Wednesday, March 9, 2011

26 WOW Wednesday: Gae Polisner on The Alchemy of Getting Published

Today's guest post is by Gae Polisner is the author of the young adult novel The Pull of Gravity (May 10, 2011: Steinbeck and Star Wars guide two teens on a secret, whirlwind road trip to keep a promise to their dying friend). She wrote The Pull of Gravity as an homage to the character-driven fiction she loved as a kid, by the likes of Zindel, Konigsburg, and L’Engle. You can catch Gae at her website, or the book site. She is represented by Jamie Brenner of Artists and Artisans.

The Alchemy of Getting Published

by Gae Polisner

What makes one writer successful in getting published and another not? In my experience, and especially in this difficult and ever-changing market, getting published requires a confluence of three major elements: Skill. Perseverance. And luck. And the perseverance and luck pretty much go hand in hand. I’ll explain why in a minute. With shiny examples and everything.

But first there’s the obvious piece: skill. In order to get published, you have to be a good writer. I know there are rare exceptions (*rolls eyes with you*), but the truth is, yes, you do. You have to be a good writer. Of course, being a “good writer” may, in some instances, mean being a great plotter or storyteller rather than the best wielder of words. In other instances, it may mean being a magnificent weaver of words over being a crafter of the most page-turning of stories. But, at a minimum, you have to manage either/or. Brilliant writing or great storytelling. And, in the best instances, both. But, no question, there has to be skill.

Yay! I’m skilled! Shouldn’t I have an agent or a book deal? In a perfect world, yes. But I know first-hand the book world is far from perfect.

After five years (*perseverance alert!*) of querying my first novel to agents, I finally snagged a wonderful NYC literary agent who fell in love with my writing and the manuscript and, after working on revisions with me, shopped it around to about twenty major NYC publishers. Lots of editorial praise followed, and the manuscript went up to the executive board of at least three major houses (meaning at least a few of the in-house editors and/or editorial assistants liked it enough to pass it up higher). Yet, no deal.

I wrote a second manuscript. (*perseverance alert!*) For reasons outside my control, I needed to change literary agencies. That second manuscript caught the attention of a new agent who emailed me in the middle of the night claiming she was kept awake (in a good way) by my story and my words. She took me on and that manuscript followed much the same path as the first one. Only with more editorial praise. And more passes up on to “high.” Um, still no deal.

Well, maybe you’re just not as good as you think you are... Okay, fine. Maybe you’re right. Let’s take my friend Christine instead. Oh man, can that woman write! Ooh, and tell a magnificent story! Some objective proof? Well, as was my first, her manuscript was a Top Semifinalist in the first-ever Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest (now in it’s fourth year). So intrigued was I by the excerpt I had seen, I asked her if I could read the whole thing. I instantly fell in love. The story is contemporary women’s fiction with a real literary bent, a generational love story that takes place in Nazi Germany and revels in the architecture (not to mention the weaving trade) of the time. About thirty pages in, I knew it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever read. By the end, I hadn’t changed my mind, except about just how very beautiful and brilliant it was! Were there flaws, things to be tweaked? Sure, but barely. Excited, I had Christine send the manuscript off to my agent. I mean, if my agent liked my writing, she would love this, right? And she’d be indebted to me forever for sending her the next great thing.

Three weeks later, my agent turned her down. No go, she said. The voice didn’t resonate with her. But why not? Why not? WHY NOT?

Why not, indeed! What was/is missing from all those scenarios? And what was in place for The Pull of Gravity (FSG, May 2011) to sell?

I don’t think I am wrong about Christine’s book. And I don’t think my agent is wrong about mine. At least not my second manuscript. So here’s where I think that luck must come in, if the alchemy of a book deal is to work. Though, to be clear, luck will only arise when skill and perseverance lead us there.

But what kind of luck? The luck that lands our manuscript in the RIGHT hands, be it agent or editor. The hands (and reading eyes) that will connect with our characters, our story, our voice. Sometimes this happens fast, sometimes it takes a painfully long time (*persev. . . * okay, fine, you know what I mean), and sometimes, frustratingly, it never occurs.

For example, with my first two manuscripts, there were clearly important readers in love. Just not the ultimate readers. Same with my friend Christine’s book so far. But how can this happen? Good is good. Skill is skill. Shouldn’t any intelligent, perceptive set of hands be the right ones? To answer this, all you have to do is look up reviews for any great classic on Amazon. Take The Great Gatsby, for instance:

This from one of the 700+ 5-star reviews:

“Having reread this book for the first time in 20 years, I can confirm that there's a reason that it's considered one of the very best American novels.”

And, this from one of the 93 1-star reviews:

“I just wish that someone would have warned me before I read it. I read constantly and have been for 25 years or so and this was one of the least engaging books I've ever read.”

Look, I personally think The Great Gatsby is a marvel of word and story, but not all of those 93 readers who don’t are idiots. Art is subjective. Novels are art. Subjectivity is where the luck comes into play. You need to get your manuscript into the RIGHT hands, the hands of an agent or editor who loves your particular story and voice. And, if your manuscript falls anything short of The Great Gatsby, your work is cut out for you because your ratio of love to hate may be far less than 88.3%.

Which is where perseverance comes back into things. Ah, the alchemy of skill, luck and perseverance. And trust me, even published authors experience this need to have this continued alchemy at play. At least in these times where there really is no such thing as a “house author” anymore, but rather each manuscript gets scrutinized for its individual marketability, and how many units will sell.
The good news is that the alchemy of skill, perseverance and luck still works. I’m living proof. You just have to keep writing and hang in there.



  1. Thanks for sharing this. You nailed the three things you need to get published. And you have to remember the perseverance during those low points that we all have. Thanks for reminding us.

  2. Yes, thanks for the reminder, Gae. I'm convinced you're right - we can have the skill and the perseverance, but not always the luck. So, yes, it is alchemy!
    Enjoyed the post. Thank you and cheers
    from Australia.
    Sheryl :)

  3. I'd say that this is good life advice, let alone writing advice. It easily applies to all kinds of artists, musicians, dancers, actors and aspiring yoyo champs. I'd offer that in addition to the three abovementioned skills, you have a fourth one at your disposal: you're very very likeable. Hey, it doesn't hurt.........

  4. Whenever I start feeling bad about my own writing, I go and read those collections of rejection letters for books we now consider classics. Some of those editors REALLY hated those books. Like I-want-to-use-this-for-toilet-paper hated.

    Loved this post! Thanks to you both!

  5. Wonderful post offering a dose of painful truth while planting delightful seeds of hope.

    I just heard about a local author whose agent discouraged her from writing the book she really wanted to write. She wrote it anyway, found another agent, word got around about the manuscript, and now it's up for auction. Dadgum.

    That's skill, perseverance, and luck coming together in one great package.

  6. Awesome post, totally rings true. I often tout the "luck" factor, meaning just what you said, in the right hands at the right time, along with the talent and perseverance.

  7. Skill, perseverance and luck -- a brilliant trio and a brilliant post. Thanks for this!

  8. You hit it right on the head--especially perseverance.

    But I kept waiting for you to tell the story of how The Pull of Gravity was acquired. I'll have to wait for the next post!

  9. Shari, I sold it by sheer luck (plus, skill and perseverance ;)). Maybe, I'll come back later and tell the story here. If enough people clap their hands and believe in me. Oh, wait. That might be for tinkerbell. :)

    (thanks for all the nice comments everyone!)

  10. Yup, you nailed it. It's exhausting just thinking about it. But that's where that darned perseverance comes in again. Congrats on your success, Gae, and may lots more luck come your way (as you have the other two requisites in ample abundance)!

  11. This is an incredible post! Thank you, Gae. I dearly love the word choice of "skill" when it comes to writing. A lot of people say "talent" -- but talent is only the start, then you have to get good (skilled) at what you're doing.

  12. Alchemy is the perfect word, and those are the right ingredients. Nicely put, Gae!

  13. Perseverance, skill, and luck--things I hear over and over again to make it in publishing. Thank you for being an inspiration to us still climbing that first hill!

  14. Gae, this is beautiful. One of the most important things I've taken from our months of 2k11 conversations is the idea that our books aren't for everyone. This has liberated me in ways I can't explain (though, to be honest, I have to remind myself of it constantly).

  15. No, not luck. Only the inimitable congruence of all things in the universe along with your specific ying-yang energy and the perfectly-made Starbucks in the hands of an agent who got the most incredible lay of her life the evening before with a casanova who made her feel like the Queen of the Universe will make it happen. But, I digress... what do I know?

  16. Loved your post Gae - and oh, so true. It takes hard work and a belief in ourselves and our writing that no one else can give us - we have to dig deep within to find it.

  17. This is such a great post! It puts things in perspective. Sometimes, all we can do is keep trying. Congrats on your book! :)

  18. Intriguing post, and great reminder about perseverance. It IS so subjective. And frustrating to hear how agents loved your story (both stories) and yet it didn't resonate with editors. Glad you kept persevering!

  19. Ahh, yes dearest Gae. Everything you say is so true, which is why this "elderly" lady, but newbie writer, cannot wait for those three things to fall into confluence. For me there is no time left to just perservere. So I am opting for the self publishing route.

    But to you young writers out there, I say, don't wait. Work hard now. Recognize your calling. Don't give up. Life is far too fleeting.

  20. Dude, um, I believe what you just described is luck ;)

    Kiki, oh how deep;

    Carol, thanks! And, even editors liked them. Just not the final-say editors. . .YET. ;)

    And, Betty, there's more than one way to persevere. Good luck to you. I can't wait to read your novel.

  21. (btw, I'm going to try to stop by here later tonight and tell the full "luck" story on TPoG...)

  22. What an honest and inspiring post--and a great reminder to stay in the game.

  23. Thanks, Sheilah!

    Ok,so here's the short version of the luck story. Now, bear in mind, that I've had my first agent shopping my second women's fiction ms to lots of accolades and near-deals but no deals... in the middle of it, I decide to write a YA ms. I've shown the first draft to my then agent and taken it back to polish some things and I'm walking around with it at a PTA meeting at my kids' school. An acquaitance who is on a committee with me who I really like and admire asks me what I am working on. I tell her and she says to me, don't you know who my mother is? I don't. She tells me (Frances Foster, the legendary editor of such books as Holes by Louis Sachar). She says, do you want to send the ms to my mom? I tell her no. You read it first, I say, and IF you like it, then I'll send it to her. She reads it. LOVES it, and calls her mom. The rest, as they say, is history. FYI, in the long run, there is even more perseverance in there because Frances loved it immediately, but another editor in house did not and Frances turned it down. She called my agent a few months later and said she couldn't stop thinking about the ms and asked if it was still available and if I had done any revisions, and if she could have it back for another brief exclusive. Skill, luck, perseverance, luck, skill, alchemy.

    xo Gae

  24. great piece gae! so thoughtful and interesting and encouraging.

  25. Truly uplifting and wonderful story! Thanks for sharing your journey and encouraging us to persevere.

  26. Although I am late to the posting party, this is timely for me. As someone who began the querying process a few months ago, I'm increasingly frustrated at how difficult it is finding that one agent that my story will resonate with. (It's somewhere along the lines of finding comfortable shoes on the set of Sex in the City.) I applaud your perseverance in sticking it out five years to find an agent for your first manuscript. Writing and getting published is a true test of wills, especially in a day and age when instant gratification reigns. I suppose I'll have to increase my yoga practice in the meantime.... Thanks for this great post. I'm a Huntington local and look forward to attending your book signing at Book Revue next Saturday.


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