The Best Job Around–with the Following Caveats

Last week I wrote a bit about simultaneously being in school and being on deadline. A couple of curious readers wondered why I am in school at all, given that I already have a publishing contract in hand and can devote myself fulltime to the best job in the world, right now, without the daily struggle to do both at the same time?

The big reason? Publishing is a freakishly uncertain business.

I am a beneficiary of the swing of the pendulum, having a good historical romance ready to shop just as editors are looking for historicals again. Some years back historical westerns went as dead as peace in the Middle East. An author like Lorraine Heath, who made her name writing western historicals, had to switch to European historicals. Then the whole historicals subgenre went down the toilet, and a number of historical authors had to switch to writing contemporary romances if they wanted to stay published.

The same is happening to contemporary single-title romances now. An author from my local group told me that things are just dreadful for straight contemporaries, that the market is glutted and that USA Today best-selling authors couldn’t get their contracts renewed.

Now I, like everyone else, plan to be so big that these market fluctuations wouldn’t affect me. People still bought Lisa Kleypas when historicals were in the dumps. People would still buy Susan Elizabeth Phillips even if they skipped over every other contemporary title out there.

But even big authors with loyal fan bases aren’t immune to the vagaries of fate. Take two of my favorite authors, Laura Kinsale and Judith Ivory. Laura Kinsale went seven years between the publications of her last two books, because she simply had to take time off to recharge her muse. Judith Ivory hasn’t come out with a new book in three years. I waylaid her agent at RWA nationals in Atlanta. He had no more information to give than that she’s been having severe back problems.

When my agent says, “I think you’ll have a long career in publishing,” that is her opinion and my fondest hope. But as predictions go, it is writ on water. Anything, absolutely anything, could happen. I might never be a practicing CPA, but you bet I’ll still sit through the CPA exams because I want to have something other than good old housewifery to fall back upon should the fecal matter hit that oscillating mechanical device on the ceiling.

Sorry for the late post. Had a test yesterday afternoon so was studying all day for it. Started this post on the bus ride back home and then, wouldn’t you know it, got sidetracked by my tax textbook. Bet you never knew corporate taxation was so un-put-downable. Nerds write the hottest romances, yeah!

But I’m So Much Better Than What’s Her Name

My publishing career officially began in July 2006, when my agent accepted a two-book contract offer from Bantam on my behalf. My writing career, however, started eight years before that, with my throwing a tree-killer of a romance against the far wall while experiencing the grand epiphany of “I could write better than this piece of crap.”

I did. Everything I wrote—okay, almost everything—was better than that piece of crap. Yet while I crafted one unique, complex, beautiful story after another—bear with me for a sec—that went unloved and undesired by the publishing industry, the author who was single-handedly responsible for the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and all native habitats south of the equator went on appearing on the NYT charts on a semi-annual basis.

I’m not talking about professional jealousy here. That’s a whole different Pandora’s Box. What I often went through during my pre-published years was not so much envy as bafflement and incomprehension. Why was my story rejected for being “slight” when another book published by that house was clearly 40% filler and fluff? Why do debut books that make me yawn or roll my eyes get put on the shelves while mine, my own, my precious darling languished in slush piles all over the 212? Getting published required talent (check), hard work (check), and luck. Where the hell was my luck?

Looking back, all my questions remind me of the Poisoned Arrow Parable. Shortly after the Buddha attained enlightenment, a seeker came to him and asked what we today would call the “Big Questions.” How did the Universe come into being? Does it have a beginning and an end? What happens when we die? So on and so forth.

The Buddha’s answer was—and I love this phrase—thunderous silence. After a while, he spoke of a man who’d been shot by a poisoned arrow. Rather than letting his servants pull out the arrow, the man insisted on first knowing who shot the arrow, who made the arrow, and the provenance of the poison on the arrowhead. In the meanwhile, he died.

I’m sure you see the analogy here. The time I spent pondering the questions that had no answers was time I didn’t spend obsessing over my story, my characters, my techniques. Time I didn’t use to study better writers. In the grander scheme of things, it was time I didn’t spend being happy.

After a while, I stopped comparing my work to the stuff out there that I really didn’t care for. What’s the point of wondering how those books got published? A book got published because somebody somewhere thought money could be made publishing it. And those books, for whatever reasons, passed the test.

Instead, I changed track and began comparing my work to books I loved, books that made me glad that I’m alive, books that renewed my faith in humanity (yeah, the best romances accomplish all that and more). This has its own risks, the chief among which is that at times I don’t know why I still bother to write, when I could never write as well or as beautifully. But then it becomes exactly the challenge, to write that well, to write that beautifully, to craft a story that steal the breath and break—then heal—the heart.

At the moment I’m in equilibrium. But that’s only because I’m so inundated with work I can’t see beyond the next homework, next test, and the next 4000 words I have to finish in the next week. When my publishing career goes into one of those ineluctable lulls or even setbacks, I’m sure the Big Questions will raise their soft, insidious voices and once again demand why I’m not successful as I should be when it’s obvious to even a room full of illiterates that I’m so much better than What’s-Her-Name.

Ah, the crappy nature of life. Even when you have learned your lesson, you must re-learn it again and again. I hope when the time comes, one of you will reach through the screen, grab me by the lapel, and tell me to shut up and write. Write. Write something so freaking marvelous that trees all over the world would lay down their lives for the immortality of my words upon their cellulose fibers. And screw everything else.

Next Tuesday, you’ll just have to see. I’m so tired I’d kick Brad Pitt out of my bed if he wouldn’t leave me alone. There has to got be some higher purpose for me to have sold just as I returned to school fulltime, but so far all I can think is that God loves the sound of me whimpering.

Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from Rejections III: When Rejection Letters Go Bad

Golda Meir once said, “Don’t be so humble, you are not that great.”

I have been very humble in the previous two posts. But as I’m really not that great, today we chuck all that humility, cuz there are times when there’s frankly nothing you can learn from rejection letters, even if they are personalized.

Both of the two rejection letters below are for SCHEMES OF LOVE, which five different houses wanted, and went to Bantam in a pre-empt (thank you Ms. Nelson and Ms. Alexander). My agent forwarded the two of them to me within minutes of each other on a Friday morning. At that point we already had an offer on the table, but trust me, it still wasn’t easy to take two rejections back-to-back.

Names blacked out to protect my own sweet patootie.

Rejection Letter I

July 14, 2006

Hi, Kristin—

I got your message this morning when I returned to the office. I can absolutely see why you’re so keen on this project (and why you currently have an offer in hand!). Its premise is unusually dark, yet charming at the same time (reminds me a bit of ****** that way), and the prose is well-paced and engaging.

That said, ****** is currently streamlining its list, and I think this book, while excellent, would come too close to the sort of thing ****** is currently doing for us. Given the challenges of breaking a new voice out in the market, I fear that here SCHEMES wouldn’t get the attention it deserves.

So reluctantly, I’m going to let this one go (and kick myself anew when it appears on the shelves, I’m sure). But thanks for thinking of me, and for the pleasure of the read. Enjoy your backcountry trip!


This is a sweet, lovely letter. But make no mistake, it is a rejection letter. Editor I didn’t come right out and say it, but the implicit message is nevertheless loud and clear: she didn’t love it. She is an acquiring editor. Had she fallen in love with SCHEMES, she’d have made room on her list and gotten the editorial board behind her to make damn sure that the book got the attention it deserved.

A frustrating letter, at once diplomatic and sincere, yet it ultimately saying little more than “not right for us.” It makes me want to eat a whole pile of something fried and fatty and mumble “Why? Why? Why?” with every stuffed mouthful that hastens my trip to the heart surgeon’s.

That said, I don’t wish the editor to kick herself at all. There are books others love that I don’t. I understand.

The next letter, however, made me lose sleep, the first time that’s ever happened in all my years of writing. And not one night of sleep, either. Every night for four nights running until we finally reached a deal with Bantam, I’d go to sleep okay, and wake up at two in the morning absolutely convinced that all the other houses we hadn’t heard from yet were all going to reject me too.

Rejection Letter II

July 14, 2006

Hi, Kristin

Thank you so much for sharing SCHEMES OF LOVE with me. Regretfully, however, I’m going to decline interest.

The bones of this story is actually very similar to a book ****** published last year – ****** by ******. While Sherry Thomas has a good voice overall, I found it too matter-of-fact and not as emotional as it could be.

Again, I really appreciate your thinking of me. And as you mentioned there is already an offer on the table, I wish both you and Sherry success in this project

Have a good weekend,


Nothing terrible, except, omg, OMG, it singled out my greatest strength as an area of weakness. Emotional complexity is my bread and butter, what am I going to do now?

At some point I have to draw the line. Publishing is subjective. Either I believe SCHEMES OF LOVE is one of the most emotionally complex romances to come along in a long time or I don’t. And I believe it, without question.

So off went Rejection Letter II to the bowels of my email archive, with a few teeth marks and a stamp marked “Not right for me”. That opinion wasn’t right for me, that editor wasn’t right for me, and that house wasn’t right for me.

At the RWA national conference in Atlanta this past July. Susan Elizabeth Phillips received a most well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Rita. At the conclusion of a very affable speech. She declared that she was going to do something mean, but not just for herself, for every writer in that banquet room.

What she did was this. She told of how some years back, while her career was at a nadir, she put herself and the first Chicago Stars book up for auction to completely underwhelming results. From there on the podium, in her fabulous jacket-and-skirt ensemble, with two thousand of us waiting breathlessly below for what further pearls of wisdom she was going to dispense, she shouted at the top of her lungs, “BIG MISTAKE!”

Thank you, Ms. Phillips. Now I can be gracious and not say anything of the sort. He he.

Next Tuesday, Why I Don’t Hate Angelina Jolie. And I promise, it’s got something to do with writing.

Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from Rejections, the Sequel

I have never understood why people remain in unproductive relationships. Not just the obviously abusive kind, but relationships that seem to generate no particular emotional benefit, that coast on through sheer force of habit—because breaking up is hard to do.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized that I myself had been in such a relationship for a rather extended period of time. With one twist. In that relationship, I’d been the no-good sorry-ass that I kept telling my friends to ditch.

That’s right; I’m talking about me and my former agent.

Like all once-promising relationships, ours had a romantic beginning. She was one of the agents I queried for my very first finished manuscript (a prior incarnation of SCHEMES OF LOVE, which, torn down and rebuilt many years later, was sold this summer to Bantam). We did the usual song and dance. I queried. She requested a partial. Then she requested a full. Then I didn’t hear from her for nearly two trimesters.

Then one day, out of the blue, she called. She didn’t offer representation, but we talked for two hours, on my book, on writing, on everything else under the sun too, probably. When I finished my next manuscript, I sent it to her and she called right after I brought my newborn second son home from the hospital. She loved it. We became a team that day. And what a lovely time it was in my life, with a beautiful, sweet baby in the house and a limitless future in publishing stretched before me.

The manuscript didn’t sell, but we continued to have fun. When my husband gave me a surprise registration to RWA’s national conference in NYC, she changed her vacation plans and flew back from New England especially to meet me.

That was, however, the last run of good times for us. My new manuscript she did not like. I revised and sent it back. When she finally called me, she was livid. I’d changed the story around, but did absolutely nothing to improve it. “It’s not that you don’t have conflict,” she thundered. “You don’t have a story!”

Oblivious to the precarious position I was in, I sent her a few chapters from my new WIP, a slow-moving few chapters where absolutely nothing of importance happened and—I cannot believe it today—the whole thing was written from the view point of an unimportant, observing character. I never heard back from her.

She tried to tell me where I needed improvement. She really did. But I simply never heard her. I’d written one manuscript that she loved and I thought I’d learned everything there was to know about writing novels, not realizing that that particular manuscript was more of a fluke than anything else. I’d sat down and done more or less the same thing as I’d done on my first ms. It just came out a lot better. Then I pretty much went on doing the same things, and predictably enough, there was only so much story luck going around in the universe, or encoded in my karma. And my subsequent efforts sucked like the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

A lot of times, when I see women stuck in relationships with men who don’t deserve their love, I get as angry at the women as I do at those men. Why do you tolerate that no-good sorry-ass? How is he gonna learn that what he’s doing is unacceptable unless you refuse to accept it anymore?

Well, my former agent wasn’t one to stay stuck in such a relationship. When she finally saw how clueless I was, she did the smart thing. She dumped my no-good sorry ass. And, proving that my theory on relationships and sorry-asses was exactly correct, getting dumped by someone who used to love me was one hell of a wake-up call.

I stopped assuming that everything I scribbled was readable. I became a lot more suspicious of my affectionate indulgence toward my own output. I finally got a critique partner. And tried, at least tried, to do things right.

I didn’t get things right immediately. I floundered for another whole manuscript—sixteen months, that one—showing flashes of improvement in certain chapters, and a great deal of laziness and lack of understanding on what makes anything a good read in other chapters.

But one thing was for sure. Getting rejected by my own agent taught me, if not a whole lot about writing techniques, at least a lot about myself, about the weaknesses in my character that needed to be addressed before I could sustain any kind of success, in publishing or any other field.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the process. But, just as I enjoyed neither pregnancies nor labors (no drugs, ah the pain, the pain) but am awfully fond of my children, I’m glad that someone had the wherewithal to kick me out of the house and say “I’ve had enough of your sorry ass. Grow the bleep up!”

Next Tuesday, the conclusion to the thrilling trilogy, Everything I know About Writing I learned from Rejections III: When Rejections Go Bad.

Everything I know about Writing I learned from Rejections, Part I

Alas, the author interview has been devoured by the Crapometer, hungry for some nourishment before its next appearance at Miss Snark’s dig. I have it on good authority that by the time the Crapometer has feasted on the blood and guts of dozens of hopeful writers, it will regurgitate my insignificant little piece. In the meanwhile, nothing to do but wait, and muse about rejections.

I took rejections well. When I tore open a limp, self-address envelope that had hitchhiked all the way back from New York City, and read that “thank you, but no thank you,” I grimaced a little, maybe rolled my eyes, tossed that sucker in the shoebox in my closet, and got on with my day.

No weeping into my porridge bowl, no banging my head against hard, shiny surfaces, no telephoning my fellow scribes, begging them to help me picked up the broken pieces of myself. And boy, was I smug about my robust ego and Teflon-clad, resolute sense of self. I was tough, baby, t-o-u-g-h. I got what it took to make it in this business.

Problem was, I wasn’t making it in this business. I churned out completed projects with some regularity. I had people who liked my work. I even had representation for a while. But I couldn’t scale that final height, cross that last hurdle, and get a publishing house to cough up cash for my work.

Slowly it a rather appalling suspicion began to take shape in my mind. Was it possible, was it at all possible that my toughness was actually a-r-r-o-g-a-n-c-e? I was plowing ahead, damn the torpedoes. But was I learning anything, getting any better at this whole mysterious, inexplicable art of storytelling? Or was I doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting folks to like the results a lot better?

One of the most instrumental rejection letters in my writing life came at the beginning of the query process for my grand martial-arts historical fiction. An early query letter went out via e-mail to Marcy Posner, an established NYC agent. She responded within three days, asking to have three chapters snail mailed to her.

Needless to say, I complied immediately. Three weeks later, her response came.

Dear Sherry,

Thank you for sending HEART OF BLADE. Unfortunately I just did not love it. It needs a lot of editing and is too long for the marketplace. Please do keep in mind that this is only one opinion. It is often the case that material one agent doesn’t respond to is to be met with much enthusiasm by another. You will want and need an agent who will get behind you and your work with full confidence. Given my hesitation, I’m not the one.


Marcy Posner

I haven’t seen this letter in over a year. I pulled it out of the bowels of my mail folders today and was shocked by how kindly it was worded. Because I remembered it differently. I hated it when it came. It had been a bucket of cold water thrown in my face. I couldn’t care less at that time that the water was Evian and had all kinds of curative properties, I just cared that I was cold and wet and royally peeved.

What made me unhappy were the words “It needs a lot of editing”. That totally conflicted with my view of my writing. I wrote polished prose, damn it. What the bleep was I supposed to edit? At least she had the sense to acknowledge that this was only her opinion, I thought huffily.

But as the rejections trickled in, singly and in pairs, I became less and less sure of myself. Every “not right for us” joined the chorus that backed up Ms. Posner’s professional opinion. Reluctantly, but ineluctably, I began to see that my grand opus wasn’t the masterpiece I’d thought it was, but a great idea trapped in an unwieldy execution.

The other dozen or so rejections were important. They added weight and preponderance to Ms. Posner’s judgment. They made it hard for me to say, “Oh, that’s just one person who doesn’t get it.” But it was Ms. Posner’s words in that personal rejection that really sank in, that went a long way toward turning me into a much harsher judge of my own writing.

And I’m a better writer for it.

Next Tuesday, Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Rejections, Part Deux.

The Great Divide, or, I am not an inspirational speaker, I just play one on this blog

I used to think there was a Great Divide, a deep chasm, between published and unpublished writers, with the huddled mass of unpublished writers forcibly held back on one side of it, like citizens of the former East Berlin. We stare at the other side, all sunshine and rainbows and professional authors sipping cosmopolitans at publisher cocktails, carelessly gamboling on a lush carpet of publishing contracts. And we wonder what’s wrong with us, damn it, why are we still on this side, and when oh when would we finally be let out from this languishing hell of the unpublished?

When you wish for a publishing contract with every set of birthday candles you blow out, and birthdays come one after the next without that wish coming true, the label of “unpublished” begins to chafe, and chafe badly. I stopped telling people that I wrote. And I learned, when people who already knew about my literary aspirations asked that dreaded question—“So did you publish your book yet?”—to shrug as if my failure to attract a publisher mattered no more to me than my inability to grow the world’s heftiest tomato.

Then, one fine day, The Call came. I was toasted, garlanded, and feted. People wanted to ask me questions. They wanted to hear my opinions. I was now a Published Author. I’d leaped the Great Divide at last.

Or did I?

The day I had my first offer, I was so proud of myself. And what was I proud of? Only one thing, my persistence.

Why is that remarkable? Isn’t everyone proud of their persistence? Well, no. I’d been no admirer of persistence. In fact I thought persistence a crock of bleep. Only those who failed had to persist. Why did I want to be among those who failed?

Indeed, wise readers, forgive me for having been so shallow and blind. I’ve been among the most inspiring collection of human beings—Those Who Strive—and saw only what they, what we, as a group, did not yet achieve.

There is no Great Divide. The never had been. It was a construct of my mind, a silly yet dangerous concept. Because of it, I regard my own struggle with scorn, rather than the respect it deserved. I saw only failure, when I was but a learner making the necessary mistakes.

The true watershed events in my quest for publication happened not on the day I got bought, but on the day I first sat down to write the story in my head, on every day that I filed away rejections and did not quit, and on the day when I finally realized that rejections are meant to be learned from, not just filed away. The publishing contract is but a delayed recognition, the slapping on of an inspection sticker after the iron ore has already been forged into steel.

May I always be a member of Those Who Strive.

Next Tuesday, we interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you The Life and Times of Sherry Thomas, an author interview

A Tale of Two Queries

Long ago, in a cinema not too far, far away, I saw the first trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. To this day I remember the collective gasp in the theater as the Lucasfilm logo flickered onto the screen. Oh, that familiar, haunting music. Oh, the ravishing images. Spring 1999 couldn’t come fast enough.

I attended the motion picture event of the decade the day after its opening, late at night, with a pumped, overflowing crowd all hoping for the same thing: magic. We clapped and hollered at the start of the movie, as the lovely crawl scrolled into infinity. Alas, the applause at the end was scarce and half-hearted.

The query letter for Heart of Blade is like that trailer, full of enticing promises of a rollicking good tale that would make you forget for a few hours that the fridge is breeding new life forms and the grass in the backyard is taller than the kids. Every agent who received only the query letter asked for a partial.

Heart of Blade itself, unfortunately, is more like The Phantom Menace. There is a really good story in there somewhere, but it got lost in the telling. In hindsight, my manuscript opened six chapters from the real beginning, didn’t go anywhere deep enough with the characterization, and for all its dangling of geopolitical intrigue, was less than breathtaking in scope.

The query letter for Schemes of Love, on the other hand, was written with an entirely different mindset. The failure of five manuscripts in seven years finally beat into me the lessons I’d been too arrogant to learn earlier. Begin in the thick of things. Excise everything unnecessary. Put your characters in situations that rip them apart. And rip them apart some more. You know, those fundamental rules of good writing that I barely paid attention to anymore because everyone and her critique partner were always yammering on about them.

By the time I decided to find presentation for Schemes of Love, I knew I had a really good story. I didn’t need to compose the Wonder Query. I just needed to not mess up. And let the manuscript take care of the rest, which it did, ably.

The moral of the tale—tales always have morals, right?—is that a query letter doesn’t have to shock and awe, though that certainly won’t hurt. Aim for clarity and competence. And remember to back it up with a mind-blowing work, in which every scene has been worked and reworked at least as many times as the query. Trust me, it hurts a lot worse to have requested partial rejected, because then you can’t just say, “Dang, guess I needed a better query letter.”

Next Tuesday, The Great Divide, yeah that one, between writers who have publishing contracts and writers who don’t, yet.

Post Script

To answer your questions, Heart of Blade took 16 months to write, Schemes of Love 10 months. I’m currently a grad student. And about Bridget Jones’s age.