Long Paths to Publication
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Sue Stanley: Welcome you’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Sue Stanley from the WriteOnCon team. I’m thrilled to chat today with young adult author Sarah Enni about long roads to publication. Sarah, thank you so much for joining me.
Sarah Enni: Oh thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Sue: For those of you who may not know, Sarah is the author of the young adult novel Tell Me Everything which is coming out on February 26 very exciting less than a month to go for you, this year obviously from Scholastic and a short story in The New York Times bestselling anthology Because You Love to Hate Me. She is also the creator and host of the First Draft podcast. So Sarah can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Sarah: Yeah, well everything you just said is correct. I’ve been writing young adult books for about ten years and for about four of those years I’ve also been doing the First Draft podcast where I interview other writers. Mostly it has been young adult to this point. A whole lot of people like me, Leigh Bardugo, Veronica Roth, Victoria Aveyard a whole bunch and learning a lot about writing as I’ve been going on the journey myself. I started writing in Washington DC but have moved to Los Angeles. Where I live with my cat.
Sue: It’s a nice warm place to live. much warmer this week especially than Washington DC.
Sarah: Oh yes very much.
Sue: So you mentioned your publishing journey. That you’ve been writing for 10 years and our topic today is the long road to publication. So can you tell us about that journey? Your personal journey to publication?
Sarah: Yeah you know honestly in preparation for this interview…in preparation for this interview, I made a publishing timeline like a Google Doc where I went through all of my emails. I went to the Internet Archive to go through my blog posts. I started a blog in 2009. And I was going through like my posts in 2010. Boy I gotta tell you, I don’t recommend that. They were so, really kind of tough to go back all the way back into to track that. Both because it’s a long time and because it was a really personal journey that was kind of marked by you know, the progress of a life.
So I’ll just start with basically I started writing in 2009 in the wake of my dad passing away. He died suddenly in for 2008 and at the time I was a journalist and I was studying English. And had always kind of thought about writing and you I was a strong writer and I loved books, but I never thought about being an author. When my dad died I kind of had a reckoning about what I was doing and decided that I wanted to give it a try. If not now, when? So I started writing my very first book in January 2009. I finished that in about a year and it was just an epic sprawling wild you know…I think a lot of people with their first books kind of bite off more than they can chew. And that was certainly the case with me. But it taught me how to write a book and it taught me how to finish a book. Which is a very important lesson. And so then in 2010, I started writing I guess, quote-unquote real books. Some books that had more of a legitimate chance of being published and I pursued traditional publication. And since then I’ve written seven books. And it just took a long time.
I got an agent in 2013 who is still my agent today, Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company. And she’s wonderful. And she’s been hugely supportive even though since 2013 it took a long time for for my debut book, Tell Me Everything to come about. So again, honestly making this publishing timeline right before talking to you was kind of it kind of threw me for a loop because I’m not someone that looks back very often. When I think about it on a larger scale, spending ten years writing seven books it was worth that time. I think I was basically doing an apprenticeship for myself. I read so much. I made so many writer friends. I started the podcast. I just needed that time to kind of gestate and become a better writer. And I couldn’t be more thrilled to have Tell Me Everything be the book that is my first book. I’m extremely proud of it and I absolutely could not have written Tell Me Everything any sooner. I think that it is the best book I could write right now and I’m really proud of that.
Sue: So Tell Me Everything is the seventh book you wrote or does that fall earlier?
Sue: It is the seventh. Is that the one that got representation in 2013 or was there something else that got representation?
Sarah: It was something else. It was the third book that I wrote. Which is colloquially to me and my friends called Bright Lights at this point. My agent was and is so supportive of that and I’m actually rewriting that project right now which is exciting. So those seven books haven’t gone away. There’s a couple that I would like to revisit and possibly seek publication for. But no, the the book that got me my agent is not the book, it’s not Tell Me Everything. And actually Bright Lights, the book that got me my agent it went all the way to acquisitions. So it went to an editor who was hugely supportive of it in her house she was so excited, brought it to acquisitions and her publisher told her no.
So it was a really tough moment. It got very far but ultimately came up short. And in the wake of that disappointment is when I started the First Draft podcast because I was really looking to other writers to say like, hey have you been through this experience? What have you learned? What’s good advice do you have? Like can I get inspired by you? And it was really inspiring. I talked to a lot of authors through that about their their own long publishing journeys and I found it to be really helpful and kind of motivating me to keep going.
Sue: That must have been awful.
Sarah: It was intense. The worst part was that that happened in March I got the call saying unfortunately no and then a couple months later I got divorced so that was another thing that added to starting the podcast.
Sue: What a great year. A great year new beginnings.
Sarah: So like I said, 2014 was a real, was a real time for me personally. But which again contributes to going back and talking about a publishing journey, a long publishing journey. You really can’t separate that from your personal journey, you know. We can’t separate writing from ourselves personally in any way. I don’t think we should even try to. But looking back over the last 10 years, yeah it’s a lot of trials. But all of those things made me a better writer.
Sue: What is the most important piece this question seems really cliched but what is the most important piece of advice or guidance that you can give to an author just starting the publication journey?
Sarah: Yeah, well a couple things and I you sent me a few questions ahead of time that I had time to look at and there’s such a good ones so I’m really excited to chat about these. And when I was thinking about the most important piece of advice, I really am thinking about having patience. Not only with the publishing process which as we all know is very convoluted and takes time and it’s completely out of our control a lot of elements of it. But also have patience with yourself. A lot of people start writing and get very excited about the idea of being published. And that is exciting and it’s worth working towards passionately.
But you also need to take time to reflect on your writing. You know, writing a good book takes time. Letting it rest takes time. Revising it takes time. And all those elements you just can’t rush them if you want to do your best work. Patience is a huge thing and I know, or I was thinking, about being curious. I think that’s my advice to almost everybody in life in general. Be curious and in this context what I mean is be curious about writing. Read books about writing. Read widely in the genre that you are writing and read widely in general. Be curious about your industry. Learn about how it works. Learn about how people get paid. Learn about how people make a sustainable living. Learn about everybody that goes into the process of making a book happen because it’s not just editors.
There’s a lot of people that go through the process of bringing your book into the world. And learn about your co-workers. Be curious about other writers. Be curious about their process. Be curious about their lives and how they care for themselves. I think curiosity is an undervalued trait and it was it’s something that got me through absolutely.
Sue: Okay, that’s great advice. Actually, very good advice. And so this is obviously in your opinion or in your experience what do you think it is that causes some publishing journeys to be short, sweet, fast and others to take a long time?
Sarah: This is such an interesting question because the true answer is like a big old shrug emoji. Serendipity? Zeitgeist? You know there’s, there are, you absolutely cannot know what you’re publishing journey is going to be and it is not reflective of how hard you work or sometimes even the quality of your words. And I’m saying this as an effort to say don’t blame yourself. If it takes a long time, it takes a long time. And that can be a gift. Honestly, if I had published anything before Tell Me Everything, I think I’d be embarrassed by the book that was out in the world. So I’m very grateful that it took this long because I just needed to be a better writer.
But going back to your question, what takes so long? Let’s be honest about what some things are. Some things are writing goals. Some people just want to write for fun and if that’s how you start then you’re probably not going to write as fast or in the same way as someone who really is focused on publication. So your goals obviously shape your journey to publication. [It also depends on] what type of publication. You might write faster if you’re looking to self publish or to put things out in the world in that way or maybe short stories vs. novels. So your goals for what kinds of things you want to write will also determine your journey.
And people’s time, your personal time, what else do you have going on your life? What is your style of writing? Do you slowly piece together sentences or are you someone who fast drafts and just wants to vomit something out and then get a lot of feedback on it? All of those things are going to determine how long it takes for you. But there are also things that you can’t or shouldn’t or should be hesitant to change. Because I think everyone needs to respect their personal process. Once you find what works for you if it takes a long time that’s just what it is. And you should settle it and make peace with that so that you have a happy time when you are writing.
And then, yes zeitgeist, trends, serendipity. There are just things you can’t control. And it takes time to find the right agent for you. It takes time to find the right editor for you and the right publishing house for you and the right story for you. You know, sometimes we want to write vampires and the world is sick of vampires. So we can’t control that. I still think you should write what you’re passionate about but the world doesn’t always agree with us.
Sue: So let’s talk about a very simple question. Define long.
Sarah: but you know, yeah this is a good question, but I’m not sure that it’s really useful to define long. I don’t know that thinking about it that way is entirely useful because it depends on the person. And it depends on how they have thought about the time that they’ve spent pursuing publication and what you were able to achieve in that time. For example, I would certainly look back on my ten years and say that that was a long time but it also was a time that I moved. I got married and divorced. I grieved. I relocated my life. I got a cat. You know I started the podcast. I changed careers. I did a lot of things in that 10 years that, so it is a long time but it was a productive, useful, wonderful time. So I don’t have a metric. I think we can certainly say that short is anything less than a year and beyond that it’s kind of up to you and your perspective.
Sue: Yeah that’s very true. I think the reason I asked the question is because I was thinking about authors coming in with an expectation that they’re gonna write a book.
Sue: They’re gonna do you know, like, NaNoWriMo or something November and they’re gonna put out a book and they’re gonna get an editor in a month after that. And they’re gonna have a publishing contract a month after that. And if you are a new writer that might be an expectation when in reality that that does not happen. I mean I guess it could. It’s probably happened to a few people. But…
Sarah: It’s very unlikely, right? Like, I would say if someone started writing, if someone on day one said okay I’m going to write seriously. If they published a book within five years, I would be in terribly impressed. That is just not common. And that’s okay. You know, it’s hard to tell someone who’s just a starting writer that. But honestly, that’s the way it goes. Because from I signed the contract for Tell Me Everything in May 2016 and it comes out in February 2019. We did have to delay a little bit because I had to burn down a couple of drafts and start all over again. But it also isn’t that unusual.
Sue: Right, and I think people don’t, if they haven’t been in the publishing industry they don’t necessarily realize how long it is even when the editing process is done and the book is ready to go. How long it takes to actually get it into production and get it out in the stores.
Sarah: So long. Friends who aren’t in the publishing industry have been asking me, “When is your? Isn’t your book already out?” And I was like, no it just sold three years ago. Like it’s just, now there’s a date on a calendar and we just have to wait.
Sue: It’s an exciting wait though and you’re almost through it. You are almost done.
Sarah: Oh my god, now I finally can yes, send all my friends an email being like here’s the book. It’s real. Buy it on this day.
Sue: Now go buy it at this time on this date.
Sue: Okay and you’ve talked about this a little bit. But what did you do to keep your morale up during this long process this 10 years especially I would think between the 2013 2014 when your book did not get picked up after having an editor to when you actually did sign and that you knew that it was actually going to happen for you. How did you keep your morale up during that time.
Sarah: Yeah. This is a really good question and and it’s gonna be different for everybody, but for me, for me making friends with other writers was was and has been a pivotal thing in my life. I joined Twitter in 2009 and I met an enormous number of other young adult writers and those largely women have contributed to my life in innumerable ways. They’ve completely reshaped me as a person. They shared my passions. they shared my interest. They were supportive at all times. And they to know this nascent part of me. This writer part of me that still other people who are in my life in other capacities don’t totally understand. So finding writer friends, people who are there and the trenches with you is unbelievably important. And they are the ones that will understand the ups and downs of this industry the way no one can. My mom doesn’t need to know what some write drama is going on in my, you know, that isn’t something that you need other people in your life to know or care about.
In fact you should have non-writer friends who can put things in perspective. But your writer friends are the ones who are gonna say, “No, you need to write this book because I want to read it. Like, I don’t care what happens with it eventually, but what you’ve shared is so good. I really want you to finish this draft.” That’s hugely important. And then I think the other thing that kept my morale up was pursuing hobbies and activities outside of writing. Having the podcast, even though we talked about writing a bunch. It’s really just an excuse to have fun conversations with people and to learn. As you know, learning how to put a podcast together very cool very not related to books. Very challenging. Involves a bunch of cool equipment and stuff like that. And so I really enjoyed having that kind of, on the side. I exercise a bunch. I started boxing. You know, things like that that were like, very separate. I’ve been doing improv for the last year. It works my creative brain, but wow, it couldn’t be more different from writing a book.
So those things are huge and the last thing that I’m gonna say that it’s also incredibly important. What kept my morale up was that I was writing books I was proud of. I wanted to go back to those books because I, because they meant something to me. And I was interested in the ideas that I was exploring through those books. And that’s what kept me passionate about going back to the projects and writing them over and over again. I saw myself improve because I was committed to it. And when you, when you take a month off of a book and you go back to read it and you’re like, wow this is not crap. That is a really heartening moment. And that those moments really really would Buoy me for a long time.
Sue: That’s great. And taking a break is a really good idea too. Sometimes that to realize that you are writing something that’s worthwhile.
Sarah: Yes and honestly a month minimum. Like the longer you can take away from your book, the better you’re going to be at tackling the problems it has when you finally get back to it. To take that seriously please.
Sue: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So your experience is not this one but I know you talk a lot of to a lot of different authors so I’m wondering if you have any insight into what happens when an author winds up going through say multiple agents where a project that an agent picks up doesn’t sell and the relationship begins to deteriorate over time because it’s not selling or because it just the fit isn’t right. And the same with an editor. You had that experience where the editorial relationship had to end. Not because of the editor but because of the publishing house. So when do you think it’s time to move on. Like when do you know or what can you recommend for making that kind of a difficult decision about moving on from an agent or an editor?
Sarah: Yeah, that’s a great question and and it is, like you said, it’s a very difficult decision. Let’s talk about agents first because they’re so personal. When you’re, when you have an agent that you are in a relationship with that person. This isn’t true for all industries that have agents. I actually know people in Los Angeles who have an agent for film or television and that relationship is very different. But for us in books your agent is your advocate. They are someone who is the person that is your first point of contact. The person who’s there to support you and to encourage you and to help you achieve your goals.
And I would say that, if you are in that kind of a relationship and your needs aren’t being met, then you need to be very serious about whether that is the right relationship for you. Like a romantic relationship, an agent has to cater to your specific needs and if that isn’t happening, you need to have a really serious conversation with your agent about what your needs are. Communicate what you want to see and how they can improve. And if things don’t change, I think then you have to move on. And move on with gratitude, and not a sense of loss.
You know, I think people really beat themselves up over lost time and that isn’t, I just wish, I wish I could erase that. Because that creates, that prevents [people] doing from making good, bold, necessary changes in your life including leaving an agent that is just not meeting your needs. And it’s just not right for you. There’s a lot of agents out there now. They’re all online. You can research them. You can find a lot of people who are going to be great for you. So that’s what I would say. If your needs aren’t being met and after a serious discussion they don’t change and adjust to meet your needs then yeah, you need to move on.
An editor is kind of a whole different barrel of worms or whatever the idiom I’m looking for is. An editor, once you sell to an editor you know that’s it. And if you are having trouble with them, that’s when you need an agent who is going to step in and help things work smoothly and adjust. But editors like when before you sell your book, often you’ll get the chance to hop on a phone with an editor. That’s huge. Get on the phone with them. Don’t be shy. Don’t let a fear of being on the phone prevent you from having that kind of intimate conversation with someone before you sign on to work with them with your precious book. You want to hear their voice. You want to hear their enthusiasm. You want to get the sense of their ideas and see if you guys are going to be a good match because that’s another year and a half or two years of your life of working with this person on something very important to you. So protect yourself upfront and get a sense that this is a person you want to work with. And then if it isn’t working, have your agent step in. You know those are really tough relationships but it’s hard to say pick up and leave an editor. You know that that’s a challenge because then you can sell another project maybe elsewhere or other things like that but that’s when contracts get involved. So it’s very case by case basis kind of stuff.
Sue: What I was thinking of… That’s true and once you’re under contract I think you’re just going to have to suck it up and deal with whoever it is that you have and hopefully that works really well. What I was thinking about when I wrote that question was really, had to do with the revise and resubmit requests.
Sarah: Oh yes. Right.
Sue: So when you are working with an editor and they’re saying okay do this and then I’ll read it again. And then do this and I’ll read it again. When is it time to say no I’m not going to revise anymore because I don’t believe that you’re actually gonna come through with the contract. This is just taking a lot of my time and I’m not sure that it’s gonna work.
Sarah: Yes such an important distinction. And I think it’s so important to emphasize that when you’re talking about revising and resubmitting for an editor, please keep in mind that is free work. They are asking you to take a lot of time and energy and apply changes and without paying you first. Without giving you an advance. So that’s something to really keep in mind. Is it worth it for you? Also it depends on their notes. If you get notes, an R&R; a note from an editor, if those notes feel off to you or like not the right thing for the book that’s right there your sign. I think walk away just be at peace and leave and find another opportunity. If you’re excited by their notes. If you think they really get the book and you want to implement those changes, by all means do it. I had this experience and when they came back and asked me for a second pass of revision my agent stepped in and said this is free work and it’s not worth it at this point. I think we need to move on and find either someone else who wants this book or you need to move work on something else. Because exhaustion is real too. At that point I had worked on the same project for about three years and my agent very wisely said, “You’re getting, you’re getting burned out. And I know that you your potential is such that we can you know bravely move on to something new.” And I was really happy to have her step in at that point becauseI was ready to kind of run myself into the ground and she was she saw that. And said like, let’s just take a breather and come back to it at another time. And that was really smart.
Sue: That’s good. So it sounds like the overarching relationship that matters the most is the one that you have with your agent when you get to that point. So your agent is the one who can help you to make the best decision about an R and R request?
Sarah: Absolutely. Absolutely they’re clear-eyed and [small cough] excuse me. And they’ve seen this many more times than any of us so they have a 30,000 foot view of things. And we are so tied into our personal work that it can be very hard to get perspective. So that is definitely where your agent is very, pivotal.
Sue: So if you have received an R and R request from an agent in other words I know some authors who submitted work and an agent will come back and say well I’m interested but I’d like to see if you can do this that or the other thing and make this that or the other change. What do you think is kind of, are there guidelines, or do you have suggestions for how to make that decision. Because the authors can be very desperate. And sometimes agents editors and anyone in the publishing industry just like any other industry are not super ethical. So what’s the what’s the best way to know whether that is a good decision for an author to try to make those changes to get the representation and when is it time to say no thank you I’m gonna keep looking.
Sarah: Yes. This is a great thing to talk about. First and foremost, it is so important like it just like I said it’s important to frame an R and R as free work. It’s important to, when you are seeking representation, to recognize that you have created something out of thin air. Writers are magical people. We create things that other people want. And we often spin that around in our own minds and think who is going to give me the gift of putting my work out into the world and that is just a massive miscalculation of how this works. The power starts with us. We created this thing. We have worlds. And other people need to prove to us that they are the right people to help bring those worlds to other people.
So I really implore everyone listening to keep in mind that power dynamic when they are moving forward with making professional decisions. Because I think the other way of coming from a place of need, of want, of willing to do anything to have your work out in the world. That leads you to devalue yourself and to engage in relationships that are not fruitful for you. And to put up with relationships and treatment that is not acceptable. So going forward, thinking about, who is the best person to be at my side while I bring my best work into the world. That’s the way to move forward and think about it I think. And I wanted to make sure that I said that at first and now I’m losing my train for the rest of it we were the eighth Regent RNR yes okay yeah and because the other thing I wanted to say is I had this experience in not the book that got me my agent but the one before. I queried. I had a lovely agent be very interested and give me an R&R.; I thought her notes were fantastic so I went through the manuscript and implemented her notes and then I sent the revised version back to her and she ghosted me. I never heard back.
So that was a really upsetting experience but not an uncommon one. Right? So I would say, if you get notes from anyone and they just feel right. Then of course, take those notes. That’s your prerogative. Do what you would like with them. It’s worth it, most other R and Rs I think do get a response. Are engaged with by the other party. But if someone wants you to do multiple rounds of R and R before they have signed you. Before they have shown, I just, I would be so hesitant about that. One RNR and then either they’re willing to sign you because they’ve seen that you can work hard. They’ve seen that you can revise. They’ve seen that your visions match or it’s time to move on to someone else. I think there’s not a lot of benefit and being strung along for months or years on the hopes of one person signing you when you could be finding representation elsewhere. Working with other people and moving on in more constructive ways.
Sue: So that brings me to the most painful question of all, and that is, after the R and R requests. After the rejections or the waiting or however long it is. When is it time to pull the plug on a project at least for the time being and submit something new?
Sarah: Yeah this is such a hard one. And I’ve I’ve had to do it and it’s it can it can feel, you can feel very defeated sometimes by projects. But man, also sometimes letting go of a project feels like being set free. So be open to that possibility too. Sometimes the book only serves you to help get you to another place so keep in mind that’s always a possibility. I was, when I was thinking about this question, it’s a tough one. Because it’s different for every author of course. I would say often I’ve seen friends, if you’re stuck and you can’t get unstuck. If you’re like a Jeep in the mud and the tires just keep flinging stuff back. And you can’t seem to get anywhere even when you try different approaches, or different styles of writing, or you switch up your routine. You just still can’t move forward with it. At least take a month off and see where you come back to. At least give yourself a little mini vacation to think about other things or something like that. And and if you just can’t get unstuck, don’t force it. I think that’s, there’s something to be said for it.
And you don’t always have to think about leaving a project as abandoned forever. You can say, you know, what we like to say, put it in a drawer. Right? Put it in a drawer. It’ll be there. And if you feel the need to come back to it, trust that you will know when the right time for that is. The other thing I was thinking about is if you’re sick of it. And by sick of it, I mean sick of the project itself. And not the process. And those are two really different things. If you’re sick of the process, then maybe it’s time to try writing at night instead. Or try writing on your phone for a little bit. Or mixing up the process and how you go about it. Maybe try outlining. You know, there’s a lot of different things you can do to kind of like reinvigorate your creative mind to tackle the project the way it deserves.
But if you’re sick of these characters. If you’re sick of this book. If you’re sick of this world. If you’re sick of this setting. Oh my gosh, life is too short. You know, I look back at the books that I’ve written and I’m still not sick of any of them. I still love the people that are in those books. I still love the setting. I still love what I was trying to say. I love the ideas that are in there. Man, sometimes I got sick of the process with it. And I got sick of being in the same thing and needed to move on and try something new to gain perspective. But if you are sick of the book itself, definitely move on. Because yeah, Because life is too short.
Sue: So if you never want to talk to those people again, time to let them go.
Sarah: And this, right? We’ve all I think we’ve all probably had relationships like that or friendships like that where it’s like you know sometimes books just serve you for who you are at that time and they don’t need to follow you forever. So you don’t have to pledge allegiance to any one project for the rest of your life. Please don’t.
Sue: Excellent advice. So our time is about up and I want to remind everyone that Sarah has the podcast. The First Draft podcast that you can find.
Sue: And Sarah I want to give you an opportunity to talk about your website and any other places where people can find you and your book coming out in about a month.
Sue: Actually exactly a month.
Sarah: Isn’t that exciting and so Tell Me Everything comes out February 26. The quick pitch for it is what if Amalee had Instagram. So it’s a contemporary YA. Kind of a quirky one. If that sounds fun to you, you should check out more about it at Sarahenni.com and Sarahenni.com is where you can sign up for my newsletter and all that stuff. I’m @Sarahennie on Twitter and Instagram and the first draft podcast has, as of today, a hundred and seventy-five other episodes with writers who have gone through the gamut of all kinds of experiences. So if your listeners want to get a little bit more perspective maybe since some of maybe from some of their favorite YA writers. Definitely go to firstdraftpod.com. You can look at the archives. I’ve talked to so many different people. There’s so much to learn at the podcast. You can also sign up for the newsletter for the podcast and find it @firstdraftpod on Twitter and Instagram as well.
Sue: Thank you very much. That’s fantastic. A lot of information available. and I really appreciate your time today Sarah.
Sarah: Yeah. your questions are so good. And thank you for all that you’re providing for the community this is a huge resource so I’m excited for it to be in the world.
Sue: Thank you.