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The Dreaded "Q" Word
How looking at rejections from ages ago got me reflecting on why "quiet" is an unhelpful way to describe novels, and what writers of intimate, character-driven stories can focus on instead
I’ve been so happy to get to do a handful of virtual and in-person school visits over the past few weeks. Connecting with middle school readers is always energizing and grounding for me, so these visits have been a real highlight of my fall.
As I was getting ready for them, I updated my most popular school visit presentation, which is about the power of persistence. The presentation chronicles my journey as an author—from a kid who loved to read novels but didn’t think I was creative enough to write them to an adult who found the courage and inspiration to try . . . and try, and try, and try some more, because I wrote four books—one a sort of practice book that no one will ever see, and three solid ones that went on submission to editors—before I got my first book deal.
In the presentation, I share my experiences of persevering through many rejections and disappointments before my first book sold, and I emphasize the benefits of resilience and flexibility, showing kids how I was able to recycle elements of the three manuscripts that didn’t sell and work them into stronger, more original new stories.
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As I updated my slides this fall, I made a new graphic to show all the ways those never-published manuscripts have fed into my published books (and one forthcoming book that I redacted the title for, because it hasn’t been announced yet and the title could change).
It was satisfying to tease out all the threads I’ve pulled from unpublished manuscripts—there were even more than I’d realized! And it was also interesting to look back at a slide that’s been in the presentation for a while already, which shares excerpts from some of the editor rejections we got for my first manuscript on submission, a young YA novel called Rebound.
Back when I got these editor passes in 2013-2014, I internalized the idea that Rebound didn’t sell because editors thought it was too “quiet” and didn’t have a big enough “hook.” I think a couple of editors (and agents, in the querying stage) did use those words in their passes for Rebound, and a few editors said the same things about my next manuscript, Dear Baby. So I tried to make the manuscript after that, Not Some Tragic Heroine, a “louder” (whatever that means) story with a bigger hook . . . but then we got some responses from editors who thought the premise was a little too forced, so that didn’t work out quite how I’d hoped.
What strikes me now about the editor responses I pulled for this slide is that they’re either from people who didn’t love Rebound or its main character quite enough to want to acquire the book (which is totally fair) or they’re commenting about positioning and familiarity rather than quietness. They’re basically saying, “This wouldn’t stand out enough on the list of books we publish,” or “This feels too much like other stories, and we wouldn’t know what aspect to emphasize in order to make people want to read this book as opposed to something else.”
These ideas are related to the dreaded “Q” word, but they aren’t exactly the same thing. And for me, it’s much more useful to think about how a book could be positioned as unique and necessary than it is to bang my head against the wall wondering what could make it less “quiet.”
I’m baffled by the word “quiet” as a descriptor for novels. I don’t think we’re very specific or consistent with how we use it. Sometimes it means that a book is more character-driven than plot-driven, or that it isn’t easy to give an elevator pitch for. But there are many beautiful, successful books with a lot of publisher backing that could be described, by those parameters, as “quiet.” And there are a lot of books that don’t seem at all quiet to me, but then other people call them quiet and I’m confused.
My most commercially successful book to date is Up for Air, a novel I thought was so “quiet” it didn’t stand a chance of being published. I wrote part of a draft of that book and then held off on writing any more of it for months—partly because I feared it would be seen as too “mature” for middle grade with its focus on a 13-year-old main character whose developed body and confusing interactions with a flirtatious older boy are a big part of the plot, and partly because of my fear of its quietness. But I came back to it because the story and character mattered to me, and I felt sure that it would matter to many of the seventh and eighth grade students I was teaching at the time. And even though the story’s plot didn’t seem very hooky to me, a lot of readers and reviewers have connected with it in passionate, beautiful ways that I’m very grateful for.
Granted, Up for Air came out in 2019, and things feel harder for character-driven, midlist middle grade novels now than they were then. But I’ve basically accepted that I can’t accurately judge what kinds of stories are going to be seen as quiet or not quiet. And I’m not a writer who has lots of ideas—I usually get one at a time. So I might as well go with the idea that inspires me and try to write it as well as I can.
I sometimes wish I got ideas for really commercial books everyone would immediately want to hand to every middle schooler they know as soon as they hear the premise. But the truth is, my favorite books are the ones that feel most intimate—the ones that invite me deep inside a character’s mind and heart and show me emotions I didn’t know anyone but me had ever felt. The stories that delve deepest into those raw, vulnerable, human feelings often don’t have splashy plots, but they make small, profoundly relatable moments feel monumental. These are the kind of books I used to re-read over and over as a kid. These are the kind of books I mark up when I read them now. And these are the kinds of books I want to write.
But I also want my books to keep being published, so I don’t ignore the market altogether. Even if I start with emotion and character, which I almost always do, I try to make sure I have a really compelling inciting incident to get the story going. And then, as I refine the idea, I like to focus on why the story matters to me, why I think it will matter to kids, how it can empower readers and open up discussions, and how it could be positioned as similar to books that are already out there resonating with readers, but a little bit different in some ways, too.
That means reading a lot to know what books are out there, and getting other people’s insights on which aspects of a story feel fresh have reader-appeal, because sometimes it’s hard to have that perspective on your own work. And there’s a fine line between writing a book that stands out and writing a book that’s outside the realm of what’s seen as marketable. But these questions feel more empowering and less confusing to me than thinking about quietness.
Lately, I’ve heard several other writers say they’ve heard from agents, editors, or other people that they’ve written something that might be too “quiet” for the market. I know the market is incredibly hard right now, and I understand the desire for books that delve into big, timely issues and are easy to pitch and obviously commercial. But for anyone who’s writing a character-driven book that could be seen as quiet, I really believe that your kind of story matters—and that you can find ways to position it as needed and resonant. I hope you will!
I have two special, subscriber-only giveaways this month!
First, since I just told you about my power of persistence presentation, I want to give away one 40-60 minute virtual visit for a class or book group (grade 5, 6, 7, or 8). I’ll do the presentation and then a Q&A. If you don’t win but are interested in booking a virtual or in-person school visit with me for this school year, please be in touch! I have some availability.
Second, apparently November 13th was World Kindness Day. I happen to have written a character-driven mystery about the complicated nature of kindness and what it truly means to care for others—and for yourself! So to belatedly celebrate—and hopefully open up nuanced conversations about—kindness, I’m giving away a paperback of Saint Ivy!
Fill out this form to enter one or both of these giveaways!
Speaking of emotionally intimate, character-driven novels, I loved Caroline Gertler’s Where You’ve Got to Be. It’s raw, honest, and deeply moving, with a loving, beautifully drawn Jewish family, a complex sister relationship, an awesome grandma, and a vivid Manhattan setting. It’s the kind of book I would have re-read over and over as a kid because Gertler articulates truths and emotions I’d felt but hadn’t heard anyone else talk about and wouldn’t have known how to describe. The lovely third person narrative also made me remember how much I enjoy writing in third person (the last two books I’ve worked on have been in first) and made me eager to try that POV again. It’s really a gem!
I’m very late to this party and I’m sure other people are already listening, but lately I am LOVING We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach, and Amanda Doyle. Some of my favorite episodes I’ve recently listened to are the one with Christen Press, the one with Melissa McCarthy, and the “Our Most Embarrassing Stories” episode (#116), which made me laugh so hard I cried. It felt so good to laugh that hard, and I think they’re on to something with the idea that sharing mortifying stories increases connection and decreases shame.
I’m getting ready to head to Anaheim for NCTE later this week and am really looking forward to connecting with teacher and writer friends! Here’s my schedule. I’ll report back next time!
Thanks for reading, as always.
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