On Writing Process, part four: Submitting that first novel & rejection

Posted in writing, process.

I’m honestly not certain who is inter­ested in these posts – except me. I am clearly inter­ested in them. Bits and pieces of what becomes a post have been floating in the back brain, and I’ve returned to them time and again.

Prac­ti­cally speaking, leaving the entire musing and contem­pla­tion aside, “Just write” is the only correct advice. But… writing can be isolating in many ways. Finding explicit How To, taking courses that teach explicit How To, finding authors who have written distinct How To (and to be fair to them, they are trying to be useful and they are cutting down the musing to get to what seems the skeleton, the bones, of process) are often meant as advice, as dictum.

I am, for the moment, assessing these pieces and wondering if they are useful at all (this is not me panicking, and no one should feel that they have to rush in to be sympa­thetic to this partic­ular thought. It’s not emotional; I don’t feel bad or emotion­ally distressed while assessing.)

New writers, writers attempting to write for publi­ca­tion, might find it inter­esting – but it’s not heavy on How-To; I’m not sure these posts are prac­tical enough to be valu­able in that way. In which case, what am I trying to do, exactly?

And I think the answer is: Trying to be open, trying to express parts of my process that I have not verbally expressed, trying to put out an odd sign-post that might say, to some, You Are Not Alone. (Of course, it might also say Here Be Dragons.) If any part of it resonates with people who are strug­gling with their own writing – and I still struggle with mine – then I feel that they’re worth doing.

This is a long way of saying: I’m going to continue.

So: I had a finished, unwork­shopped, read-by-two-people novel. Since one of them was Tanya Huff and she liked it enough to suggest that it was publish­able, I felt embold­ened, and went about the research to find out the names of editors at various publishers. Because of the work in the book­store, and because of my own personal reading, I had a clear idea of who was publishing what by this point.

I chose to send the book to Del Rey. Lester del Rey was still editor in chief at that time; Veronica Chapman and Shelly Shapiro were the in-office people, and Owen Locke was, I think, a senior editor. I sent the book in to Del Rey – which was not dirt cheap at the time because every­thing was done on paper. Nothing was elec­tronic.

Now that the first book was on its way to an editor, I sat down to start book two.

Some people did not think this was a good idea because I hadn’t sold the first book, and I might be spin­ning my wheels and wasting precious writing time – because I had a full-time day-job – writing some­thing that was doomed to go nowhere.

My contention was that if the first book did sell, and I waited until that point, I’d’ve wasted that writing time, because I wouldn’t have anything written on book two. And anyways, the value of the writing time was entirely theo­ret­ical at this point. I wanted to finish the story.

(This is not the correct, prac­tical choice, by the way. It makes as much sense as submit­ting a story to one market and then setting it aside in a drawer (for which I was crit­i­cized much later in my career). This is part of the reason I say that these posts are NOT advice. They’re kind of an inte­rior view of things I remember from that time, and a more direct attempt to make explicit — both to you and to myself — my process.

On the other hand, not following strict, prac­tical, and useful advice did not kill me or prevent me from becoming published or finishing a book, so… there’s that. I made mistakes. I survived them. In the moment of the real­iza­tion of the mistake, I was just as terri­fied and upset at myself as people can be when things are unfolding badly; hind­sight helps.)

My four rules of writing — which formed the process by which I could get from page one to the end — were firmly in place by this point. I was still working at the book­store full-time, and still writing on lunch. I tended to do the more mechan­ical things in the morning (like, say, shelving) and divert atten­tion to less mechan­ical things (like, say, ordering) after lunch as part of this para­digm.

I did not attempt to write an outline for this one. I did hand the finished manu­script of the first book to Tanya Huff, and one of the first things she said to me was that she had been fairly certain, given the way I worked, that I would never finish a book.

I had clearly finished a book, and that taught us both that process differs hugely between writers. Again: the internet was really not what it is now, and writers were far more isolated with their process than they need to be today.

I, unlike Tanya, was pretty obsessed early on with process. Not so much my own, because I had found one that worked for me, but with other authors’. I read every how-to-write book that crossed our threshold, and a fair few that did not. I kind of liked to see how other writers approached things.

Only one book caused me to throw it across the room in frus­trated rage, because I consid­ered the advice to be, if possibly successful, other­wise terrible in ethical terms. But: me. I dislike the idea that to make a villain more repul­sive to the “average reader”, one must make him an intel­lec­tual. I disliked this strongly.

Sorry, that was a digres­sion. I read a lot of books about process. I read a lot of books about writing, about how to write. I didn’t consider those books direc­tions or commands; I consid­ered them more a published version of “How I write my books” (meaning, how the authors of those books did).

I also listened to anyone willing to talk about their own process — because Tanya Huff was defin­i­tively unwilling to do so. Ever. She consid­ered it largely irrel­e­vant, since the only thing that mattered was the book. (And this is also true.)

I started to write the second book. This is where I real­ized that I had no idea what I was actu­ally doing.

In the mean­time, the first book I submitted was rejected. It came with a lovely person­al­ized note on half-size paper, which ended with a request to see anything else I wrote in future – but this book was a no go.

So I started to think about what I might do next, and set aside what I had of book two. Tanya Huff said, no, you will not do that.

But – she said she’d love to see anything I write in the future, and clearly this book didn’t work, so I’ll write some­thing else and send it!”

No, you will not. Look, this is the type of rejec­tion that is saying: revise this. Make it better. Send it back.”

Since this was not what the letter said, there was some argu­ment. I was very new to the publishing & writing side of the triangle; not to the book­selling side. However, as I was working in a book­store that had sales reps, and the editor talked to those reps, one of those reps came into the store to hand me the editor’s card, with phone number and ask me to call her.

I did. There followed a long conver­sa­tion about 1. What she really liked about the book, and 2. what she didn’t. I was a bit impa­tient with the first part because clearly if she liked it, it wasn’t a problem; I didn’t need to worry about it. She said, when I said this (because I finally did say this), “too bad. You will just have to get used to this.”

The second part of the discus­sion was longer. It turns out that the thing she disliked the most was… the protag­o­nist. She felt that every other char­acter felt real, but she had no idea who the protag­o­nist actu­ally was. This was a bit shocking to me.

In fact, I think I had to ask her three times for actual exam­ples — which, in a book that is absent the exam­ples she expected to see was a bit diffi­cult — before I under­stood what she meant.

I had taken no actual time to develop the protag­o­nist because I knew her; I had taken all the time to develop every other char­acter because she didn’t really know them. There was a large blank space around the protag­o­nist I had totally failed to see.

… So, here I am, flailing wildly as I finally under­stand what she is telling me.

But she absolutely refused to tell me how to fix anything. Because, she said, it was my book. And she couldn’t ask me to do anything in specific because … she hadn’t made an offer on the book, and asking for work to be done when the offer was uncer­tain was — in that era of publishing — Not Done.

Remember that I said my impulse is to put some­thing in the drawer when it is rejected, and to work on some­thing Newer and Better?

…this will prob­ably tell you every­thing you need to know about my ability to actu­ally revise at that time.

The next post will be How I learned to Revise.

14 Responses to On Writing Process, part four: Submitting that first novel & rejection

  1. Carrie Hamilton says:

    As you’ve empha­sized, everyone’s expe­ri­ence is different (this happens in acad­emia as well). However, I’ve been genuinely inter­ested in your lengthy descrip­tions because they provide a larger context for your overall oeuvre. You seem to be at a turning point in your two major series, so maybe this reflec­tion has arisen because you’re consid­ering how to move forward with both? Feel free to ignore my amateur psycho­analysis! It’s not my “field”. LOL?!?

  2. michelle says:

    @Carrie: I started to think about this a … long time ago now, when someone asked me a ques­tion about longevity. Writing for the long haul.

    Other ques­tions, other obser­va­tions, over the past two years added to these thoughts, although I didn’t put them together. Often, process ques­tions have been How To, or rather, the answers wanted were more How To.

    My own obser­va­tions about writers who had slowed down or stopped writing, added to the first thought, but… these are people who have clearly written books, and not just one. So clearly process discus­sions were not neces­sarily going to be helpful.

    It’s like, hmmm. Lots of ques­tions go in, and I try to answer the ones that I get. But I real­ized that I didn’t really have a good imme­diate answer for ques­tion one, and … it was rele­vant.

    I’m not at all sure this is rele­vant to where I’m going now, in terms of writing, or rather, not more rele­vant — but on the other hand, I started my first novel for publi­ca­tion thirty years ago. And in between lots of life happened, so it’s possible that my inte­rior view has been jogged by living.

    And when I had first started writing novels, I was almost afraid that if I exam­ined anything too care­fully I would break every­thing. I would break the book or the ability to write books.

    Twenty years later, I no longer had this fear — but… that’s a number of books later.

  3. Argentum says:

    I am here for all the process contem­pla­tion! As a new writer aiming for publi­ca­tion, I can ratio­nalize these reflec­tions as “work” — but the truth is I think they are fasci­nating. The word “process” acquired an unhappy taste in my years as a project manager — too many exec­u­tives trying to solve every problem by yelling “process”, too many team members writing process off as somehow diamet­ri­cally opposed to “end product”. But seeing process as the How behind Creation is … sort of magical.

    Thanks for pointing out that mistakes are surviv­able. I’m revising Book One and Book Two at the same time, as a result of writing to finish the story and ending up with 240K+ words, oops. Good thing it’s a labor of love :)

  4. Adama Hamilton says:

    Thank You, I really appre­ciate hearing about your process and it’s chal­lenges! I’m very much looking forward to hearing how you learned to revise in a way that works for you and the publisher.

  5. Joey says:

    Too bad. You will just have to get used to this.” — I love it!

    At some point you’ll get (back) to short fiction process?

  6. michelle says:

    @Joey: Yes. And also the novella, which I have started six times now T_T.

    Short fiction came later, and I kind of sucked at it, but. More on that, yes.

    You would prob­ably have liked my editor then. She was cute, perky, shorter than me and half my weight; she could drink people twice my weight under the table and be chipper and free of hang­over the next morning.

  7. Helen says:

    I’m certainly inter­ested in reading more! I’ve been intrigued by your reve­la­tions, if only because — finally — I found someone saying the same things I have for years… espe­cially regarding the visu­al­i­sa­tion issues (I’d never realised it wasn’t “normal”!) — I’m another who “thinks” in words, and I just could never picture anything in my head, it’s always a descrip­tion!

    I’m moder­ately fluent in and read a lot of Japanese and French, which leads to ques­tions in my own head of: “so how does that change things as a writer then…?” In my case, a tendency to start sentences in one language and end up in another if I don’t watch it, as well as a hope­less case of picking up very bad (for English!) struc­tural and narra­tive “tics” from reading foreign language novels!

    Also, as an unre­pen­tant “pantser” who strug­gles to finish anything if they’ve outlined it in anything more than the vaguest plot points, it’s a relief to find someone who’s a) successful and b) actu­ally writes books I enjoy, having exactly the same issues with perceived wisdom on the subject! ;-) (And honestly — how does any outline survive contact with the char­ac­ters? Once they start inter­acting with each other, they go off at all sorts of tangents, and I person­ally found the worst thing you can do is try and force them back onto the chosen path! If nothing else, they’ll give you hell about it every step of the way, and to me, it always shows — you can’t force it…!).

    I’m looking forward to your next blog on the reviews — as someone who cannot — ever — stop fiddling, it’ll be inter­esting to see how you approach it!

  8. michelle says:

    @Helen: the thing I’ve always wondered, when one can speak multiple languages (I can’t, really, but can read French), is how one thinks when certain words are avail­able in the other language. There are verbs in French that we *can* describe in English — but with more words. Those aren’t avail­able to us when we start to think, or at least not to people like mean, who use words.

    It’s the same with Japanese (which I cannot read at all, although I did try taking lessons — I can’t speak it either). My cousin from Japan, who lived here for a year, really wanted me to read a prose poem her brother had written. Since I can’t read Japanese, she went for a dictio­nary. We had several. They were pronounced useless.

    Because there were six words in that poem that had different weights and mean­ings — to someone who read Japanese. And they all trans­lated, roughly, to ‘imag­i­na­tion’ or ‘imagine’.

    (She ordered the big green monster. And discov­ered that, in fact, it also offered one English word for all of them.)

    She was here to learn English, so the ability to describe the meaning with the nuance of many surrounding words was not there. And I have no idea what those words were now.

    But I wonder, again, what the inte­ri­ority of thought would be like with access to six different shades of some­thing that overlap a single word in English.

  9. hanneke28 says:

    I’m fairly bilin­gual — born Dutch, living and working in the Nether­lands, Dutch is my native language.
    We emigrated to Australia for a year when I was eight (intending to stay there), so I had to learn English quickly, being put into an only-English school imme­di­ately upon arrival: Sesame Street and Richard Scarry were a great help. I learned to read, talk, think and even dream in English.
    When we went back after a year, I kept reading in English as there were a great many more good children’s books in English than in Dutch (there still are, if you like fantasy, though it’s getting better). I still read (for plea­sure) almost exclu­sively in English, both books (mostly F/SF) and the New Scien­tist, and regu­larly think in English.

    I find that I code-switch mentally without thinking about which language I’m thinking in. The code-switching is trig­gered both by the envi­ron­ment, and by the subject I’m thinking of. At work, and in daily living, I mostly think in Dutch (unless I’ve just been reading in English).
    There are a lot of more compli­cated subjects that don’t come up in daily conver­sa­tion, that I primarily encounter in books, for which I think almost exclu­sively in English. This includes not just the science stuff from the maga­zine, but quite a lot of diffi­cult emotions and inter­per­sonal inter­ac­tions. If some­thing like that comes up in a Dutch conver­sa­tion I’ll be thinking in English and trying to think of Dutch trans­la­tions (some­times in the form of circum­lo­cu­tions, descrip­tions instead of single words — my vocab­u­lary is fairly large in both, but English has many more words that can express shades of meaning — but not every­thing trans­lates, as you’ve discov­ered) — I can feel myself under­standing what’s going on in the situ­a­tion emotion­ally, in my mind, in English, but strug­gling to express that under­standing in Dutch so a Dutch­woman can under­stand it the same way.

    Mentally trans­lating from Dutch to English runs into the intrin­si­cally mean­ing­less little words that Dutch people sprinkle their sentences with, which denote the tone and flavour of the sentence. English doesn’t have those as much, and that means it’s harder to convey the tone and shad­ings of the sentences in trans­la­tions on paper if you stick to a faithful word-for-word trans­la­tion. If I’m thinking in Dutch and having to mentally trans­late to English on the fly during a conver­sa­tion, I find I need to code-switch to thinking in English if I don’t want to stumble over these holes in the direct word-for-word trans­la­tion I can do mentally in real time.

    So I’d say that the second language, for me, broadens the scope of what I can think about, and gives me added tools for under­standing (both people and the world around me). Thinking in one is not the same as thinking in the other, though the me doing the thinking remains the same; and under­standing I gain in thinking in one language carries over to my under­standing in the other language, even if I can’t quite express it.

  10. michelle says:

    @Hanneke thank you so much for this.

    I think Japanese also has small words that add to or denote tone. My son’s godfa­ther is fluently bilin­gual in both English and Japanese, and also fully func­tional in French. So he gets the brunt of these ques­tions although he will occa­sion­ally ask me ques­tions and will also admit error if I, who am not, ques­tion his trans­la­tions. Japanese is highly situ­a­tion contex­tual, so even if I have a dictio­nary for every word, some­times I argue because of context.

  11. Tchula says:

    I find this all very fasci­nating, including the comments. I’ve sent Talia the link to your blog so she can read it, too. Even if the process discus­sion is very personal and indi­vidual, I think any window into a world she’d like to step into someday is bound to be helpful. Thank you for writing this.

  12. michelle says:

    @Tchula: I have really found a lot of the comments fasci­nating!

    @Hanneke: Also, I had to tell my son about the bilin­gual thought process, because it’s a ques­tion he’s also asked (he was younger (six years old) the first time, so the answer did not quite make sense to him).

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