This interview is a little bit different from its predecessors.
I started this blog to explore what it takes to be in the trenches, to deal with rejection while it’s happening–not in retrospect when you’ve already been successful. It’s so easy to talk about success stories; we need to talk more about what happens before.
I met Elizabeth Bell online, and recently I read something she posted on Facebook expressing her frustration with the submission process (which she’ll describe in detail below). I asked her if I could interview her for RSG, and she said she wasn’t sure, because she wasn’t feeling much like a survivor at that moment. I told her that that’s precisely why I wanted to interview her.
Elizabeth Bell is the author of Necessary Sins, Lost Saints, and Sweet Medicine, the three books in the (nearly finished, but as of yet unpublished) Lazare Family Saga. Necessary Sins was a finalist in two contests, the Maggie Awards and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and the opening pages were published in the inaugural issue of the literary journal Embark (you can read them here). She has an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where she now works in the library. She’s also an active member of the Historical Novel Society, and she loves chatting with fellow writers and readers. Find her online here on Facebook. (She’ll have her own website soon! Right Elizabeth?!)
Tell us about your writing background.
I’ve been writing stories since I was in the second grade, and libraries have always been my second home. I chose a pen name and decided to become a writer at the age of 14. I’ve never wavered from that, and it’s why I pursued an MFA. I write because I want to learn and understand. It’s the way I make sense of the world. I want to move people the way my favorite novels move me. I find happiness through my characters’ happiness.
Age 14 was also when I started my current project. It was very different then, melodramatic with no real sense of time or place and had way too many characters. I thought I was writing a single book. It’s still a single narrative, but I had to break it into three books because it’s nearly 400,000 words. It’s a family saga with strong romantic elements set mostly in Charleston, South Carolina and the American West in the early 1800s, but it’s more literary than your average family saga or romance. It’s character-driven, and the internal conflict is as important as the external conflict.
What’s your current situation in terms of the submission process?
Over the course of three years, I’ve submitted my life’s work, my magnum opus, Book 1 of my trilogy a.k.a. my debut novel Necessary Sins to over 100 agents and about 15 editors, all of them carefully researched. Out of all that, I got about 5 partial and 5 full requests. All became rejections. Half of the agents/editors I queried didn’t bother to reply, nearly half sent form rejections. Just four sent personalized rejections, and three of those were vague. How are writers supposed to improve or make decisions about the future of our writing when almost no one in publishing will admit why they’re saying no? I have to cobble together conjectures from hundreds of interactions, including other writers’ experiences.
I also submitted Necessary Sins to Pitch Wars and three other blog contests. I won one blog contest that was supposed to expose my writhing to agents. It felt good to win of course, but the contest was poorly organized and resulted in zero requests. In Pitch Wars and the other blog contests, I was left in the slush pile. I also tried pitching events on Twitter. I got liked by one small publisher who didn’t look like a good match. That was it.
The one time I’ve ever submitted to a literary journal, my work was published–and it was the opening of Necessary Sins, the same novel no agent wants!
So far, I’ve submitted Necessary Sins for five writing awards: Mslexia (left in slush pile); the Maggie Awards (Second Place = simply bragging rights); and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship (Finalist). I’ve entered two other novel contests that haven’t been announced yet. Since it’s looking like I’ll self-publish, I want Necessary Sins to win at least one award in order to assure people that I really can write. I want to put “Award-Winning Author” in front of my name! But the entry fees add up, so I have to choose the contests carefully.
I initiated this interview in response to a post you wrote on Facebook expressing frustration and despair over the submission process. I’m sure it’s not the first moment of despair you have felt. What do you find helps get you through those moments?
Knowing I’m not alone–hearing from other writers who’ve been through it or are going through it, even if they’ve not found success yet. Especially if I’ve read their work and I know it’s good–I’m able to assure myself “This is not happening to you because your work is crap. X is super talented and agents are ignoring her too.” Reminding myself that most of the “normal” people (outside of publishing) who’ve read Necessary Sins are moved by it. Knowing there is another option that’s worked for some authors, self-publishing, even if it will be an enormous financial struggle for me personally. Distracting myself by doing something pleasant that hasn’t been tainted, like watching a meteor shower or watching a favorite TV show.
When I approached you, you were hesitant to be interviewed because you said you felt you’re “not a survivor yet.” What parts of you are you afraid will not survive the submission process? Do you feel there are parts of yourself that you’ve lost?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve already lost a great deal to this horrific process and I fear I will never get it back. I realize it’s vain and self-indulgent to call querying horrific when there are real horrors going on in the world and have been for millennia. But when something takes away your joy in life, that’s horrific in its own way. I don’t enjoy reading the way I used to. It’s been tainted. I’ll read something published recently–especially if it was represented by an agent who rejected me–and I’ll think, “How is this better than my work or my unpublished friends’ work? It isn’t. It’s melodramatic, shallow, formulaic, unsatisfying, and derivative. It imitates X, Y, and Z and adds nothing worthwhile. Yet this author got a Big Five book deal, a review in X, a featured spot at my local library.” If I read something published several years ago, I’ll think “This is great! Why is no one publishing novels like this anymore? How many superb novels are dying on their authors’ computers because the Literary Establishment is myopic? I want to read those novels, damn it!” I’m a writer and a reader. Those have always been my top two joys in life. Now I read and have these critical, envious, angry thoughts instead of being lost in the story. Now I sit down to write and think “Why am I sacrificing my free time for this? It’s never going to make me any money, and only a handful of people are ever going to read it. What’s the point?” Right now, I persist for the sake of my characters, but I honestly don’t think I’ll start another writing project. It’s too much damn work and pain for too damn little reward.
I know how that feels! What are some encouraging things agents and editors have told you? Do you find that those comments strengthen you, or just frustrate you more?
Both simultaneously. An agent at Writers House got the closest to signing me. She’d read my partial and asked for my full. She talked about being at a music festival and frantically searching for WiFi so she could download the rest of my pages and find out what happened next. You can bet that gave me a thrill. She called my writing “masterful” and said she could see Necessary Sins on the shelf between The Thorn Birds and Roots (two of my inspirations, so spot on!). She thought Necessary Sins would be a hardcover original and she would submit to Knopf first. Knopf! And yet in the end, none of that mattered. She obviously did not sign me. I learned that writing a great story isn’t enough, and that’s enormously frustrating.
It seems to me that you’re coming upon a crossroads in terms of your writing career. You need to decide whether to continue pursuing traditional publishing, or try your hand at indie publishing. What are your fears and concerns about indie publishing?
#1 That indie publishing isn’t truly “making it”–that I won’t be able to hold my head high when I tell people I’ve published a book. Even a few years ago, I myself thought indie authors either weren’t good enough or weren’t patient enough to be traditionally published. I know better now, but I still see the stigma all over–otherwise excellent book critics and trad-published authors treating indie authors like scum, openly mocking their efforts to get read and reviewed.
#2 My biggest hurdle is the cost. I don’t want to slap Necessary Sins up on Amazon and call it a day. I want to put out a professional product worthy of my story, and I want it to get read. That’s going to take thousands of dollars. I have already sacrificed everything for this project. A personal life. A career. I’ve settled for weekends at home alone, reading research books and typing away. I’ve settled for a low-paying job because it’s fairly low-stress, so that I can pour my energy into my writing. It’s also a library job, so I have access to limitless research books. I’ve given myself a sleep disorder that severely limits my personal life and job options. Since adolescence, I’ve stayed up late so I could write when my house was quiet. Now my brain is “hard-wired” to stay up late and sleep in late, and even sleep doctors can’t fix me. (It’s called Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder.) So my whole life has been sacrificed on the altar of my writing. I’ve spent two and a half decades with this project: on learning how to write, on research and revision. I have a massive student loan debt from my Master of Fine Arts degree, and now I have to pay thousands more dollars before the first stranger will read my work? Thousands of dollars I probably won’t make back because I’ll still be one voice screaming in a whirlwind? How is that just?
#3 I’m also an introvert, and that makes marketing myself painful. I had a retail job once. I ran away screaming. (Or at least, this was how I felt on the inside. I’m an introvert! I would never display my emotions in public!) I loathe the very idea of selling things. I feel like I’m taking advantage of people. I wonder if they can really afford “it,” because I know I can’t. Now, I will be forced to beg people to buy my book and review my book, when I’d rather hide under a rock. I want creating the beautiful, profound work of art to be my task, my very difficult task, and for someone else to take Necessary Sins from there. But I can’t afford to pay anyone else to do much marketing for me, so it comes back to money. Doesn’t every budding writer dream of being able to quit her day job and do nothing but read or write? Even when I realized this almost never happens, I told myself: “Well, at least my advance will be enough to buy a reliable car. Or fix my eyesight.” My dreams got smaller and smaller, more and more timid, until the last tiny one was ground into bloody dust.
I used to say that my fantasy is to just hand somebody my manuscript from beneath my rock, and let them disseminate my genius while I stay under the rock and write. Truth is, coming out from under the rock is not as bad as I feared. Part of it is a matter of confidence and reframing. You aren’t begging people to read your book; you’re offering them something you created that may enrich their lives. I can’t always think that way, especially when my self-doubt demons are having a party, but it does help.
Thanks for that.
What advantages do you think introversion gives you as a writer?
The “only” advantage is that I think being an introvert makes me a better writer, I think deeply about things, and I’m patient with the writing process–I know I won’t get it right the first time, but my persistence will result in a stronger novel. My writing has layers, as a friend likes to say. So being an introvert makes me a good literary writer–but that makes my work harder to market to the masses, so it makes me less appealing to agents.
When we discussed whether to do this interview, you suggested that maybe we should come back to it in a year (and we might!). Where do you hope to be a year from now?
At the bare minimum, I think I’ll have a complete draft of my whole trilogy (I’m maybe 125 pages from the end of Book 3). After 25 years, this in itself will be an enormous accomplishment, because I have dozens of drafts of some parts of this saga, but I do not yet have a complete draft of the whole.
In a year, I could be launching Necessary Sins as an indie author. At the least, I hope I will have learned how to self-publish well on a small budget and that I’ll have the pieces in place to publish in 2019. I’ve actually booked a cover designer for September 2018–the best designers are booked months in advance. I need to find an editor and a proofreader. I need to figure out how to set up an author website, get business cards, purchase ISBNs, format my work for publication, do a little marketing, etc. etc. It’s going to be very, very busy year!
If you could go back in time to the Elizabeth who was just starting out in the submission process, what do you think you would say to her?
Don’t bother. The Literary Establishment doesn’t want what you’re selling. Save your money–don’t attend that conference and practically give yourself a heart attack pitching to those agents in person. They’re all going to reject you. Save yourself three plus years of soul-crushing despair–don’t research or chase after a single agent or editor. They care about profit, not art. They don’t even care about finding great stories. All they want is an easy sell, and they see Necessary Sins as risky. Don’t rewrite your title and logline and query letter and synopsis twelve hundred times in the hopes that you’ll find the version that will make you impossible to ignore. Finish Book 3, and then learn how to self-publish. Cultivate friendships with other writers. They’ll keep you sane. Learn from the writers who are farther along in their journeys. Remember what works and what doesn’t so you can mentor other writers in turn.
Do you think anything of value came from the experiences of researching and submitting to agents and editors?
No, I don’t. I think I wasted three years of my life. Not that I would have believed anyone but my own time-travelling self telling me traditional publishing wasn’t going to happen for me. I should have realized the truth long ago, but I kept thinking I was a special snowflake–that because I’d spent more than two decades on this project, someone, somewhere would have to recognize its uniqueness eventually–that my brilliance would overcome publishers’ allergy to longer novels, novels with male protagonists, etc.–that because the universe had denied me everything else I’d ever wanted, it couldn’t possibly deny me this, too–that no writer has ever needed or deserved traditional success as much as I do. But of course that’s not the way the universe works.
If an Elizabeth from the future were to turn up and tell you something, what do you think–or hope–she would say to you?
Your writing matters. Some of your readers love your characters almost as much as you do. Some of them reread your work and get more out of it the second time. Some become a little kinder, to themselves and to others–a little more empathetic, a little less apt to rush to judgment. Your writing matters.
Elizabeth Bell’s Rejection Survivor Skills
Here’s a summary of the skills Elizabeth employs to deal with rejection and how they intersect with the Rejection Survival Guide:
- She believes in her work. Giving up was never an option.
- She keeps in mind that the rejections are not about the quality of her work, but about what the publishing industry thinks will sell: “All they want is an easy sell, and they see Necessary Sins as risky.”
- She reaches out for support from other writers: “Hearing from other writers who’ve been through it or are going through it, even if they’ve not found success yet.”
- She recognizes when to walk away from a pursuit that is taking away more than it is giving her. See: “Stop Telling Me Not to Give Up“
Many thanks to Elizabeth for doing this interview even though (and especially because) she was in a difficult place when I initiated it. Any words of encouragement for her are very welcome in the comments!
Are you a Rejection Survivor? I’d love to interview you! Please get in touch with me and tell me a little about your experiences with rejection so I can put together some questions for you!
Jo Levitt says
Elizabeth, please self publish if you can. I want to read your book!
Elizabeth Bell says
Jo, I’m working on it! My health issues keep draining my bank account. ? But I’m so thrilled I’ll have at least one reader! ?
Christine E. Robinson says
Elizabeth, thank you for your “real”’ answers to Daniella’s interview questions. All good wishes going forward with your writing & publishing goals. ? Christine
Elizabeth Bell says
Thank you so much, Christine! I may be good at writing fiction, but I’m no good at bullshitting in real life – I’ve got to be honest!
Arthur Klepchukov says
Elizabeth, thanks for sharing your story. I appreciated the reminders that the writing itself and others who write are what matter before, during, and after the extraordinary efforts of trying to share your work. To be completely honest, I was surprised and put off by your don’t bother / it wasn’t worth it conclusions. I’d like to imagine that even harsh experiences would shape and illuminate where I invest my future time. As in most facets of life, having tried is better than having only dreamt.
Daniella Levy says
Thanks for your thoughts, Arthur, and for mentioning your discomfort with that part of the interview. It was hard for me to read that, too, but I also understand how difficult it is to see the value in those experiences when everything is still so raw and you haven’t yet had some distance and time to process the whole thing. I’ve also had many moments where I bitterly asked myself why I bothered at all. I think it’s a legitimate part of the process and that it’s important to be open about the darker and less hopeful places we sometimes find ourselves in. But yes, the healthy and resilient next step is to see how even these difficult experiences of failure enriched you and brought to light how brave and determined you are. All my experiences of rejection taught me a lot about who I am–and I am proud of what I discovered.
Jill Shames says
Elizabeth, I too am looking forward to reading your first book and hope that you will finally gain the kind of momentum that will sustain itself. It sounds like you have endured so much starting and stopping. So frustrating! Your honesty, painful as it is, is also refreshing and inspiring. Keep on keeping on. Heal well.
Elizabeth Bell says
Thank you so much, Jill!
Jenny Milchman says
I actually think you’ve already accomplished something amazing. You must be one heckuva writer to have garnered that kind of serious interest from the Writers House agent (and whichever others). You probably know that a trilogy from an unknown author is basically a non-starter in traditional publishing–and for good reason. It’s asking a publisher to invest in 3 books when they don’t know if 1 will sell well, and asking readers to be 3 books in by an untested quantity before they get a full and satisfying resolution. This means a $45 expenditure in trade paperback, almost $90 if you’re published in hardcover.
So, while I definitely understand your frustration, sense of loss, and heartbreak, I also think it’s necessary to know the economic realities of the industry you’re trying to enter.
A project like yours makes sense as an indie author where you control pricing. You have 3 books all ready to go–you can release one, price it smart, and create a hunger for the next two. Then make the first “free” for a time, and of the new readers you amass, a certain number will await the next two installments, for which they will pay.
Yes, there’s an enormous number of indie books out there–but that’s true of traditional too. If the trilogy doesn’t take off as an indie release, it’s not the same as if it fizzles with a traditional publisher’s investment behind it.
And if your heart is really set on traditional, then perhaps it would be best to pursue that with a whole other ms, while this passion project finds its way (or waits till you’re such a success that it will make sense for a publisher to invest in three books).
My point is, you’ve gotten farther than a lot of writers I know have who wrote projects that didn’t suit the current marketplace. That alone would make me want to go on. It can be almost impossible to imagine moving onto a new novel when you’re invested in one (three) the way you clearly are. But you’re a writer, and I believe you can do it.
Maybe you can even wind up with the best of both worlds!
Elizabeth Bell says
Thank you so much for your thorough, thoughtful comments, Jenny! I appreciate your taking the time!
Jenny Milchman says
Elizabeth, if you ever want to reach out to me individually, please feel free (email is easy via my website). Your story has stayed with me, and I a) want to find out what you do and b) be a help if I can. I’ll be on tour with my new novel starting tomorrow, but I promise I will respond if you write asap! Keep going 🙂