My friend and fellow YA author, Sarah Rowlands, sat down with me (through the magic of Google Docs) to talk about her author journeys, navigating self-doubt, and how to successfully revise and resubmit.
Sarah, you’re agented, but what stage are you at right now? Are you revising, on sub, writing the next book…?
SR: I’m finishing up revisions and we plan to go on sub in April! And then I’ll be heading back to the new story I’ve started drafting.
In ten words (and unlimited emojis) what is your novel about?
SR: A girl investigates her own involvement in her grandfather’s decade-old murder. (12 words. Deal.)
You detail your (LONG) querying journey on your awesome blog post. Can you tell me about a time when you felt like giving up?
SR: I felt like giving up all the time! But I remember a specific instance in December of 2017, right around Christmas when I wanted to be happy but was feeling really down about writing. I remember sitting on my couch with my three little kids and receiving my THIRD rejection on a partial/full OF THE DAY. That was pretty rough. I mean, a rejection on a partial or full is tough at any time, but three in one day? That broke me. I fell apart right in front of my children and didn’t stop crying for awhile. I remember thinking I wasn’t good enough, my story was utter crap, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I also remember thinking, “What am I doing wrong?” and “Why don’t they see my story for what I think it is?” I was Anne Shirley — in the depths of despair. And it sucked.
What helped you to keep moving forward?
SR: I woke up the next day and thought about how I’d cried in front of my kids. They were all under the age of 6 at the time. And it occurred to me — I really cared about this story, this dream. I cared enough to lose myself over it right in front of my kids. And that really meant something to me. This wasn’t a passing phase; this was something I wanted. So I took a look at myself and said, “OK, yesterday sucked. That day is over. Now pull your shit together and keep going.” I learned very quickly in Queryland that results happened only when I put myself out there. No one was going to come and find me. No one was scouting for me. Just like our main characters, we need our own agency! So I pulled it together and started querying all over again.
What is it about your story that made it so you didn’t want to quit?
SR: I have a very personal connection to my setting, as it’s based off of two locations: the gorge in Watkins Glen, NY and Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands. I visited these places with my family when I was younger and they had a huge effect on me! They were magical — the stuff of fairytales — and I couldn’t get them out of my head. So I wrote stories about them when I was about 15 or 16. When I found these stories 30 years later, I still remember what it felt like to write them. And now, when I’m trying to balance my kids, my job, my farm, my publishing internship, this cold I can’t shake, the farmhouse I can’t seem to keep clean, etc., along with my revisions that never seem to end, I think about 16-year-old me. How embarrassing to quit on this story when 16-year-old Sarah is standing there waiting for it to become a real book! 16-year-old Sarah does not care that I have laundry to do. She wants this story and I can’t disappoint her. The idea of letting myself down keeps me going.
How did you celebrate when you finally got The Call?
SR: The way I celebrate anything extraordinary — with alcohol. Lots. =)
What would you tell querying writers who are currently going through rejections, long waits, and imposter syndrome battles?
SR: “Don’t give up” is such a cliched sentiment, but it’s also deceiving because it’s really about what you’re not giving up on. YES, keep querying. YES, keep researching agents and agencies. YES, keep following your dream. But my main piece of advice lies in this: keep making efforts to better your writing. When I waited for responses to my queries, I wasn’t staring at my manuscript thinking it was awesome. I asked myself how I could make it better, how I could make myself a better writer. So I read everything I could about querying, about writing, about story and craft and publishing. And when I received feedback from agents, I applied it to my story. When I listened to a particularly excellent episode of a writing podcast (Writing Excuses continues to blow my mind), I dug into my manuscript and applied what I learned. I read great books, bad books, and incorporated what I loved (and hated) about them. I found new critique partners. I took writing classes. I read craft books. I re-read craft books. I took every chance I had to better my writing. And those drafts got better. (I saved most versions, and MAN, did they suck to begin with!) You can always make your writing stronger. Strive for your story’s excellence. So I say, “Don’t give up!”, but take that with a grain of salt; don’t give up on bettering yourself and your story. Look beyond what your story is right now and who you are as a writer at this moment.
As far as imposter syndrome goes… I defer to the words of your fifth grade teacher and Angie Thomas: “Eyes on your own paper.”
Do you have experience with R and R’s (Revise and Resubmit)? Is there anything you learned from that experience?
SR: Oh dear God, I sure do. My offer of rep came from an R&R! Please read my blog post about how I got my agent (feel free to skip to the 2018 portion) for details: https://bit.ly/2PrXNzR.
I will reiterate a quote that both helped me decide to go forward with the R&R and kept me motivated throughout the R&R: “If you are asked to revise, it’s because your message is worth getting right.” (Forgive me — I don’t know who said this, but it’s brilliant.) Choosing to go forward with the R&R was a painful decision because at that time, I didn’t want to do it. I wanted representation, not more revisions! But this R&R was the only way I was going to succeed (I hadn’t any other offers and I loved what the agent (my agent!) said in her suggestions.) The R&R taught me to critically think of all the separate pieces and characters and plotlines as an interwoven, seamless story. It also taught me how to work under a deadline, which is certainly helpful, now that I have deadlines to get my revisions to my agent AND manage the rest of my life! And it taught me what kind of agent I needed. I needed an editorial agent who could spark ideas and brainstorm ways to strengthen my story. The R&R also played a part in teaching me how to fight for what I wanted. It’s not easy to revise the holy hell out of your story with only vague ideas from an agent — and even then, you’re not sure it’ll get you an agent in the end. It’s a leap of faith, in a way, but it was another example of me showing myself how hard I would fight for what I wanted.
Thank you so much for your thoughts, Sarah. One final question: what’s something you know now about life after Queryland that you wish you knew before?
SR: I wish I knew how much revisions my book would need, even after an offer of rep! I think it would have put a lot in perspective for me as far as how much I needed to learn as a writer. I used to think my book was special and agents were missing something! It was a special book — but only to me. I had much to learn. I still have much to learn!
There’s a part of me that wants to say, “I wish I knew how close I was to an offer all those times I almost gave up!” But honestly I’m glad I didn’t. It made me stronger to have sheer, blind faith in myself. I kept this picture near me whenever I was writing, and I still think about it today.
In Sarah’s favorite motivational cartoon, two men are digging through a tunnel, hoping to reach a pile of diamonds–and one of the men gives up just before breaking through the last inch of dirt, reaching the diamonds.
Sarah didn’t give up. She reached her first dream–getting an agent–and as she keeps digging, through revisions and submission, she’s sure to have a future full of treasure.
A little about Sarah:
Sarah Rowlands is a YA author who writes about crumbling mansions and rough-around-the-edges heroines. She lives on a 24-acre hobby farm in Upstate New York with her husband and three little kids, and works as a legal assistant in Albany. She also interns at Corvisiero Literary Agency. Sarah is repped by Karyn Fischer of Bookstop Literary. You can find her on Twitter at @SarahRWriting27