The Publishing Journey Perspective #4: Melanie Fishbane

When the Never Happens

It’s February 2017 and I’m standing in front of a class of professional writing and communications students who have invited me to chat about my upcoming YA novel, MAUD, and path to publication. As part of their assignment, they’ve been told to come prepared with a list of questions. Being budding writers, they’re very curious as to how I somehow made the dream happen. When I tell them my story, their professor said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Remember, everyone, Melanie’s situation is very unique. It NEVER happens.” My colleague and friend said it as a way to dampen expectations in a field that is a lot about disappointment and waiting. But the other thing I could hear is that “NEVER” – in ALL CAPS. IT NEVER HAPPENS.

It has stuck with me ever since.

Because, in my case it did. Which means—every once in a while—the NEVER does happen. So, here is my story of NEVER that will hopefully inspire you, so we can believe in the “NEVER” happening all the time.

Long ago I had wanted to write historical fiction for kids and did my first masters’ degree on the construction of Joan of Arc in contemporary children’s lit. The idea was that I would have the credentials to somehow, one day, write the kind of historical fiction that I had loved as a kid, but also enhance it by writing about previously ignored women in history.

There are many reasons that it took me another 10 years to work up the courage to write any historical fiction again. But, by the fall of 2012 I was finishing up my Master of Fine Arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had been sending some of my writing to a certain editor for years and being told that it wasn’t quite ready yet—and it wasn’t. I joke that I was sending her my bad writing, which made me wonder what she ever saw in it. At the same time, I had just given a paper at the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s biennial conference. This was the third conference I had attended in Charlottetown and, over the years, I had come to know the community in Ontario and the Island.

I was also working for Indigo doing their online merchandising for kids and teen books, which gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people, including editors and other writers. I’m very grateful for all that it taught me about the industry, retail and bookselling. It afforded me the opportunity to send my bad writing to an editor who mentored me during this early stage of my career.

And, then the NEVER happened.

The editor invited me out one afternoon. I had assumed it had to do with Indigo business, but it wasn’t. She explained that L.M. Montgomery’s heirs were looking for someone to write a YA novel about Montgomery as a teenager and because of my interest in the author, my connection to the community and the fact I was studying YA, my name was floated.

My first thought was: Why aren’t they asking someone more established?

My second thought was: I cannot do this.

But what came out of my mouth was: “Uhm…yes!”

I was told that I needed to come up with sample pages and a proposal, so they could decide if it was a right fit. I agreed. I had to finish my MFA but promised to submit something for March 2013 –which (after having shown it to a few people and wondering what the heck I was doing) I did.

And then I waited. I emailed friends constantly. My goodness was I annoying. I somehow expected that the editor would get back to me within a few weeks. You know, because she had nothing else going on her life… But in May (yes, I know not that long in publishing time, see what a newbie I was) I got an email saying that there were some notes.

I met up with the editor who gave me her thoughts and we talked about the book for a long time. I was sent back to my writing desk to revise the pages. After a few weeks, I sent the revision.

And waited. Once again annoying my friends with my neurosis and ponderings. I pretty well was sure the editor would figure out that this was a huge mistake.

In July, I heard back from the editor telling me they wanted the book!

I remember I was in one of the Indigo offices (on break of course), talking to her and could feel how the earth was moving. Things were about to change. Everything that I had dreamed about was coming true.

Four and a half years later, there was a bouncing baby book. And, I’m proud of my first book. Of course, I wish I could go back and rewrite a lot of it. It taught me a lot about my creative process, how I’m the most impatient person when it comes to my creative process, how I have expectations about my books and am sad when things don’t quite turn out the way I had expected, but that sometimes things are even better than we expect and that is cool, too.

I’m grateful to that editor for taking a chance on a less established writer (I still don’t know why).

For making the never possible.

Publishing is a lot about timing, it is about patience…the waiting! It is about getting the butt in the chair, submitting even when you aren’t sure it will ever turn out into anything. It is about making true and good connections, hoping you present your best self to the world. It is about mentoring new authors and making opportunities happen.

It is in these opportunities that the NEVER happens. Now…go…make that NEVER happen.

MELANIE J. FISHBANE holds an M.F.A. from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. from Concordia University and teaches English at Humber College. Her YA novel, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for the best in Canadian Jewish Literature. Melanie lives in Toronto with her partner and their very entertaining cat, Merlin. You can follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane on Instagram, melanie_fishbane and like her on Facebook

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.”