbling up—they had to come out, one way or another. So I decided, after years of running away from writing, to leave publishing. I applied to Creative Writing MFA programs, and I finally submitted a manuscript I had been hiding away in my drawer to the publisher I had just left.

That manuscript ended up being my first published book, a picture book about a girl afraid of the dark who must dig deep to find the light inside, which comes to her in the form of the power of imagination and storytelling. It’s both funny and fitting that my first book ended up being a story about story itself.

maya_cover

The journey to publishing Maya was made more difficult by my own insecurities and uncertainties. I hid it away for so long, by the time the book published in 2016, five years had passed since I penned the words

The send it out to publishers part of the journey was made a little easier for me because I was familiar with the process of submitting, both thanks to Miss Snark and because I had experience working in-house and contacts in publishing. But I think that’s what made it harder, too—I didn’t want to embarrass myself so visibly. As a writer, sending out work to be considered by people who don’t know you is hard enough… but to people who do know you? Yikes.

But I did it. I finally worked up the courage to submit the manuscript, but the response… well, remember how I mentioned that all writing raises questions that only it can answer?

Well, mine apparently raised a lot. That is to say, the manuscript I submitted needed work. Like I used to, during my years of slushpile reading, my editor sent me some notes for revision—before I signed a publishing agreement. If I could get the manuscript up to snuff, then I could resubmit, and if the revision was acceptable, my editor would then recommend the manuscript for publication to the larger publishing team in-house (anonymously, since the others knew me as colleagues). There was still a chance the manuscript would get rejected, even after all that. There’s so many opportunities for failure. No wonder writers are full of nerves.

The journey to publication, I think, is more like a gauntlet. And it’s not about the difficulty of getting published. The real challenge is keeping such close company with all your fears and insecurities, putting your pride and self-worth at constant risk. It’s hard not to take rejection personally; writers (all artists, I think) overidentify with the work they produce, for obvious reasons. For me, the journey to publication has been about facing dark fears and thoughts I have about myself and the world. That’s a journey that never ends, but one that is also humbling and uplifting.

MAHAK JAIN is the author of the picture book Maya, which was a CBC Best Book of the Year, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the 2017 South Asia Book Award. Her short fiction has been selected for the Journey Prize Stories and published in literary magazines across Canada. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph and has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She hosts and organizes the Emerging Writers Reading Series in Toronto and teaches creative writing at University of Guelph and Inkwell Workshops. Born in Delhi, she has also lived in Dubai, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Montreal. She currently resides in Toronto. You can learn more about Mahak at www.mahakjain.com and follow her @kveenly.

The Publishing Journey Perspective #2: Kari Maaren

Hey…kid. That’s right: you with the laptop under your arm and the aura of destiny upon you. Come over here. Come closer. Share your lunch with me so you’re following the rules of narrative causality and giving me an excuse to help you. Is that a pastrami sandwich? It is, isn’t it?

I hear you’ve started out on the perilous Journey to Publication and are wondering how it’s supposed to go. I can tell you, of course. I know the secret. There’s only one correct path, and I’ll tell you what it is if you stop hiding those pickles behind your back. I can smell the pickles, kid. I wasn’t born yesterday.

That’s better. Okay, here we go. If you follow these exact steps, you will be able to complete the Journey. If you skip even one, you won’t. Listen closely. Take notes. Why haven’t you opened your laptop? Kids these days. Sheesh.

The steps are:

1)     When you are eighteen, write a book. It doesn’t have to be good. It should probably be in longhand. It should also be four hundred pages long, single spaced. The benefit of this is that when you painstakingly type it all up, you will become an astoundingly good touch-typist.

2)     Do not send the book out to publishers. It isn’t a good book. Edit it for a year, then put it away and never look at it again.

3)     Write another book. You’re probably twenty by this point. It’s a slightly better book, but not by much.

4)     Send it out to one Canadian publisher you find in one of those books everybody used to buy: the ones in which inaccurate, outdated information about Canadian publishers was listed.

5)     Get rejected. Put the book away forever.

6)     Keep writing books. Do not write any short stories. Books are more exciting. Show all the books to your sister and force her to read them. Years later, consider sending your sister a gift basket as an apology.

7)     Do not send the books you are writing out. You know they’re not good enough and will be rejected.

8)     Build up resentment about how everyone else is getting published, but you’re not.

9)     Blame your lack of publishing credits not on the fact that you never send any books out but on the publishing industry’s lack of interest in children’s fantasy.

10) The Harry Potter books exist now! Blame your lack of publishing credits not on the fact that you never send any books out but on the fact that if you did, everyone would accuse you of being a J. K. Rowling copycat.

11) Finish your PhD. Continue to write books and not send them out.

12) Join a writing group. Wonder why you are not sending any of your books out.

13) Start writing and performing nerdy music about Beowulf and Batman. Make a couple of albums.

14) Tentatively, fearfully, with bated breath, write a book and send it out.

15) Get rejected by publishers.

16) Get ignored by agents.

17) Wash out of an Amazon contest that is basically American Idol for books.

18) Get rejected some more.

19) Get discouraged about the book. Maybe the book is not right. Maybe all that practice was for nothing. Maybe you will never be published. Maybe you are doomed to send books out forever and hear nothing in return.

20) Receive an e-mail from a friend who used to be in your writing group and is now a published author with awards and acclaim and so on. She was just in England, winning an award. While she was there, she talked to an editor from a big publishing company, and they somehow started talking about you. He had bought your CD from a table at a convention you were not even attending, and he’d liked it. Your friend said to him, “Do you know she writes novels too?” The editor said, “She should send me one.”

21) Get the editor’s e-mail from your friend and reach out, though your heart is in your throat.

22) A month later, the editor writes back and asks for a manuscript. Ask, in your capacity as someone eminently used to slush piles, “Do you want a synopsis and sample chapters?” “I don’t read synopses,” he says. “Send me the whole thing. I may not get to it for about a month.”

23) Send your manuscript to the editor.

24) Hear nothing for a year.

25) Receive a ten-word e-mail reading, “I like the book. Let me see about publishing it.”

26) Hear nothing for six months.

27) Get a phone call from the editor, who wants to buy the book.

That’s it. That’s how you get published.

What’s that?

No, of course I’m not kidding. That’s the only way. I swear it on these pickles, which are rather good, by the way. There’s only one path down the Journey to Publication. I mean, that’s what you believe, isn’t it? That’s what you’ve always been sure of. You’ve always had the feeling, deep inside, that there has to be some sort of mysterious key that will open the way to the Land of Publication, which is full of unicorns and space cats and parental approval. Why are you even listening to me if that’s not what you believe?

Imagine it wasn’t true. Imagine the Journey to Publication was different for everyone. Imagine there was no mysterious key, no One True Way, no secret to be heard from a lurking helper figure with a thing for pickles. Imagine every path was different. Imagine luck and connections sometimes helped, but not always, and imagine hard work and determination sometimes helped, but not always, and imagine a writer could be someone who did nothing but write or who did a variety of creative things or who succeeded at eighteen or who succeeded at sixty-three or who self-published or who never self-published or who stewed in self-pity for fifteen years or who didn’t know the meaning of the term “self-pity” or who practised a lot or who never practised at all and was awesome the first time out the gate or who was a social media god or who didn’t even have a Twitter account or who accidentally left a manuscript in a bathroom where it was found by a big-name editor or who sent out a manuscript over and over again for seven years and had it plucked from a slush pile or who found a great agent or who found a terrible agent or who never found an agent or who became an agent out of desperation. Imagine there were a million possible paths, and none of them could be predicted ahead of time.

Wouldn’t that be ridiculous? No. There is one path, and I know what it is. I hope you were listening carefully. Your Journey depends on it. Have fun at the next crossroads, and watch out for wolves.

I can see you have questions. Try not to worry about them. You should clearly know exactly what you’re doing by now.

Goodbye, kid. Enjoy the Journey.

And next time I see you, make sure you’ve got more of those pickles.

Kari Maaren is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and academic who has no spare time. Her first novel, the Andre Norton-nominated Weave a Circle Round, was published by Tor Books in 2017. She has a completed webcomic, West of Bathurst, and an active one, It Never Rains, and she has produced two CDs, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and Everybody Hates Elves. She is fond of time travel and titles that begin with “W.”

The Publishing Journey Perspective #1: Lisa Dalrymple

To share the story of my publishing journey, I want to describe for you the events of the morning of July 21, 2011 – and to do this, I need to begin by taking you back to 1986, back to when I was in grade 7 and when I first started submitting my work for publication.

I was lucky enough to have workshopped a middle-grade adventure novel that I’d written with the highly-acclaimed Canadian author Janet Lunn who had visited the students of Whitby Senior Public School to run a workshop for aspiring writers. At about the same time, my friends and I were heavily into the hysterically funny books of Gordon Korman. When I learned that Gordon’s first big publishing break had been with Scholastic when he was 13 years old, that was just the push I needed to set me off down my own road.

I begged my poor mum to type out my entire novel – which I was excited to then call a “manuscript” – and to photocopy it for me 3 times. (I may have been an optimistic 12-year-old but even then, I was going to do whatever it took to increase the odds in my favour.) I submitted a copy each to Scholastic Canada, Kids Can Press and Grolier (the only other publishing company I could think of.) None of them wanted to publish it – although they all sent very nice and encouraging rejection letters (which brought me a somewhat odd excitement, knowing they might be – and actually were – the first of hundreds of rejections I would accumulate over my career. It was a significant step for me to get those first few out of the way.)

Over 20 years later – also 2 degrees in English Literature/Creative Writing and 3 kids later – I found myself writing children’s picture books and beginning to tentatively submit again. At this point, I also sent some of my stories to writing competitions, hoping that if my work received recognition, that might help me when approaching a publisher. In April 2009, I sent 3 stories to the children’s writing competition of The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) – a large national competition in which the winners received a nice cash prize and their stories were submitted to 3 publishers. I didn’t win.

But in 2010, I received news that my story “Skink on the Brink” had placed second in the children’s writing category of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick’s competition. This was my first real big break – not Gordon Korman with Scholastic big, but big enough for me to get on a plane and fly out to Fredericton for the awards. Feeling that I had now finally written something publishable, in April 2010, I submitted “Skink on the Brink” to the TWUC competition. Again, I didn’t win.

At the same time, I was getting my work out elsewhere. Using the feedback I received from several contest judges, I had revised my rhyming story about a little girl who asks for a polar bear for Christmas and it had caught the attention of Donna Francis at Tuckamore Books in Newfoundland. And I met Christie Harkin, editor at Fitzhenry and Whiteside at Word on the Street in Toronto. I asked Christie about the kinds of stories she was looking for and we agreed that “Skink on the Brink” might be a good fit. She invited me to submit it to her personally. I rushed home and spent a couple of weeks revising “Skink” before sending it to her. In April 2011, I decided it might be worth submitting the new revision to the TWUC competition yet again.

Which brings me to the morning of July 21, 2011. I was packing for an anniversary trip that Marc and I were taking to Peru when I received an email from Donna Francis saying that she really loved the revisions I had made to the polar bear story and – as I can quote directly because, of course, the email is still saved to my laptop – “I’m ready to send you a contract for review.”

I picked up the phone and called Marc at work and, not long after he managed to make sense of the dolphin noises I was making through the phone, my call waiting indicator beeped. I glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was the Writers’ Union calling. Why would the Writers’ Union be calling? Do they call every author who has just been offered a contract? How do they know? I left Marc while I took the call, the call in which Nancy McLeod informed me that “Skink on the Brink” had won first place in TWUC’s Writing for Children competition. However, I was not to tell anyone until the official press release on July 26.

As you might expect, Marc received a second call from his dolphin-sounding-wife and promised that we would go out to celebrate that evening. In the meantime, I tried to continue packing, avoided friends and neighbours (as I’m not very good at keeping secrets) and posted a cryptic message on Facebook about this being the fifth best day of my life. (You will remember I have 3 children and, of course, the fabulous dolphin-decoder man that I married.)

We went out for dinner and a drink (or three) and returned home that evening with me feeling absolutely euphoric. However, the day was not yet over and, when I checked my email, there was a message from Christie Harkin who had obviously seen my Facebook post. Her subject line was simply, “So you’re having a good day, huh?” Attached to the email was a contract for Skink on the Brink, the picture book.

Now 7 years and 10 published books later, my next book will be published by Scholastic Canada (just like Gordon Korman… well almost.) Fierce: Women who Shaped Canada will be available in January 2019 and will include wonderful art by Willow Dawson. (And I’m starting to wonder if I should be polishing off and revising something that I could maybe submit to Grolier.)

Lisa Dalrymple is a wandering, wondering, dabbling, babbling, addle-brained author and mind-muddled mum. Often her travels lead to new adventures she can share with young readers. She has written over 10 works of fiction and non-fiction for children including Jungle Jitters, Be the Change in the World and Skink on the Brink, which won the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ 2014 Crystal Kite Award for Canada. Her upcoming book Fierce: Women who Shaped Canada will be published by Scholastic Canada in 2019.

Web: lisadalrymple.com

Twitter: @DalrympleWrites

Facebook: LisaDalrympleBooks