I am delighted to be talking with Jael McHenry about her road to publication. It was a longer-than-average road -- she went through two agents and three novels before she came to me and we sold The Kitchen Daughter, which is publishing this April. And we didn't even sell her book on the first try -- so, I thought it fitting to talk with the her about the power of perseverance, asking the right questions and, in her words, being "discouraged productively".
So how did you find your way to me?
It's kind of a long story, but I'll try to make it short: I wrote a book and got an agent and it didn't sell; then I wrote another book and got another agent and it didn't sell. Both of these near-misses were disappointing, obviously, but also really good learning experiences. And my "debut novel" isn't even the third book I wrote -- there was another one before that, which you read, but didn't love enough to represent. But you, and other agents, liked it enough to say that you were interested in seeing whatever I wrote next -- which was The Kitchen Daughter. And that's where things went crazy in a good way, and I got to choose from a pool of interested agents, and you were my favorite. Obviously.
I'm glad you brought this up because I recently watched my sister in law go through her own "beauty contest" in choosing an agent (I wasn't one of them. I don't rep family.) Obviously it was a great position to be in, but I didn't envy her having to make the decision. Can you talk a bit more about that? How did you know? (And truly, I am not asking for you to compliment me specifically) I really want to know what tools you used to decide.
I know agents hate the beauty contest with a passion, but as a writer, it really is a blessing. I’d done my research in advance so I knew what everyone’s particular strengths were, and I knew I’d be happy working with any of the agents who offered. (There’s no excuse for not doing this research these days – it’s so easy now, compared to the old days of the hard copy Writers Market.) But talking to each agent about my long-term plans and their vision of the book took it to a whole new level. I had some questions ready – who do you think this book will appeal to? What kind of changes do you think it needs before we go out on submission? Have you sold books like this before? – and you were really great about taking the time with me to make sure I had what I needed to make my decision. Plus, you put me in touch with some of your other authors (thanks, Allison and Therese!) and they absolutely raved about you. At the end of it all you and I just talked about the book, and I could really tell how enthusiastic you were about it, and we just meshed. We wanted the same things for the book, we saw it in the same way. And that’s huge.
And then we took it out on submission and it didn’t sell! I for one felt like a giant loser.
It didn’t sell! That was so frustrating. I was on a complete writer high from getting the multiple offers of rep and having all these conversations – that all happened within a week of sending out the manuscript, it was incredibly fast – and I was thinking “Now I get to be the overnight success! This’ll be a great story!” And there was lots of interest, but everyone had trouble with one aspect of the book or another, and after the fog cleared, no one loved it enough. And we looked at it again, looked at it harder, and I dug back into revisions. Then when we were finally ready to take it back out again, we got a pre-empt from Lauren McKenna at Gallery – and the week before, Gallery hadn’t even existed. So in a way, the timing turned out to be perfect. And it helped me put all the earlier setbacks in perspective.
You must have been discouraged, though, along the way, right?
Oh gosh yes. During that stage and all the other stages. Rejections hurt. Laboring over a manuscript for months or years, writing and rewriting, and in the beginning you have all these hopes, and you watch the doors close one at a time -- that hurts. But every experience is a learning experience, and looking back, if my first book had sold I don’t know what I would have done. I was completely unprepared to be published. And it turns out that learning how to deal with rejection in the query and manuscript stage is a HUGE help even once you’ve gotten an agent and sold the book. Even after the book sells, it's not like you're never going to hear a negative word again. You need to know how to deal with that. There might be bad reviews. There might be disappointing sales figures. And there are other books after the first one, hopefully. You need to learn how to be discouraged productively, if that makes sense.
Can you talk more about that? Being "discouraged productively"?
You can choose how you address a setback. When I sent my first queries out to agents and got rejections back, my first reaction was always, "Well, this person didn't like it... man, no one's ever going to like it. I'll never get published." And that's not productive. I was making newbie mistakes. I was sending to agents who only represent category romance, and my book wasn't a romance. It wasn't about the quality of the query or the book itself at all, it was just a lousy mismatch. The reason I say "discouraged productively" instead of "optimistic" or "confident" is that you have to learn from mistakes like that. Or sometimes it's not even a mistake, it's just something that requires more work when you thought the work was done -- another round of edits, maybe -- and you can't just sail through and ignore that kind of thing. You should be optimistic, but you should also listen. The right reaction to a rejected query isn't necessarily "I'm a failure and I'll never get published," but it's also not "Obviously that agent is a chucklehead who doesn't appreciate my genius." It's information. You look for patterns. You learn from the mistake or setback or whatever it is, and figure out where it fits in the big picture, and whether or not you should adjust your approach. That’s what we did when The Kitchen Daughter didn’t sell right away. We didn’t say, “Those editors are chuckleheads.” We said, “Are we getting a clear message about what needs to change in this manuscript for the book to really catch fire?” And the book is so, so much better now. I am in love with this book.
Your book is coming out in less than three months. I feel for authors during these months between having their mss accepted and having them published. There should be an unwritten rule that you can throw yourself a book party when the galleys hit or something. How are you coping with this weird waiting period?
Well, you know me. I’m quietly freaking out. But I’m trying to freak out productively! After so many months where there’s nothing the author can really do – between the sale and the first set of edits, and after the last response to copy edits goes in – it’s kind of nice when things start to ramp up. I’m getting my website built out, putting more content on my blog, biting my nails while we wait for reviews, working with my publicity team to get ready for the launch. And one of the big reasons I’m glad it took me so long to get published is that I absolutely adore social media, especially Twitter. So I’m talking to other authors, and still learning, and of course working on the next book when I’ve got time. But basically, I'm fluttery and excited and nervous, and April 12 can’t come soon enough!
Thanks so much Jael! The Kitchen Daughter is coming out from Gallery Books in April. To pre-order, go to http://tinyurl.com/4ju9r96
Next week I am going to be listing my Top Ten To Do list for querying and submitting fiction to agents.