Monday, June 15, 2009

Learning to Embrace Whimsy

Many aspiring authors look for the magic formula to get published. Writers work hard to perfect their craft, keep an eye on the market as to what is selling, and analyze books they read with the view to selling their manuscripts. Then there are the workshops they attend, the writing groups joined and a lot of ‘sit your butt in the chair’ time writing. Instead of collecting the paychecks they envisioned, they have a folder full of rejections. Why?

Multi-published author, Libby Malin, is my guest today. Libby shares her journey from prepublication to published author. She discusses the importance of accepting the publishing business for what it is, not what we
want it to be.

Early in my writing career, in those prepublication days before The Call, I decided to approach commercial novel writing…. logically. By that time, I’d collected a file full of rejections for a couple manuscripts that I had been confident were absolute surefire sales. And yet they didn’t sell. What was wrong? I knew I was a decent writer (maybe not an exceptional one, but surely as good as published novelists on the market). And I believed with every fiber of my being that the novels I’d lovingly crafted were good yarns with believable characters.

Filled with frustration, I decided to approach the problem with scientific precision. After purchasing a few romantic comedies, I sat down with book, pen, and marble notebook, determined to outline them in my quest for the right formula. Although I was interested in writing across several genres, a couple of my rom coms (as they’re called in the biz) had been rejected recently, and by gum I was going to figure out why. Surely taking an analytical approach to publishing would do the trick.

I don’t remember the title of the novel I applied this process to. It was a Harlequin book, by a multi-published author, if I recall correctly. All I remember clearly was writing the chapter numbers on lined pages of the notebook, followed by some bullet points on what happened in each chapter, major plot points, comedic moments, character developments, etc.

And at the end of this exercise, I had….a notebook full of scribbles. I hadn’t learned a thing about what made that novel publishable and mine not so much. If anything, I was even more confused. My manuscripts seemed to me to contain each element I had meticulously outlined, and were every bit as engaging as the one I just read.

After my outlining experiment, the publishing business seemed even more capricious to me, even more arbitrary. I’m a reasonably intelligent woman, and if there was a pattern here, a formula for success, it wasn’t obvious to me.

But of course there is no formula for publishing success. Sure, some books are “formulaic,” stealing the patriarchal church-conspiracy notes from The Davinci Code or the secondary-historical-figure template of The Other Boleyn Girl. But… for every Davinci Code knock-off that sold to an editor, there were probably dozens of comparable quality that didn’t make the cut.

As I said, there is no formula. There is only personal taste.

Sometimes that taste gets filtered through imprint and marketing demands (such as a fiat from the marketing department to buy Davinci Code-like books), but ultimately, an editor buys a book because she (wait for it) loves it. And whether she loves it has everything to do with who she is, whether she’s into punk or classical, likes American Idol or The Tudors, Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, or identifies more with Ginger or Mary Ann.

Once an author has achieved a certain level of quality, whether that author’s manuscript gets chosen for publication often has nothing whatsoever to do with the author’s talent or even, sometimes, market pressure. It has to do with what the editor is feeling…about life, as well as about the manuscript you’re submitting at the moment she picks it up to read it.

The moral of the story: if you’re serious about being published, you have to accept this whimsical process, and keep trying, hoping to make that right connection with an editor.

A multi-published author I know recently did an interview with a romance-oriented magazine. In talking about publishing success, she said it really came down to three things – talent, perseverance, and being in the right place at the right time.

I’m convinced my manuscripts in those early days were falling into that third category. Or rather, not falling into it. I was not in the right place at the right time, not hitting the right editor, not hitting her at the right moment.

The business is capricious. That’s all there is to it. You can write the Best Novel of All Time and still not find an editor willing to sign a contract with you. You can write a novel that barely makes it over the threshold of acceptability (and I’ve read a few of these, even tossing one into the trash can after finishing it) and find an editor who will pay you to get it into print.

This was a hard lesson for me to absorb. When I started writing fiction, I figured it was just a matter of time, that once I’d perfected my craft and learned the ropes, I’d be appropriately rewarded. And once I got in—got published, that is—I’d be on my way to huge success.

I did get in eventually, with a YA mystery published by a small press that then went on to be an Edgar nominee, followed by four more YAs and two humorous women’s fiction books.

I started in this business with dreams of financial independence as a bestselling novelist, thinking that all I had to do once I’d reached a certain writing level was have an editor ooh and aah over my effort.

Now, I’ve arrived at quite a different place--- I understand just how much success depends on luck coupled with persistence, no matter how talented you might be. Nonetheless, I feel very happy just to be able to write, doubly happy when a publisher wants to buy what I write, and always hopeful that the “next book” will be the Big One.


Although writing was always her first love, Libby earned both bachelor's and master's degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music and also attended the summer American School of Music in Fontainebleau, France. After graduating from Peabody, she worked as a Spanish gypsy, a Russian courtier, a Middle-Eastern slave, a Japanese Geisha, a Chinese peasant, and a French courtesan – that is, she sang as a union chorister in both Baltimore and Washington Operas, where she regularly had the thrill of walking through the stage doors of the Kennedy Center Opera House before being costumed and wigged for performance. She also sang with small opera and choral companies in the region.She eventually turned to writing full-time, finding work in a public relations office and then as a freelancer for various trade organizations and small newspapers.For many years, she and her family lived in Vermont, where she worked as an education reform advocate, contributed occasional commentaries to Vermont Public Radio and was a member of the Vermont Commission on Women.A native of Baltimore, Maryland, she now lives in Pennsylvania. She is married and has three children.
Libby Malin’s latest book, Fire Me, is a romantic comedy released by Sourcebooks. It tells the tale of Anne Wyatt who goes into work one day ready to hand in her resignation, only to change course when she learns her boss will lay off an employee by the end of the day. Determined to win the pink slip and the severance package that goes with it, Anne engages in wild antics and crazy stunts all designed to catch her boss’ negative vibes. By the end of the day, she’s learned a lot about life and love and the choices she’s made in both. Fire Me has been described as “hilarious,” “inspired,” and “the perfect beach bag” book by reviewers.

Fire Me is Libby’s sixth published novel. Her debut women's fiction book, Loves Me, Loves Me Not (2005), was hailed as a "whimsical look at the vagaries of dating..." by Publishers Weekly, called “charming” by the Washington Post, and dubbed a "clever debut (offering) quite a few surprises..." by Booklist.

Writing as Libby Sternberg, she is the author of four YA mysteries, the first of which was an Edgar finalist and a Young Adult Top 40 Fiction Pick by the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. Her YAs have been called “taut, vivid and stirring” (Library Journal), “simply a delight to read” (Romantic Times Book Club), “lively and captivating” (VOYA) and “an entertaining original” (Romance Reviews Today).

You can visit with Libby at her website:


~Sia McKye~ said...

Libby, welcome to Over Coffee!

I have plenty of good rich coffee or tea if you prefer, comfortable chairs and lots of interesting people.

Feel free to ogle my Scottish Warrior and you will notice I have your book in the Hot Summer Reads above right and a few extra yummy pics in there too...

Libby Malin said...

Thanks for having me! I look forward to chatting.

Vivian A said...

Caprice and whimsy also take the edge off of rejection since we can blame some of it on "them." Libby you emphasize the crucial element of perservenance.

Btw, your own life sounds whimsical and creative. Do you think your writing has been substantially affected by your own experiences and if so how does come through?

Libby Malin said...

Interesting question -- one that my alumni magazine just posed to me, too, for an interview! I think my background in classical music, and my exposure to opera in particular, attracted me to dramatic stories. Although I'm published in rom com, I have a couple big dramas in me and just sold one to Five Star Publishing, a re-imagining of JANE EYRE entitled SLOANE HALL.

You would think that being in the music world would have prepared me for the capriciousness of publishing, though, but it didn't really. I thought publishing would be different, decisions more objectively-based.

Judi Fennell said...

Lightning strike. Total, complete lightning strike - that's what I always tell people. Work on your story, work on your craft, work on networking and the business, then pray for lightning.

Great to see a fellow Casa Babe here!

~Sia McKye~ said...

I don't think anything in in the arts are objectively based. Writing falls right into that category. It's like you mention, all based on personal taste of the one looking at the proposal, whether it be a movie script, tv series proposal, stage performance, or an art show. Breaking into those fields all require the same work and the biggest is being there.

Oh, I have a friend who loves gothics and her writing is in that area too. She's going to love this about Sloane Hall.

Anonymous said...

I took my fingers out of my ears a long time ago. The 'lightening' strike is the illusive component which is difficult to accept.

Perseverance is an absolute. One can't be published if the right editor never sees the manuscript.

~Sia McKye~ said...

From Facebook:

Tracy Beckham at 10:41am June 15

I apologize for just inhaling books like they're chocolate-covered strawberries! You can't just stop at one, though.

Libby Malin said...

Yes, I don't know why I thought writing would be a more objectively-judged business than music. I was young and naive! LOL!

Re: SLOANE HALL....I'm so thrilled this ms is seeing the light of print.

VA said...

Sloane Hall sounds intriguing. Judi Fennell has totally change me into a romantic comedy fan. Thanks for stopping by Sia's, it is so nice to get and meet writers and hear their publishing tales.

Adina said...

Very interesting dissection of the writing/publishing business . I always forget it is after all a business.
I am appalled many times to see which books sell and which don't, but there is nothing one can do, it's a matter of being at the right time at the right place with the right manuscript ....

Anonymous said...

Libby, fine post. As writers, we do our best and then hope to make that connection with the publishers at the right time. Thanks for sharing your story about how it worked out for you.

James Rafferty

Sheila Deeth said...

Nice to meet you here Libby. I hadn't realized your first book was YA, and mystery. And an Edgar nominee - wow!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Libby, I'm having some pretty bad thunderstorms here with some nasty lightning. I've lost power twice, so if I disappear you will know why.

When will we be seeing Sloane Hall?

Libby Malin said...

September 2010 is when it's slated to come out. Here's a summary (sort of what appeared announcing the deal on Publishers Marketplace):

Edgar-nominated YA author Libby Sternberg's Gothic tale of old Hollywood, SLOANE HALL, about a chauffeur who falls in love with his starlet employer, only to be repulsed by secrets revealed on their wedding day, a tale inspired by JANE EYRE.

Margay said...

I think this is a great post for anyone who aspires to publish and is frustrated by the process. I think the key is to keep at it until you do enter the right place at the right time.

~Sia McKye~ said...

How cool, Libby. I remember reading Jane Erye several times as a teen and now you have me curious...whichwa your intent, wasn't it, lolol!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Hey Margay, thanks for stopping by!

I agree and also feel perserverance is the key, despite the frustrations, if you want to publish your writing. And that's true whether you are looking to be published or have already been published.

Most readers or aspiring authors think once an author is published they have it made and thats not always the case. Published authors also have to query their editors (or their agents) via proposals. The editor may love the three they contracted to publish but not the next one or three.

And this is where Libby makes a great point about personal taste of the acquiring editor reading the proposal. If she/he loves it, they will buy it. What if the story proposal, while well executed, doesn't grab her? She's going to say no regardless of how the other books are doing on the market. Then where are you? It's back to the drawing board and coming up with another proposal. This happens more than unpublished authors realize.

Like Libby says, and I think a very good point: "...not hitting the right editor, not hitting her at the right moment...I understand just how much success depends on luck coupled with persistence, no matter how talented you might be."

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sia, thanks for hosting!

Libby - every word you said is true and made me smile. thanks!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Hey Nancy! Good to see you. Did you notice I have Mr. Charming in my Hot Summer Reads slide show?

~Sia McKye~ said...


Thank you so much for visiting with us over coffee. I appreciated your insights and the honest frustrations you shared with us. Frustrations that all writers face when pursuing their ambition to write and dealing with the capriciousness of the publishing world.

Best of luck with Fire Me.

M. L. Kiner said...

"The Hong Kong Connection" is a legal thriller about a gutsy female attorney who takes on high ranking International officials. It's a taut, rollercoaster of a ride from New York to Palm Beach to Washington D.C. to Hong Kong. The plot is expertly woven, the characters persuasive, and the dialogue snappy and spot on.

Conda V. Douglas said...

I just taught a workshop in "Writing and Marketing the Short Story" and my main point was "it's all subjective" so "write, read, submit, repeat," is the best an author can do. I've had success with short stories, but I really needed to read your engaging post about novels, thank you Libby.

Kat Sheridan said...

I'm coming by late, as usual. but I'm the friend Sia mentioned who loves gothics, and has also written a Jane Eyre inspired one! No offers yet, so I'm praying for lightening! Libby, can't wait to get my hands on Sloane Hall, and I really enjoyed your insight into the publishing lottery!