No One Said It Was Easy

In the comments section of this essay “Barb Lee Stanwick” wrote “Bart is a really promising writer. Even though he doesn’t have any books out (what’s with young writers today? I’m kidding)” and this is my response to her, and for any readers of mine who want to know why I haven’t published anything yet.

On April 30, 2005, I sent a letter to the president and publisher of one of New York’s more prestigious independent publishers, asking him to take a look at my novel. Two months earlier I had quit my reporting job in Southern California to go back to my parents’ farm in Nebraska and finish the book. Once I had a complete, workable draft and a polished query letter, I began the impossible process of cold-querying literary agents. I researched websites to find agents representing books like mine. Not finding enough to be satisfied, I found the contact information for agents that didn’t necessarily represent my kind of book, but had authors I respected on their lists. I sent out hundreds of emails and letters in the post. No one took.

Then, on May 2, 2005, the day I turned 25, I received a letter from an assistant editor at the publishing company explaining that the president had directed her to request my manuscript. The letter I had sent asked for the same chance at success the imprint had provided for other young writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Nick McDonell. I had no hope it would work; I figured the man didn’t even read his own mail. When the request for my book came back I had the manuscript in the mailbox and the little red flag up by the end of the business day.

Then I waited. Not idly, mind you—I continued to send out queries and partials and to write, but nothing excited me more than the prospect of this company publishing my book. They published great writers, alive and dead—they were one of those imprints where you could walk into a bookstore and not know what you wanted to read, but if you found a book with their mark on it, even if you didn’t know the author you could buy it and feel like you were in good hands.

I started to run out of money while I waited, so I took a job at the newspaper in my hometown working as a reporter. I wrote newspaper stories about the immigration problem, how Nebraska wasn’t using its potential for wind energy, and had my work passed around the state legislature to reform the practices of hog farms that were polluting trout streams. To this day it is the best job I’ve had—reporting in a small community, where nearly everyone gets and reads the paper, means you have a close relationship with an interested audience, and that’s what I have always wanted as a reporter. Yet, like many writers who get into journalism to earn a living, I wanted to find a way out, to make my career one of a book writer. On a journalism career level I was satisfied; as a writer I felt like I might be dying on the vine. The waiting to hear back was no small torture.

After about three months I received a letter from the editorial assistant. She was encouraging, said a number of people on her staff were reading the book, and while it wasn’t perfect, there was something there. She made a few suggestions to improve the manuscript and I went back to work on it. A month later I had a new draft in the mail.

Again, silence. No emails. Nothing in the mail. I continued to work hard at my job. Fell in love. Traveled all over the Midwest. Despite these distractions I waited for the call. And I was patient, until I wasn’t. I finally wrote the assistant a polite message:

Subject: Checking in.


I was just wondering how we were coming along. Let me know of any new developments.


I got this response:

Subject: Auto out of office reply

XXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXX is no longer employed at XXXXXX. She has moved on to pursue other career opportunities. Please direct all questions to assistant editor XXXXXXX XXXXXXXX.

OK, I remember thinking, this isn’t good news, but it’s not the end, either. So I sent the new guy a simple email asking him if he had my manuscript, wondering where we were, etc. His response was to say that yes, he had read it, but that he wasn’t comfortable going forward until I had an agent. I explained to him how long I had been working with the first assistant, and that surely I would have a better chance at getting an agent once I had a yes from them, but he refused to go any farther. He even went so far to recommend I get my M.F.A. I was back where I started and almost an entire year had passed.

With that unfortunate development, the rest of my life followed suit. I stopped liking my job, started fighting with my girlfriend, and began looking for a way out of Nebraska, which is how I ended up in Korea, but that’s another story.

For a while afterward I still tried to get an agent. I read agents’ blogs, went to the library and scoured the Publisher’s Marketplace, generally took all the advice I could get. None of it worked. The book still lives in my computer and in an email folder, but that’s as far as it’s gone.

Still, I’m not bitter. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been rejected and won’t be the last. And I don’t want anyone to think I’m blaming anyone. I’m sure editorial assistants, literary agents, and people in the publishing world would like to make it seem less impossible than it is. Their hearts are in the right place. They love books enough to make their lives from them. They probably even love some writers. And more than a few of them want what’s best for us. When a writer does well, the publishing company and literary agency do well, readers get good books, and everyone benefits.

We’re all out there hungry for good stories. Some of us even like happy endings, whether they happen in real life or not. TC mark


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  • xuene

    Bart Schaneman, you are one of my favorite writers.

  • xuene

    Bart Schaneman, you are one of my favorite writers.

  • Laurel

    Please write about your time in Korea!!

    • GUEST

      He has.  Check his author profile page:

  • Jordan

    One of the best pieces I’ve read on TC about the struggles of being a writer.  I admire, from a very very far distance, the struggles of writers.  It seems like a largely feast or famine (or famine) calling but the people who do it DO IT.

    Good like with your novel!

  • Sebastian E.

    I agree with Xunen. Your words seem to flow so brilliantly while I read them. I have faith that one day I’ll be reading a novel of yours.

  • Howstrangetobeanythingatall

    This is both inspiring and terrifying. And here I though getting an agent would be the easy part.

  • Je Sk

    Really, really, … like, really earnest. I enjoyed reading this. Thnx again Bart.

  • amypond

    this was surprisngly great – definitely checking out your other pieces now. good luck with the novel!

  • ryan chang

    perfect timing

  • ryan chang

    perfect timing

  • Viktoriya Gaponski

    I want to read your novel

  • Stephanie Georgopulos

    Great read, thanks for sharing.

  • Julian Sanchez

    Huh.  I can see the point of wanting submissions to come through an agent as a filter mechanism.  Unfair as it might seem to the first-time novelist, there’s no way most editors could read even a small portion of every aspiring writer’s unsolicited submissions and still have time to get any other work done. And if my own experience manning the “slushpile” at a political magazine is at all representative, 99% of the stuff that comes in unsolicited is actively awful. But I’m baffled at why they’d take the time to actually read a manuscript, and *then* insist on  representation. The agent’s gatekeeper function provides a benefit to them, but I’d think the negotiator function is mostly a benefit to the author.

  • MMM

    DUDE! ME TOO! 

  • MMM

    DUDE! ME TOO! 

  • Anonymous

    Oh Bart, everything you write just feels so rewarding to read. More of you, less of everything else.

  • Michael Koh

    This is great

  • Kayla Dalsfoist

    thank you so much for writing this, even though it scared me. i hope for nothing but the best for you.

  • April

    As another writer stuck in Nebraska (and “stuck” is the only word that accurately describes it) I’m curious about how you actually made it out of here. I swear I think this state has some kind of invisible fence around it.

  • devin howard

    Is there any chance you could post an excerpt from this work in progress? I’ve read two of your pieces on here and they’ve both been excellent, it’d be a shame for the book to languish totally unseen.

  • karina

    I’m so glad to read this. Honest, unfiltered and yet nary a pessimistic/ironic/disaffected sentence in your prose, unlike so much that pollutes the world of writing, and particularly the online one…
    why some writers think pretending to not care about their writing is a somehow effective trope will always baffle me…looking forward to more stuff from you!

  • Richard

    I realise that this post is a month old but I came across is by accident but it resonated with me  as someone who had been through a similar experience (in my case the novel went out to a number of readers and apparently a third of them loved it, a third thought it was OK, and a third were less than complimentary – to put it politely –   I remember the word trite featuring quite strongly) it is almost impossible after coming so close to believe that it is possible to get any closer to the work being published.  Some of the advice that has helped me has included that the acceptance of a manuscript is fundamentally a product of random acts and if you send it again to the same list who may this time get your letter after they’ve had their first cup of coffee rather than before, or the traffic was good on the way to work, or someone flirted with them in the elevator or whatever it is that helps them to feel good about themselves – then this time they will say yes.  Rejection is a product of much more than the writing.  It’s a lot like fishing.  If you’ve got the right bait and you’re fishing in the right spot, they may swim past the hook for a while, but eventually they will bite. Your experience is one where they have eaten the bait but not been hooked.  If you were fishing that is confirmation that you have the right spot and the right bait – which is all good.  Take the positives.  Good luck.  Enjoyed your piece very much.

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