She Says Tomahto, That Guy Over There Says Tomato: My Experience On Submission

This week we’re talking about our submission process, and what’s been interesting to me is how different each of those processes were. Louise’s path was deceptively easy — she was fortunate enough to impress a great editor with her first forty pages, but then she had to fulfill the promise of those pages and nurture that editor’s interest for three full years. Jennifer’s first novel died in submission, and she had to pick herself up, rinse the bourbon from her hair, and go write another. Abby’s and Aya’s will be different still (no spoilers!).

I think the takeaway from my submission story is how incredibly subjective the process is. When I was out on submission, I weathered a flood of no’s until, finally, a few editors said maybe. They wanted to talk to me about my book–what they liked about it, and what they’d want to change–before they decided whether they wanted to buy it. So my agent set up some calls that I tightroped on two hours of nerve-wracked sleep and five cups of coffee. It turned out to be a mind-boggling peek behind the publishing curtain.

First, let me set the stage. THE LOST GIRLS is about two women whose stories unfold six decades apart, one in 1935 and the other in 1999. Though the women and their circumstances are quite different, the interwoven stories take place at the same remote lake house and share common themes such as the burden of loyalty, the price of forgiveness, and the meaning of salvation. The novel is quiet and contemplative, but in the end the mystery of a missing child is solved, the frayed bonds between a mother and a daughter are tenuously restored, and an old woman finally finds repose, if not necessarily peace. These are just a sampling of the responses I got to the book from the editors I spoke with:

“I love the 1935 story, but the 1999 one isn’t working for me at all. I’d need you to completely rewrite it.”

“I adore the 1999 story, but the 1935 story drags the whole book down. I’d want substantial revisions there.”

“I love how quiet the book is. In fact, the climax is so jarring against all that quiet that I’d want you to change it completely.”

“The book is too quiet. I’d like to introduce a more immediate threat to build tension. Maybe there can be a creepy serial killer in the woods behind the house.”

“I love the way you work faith into the story. You should put more biblical quotes in there.”

“The twisted religious bit will offend a mainstream audience. You should cut it.”

By the end my head was spinning. How could these editors, all from major publishing houses, read the exact same book and have such radically different responses to it? These are the so-called gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry! How can they set themselves up as the vetters, the tastemakers, for the reading public when they can’t even agree among themselves on one book’s strengths and weaknesses?

After I’d had a few hours to calm down, and a good long chat with my agent, I realized what was going on. I realized that editors are, at the end of the day, readers. And, just like the readers in my book club, they were going to filter every story through their own prism of preferences and dislikes.  It’s rare for one book to excite everyone, in publishing as well as in my book club — when it does, well, then you have seven-figure bidding wars for the likes of CITY ON FIRE and THE ART OF FIELDING, but that’s a once-a-year thing, if that. (It’s even rarer in my book club.) I’d heard it before, but now I really got it: my best hope was to find one editor who loved my flawed book and saw its possibilities, and could deliver it into the hands of that small subset of the reading public who would also love it. It is of this painstaking, subjective, and often heartbreaking process that writing careers are made, and that’s what I needed to concentrate on.

In the end I had more than one offer, and I went with Kate Nintzel at William Morrow. Her comments — what she wanted to change, and what she wanted to keep — most matched the book I wanted to have in the end. It’s been a pleasure to work with her, and her advice has helped me bring my book much closer to the vision I had for it than I could have hoped to achieve on my own.

To anyone else facing the submission process, I think my experience has this to say. Some people will not like your book.  Other people will love it. They will dislike it or like it for different reasons. Not only can’t you predict who will love it and who won’t, but you may never understand why one person says no and another yes. (Another example: my original title, WHITE EARTH, which I picked because of the wintry Minnesota ground on which the book takes place, got changed because my agent thought it sounded like an alien invasion book. I could NOT have predicted that in a million years.) The only response we writers can have to the utter unpredictability of human preference is to keep writing. Write the best books we can. Then keep querying. Keep submitting. Until we find the person who loves our book for the reasons we love it when, on those rare days we can see it clearly, we realize what it can be.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 6 Comments

  1. “These are the so-called gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry!”

    It’s always worthwhile to remember the great adage, coined by the famous screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.”

    Now, he didn’t mean that people were stupid; he meant that nobody, no matter how smart, ever knows which movies will be successful and which will flop. Some people have a couple of successes and it can start to look like they know, but that never lasts.

    As the movie producer says in SOB, “Every time I think I know ‘where it’s at,’ it’s really somewhere else.”

  2. Great post! While I am still at the submitting to agents process, I’ve had full requests from various agents and have received total opposite feedback, much like you mentioned. It gets to the point where you don’t know what to really change or not change. I’ve tried to go with my gut, but my gut doesn’t always tell me what an agent wants to see! 😉
    I’m happy to see it all worked out for you!

    1. Thanks Jill! I think the same thing happens at the query stage. I never got any explanation for any of my rejections, so I just didn’t see it quite so up front and center as I did when I was on submission. Good luck on querying; sounds like you’re getting lots of interest!

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