Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pub Story: Saundra Mitchell

Author guest blogs + publication paths = Pub Stories. It's a Tuesday thing. Click here for more info (esp. if you're an author wanting to participate). Click here for a list of all participants.

(It's not Tuesday, but we'll flow with it anyway!)

Saundra Mitchell on herself: A longtime screenwriter, I'm a debut novelist this year with my southern gothic ghost story, SHADOWED SUMMER. When I'm not writing books, I'm the head writer and an executive producer for Fresh Films ( and Girls in the Director's Chair ( teen filmmaking programs where we provide the instruction and equipment, and teens get to make short films. And when I'm not writing books or screenplays, you can catch me goofing around on the Internet, writing fan fiction, brushing up on my history, making paper, soap or bread from scratch, or taking pictures of cemetery statuary. You can visit me online at!

The Story
This is mostly a story about quitting.

Which- I know, inspiring, right? But it's the truth. After fifteen years as a screenwriter, I was burned out. Tired of writing other people's stories. Tired of watching actors and directors and sponsors change my words from the script to the screen. Tired of being the last one to see any given film, tired, tired, tired. I had forgotten how to love screenwriting, and I was ready to quit.

But I have a busy head; I'm bad at just quitting. Give me free time, and I'm liable to do something... untoward with it. So rather than just quit screenwriting, I told myself, "Self, write a book! That will be yours! See how it goes!"

And I did! I wrote my first novel, THE WESTON BOYS that spring, polished it up, and started querying agents. I loved that little book, so fierce and full of passion and intention. And boy howdy, I queried the bejeezus out of it. I got partial requests, full requests, and then, in the end... rejections. Lots and lots of rejections. As I started to run out of places to query, I wrote another little book, THE INCIDENT, just to see if I could do it again. Since I didn't want to have two novels out to agents at the same time, I submitted THE INCIDENT to the Delacorte Press prize, just for haps.

After eighty (yes, eighty. 8. 0.) rejections on THE WESTON BOYS- well, two things. I loved screenwriting again, and I was ready to give up on the whole write-a-novel-that-is-all-mine bag. Except, again, I have a busy head. I'm bad at just quitting. But, I do like to gamble with the universe, so I told myself, "Self! You owe THE INCIDENT ten queries." And I decided if I didn't get a literary agent in those ten queries, I would be done with writing novels.

I got an agent for THE INCIDENT in two queries.

And my agent was awesome- we got along so well. We loved chatting and gossiping about celebs, and we were busy revising THE INCIDENT while we waited to hear on the Delacorte Press prize. Several months later, I didn't place or show, and my agent and I had whittled THE INCIDENT down from 72k to 50k, changed the title to LAST SUMMER'S IRIS, and started submitting.

At first, I thought it was wicked exciting that one of the major houses offered a revision letter (not an offer.) But it turns out that you can revise for six months without an offer, and at the end of six months have a drastically changed manuscript and no offer. And since we were revising with this editor, all other submission stopped. Dead. Dunzo! It tied things up with one person who isn't willing to commit, so this is both a lesson in writing and in dating: if they're just not that into you, it's probably time to move on.

The thing is- the notes from this house were fantastic, and I could have done them all. I did do them all- except for ONE. Can Iris be crazy, instead of haunted? the editor asked. And you know, Iris could have been crazy instead of haunted- but she wasn't. That was my line- it was a ghost story, it had always been a ghost story, and it always would be a ghost story. So with regret, after months of revising and hoping and wishing, I withdrew my submission. Commence floundering.

So much floundering; my agent didn't want to submit it anymore, I didn't want to write something new just for the editor who'd spent six months working over LAST SUMMER'S IRIS, and then a this, and a that, and so many little things that I can't even detail all ended up in one thing:

I had to quit my agent.

And because we had contracts and agreements, it had to be decisive- formal letters, and waiting periods before I could legally pursue other representation. And during that waiting period, I really did believe that I would be done writing novels forever. Hey, I'd gotten close. It was a good try. But LAST SUMMER'S IRIS bothered me at night; it had never been submitted widely. I'd worked so closely with one editor that my agent and I never really sent it anywhere else.

And my busy, bad-at-quitting head said, "Try again."

And I said, "No thanks, crackbaby. Look, I have scripts again! Yay, we love scripts."

Busy, bad-at-quitting head said, "TRY AGAIN OR ELSE!"

And since it's my head, and I have to live with it, I decided to acquiesce in such a way that I got my way in the end- I would query ONE agent. One. And if I didn't get that agent, then I would be done forever. So I went back to the draft we'd submitted, before all the revisions with that editor, back when the book was still mine. And I used up the waiting period researching agents, studying them, reading the books they represented. If I was going to gamble on just one, I had to make it the right one at least. That way, my bad-at-quitting head couldn't come back later and say, "FAILXOR! YOU DID NOT TRY! DO IT AGAIN!"

When the waiting period expired, I wrote one query letter for LAST SUMMER'S IRIS, to Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.. She was building her list, I liked all the books on her list that I could read, and- just for shiny good luck- her latest book sold was called GHOST ROAD BLUES. With her, I figured, Iris could stay haunted and sane forever. I wrote my one last query letter for literary representation ever and sent it into the mists.

Sara responded from the mists- she requested a partial. Then a full. Then representation.

Three months later, she sold LAST SUMMER'S IRIS to Delacorte Press. Yeah, the same Delacorte Press with the prize that I'd lost, on the big bloaty 70k version of this book, back when it was called THE INCIDENT, and had an entirely different ending. And now it has an entirely different title- that's why a little ghost story about a girl named Iris debuted this year, as SHADOWED SUMMER.

So, see- this is a story about quitting. You don't have to be certain, cheerful or optimistic to succeed- you just have to be willing to try one more time. Sometimes you have to be ready to walk away, you really do. You have to be ready to fail. But you always have to try once more to make sure. And that's my pub story.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the heads up on the double click.

Loved Saundra's visit. Great story about quitting and then not quitting.

Amber said...

I really loved this guest post. Being a quitter on so many stories, this kind of gave me an umph to give it another shot.

Iryna said...

Wow. Now THAT was inspiring.

I really like this meme-type thing! I look forward to more in the future, Steph!

Amee said...

That's awesome. I love that your story included quitting when it wasn't right for you. I feel we're so pressured to not be labeled quitters in anything we do so we keep going and are too tentative to quit and make a change. This shows that quitting isn't always bad, it can be a step in the right direction. :)

Reader Rabbit said...

That was an awesome story; usually stories about quitting always have the "quitting is bad" moral behind it but this one didn't :) and I'm glad you kept the story the way you liked it!

Steph Su said...

This is good stuff. It inspires us to continue even when things are frustrating.

Rhonda Helms said...

This is a WONDERFUL story. I'm so glad you guys shared it! And Saundra's book is amazing--YAY!!!

Beth F said...

Great guest post. We all ponder the quit/no quit question at some point.

Sarah Rees Brennan said...

Awesome, awesome story - almost as awesome as Saundra's book!

Cinnamon said...

That is a fantastic and inspiring story! I'm so glad that you persevered!

thebluerose said...

I love this story. It's so inspiring that you didn't quit. =D

Abby said...

Hah, what a great story! I'm glad you didn't quit, Saundra!

Anonymous said...

Best. Pub Story. Ever. Officially my favorite! Yay for happy endings!

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Hey! For some reason, this embedded comment form makes most people click twice before the comment is processed and published. It's not you - it's just that it's a new Blogger feature with kinks and all that. (But I adore it and don't wanna get rid of it!) I removed Captcha to make the process easier. You don't have to rewrite the comments twice; just click on SUBMIT twice and it should work. If not, email me. Thanks! -Steph