Publishing U: How Do I Keep My Head Up while Finding a Publisher?

Our readers are often curious about the process of writing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts! In this installment of our Publishing U series, crime writer Leonard Chang shares his experience with keeping his head up while finding the right editor in a sea of not-so-enlightened ones.

 

My latest novel, The Lockpicker, had a tortuous history, and made me question the sanity of agents, editors—and even myself.

I will start by being so bold as to quote a rejection by an esteemed former editor, publisher, and literary agent who shall remain nameless, but who read The Lockpicker in manuscript form. He wrote a brief letter of praise, but ultimately rejected the novel. The line from his letter that shouted back at me was thus:

What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.

Before you get shocked or wince sympathetically, I must confess that this was not the first time I’d receive this kind of rejection. I won’t get into the identity and racial politics of why this critique is so pernicious, but it’s enough to say that exoticism for exoticism’s sake, especially from a Korean-American writer who sees himself as American and not exotic, is just, well, antiquated.

Another rejection for another novel, another, longer quote from a legendary editor:

The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ’ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.

The Lockpicker is my eighth novel. Through the years, I’ve learned you cannot educate a hegemonic editor in power; you ignore him and move on. You find another editor, and you keep writing. There is no practical advice other than moving on. All my books have outlasted those naysayers. Quite literally: Those two editors above have since passed on, may they rest in peace. Meanwhile, I continue writing, no matter what the rejections may say.

Being a novelist is very, very difficult, but I would argue that the journey of getting published is even more treacherous. Everyone gets stupid rejections, but there’s a special reward for those who soldier on in spite of them.

Leonard Chang

I continued sending out the manuscript for The Lockpicker while occupying myself with other projects: I wrote another novel, Triplines, wrote for a TV show called Justified, and kept writing and submitting. When Black Heron Press accepted Triplines, I returned to The Lockpicker and knew it was the novel I wanted to write, the novel I wanted to read but didn’t see, and I knew those past critiques were wrong. I waited until Triplines was well under way in the publishing process, then submitted The Lockpicker to Black Heron. Their acceptance was probably the fastest I’d ever received.

And here we are. If I had been deterred or demoralized by the initial rejections, if I had given up then, the manuscript would still be sitting in some drawer. Thank goodness I kept pushing forward, and I hope you, fellow writers, continue pushing forward, too.

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