Since I’ve started querying agents again I’ve been connecting more with other writers in the same stage of their careers, which has been such a blessing. I think one of the things that made it so hard in the past was the feeling that I was the only person I knew who was doing this and no one else in my life–even those to whom I always turned for support–understood what I was going through.
One of these new connections is Kate Maupin, who is currently seeking representation for her YA fantasy novel, The Guardians. Aside from being a writer, Kate is an educator: an enrichment specialist and teacher for a school district in Connecticut where she lives with her husband, son, and according to her, “far too many pets” (is there such a thing?!). Her first book, Cheating, Dishonesty & Manipulation: Why Bright Kids Do It, was based on her experiences and expertise working with gifted kids, which she’s been doing for more than 11 years.
I particularly liked seeing how openly Kate shared about her rejections from agents, and I asked her if she would like to be interviewed. Though my experiences and insights may be helpful to others, I’m only one person with my own unique perspective and experiences, and one of the reasons I starting doing Rejection Survivor Interviews was to bring in other experiences and perspectives that we can learn from.
So on that note, here’s Kate!
When did you first decide to become a 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’ve wanted to be an author since I was old enough to know what that meant. I’ve been writing stories since I was four (and good ones since I was twenty-five)! It’s difficult to pin down an early piece because I was notorious for not finishing works. The first thing I ever finished was the first draft of my current work, The Guardians. That was when I was 16. It was terrible, and I tabled it until two years ago, though truly, I only revived its ghost. 99% of the book is different. I never throw anything away, even the old & awful!
Tell us about your first-ever submission. What did you submit, and to whom?
So my first submission was a nonfiction book proposal. Originally it was titled Gifted Cheaters, and I submitted it directly to a publisher that specializes in gifted education books – Great Potential Press.
How did you feel when you received your first rejection, and what motivated you to keep trying?
“I put that letter in my purse and… [let] that feeling of rejection normalize into something I knew I could live with every day”
The interesting thing was that I didn’t hear back from my 1st choice after a few months, and I was terrified to ask directly for confirmation that they’d rejected me, so I resent to my 2nd choice publisher. A few weeks later they sent me a very encouraging non-form rejection letter that said they didn’t publish quite this type of book, but would I like to try publisher “C”? (My 3rd choice.) I won’t lie, it didn’t feel good. (Though with hindsight, a nice non-form letter? A publisher suggestion? What was I complaining about?) I also got the letter on New Years, so it felt quite prophetic. Anyway, I put that letter in my purse and carried it around with me for 2 solid weeks, letting that feeling of rejection… normalize into something I knew I could live with every day. That gave me the strength to go back to Publisher #1 and ask if they had an update on whether they wanted to buy the work.
How did you get from there to where you are now?
I sent that email asking for an update, and received an almost immediate apology response. They thought their spam filter caught the submission, please send again! So I did… and they promised to look at it right away. That was on a Thursday. On Friday they asked to see more of the work, and on Monday they called me and said they were interested in acquiring it. It was an amazing and wonderful thing–that I literally had to get rejected by my 2nd choice before I was strong enough to go back and get a clear answer from #1. If I’d let the fear of rejection stop me from getting a clear answer, my story would have turned out very differently.
You published Cheating, Dishonesty, and Manipulation: Why Bright Kids Do It with a specialty press without an agent. What led you to make the decision to publish it that way, and why did you decide to pursue the agent route for your fiction?
I had the idea in my head for the book for years; it was based on my work as a gifted education teacher. Also because of my work, I was very familiar with the specialty press Great Potential Press, one of the leading gifted ed resource publishers. I already had many of their books for my own classroom, so when I discovered they accepted unsolicited submissions, I sent it to them directly. To be honest, if that hadn’t worked, I probably would have invested time into an agent search next. As for why I’m going the agented route for my fiction… it comes down to the types of publishing houses I’m interested in, and the fact that most don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. I want to give this book the best possible start on the market I can, and to me, for a fiction book that means agent.
Let’s focus in on the querying process. I find every step of it emotionally exhausting: the research, the clicking “send,” the waiting (aaggghhh the endless waiting!!!), and the rejections–especially the roller coaster of hope and disappointment when an agent requests materials but ultimately turns the manuscript down. What has been your experience?
Oh boy. I stood in front of the writing resource shelf at Barnes & Noble five months ago, staring at the spine of the 2018 Guide to Literary Agents… and I burst into tears. My anxiety was steam escaping a pressure cooker. I’ve found the entire process extremely taxing and very personal. It’s signing yourself up for constant rejection and ambiguity. That’s the worst part for me–the ambiguity of why something was rejected. Was the query letter too professional, not enough style shining through? Was the work just not what they were looking for, or was the writing not literary enough? Was it the plot? Was it the writing? It’s been that wave of second guessing (and its cousins, third, fourth, and one-hundredth guessing) that gnaws at my brain.
How do you survive the wait for a response to your submission? Do you find it harder to wait when the agent has shown interest and/or requested more material?
I’m a control freak. I know rationally that so much of this is out of my control, but I use little tricks to keep busy in the interim, such as querying in rounds. I have a 4 round based system of 15-16 agents per letter at 3-5 week intervals. I almost get excited when I get a rejection letter because it’s someone I can cross off with my blue highlighter and move on to the next one plotted out. I have a set of agent tiers in a document, and a revolving door reference of how many queries I have out, what material I have where, and how many agents still on my list. And short answer- yes, waiting to hear back on requested material is brutal, because you’re flying that much closer to the sun.
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 have split-second, horrible ‘what if’ moments, but I know I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get this published. I believe in the work, and more than that, I know I have the power to rework it and start over again if necessary. I can do more research and try other avenues… I’m more afraid of the ‘when’ than the ‘if’, because waiting is torture. And for the dark moments when I’m overwhelmed by the stress of it, my husband’s unwavering faith in me propels me through.
You and I connected on Twitter, where there is a very active community of writers, and I must admit–one thing that’s hard for me about interacting with other writers on social media is watching them succeed while I’m still querying agents 16 years after I sent my first query letter. I don’t show it; I do everything I can to support them and celebrate with them, but I can’t deny that the pain and jealousy are there. Do you experience this also? What do you do with that jealousy?
I’m with you! I’m legitimately happy for others success–but clinging to the underbelly of every joy is a little gremlin that grumbles “why not me?”. But you know what? I remember when my first book was published, and that feeling… that glorious feeling of having a box of books delivered to your house with your name on the spine? Nothing in the world compares to that. I wish everyone that moment in the sun. So even if there’s a twinge of jealousy when someone succeeds, I focus on being a part of their celebratory crew. When your book gets published–invite me to the party!
What’s the worst rejection or critique you ever received, and how did you recover from it?
It wasn’t from an agent, it was from an ex. I let him read some of the early pages of an early (still unfinished!) project and he returned them saying “I just don’t like your writing style. It’s not my thing.” I appreciated his honesty, and it didn’t even start a fight… but I remember feeling like all the water had been sucked out of my body at once. As far as how I recovered…. time and perspective. Not everyone is going to like what I do, and that’s a fact of life.
Well I’m glad that dude is an ex and not a “current”! Who do you turn to for support when you get a particularly disappointing rejection?
My husband and a few close friends. They’re my cheerleading squad, and I love them to bits. When I got the call that my 1st book had been picked up, I called my husband practically squealing, and was disappointed by his lackluster response (in comparison). When I addressed that with him, he said “Of course I wasn’t as excited as you… because you were genuinely surprised it was being published. I knew all along you’d get there. It was a question of when, not if.” One, I stole his mantra, and two, I firmly believe every writer needs a spouse like mine.
Do you think your ability to cope with rejection has evolved over the years? In what way?
It’s evolved 100%. I used to take it personally. Over time I’ve learned 2 valuable lessons about rejection. 1: When
“Rather than doubt your ability, find a better way to make your work marketable”
someone rejects you, they immediately forget about you. That only sounds terrible in theory. In reality, it’s very freeing, because when you hold onto the negative emotions related to rejection… you’re the only one who still has them. The other person/agency/publisher has already moved on. And 2: Rejection says more about money than it does about talent. Rather than doubt your ability, find a better way to make your work marketable–or yourself.
Is there a particular image or dream you find yourself clinging to in the tougher moments? Can you describe it for us?
I’m speaking at a book signing event, and answering the thoughtful, inspiring questions of fans of the work. I imagine thinking “Wow, these kids are so savvy! I love them! They’ve got such great ideas!” Or the other dream… I was fortunate enough to meet author Neal Shusterman, and he said he does most of his long form writing on cruises. …Can’t lie, that sounds like a pretty lovely dream, too!
I’m totally on board with that! (Pardon the pun!) What do you have to say to fellow writers and creatives still drowning in “no”s?
Treat rejection like a detour, not a road closure. And from my experience, bad and good experiences like to stick with kind–meaning you’ll get a lot of bad at once, or a lot of good. Sometimes it can feel like an avalanche, but try not to turn an influx of rejections into a prophetic sign. Always believe that you’re willing to do what it takes to get to the end.
Kate Maupin’s Rejection Survival Skills
Oh, where to start!
- She makes order in the chaos: “I know rationally that so much of this is out of my control, but I use little tricks to keep busy in the interim…” I have to say, this whole system of Kate’s is completely brilliant, because it takes something that may sometimes be a hindrance or a handicap–being a control freak–and channeling it to her advantage, almost using it as a coping mechanism. You can tell she’s an educator for gifted kids! 😉
- She remains flexible and open to opportunities for growth: “I know I have the power to rework it and start over again if necessary. I can do more research and try other avenues…”
- She focuses on the positive: “Clinging to the underbelly of every joy is a little gremlin that grumbles ‘why not me?’. But you know what?… I wish everyone that moment in the sun.”
- “When, not if”: We have our whole lives ahead of us and the only way to ensure that it’ll be an “if” is if we stop trying. This is something I want to take with me from this interview. I won’t know until my dying day whether I will never get an agent, because until then, there’s always a chance that I will. Why not work on the assumption that it’s a “when”?
Many thanks to Kate Maupin for sharing her experiences with us, and wishing her good news very soon! In the meantime, you can visit Kate’s website: katemaupin.com, or follow her on Twitter at @kate_maupin.