Thursday, July 15, 2010
"The Writing Life" part 3 - Interview with Susan Gee Heino
Regency romance author Susan Gee Heino is with us again for the third installment of “The Writing Life.” Today she is talking about Rejection, how she has dealt with it in her writing career and how she got her big break in the publishing world.
In Part 1 of this series, Susan discusses how she got started and her writing influences. Then check out Part 2 for Susan's advice and tips on writing. Susan's second book, Damsel in Disguise (Berkley Sensation), hits stores August 3rd so mark your calendar. However, a little birdie told me that Fiction Flurry blog followers will have a shot at winning an autographed copy - So keep checking back!
Susan thanks for being with us again. I've enjoyed working with you so much!
Thanks for having me, Michele. I've really had fun!
Tell us about the querying process for your first novel. Did you query a lot, a little?
I wrote my very first “real” novel in the 90’s. I was so proud of it and popped the whole thing off to a publisher, just waiting for them to call with rave reviews and a hefty offer. Finally, year later, they sent it back with a rejection. It was a form rejection without so much as a signature and I had the distinct feeling my wonderful manuscript had not even been read. It was at that time I decided if I was going to be serious about getting published, I might need a little help. I joined a writers group and realized just how much I didn’t know about writing and about the publishing industry. It was a bit daunting and I’m sorry to say, made me decide to give it up for a while. So no, I didn’t query on that first one. At all. I should have.
Was there a process in deciding who to query?
When I came back to writing about 5 years later, I decided to be much wiser about it. I looked at what was out there on the market and realized the type of book I’d written was a sub-genre that had basically died. At that time, only one publisher was still putting out “Traditional Regency” and they were closed to submissions. If I wanted to write romance set in the Regency time period, it would have to be more like a Historical Romance, which is longer and generally sexier than that first manuscript I had. So, I decided to do it. I wrote a different book, aimed it at the marketplace, studied the editors who were publishing this sort of book, and I sent out query letters instead of the whole unsolicited manuscript. I actually got one request for the full and was over the moon happy about it. A year later, I got that rejection, too. But at least this time I knew the editor had read my manuscript because she actually gave a couple comments.
Did you do any revisions based on feedback from your queries?
There was only one time when a rejection came with suggestions for revision that made me believe the editor would possibly be interested if I made them. I didn’t. I decided that the book was not really the type of story that would interest me enough to make me want to build a career around it so I put it aside and chose not to go that route. I think it’s very important we, as writers, don’t let ourselves get pigeon holed into a career we don’t want. I’ve known writers who signed contracts for too many books at one time and then had to spend the next 18 months of their lives slaving at their computer. I’ve known authors who signed with publishers who did not offer adequate pay or marketing and they found themselves stuck having to spend all their writing time doing all their own marketing and promotion. I’ve known authors who felt pressured into writing a certain genre when they would really prefer to be writing something else.
I think it’s very important that when we send out our queries they not only represent our book well, but us as an author. If the editor suggests she’ll look at it again if you are willing to make certain changes, by all means consider that! This editor is a professional who knows what works in the marketplace. If you want to be published, you need to acknowledge that. But you also need to know who you are. Will you be happy enough just to see your book in print that it’s okay to sign with a publisher no one has ever heard of and who can’t pay an advance and who will rely on you do all your own marketing? Will you be happy letting your name become known for this type of book? I think the whole querying process is as much about us studying publishers as it is about us getting to know ourselves. Figure out what you really want, research it, then go for it.
So how did you get your big break?
Along with querying agents and editors, I was also entering contests. I found that to be a very helpful way to glean useful feedback and get my work in front of industry professionals. It turns out I’m very competitive and learned pretty quickly what contest judges were looking for. That helped.
In one contest I’d entered, my manuscript finaled and was sent on to a New York editor for final ranking. She loved it, ranked it in first place, and requested the full. I quickly polished up the full and sent it on to her. Then I waited and sent it out to more contests. I got another request from another New York editor so I sent the full off to her. And I waited, and entered another contest.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine kept raving about her agent and suggested I query her, using her name as a reference. So, I did and the agent asked for the full. I sent it, and waited. (Do you see the pattern here? Lots and lots of waiting in this business!)
Then my manuscript finaled in another contest. This was a big one, Romance Writer’s of America’s Golden Heart Award. So I sent word to the two editors and the agent that the manuscript had finaled in that and they all agreed to look at it right away. I waited some more and then headed off to RWA’s national conference in San Francisco. There I actually won the Golden Heart Award.
Some people jokingly call it a Golden Ticket Award because it does seem that getting into that whole Golden Heart whirlwind makes stuff happen. It did for me. I met with the agent and really liked her, but by then I had three other agents very interested in my Golden Heart manuscript. Three more editors asked to have a look at it. I fretted and worried over selecting an agent, then decided to go with the one who was most excited about my book even before I won that award. I’ve been with Cori Deyoe of Three Seas Literary Agency for two years now.
The day after I got home from San Francisco my editor called with an offer. I referred her to my agent who was working with the other four editors who were also interested in my book. After a couple days we had two more offers so my editor had to increase their offer and we accepted that. My first book, MISTRESS BY MISTAKE [Mistress by Mistake (Berkley Sensation)], came out with Berkley Sensation in December of 2009. My next book, DAMSEL IN DISGUISE, will be released August 3rd and I’m getting all excited for that. Plus, now I’ve got a contract for two more, so I’m pretty busy these days.
My success story really is out of the ordinary in that not everyone wins a Golden Heart or ends up with multiple agents and editors to choose from. However, the path to get here was very ordinary. I wrote, I studied, I went to conferences, I queried, and I got rejected. The encouraging part of it is that if it could happen to me, it could happen to pretty much anyone. Just keep at it!
How many rejections did you get?
I’ve never been one to keep count of my rejections. And truthfully, I’ll admit to not having as many of them as some authors. I was not a serial querier. I was very selective which agents and editors I queried and therefore didn’t get the mass quantities of rejections. Still, percentage-wise, I got a lot more rejections than I did offers! Naturally, we should all expect this.
It’s a tough business and there are thousands of reasons for an editor to reject something, and very few reasons for them to accept. I’ve had friends who were rejected because their storyline was too similar to another book the publisher was just releasing, or because it was a time period that the editor felt was over-used, or just because the publisher didn’t have any open slots for a couple of years. Those rejections had nothing to do with the quality of the book or anything the author could have controlled, or even known about. However, if there is something you can control (word count, hook, strong premise, believable characters, etc.) then by all means control that! Our goal is to present the editor with as few reasons as possible to reject us.
Did any one rejection hurt more than another?
About seven years ago there was a real lull in the market for historical romance. It was sagging. I wanted to write historical romance and met an editor at a conference who said she loved historical romance and was determined to bring the market back. At that time, many long-time historical writers had switched over to writing paranormal or suspense or other sub-genres that seemed to be selling well. So, when this editor announced that she was eager to find new authors to write historical—and then she requested mine!—I thought I’d hit the jackpot. When she rejected me, I was a little disappointed. I worried that if this one didn’t want it, no one would. It definitely hacked away at my hope.
Did you ever think about giving up?
I’ve always known that the surest way to never get published is to never submit anything else. So I never really gave up, but there have been a couple times where I took a break. I did the Scarlet O’Hara thing and decided not to think about that “today”. I put the manuscript aside and did other things, telling myself I’d get back to it “on another day”. Fortunately, I did. And I think sometimes we do need to take a break and make sure this is what we want, that ready to face the possibility of rejection again.
But when you’re a writer, you just can’t quit writing. It’s who you are. It’s what you do. You need it. So if the rejection is taking you over, then it’s okay to step back and catch your balance. But don’t ever give up. Just take a break, put on some more emotional Band-Aids, and get strong again. You are worth it and you do have something valuable. Please don’t give up.
How do you handle rejection?
I really and truly see it as a challenge to prove the rejecter wrong. I know that sounds hokey, but I think rejection can mean two things: 1) it can be advice I can use to help me improve, or 2) it means I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s up to me to decide which is which, and that can be the tricky part and I’m sure I’ve gotten it wrong as often as I’ve gotten it right. But we should never, ever think rejection means “I suck” or “I will never make it”. Because that is truly wrong.
Just think of it as if you are walking through the mall and one of those kiosk workers stops you and says, “Hey, how would you like to try our wonderful new make-up products?” You can say yes or you can say no and I’m sure you’ll have a perfectly valid reason for either. Maybe you’re in a hurry, maybe you just bought make-up last week, maybe you’re a guy and you don’t wear make-up. In those cases, you’d just say “No thank you” and keep on walking. You weren’t saying, “Ick, your product is horrible and you should go sit in a corner and cry!” (However, if you did say that, you might want to work on your people skills a little bit.)
Sending out query letters is about the same. You tell Mr. Editor about your product and he says, “No, thank you. Not today.” And he’s got his reasons and they may truly have nothing to do with you. Take it at face value and just go on. Maybe the next “customer” will say, “Sure, I’ll try your product!” Then they’ll either fall in love and buy the whole package, or they’ll realize it’s just not for them today. Either way, you can’t let it mean more than it does. Yes, we hate rejection, but rejection doesn’t mean anyone hates us. Just keep slogging through the No’s until you hit a Yes. As they say, all it takes is one.
What about critique groups?
I completely endorse being involved with other writers at whatever level works best for you. If you love to dig into the phrasing and sentence structure of each other’s work, then do that! If you prefer to be a lone wolf and just need an occasional pat on the back, then do that. But the best help I’ve ever gotten—on lots of things in life—is from other writers. We “get” each other and that’s priceless.
What advice do you have on handling rejection for new authors?
Don’t “handle” it. Just put it in a drawer and walk away. Too many writers like to take it out and chew on it, over-analyzing it and making themselves miserable. All rejection means is that this editor (or agent) can’t work with you on this project at this time. Now, if they’ve given you some feedback, thank God for that and decide whether or not their suggestions ring true. If you’ve gotten the same feedback from someone else, then by all means consider it!
But just chalk it up to part of the learning process and part of the journey. We all get rejected. It’s a part of what we do. I know lots of successful authors who get rejected still—they turn in a proposal telling their editor what they’re going to be writing next and the editor says, “Uh, no, I hate that idea. Do you have something with vampires in it?” Rejection is just a part of life, especially if you’re a writer. Embrace that fact!
But don’t ever let it defeat you. It takes a special person to write their heart on the page and then send that out into the world for inspection. That takes courage, so if you’ve done it—even if it was rejected—you are still amongst a very select group. Be proud of that! Give yourself a hug and take pride in your accomplishment. How many people do you know who’ve actually been rejected by a real editor? A real agent? A real magazine publisher?
Love yourself for trying, and then go right back to trying again. There’s no shame in rejection, only disappointment. Let your friends help you through that and then get back up on that horse again tomorrow.
Personally, my favorite way to defeat rejection is to start a new project. There’s nothing to light my jets like sitting down and dashing off an outline for a new story, one that will be sooooo great no one will reject it.
Now, I’d love to hear how others “handle” rejection. Chocolate? Good wine? Getting out with friends? Dancing naked around a bonfire of rejection letters? What do you do to get you over rejection and onto hoping again?
Susan, again, thank you so much for taking time to do this series. I know I have learned so much from your experiences and I've really enjoyed this whole process.
Now Readers, we want to hear from YOU! Tell us how you handle rejection. Plus, do you have more questions for Susan? She will be hanging out with us today, so leave your question in the comments section.