Inside the publishing process with Brittany Cavallaro and Joe Sacksteder

  • Joe Sacksteder (far left) and Brittany Cavallaro (second from left) talk with creative writing students in The Writing House.

At Interlochen Arts Academy, creative writing students study with an accomplished faculty of published authors. In April 2019, two creative writing instructors celebrated the release of a new book.

Brittany Cavallaro’s (IAA 02-04) second poetry collection, “Unhistorical,” was released on April 22. Cavallaro is also the author of the bestselling Charlotte Holmes series, the fourth and final installment of which was released on March 5.

Joe Sacksteder’s debut short story collection, “Make/Shift,” hit bookshelves on April 9. Sacksteder also anticipates the release of his debut novel, the Schaffner Music in Literature Award-winning “Driftless Quintet,” in October.

Below Cavallaro and Sacksteder offer an inside look at the publishing process and share details about their upcoming releases.

When you’re writing a piece—a novel, a short story, a poem, etc—how do you decide it’s ready for publishing?
Cavallaro: I think it’s ready when I know it’s as good as I can make it, and my other readers—whether that’s editors, critique partners, friends who write in the genre—have read over the piece and I’ve taken their suggestions.

Sacksteder: After I’ve written something and worked on revising it, I read the work very, very quickly and try to get as much of a bird’s eye view as possible. Then I’ll go into a very intense study phase, where I’m looking at every single sentence at the word-to-word level to ensure each individual word is as strong as possible. Once that’s done, I give the work to several people so it’s not just bouncing around in my own head. Then I feel comfortable about sending it out.

How do you choose which publishing houses to submit to? Are there certain factors that influence who you want to publish with?
Sacksteder: It’s often who will have you as far as publishing houses. The list usually starts with houses that I’m most interested in, that have published books I’ve read and authors I admire. There are also publishers that I wouldn’t send to just because I know that my work is a bad fit for them. It kind of depends on the project and where you are as a writer.

How do you decide whether or not to hire a literary agent? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having one, and how do you find one that suits you?
Cavallaro: I really loved having an agent for my novel because I had largely worked in the small press world and wasn’t familiar enough with the traditional publishing scene to feel confident going it alone. Most agents are also your first editor and help get your manuscript into the best possible shape before it goes to a publishing house. Your agent is one part cheerleader and one part problem solver in addition to the work that they do bringing your book to publishing houses. Finding an agent is very much like trying to find a small press. I did a lot of research, read a lot of bios, and tried to figure out who was looking for the kind of projects that I was interested in.

Let’s talk about self-publishing, which is becoming easier and more prevalent in our digital era. Would you recommend it for a young writer?
Sacksteder: There certainly used to be a big stigma against self-publication; a lot of writers and critics thought that it was amateurish. That’s changed a little bit. There have been some self-published books, like Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” that have gone on to be made into big movies and taken up other presses.

Cavallaro: It depends on how interested you are in being your own team. When you self-publish, you need to be your own marketing team, publicist, and editor. As someone who is a teacher and a writer, I very much want to be in a position with a publisher where I can put the manuscript together and let them take it the rest of the way.

Sacksteder: One of the underlying hazards of self-publishing is there’s less of a vetting process. There isn’t a group of people determining if your words should go into the world, which can lead publishing something that isn’t quite ready. It’s something that I would continue to feel hesitant about, but there are people who are finding a lot of good opportunities there as well.

How do you cope with having your manuscript rejected by a publisher?
Sacksteder: Rejection is something that we have to help our students learn how to cope with, because it’s inevitable. It’s going to come, and you’re going to get a lot of it.

Cavallaro: I think that one really good thing to do as a young writer is to send your work out into the world early and get used to hearing “no.” I keep a giant file of all the “no” I’ve been told, and I know that there were a lot of good reasons for those nos. I think if you are feeling crushed by your rejection, the best news is that the work is still ahead of you. You can continue editing and working on your manuscript, or you can write another manuscript.

Sacksteder: Another really helpful way to deal with the frustration is to get on the other side of things by volunteering as a reader for an independent literary journal or online publication. As a reader, you see the quantity of submissions, and you realize that you as a reader only have limited time to give to each story. You also see that when you’re rejecting a piece, it’s not done with any kind of malice. Focus on being a good literary citizen. Try to be generous with your own time, and establish a friendly network of other writers by attending literary events and writing book reviews.

Cavallaro: There’s no rush to get your book out. I worry sometimes that younger writers are in a really big rush to publish because they think it’s a way to get into college. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think that your first novel will always be your first novel, and your first poetry collection will always be your first poetry collection. You want to put your best foot forward. There’s no reason to put something out before it’s ready.

Sacksteder: Don’t forget what’s really important: the number of books you love, the number of hours you spend in your chair reading, and the number of reasons you have to write.

How do you evaluate the feedback you get from editors and publishers? How do you know when to say “no, this is crucial to the story” and when to incorporate their suggestions?
Sacksteder: I say try everything. I had an amazing amount of edits on my story collection. The editors had totally different ideas about where my stories could go. They cut a number of stories and asked to see new stories. I’m more open now than I was ten or even five years ago, so I thought, “I’m going to try everything and see what happens.” Ninety-five percent of the changes they suggested ended up creating a better story, although there were a few places where I absolutely put my foot down and said “you’re not getting something fundamental about this story that needs to be there.”

Cavallaro: We talk a lot in screenwriting about the note behind the note, which is trying to figure out why somebody is asking you to do something. For example, if someone is asking you to cut the last paragraph of this chapter, and you feel like that’s not the solution, the best thing to do is to talk to the person who offered that edit, figure out what they want that edit to accomplish, and find out if there’s a better way to get the same results.

What’s one thing you wish you knew about the publishing process going into it?
Cavallaro: It is not fast. Even after your book gets taken, it’s still going to be a year or more before it goes out into the world. You also have to be willing to rewrite your book from page one, and then do it again. You have to be able to separate your ego from your creative process. You don’t get to be there to explain your book to your readers. All you can do is just try to put the best thing out possible.

Sacksteder: Something I wish I had known is to look for contests that are specialized in region or theme. That was actually how I got my foot in. I banged my head against a wall trying to get the book published for many, many years. One of my first big story publications was a Great Lakes regional writing contest, which had a submission fee and no contest winnings, but the judge was somebody that I was interested in knowing. So I submitted a story, and it ended up winning the contest. The publishing house that published her first collection is where I placed my first collection.

Can you give us an elevator pitch for your forthcoming books?
Cavallaro: My new poetry collection, “Unhistorical,” is one part murder mystery in poems, and one part travelogue as the narrator moves through different landscapes in America, England, and Scotland. It also asks questions about the nature of genius and the nature of accountability.

Sacksteder: The novel I have coming out in October, “Driftless Quintet,” is a sort of sports thriller on surface, but it’s also very experimental and avant-garde and deals with a eugenics cult. “Make/Shift,” which comes out in April, is a series of stories which feel like they were written by a different person. A lot of it is about piano and about competition in some way. It’s interspersed with various short flash-fiction pieces based on corporate slogans.

Want to study with Brittany Cavallaro and Joe Sacksteder? Learn more about the Creative Writing program at Interlochen Arts Academy.

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