Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 3, 2017

6 Tips to Survive a Writing Disaster

Kourtney Heintz

In 2014, I was in the middle of line edits when my publisher shut down the imprint publishing my book. A few months later, my agency and I parted ways. Everything that I had worked for over the past nine years disappeared. I hope nothing like this ever happens to you. But we’re all prone to disasters, big and small. Here’s how I got through mine:

  • Remain Professional

Emotions are flooding through you. That’s 100% normal, but makes it really easy to flip out on your agent or editor. Don’t do it!

Screaming at your agent or your editor won’t change the situation. And that temporary release will have serious long-term consequences that hurt you because you still have to work with these people to get the next steps done.

All you have left is your agent and you need her to help you navigate these unchartered waters. Scream into a pillow. Call a friend and rally against the injustice of your life. But when you talk to your agent or editor, remain professional. To keep your emotional distance, have a pen and paper handy and take notes, or interact via email. You can edit the emotion out of an email—make sure you write a few drafts and never fire off your first one.

  • Focus on the Next Step

Doing something is movement away from what just happened. Unfortunately, the next steps can take months to get through, so you want to get things set in motion as soon as you can.

If your book hasn’t been published yet, you need the publisher to give you back the rights to the book and deliver the most recent version of your manuscript to you. Emails have to be drafted. Documents require signoff. Your agent can take care of most of it for you, which is why #1 is so important. This process can take 3-6 months.

If your book is already published, the publisher has more work on their end including removing the book from sale on all the platforms, reverting the rights to you, and conducting a final accounting of all the royalties. That process can take 6 months to a year.

  • Mourn the Loss Privately

Getting an agent and a publisher is like winning the lottery, so being this close to publication and having it all disappear is a huge blow.

Give yourself private time offline to process everything you’re feeling. Mourn the loss,  be angry at the industry, feel betrayed by all you believed in. Vent about everything you’re feeling to friends and family—the people you trust. Don’t post anything online during this time because what you feel in this moment isn’t for public consumption.

The outbursts of emotion that feel so good with a friend, can haunt you online forever. Resist the urge to post your pain. If you want to write about it, open a Word document and pour everything into it, but don’t share it, not yet.

  • Be Honest About What You Can Do Next

Can you start the query process all over again? It’s okay to admit you can’t. Maybe you need to take a break from querying. Maybe you need to work on a new project. Maybe you need a sabbatical from writing. Do what you can do.

If you love the book and believe in the book and don’t want to give up on the book, this is not the end. As long as you keep trying, there is always a possibility for this book. But you may not bounce back so much as slowly crawl out of it.

  • Share Your Story When You Are Ready

When your emotions are under control and you can write a balanced post about what happened, it helps to share your story. Just wait until you are ready to field questions. People will try to be supportive, but sometimes they will say things that make you want to scream.

There is so much shame tied up in losing a publishing deal. But after you share what happened, author friends may surprise you by emailing their personal horror stories about agent and publisher losses and you realize you aren’t alone. It can give you the strength to push onward to the next bend in your publishing journey.

  • Take the Knowledge and Use It

At first it feels like that time spent negotiating the contract and working on revisions with the first publisher was wasted. But it wasn’t.

You learned so much about the publication process and editing. You will take that knowledge forward with you. You will be better prepared when the next opportunity comes along. You know what red flags to look out for and what questions you should ask up front. You know that despite the best of intentions things can fall apart and now you know what to do if that happens.

In 2015, my line-edited manuscript ended up with a small press, which let me have cover input and gave me more attention than a big publisher. Last year when I was unable to work for two months because of severe vertigo, this same small press worked around my health issues and pushed back deadlines on Book 2 for me. I’m not sure a big publisher would have been willing or able to do that for me. I’m a firm believer than in the end, everything is okay. And if it’s not okay, you are not at the end.

What disaster have you survived? Have any tips for us?

*     *     *     *     *

K.C. Tansley lives with her warrior lapdog, Emerson, and two quirky golden retrievers on a hill somewhere in Connecticut. She tends to believe in the unbelievables—spells, ghosts, time travel—and writes about them.

 Never one to say no to a road trip, she’s climbed the Great Wall twice, hopped on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and danced the night away in the dunes of Cape Hatteras. She loves the ocean and hates the sun, which makes for interesting beach days. The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts is her award-winning and bestselling first novel in The Unbelievables series.

 As Kourtney Heintz, she also writes award winning cross-genre fiction for adults.

 You can find out more about her at: http://kctansley.com


37 comments on “6 Tips to Survive a Writing Disaster”

  1. Hi K.C. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad that you found a pub home for your manuscript. My only tip is one that has been repeated many times because it's so true - "No agent is better than a bad agent."

    1. Terry, that terrible that you had to go through that. But it sounds like you came through it and are charting your own course and doing it well! Congrats.

  2. I know several writers who experienced setbacks that felt like the end, but they came back. Thanks for sharing your story and tips for how to survive and even thrive!

    1. Weirdly, I never heard these stories until it happened to me. Then a few emails arrived with author buddies sharing publishing horror stories. Knowing what they went through and seeing how far they came since then, I felt so much better. I thought sharing my story publicly might help others feel less alone too.

    1. That's a great attitude to have! Took me a bit of time to regroup but I came to share your view. Thanks so much. 🙂

  3. Wow, thanks so much for sharing. I think I would have been crushed if I had had your experience. It takes courage to come back and start again. Maybe YOU are a warrior too!

    1. It took me a while to be able to talk about it all without feeling crushed. It really helped for the book came out. Aw, thank you. Emerson makes me that way! 😉

  4. This was such a great post and came at a good time for me. I was tooling along quite nicely at Penguin when my editor had severe health issues as my fifth novel was turned in. When you lose your editor, you are given another, but because that editor wasn't the one who acquired the book, her attention will be divided at best between the book she inherited and the ones that are "hers." In addition, without an editor to advocate for you with the marketing department, your book will lose traction. It was a horrible tragedy for my editor, but I was sad about the book as well, and so disheartened that I started writing something completely different from my usual genre. I still don't know if I'll sell it, but the best advice I have for everyone out there is to follow the sane advice you have laid out here--really good stuff--but to also think of this as a window to try something new: a new draft of your current book, a different sort of writing altogether, or even take up painting or another art form that feeds your creative spirit and may, in time, allow you to write again.

    1. Holly, I'm so sorry to hear about what happened with your book during your editor's health issues. Good for you--trying something new! I think that's fantastic advice about thinking of obstacles as possibilities to try new things and think outside the box. Wishing you lots of luck with your new book. 🙂

  5. I was recently 'fired' by my publisher, and had a contract cancelled with two books still remaining unwritten and one just turned in. A year earlier I was the top-selling author in the line, but with the second and third books in the series, sales declined.The publisher sent a terse e-mail one morning while I was hard at work on the last book in the contract. I was gutted, and yes, very ashamed. I was also intensely burnt-out after writing, revising, editing, and promoting four books this year. I e-mailed my agent as soon as I got that e-mail (the best, most supportive agent in the world), and within an hour she'd spoken to my editor and called me about next steps. She suggested that the remainder of the series might be published elsewhere, but there'd have to be a reworking of the last few books to make them almost a new series while not alienating the readers (few though they are, apparently) who love the current books. She also suggested a shift into another genre, with confidence that I had the writing ability to make that happen. In the past six weeks I've put together two new proposals, one for the re-vamped continuation of the cancelled series, and one for something brand new. There's no guarantee either will find a home, but I am excited about writing again for the first time in over a year. So, I suppose things happen for a reason, and sometimes the universe nudges you where you need to go.

    1. Thank goodness for your agent, Lecia! Publishing houses are struggling and their bottom line is what seems most important to them now. Good luck with those proposals!

    2. Lecia, I'm so sorry to hear about your series cancellation. So glad you had a good agent to turn to during this situation. Wow, you are amazing! That excitement is so important. I lost it for a while and it was awful. I like your perspective--you don't always get what you want, but usually what you need. I'll have to remember that when things go off track in the future. 🙂

    3. Lecia, your story and Kourtney's both make me shudder. To me, this is the lure of being an indie author. Even though you are at the whim of the readers, you are in charge of the publishing process and no one can fire you. That being said, I still plan to try traditional publishing first to (hopefully) build a reader base. But the fears of the ups and downs of publishing are real, and they are strong.

      1. Jenny, it helps to know these things happen, so if they happen to you you know you aren't alone. I know many people who have had great experiences in traditional publishing, and I do think it's worth pursuing.

  6. Years ago, at the beginning of the collapse of the big publishing houses, I was close to a contract with a house that folded. The editor stayed with the parent company and told me to send whatever I had there. I didn't. Though it's taken a long time to get back in the game (my decision to take a break), I'm happy I escaped unscathed.

    1. Fae, sometimes going with our gut is all we have and it sounds like your gut steered you right. Sometimes we need a break from things. It took me two years to really feel okay again and be joyful in the writing again. 🙂

    1. Libby, it really can be a hard industry. I try to remind myself that it was a choice and that I can also choose to leave it. But I can't imagine devoting my life to anything cooler than telling stories that can live on for generations. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. My story is nowhere as brutal as those above....The second book of a 3 book contract had just come out, and word came down the line was shutting down, AFTER my 3rd came out. So I had to write that last book, knowing it would get no support from the publisher.

    There's motivation, right there.

    But we have to be in love with our stories and our characters - I was, and that's what got me through.

    1. Laura, that had to be really hard to write it knowing that it wouldn't get marketing support. You are a rock star to push forward and finish the book against those odds. You are right--it's the love of our stories that makes all these crazy ups and downs worth it. Hugs.

  8. I was in a near identical situation to this. After going through all the tears and emotions, I got my rights back, went indie and have nenver looked back.

    1. Tania, I'm sorry to hear you went through something like this. I'm glad you got your rights back and went indie so that your stories are out there in the world. Sounds like it worked out well!

    1. Hi, Suzanne. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the post. It took some time to process it all and put it in perspective, but I'm happy I can share it now!

  9. my publisher went out of business this year. the writing had been on the wall, but when it happened, I think I let the impact hit me too hard with regard to my writing. and that realization just hit me on the head.

    the worst part was getting my rights back--I have them--but another author gave me advice and I followed it. I used a document her attorney had drawn for her and edited it for my needs. the publisher was upset: apparently they just wanted me to ask for my rights in writing, "give me my rights back," and that's it. I don't think I was wrong in covering all the bases, and I think they were wrong to be offended. I had a right to protect myself. I ignored the nasty reply because it was accompanied by my rights document, and that was all I needed from them. Just have to wait for one more quarter of meager royalties and I am done with them forever.

    1. I'm so sorry to hear that. I had to take a bit of break from the writing when this all happened to me. When I pushed through, it took a while to get back to a good place. I've heard horror stories about rights reversion. I was lucky that my book wasn't published yet and I had an agent navigate the entire process for me. I'm sorry the rights reversion was so difficult and stressful for you. Happy to hear you got your rights back. Hugs.

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