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.
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.