A new pastime of mine in recent weeks has been stalking Twitter for writers talking about rejection and accosting them with a link to the blog and occasionally a request for an interview. (Is this what people call “promotion”…?) And I have to say, I have yet to regret extending that invitation. I always learn so much, and am awed by the depth of wisdom and insight of my interviewees. Rejection Survivors are a rare and magnificent breed of human, and I feel very privileged to serve as a platform for their as-of-yet unheard voices.
Brian Gehrlein is one such case. He’s a children’s book writer from Kansas City, where he works as a youth services librarian while teaching theater on the side (he used to be a high school theater teacher). He’s also a member of SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) where he actively leads a critique group, and he writes a literary blog called Death by Confetti. (I dunno about you, but I love that title to pieces.)
I’ll let him tell you the rest. Stick around, because I guarantee you, this is worth the read.
When did you first decide to become a children’s book writer? Can you tell us about an early piece you wrote that no one’s ever heard of because it stayed in the drawer?
I think I stumbled into children’s book writing ironically. In college I had this literary blog where I wrote parody kids books–stuff that nobody should ever publish. I think over time I just became more and more fascinated with them. In my early twenties I started writing “legitimate” kids books while pursuing a career teaching high school theater. It wasn’t until late 2016 that I started really taking my writing seriously, and looking into what I would have to do to be a published author.
I’m a pretty unshy writer so I can’t think of much that’s secret, however my earliest parody kids book should have stayed in the drawer and was called, Yes, We’re Alone, but Good Morning, World!, a kids’ book for atheists.
Tell us about your first-ever submission. What did you submit, and to whom?
My first submission was during my last year as a high school theatre teacher (2017). It was a shorter version of a story I had written back in 2012, (The Roundest Shape), about a square that wanted to be a circle. I sent it to Elena Giovinazzo at Pippin Properties after finding her agency with the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market (2016). I still love this story and desperately want it to get picked up! It’s gone through many revisions and critiques and I’ve sent it to various agencies forty-two times. Never give up!
How did you feel when you received your first rejection, and what motivated you to keep trying?
I don’t remember it hurting all that bad, but I do remember the feeling of getting an email back from an actual human who represented kids’ books, and having a sudden realization that I was going to have to do a lot more work to make it happen. It’s an exhilarating feeling when you know someone has read the story you invented. Most of my rejections have actually been assumed rejections through months of silence. The worst.
Totally. How did you get from there to where you are now?
A lot happened in my personal life that was critical to the type of drive and focus I now have with my journey to publication. After four years of teaching high school theater, it was clear that I needed to find a job that offered a better work-life balance. I lived at school and had no time to write, or workout, or prioritize relationships that were important to me. Leaving high school land (I now work as a librarian) was an opportunity for me to look hard at my life and identify what I wanted to do with this next chapter. Writing to get published was my conclusion. From my first submission to the end of 2017 I had only managed to submit 21 queries. As of this afternoon that number is now at 490. I have had 296 rejections ranging from absolute silence, copy/paste form rejections, and very personal, encouraging rejections. I’ve had 1 maybe (revise/resend request). I’ve had literary agents reject a manuscript as fast as 2 minutes after the email was sent, and I’ve had agents encourage me to look elsewhere (and stop sending them stories).
I joined SCBWI, and that has been an absolute game changer. I have community and professional resources that have been with me every step of the way. Through that support (and the extra time to work) I’ve been able to write more stories this year than I ever have. And I keep finding agencies.
I don’t waste a lot of time. When I think a story is ready, I send it out. Sometimes without putting it through the critique group process–I do not recommend this.
Having a critique group (aside from joining SCBWI) has been the single biggest sea change to my writing. As writers we want to do this thing alone, but the truth is we are so much better with other artists helping us along the way.
You mentioned to me that you’ve found a “rhythm and system” for submission that works for you–can you tell me more about that?
I write a picture book pretty fast. Once I have a vision for the story, I can sit and write 1,000 words in less than an hour sometimes. I like to write them too long and then work on cutting during the revision process. Industry sweet spot (right now) is 300-500 words. After the first draft, it takes me about a week to two weeks of revising. If I have a critique session coming up I share it and take their feedback and edit it another week. Then I take the piece and send it to every single agent I can find (who represents what I do). I have an Excel spreadsheet to document every submission and that works for me. Some people use QueryTracker but I haven’t gotten into that yet, but I might.
Before I send out, I always go to the agency website and pore over it to make sure the agent is currently accepting submissions. Many agents take periodic breaks. It’s super imperative to follow their submission guidelines and to familiarize yourself with what they represent. I guess the thing that makes my process unique is that I have multiple manuscripts and I’m not afraid to send stuff out when I feel it’s ready. I trust my gut and don’t waste time.
What’s the hardest thing for you about the submission process? How do you stay positive?
“I try to keep writing fun. If it’s not fun, why do it at all?”
I stay positive by writing my next book! Or I use the time to maintain my knowledge of industry standards, focus on building a supportive writing community (and helping others), doing Twitter pitch contests, reading and analyzing books, or just take a break. As hard as it is to wait, I know that I don’t have control over any of it. I focus on what I can control and do that well… and try not to worry about the rest.
I try to keep writing fun. If it’s not fun, why do it at all? This usually takes form in my literary blog. I know I have a place I can post silly and serious stuff and I have an audience who will read it. Check it out!
Do you ever have moments where you lose hope that you’re ever going to find an agent? If so, what gets you through those moments?
“I… tell [my heart] that it doesn’t need approval in that way”
Absolutely! I try to remember that it’s not going to happen on my timeline and I listen to the stories of other writers who say sometimes it takes years, even decades. I also try to remember that my identity isn’t rooted in whether I have an agent or not. That’s the hardest part. I want to be approved of by having an agent. So I speak to my heart and tell it that it doesn’t need approval in that way. I’m a writer with or without an agent. I’m valuable. I have a voice. I have something to say, and I try to have confidence in that. I’m also a person of faith and I find there is a Solid Rock I’m standing on when things get chaotic or my anxiety starts speaking lies over me.
I’m also a person of faith (Jewish), and I don’t focus much on faith in The Rejection Survival Guide because I don’t want to alienate readers who don’t connect to it (and if that’s you–feel free to skip to the next question!)–but it does have a very important role in my struggles with my writing career. While I find that my relationship with God can boost my resilience, it’s also sometimes strained by the disappointments inherent to the submission process. I’m interested to know how you experience it.
“He is with us and walks in our pain, uncertainty, and seasons of barren fields”
When I think about my relationship with the Lord in all this, I see it as me doing work. I believe God meets us in our work. He calls us to work, sustains us, and is with us while we labor. Just as a farmer works hard from sunrise to sunset only to let go of the final element of control to God (because he cannot control the weather and whether or not his crop will come in). So I guess it’s like that. I know I have to work my butt off but in the end it’s up to God to bring in any sort of harvest. I think there is both peace and frustration in that, and I think it’s okay that those ideas are in tension with one another. God is a good God. He wants what is best for me. That doesn’t mean I’ll always get what I want. In fact, as I know we both know, God disciplines and tests faith. Hardship and struggle makes us rely more on Him. But I feel what you feel. It’s easy to blame God at the end of the day and to feel as though prayer is being unanswered. I just come to Him as I am and express my emotions, fears, and anxieties in raw form like David. Because He isn’t a God who is threatened by our fears and frustrations. So we don’t need to pretend everything is okay when it isn’t. And this email catches me at a good time. Mondays can be awful and for whatever reason I’m in a little bit of a funk. And I got a rejection this morning. The first emotion that I experienced was anger. I think that anger points to where my hope is in. My control idol. It probably made me feel out of control and made me feel threatened. So I need to confess those feelings and ask God to restore my spirit and seek His forgiveness for my idolatry and attitude.
There really isn’t an easy answer, but at the end of the day, I know whether or not I ever get published has nothing to do with who God is. God isn’t good because my circumstances point to His goodness. He is just good. And he owes me nothing. If anything, He owes me death because of how often my heart strays from Him, worshiping false gods. But He hasn’t left me to my own devices–He is with us and walks in our pain, uncertainty, and seasons of barren fields.
When you see other writers succeeding, or even pass a bookstore and see some beautiful children’s books on the shelf–do you ever feel jealous? What do you do with that jealousy?
Oh man, I deal with this every day as a librarian. I see books that make me want to be better and inspire me, and I see books I (arrogantly) judge, filling me with bitter thoughts like, “How could this have been published?” That’s a bad spot to be in. Really important to remember compassion and that it’s so not a competition. There is no winning or losing. But it is hard when you’re surrounded by the thing you’re trying so hard to bring about in the world, and seem to not be making any progress.
What’s the worst rejection or critique you ever received, and how did you recover from it?
I think the worst rejection I ever got was having a form/copy & paste rejection email come back to me two-minutes after I submitted. I reacted like a juvenile and went to Twitter saying something to the effect of, “I’m never sending to them again!” I didn’t mention any names, but I do regret losing my composure over something like that–especially for the world to see. Agents do check us out on Twitter and I may have actually hurt myself by acting like that. I now realize this agent knew exactly what they wanted and they are allowed to know quickly that my book wasn’t it.
Who do you turn to for support when you get a particularly disappointing rejection?
This is something I need to work on but I go to a few places. Usually God, my wife, and Twitter. A lot of the times they are in reverse order. Sometimes it really sets me back and I put writing on the shelf for a week or two to let things cool. Other times I can get three rejections in a day and it doesn’t seem to bug me. I think it depends on my heart posture and what I’m looking to place my hope in.
Do you think your ability to cope with rejection has evolved over the past year and a half? In what way?
I do think my ability to cope has evolved. I feel like I have a more compassionate perspective of agents themselves. I try to think about the difficult job they are doing and make it less about me. This humility has softened me and pointed me to work harder on learning my craft and to be more willing to change manuscripts and make them better. The more I’m rejected, the more I learn about what I’m doing, and the more well-rounded I feel. I think it’s really good for my soul.
I think about what if I had gotten picked up after the first submission. There would be so much I wouldn’t have learned. There would be people I wouldn’t have met. And it wouldn’t mean as much to me. In all seriousness, I hope to keep getting rejected for a few more years. Don’t take this bun out of the oven… I’m not quite done.
Is there a particular image or dream you find yourself clinging to in the tougher moments? Can you describe it for us?
“I think about little faces”
I think about little faces. I think about young writers. It’s the teacher in me that imagines sharing my wisdom (and pain) in an effort to encourage them to persevere. When I think about being a writer, I don’t think about money or book signing or anything like that. I see myself in a classroom or a small town library and I’m just connecting to young people, telling them that they matter and that everyone has a story to tell and that they can remain a child at heart if they want to. That and I’m reading my books to kids, entertaining them and making them giggle endlessly–my very favorite thing to do.
What do you have to say to fellow writers and creatives still drowning in “no”s?
“Fall more in love with the stories you’re telling”
If anyone has told you no, that means you are a true artist. That means you’ve knocked on a door. No door ever opened without someone knocking. So knock. Obnoxiously. Relentlessly. With abandon and joy… all we have to do is outlast their ability to say no… and everyone has a breaking point… because while they’re busy saying no, we’re busier perfecting the art of knocking.
I’d also say fall more in love with the stories you’re telling. That’s what it’s about. Belief in your voice and the story you tell is the only thing that matters. You don’t need a platform. You don’t need money. You don’t need anything other than your heart and a story you can’t help but tell. When you live in that space, that’s the type of passion that gets noticed over time. Never make it about anything other than a phenomenal story that the world desperately needs to hear.
Brian Gehrlein’s Rejection Survivor Skills
Here are some of the many things we can learn from Brian in this interview:
- He recognizes that his identity is independent of whether he has an agent: “My identity isn’t rooted in whether I have an agent or not.” For more on the importance of developing your identity beyond the world of being an artist, see 5 Creative-Resilience-Building Pursuits that Have Nothing to Do with Your Art.
- He lets go of the need for external approval: “I’m a writer with or without an agent. I’m valuable.”
- He sees rejection as an integral part of the process–one that affords him the benefit of personal growth:”The more I’m rejected, the more I learn about what I’m doing, and the more well-rounded I feel. I think it’s really good for my soul.”
- He creates because creation is an act of love, just like in Creative Resilience Manifesto item #1: “If it’s not fun, why do it at all?”
- He invites himself to feel everything, just like in Creative Resilience Manifesto item #5: “We don’t need to pretend everything is okay when it isn’t.”
- He understands that confidence comes in waves: “Sometimes it really sets me back and I put writing on the shelf for a week or two to let things cool. Other times I can get three rejections in a day and it doesn’t seem to bug me.”
- He recognizes the humanity of the person on the other side: “I have a more compassionate perspective of agents themselves. I try to think about the difficult job they are doing and make it less about me.”
What did I miss?! So many gems here! Many many thanks to Brian for his honest, thorough, and insightful answers, and hoping those agents figure out how awesome he is very soon! You can find him on Twitter at @BrianGehrlein, and don’t forget to check out his blog, Death by Confetti.
Are you a creative person who’s dealt with a great deal of rejection? Want to share your experiences with us? Please get in touch with me so I can interview you!
Jenny Milchman says
Going on by going on to the next book or writing project is such good advice. The business is one thing, the but the writing is THE thing. Your stories sound like great ones–I really hope The Bluest Eye/Roundest Shape one gets sold. Kids need to hear that message.
The discussion of faith was interesting–it actually seems to me to apply to the believers and non-believers and questioners alike.
Best of luck! Keep going! I am proud to be a rejection survivalist myself.
Daniella Levy says
The discussion of faith was interesting–it actually seems to me to apply to the believers and non-believers and questioners alike.
That’s why I decided to include it. 🙂 I join you in hoping that those books get picked up soon!
Linda Palmer says
Brian is my nephew. I believe in him, and I loved this interview so much.
Daniella Levy says
You are blessed among aunts!
Very well written. I appreciate both you and Brian’s forthright honesty on this subject. I found it to be very encouraging. This is absolutely some of the best advice and encouragement for anyone that has written, is writing, or hopes to one day be a published writer. I know Brian’s parents, personally, and easily see their love and support for their children. I think it reflects in his answers in this article. Keep walking forward Brian, the difference you are presently making in the lives of young people is the most important part of your writing.
Sandra McGraw says
Hi, Brian, it’s Madison’s mom. So glad she sent me the link to your site, Picture Book Spotlight. I am seriously relating to your rejection interview! This agent-seeking publishing life can be grueling! I have in particular struggled with platform building. A book that I’ve recently finished and so valued is Influence Building a Platform that Elevates Jesus (Not Me) by Kate Motaung and Shannon Popkin. If you or your readers are anxious about platform I’d suggest this book as it quells the tension of chasing the “numbers” that publishers seems to push.
I went the self-publishing route for the first in a series titled Jesus Jingles. Much like you, I’m seeking that agent that will rep me out to an independent publisher. My mid term assignment seems to be marketing what I have, so I’m making preschool visits in which I teach/promote Jesus Jingles with little ones.
I’ll be praying for your success! In late March I’m attending the 2019 Writing Workshop held here in KC. Check it out at https://kansaswritingworkshop.com/.