Tuesday From The Trenches: Brian Gehrlein
Welcome to another Tuesday From The Trenches! I am SO super excited to be interviewing Brian Gehrlein today! Brian is one of my critique partners and one of the very first people I met on this writing journey. He's been a wealth of knowledge and always so willing to support me and answer any questions I might have. If you don't follow Brian, you are missing out!! His story is so inspirational and I had so much fun interviewing him! Join me in welcoming Brian to this week's Tuesday From The Trenches.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Brian! I’ve drawn so much strength from your success story and I’m beyond thrilled to share it with readers today.
I’m happy to be here, Kailei! In this...literal trench. Odd place for an interview, but I do love what you’ve done with the place. It’s downright trenchy! And barren. And...eerily devoid of any and all life--in a cozy, nostalgic sort of way! While I don’t know much about success, I’m pleased to be an encouragement to anyone slogging through literal or otherwise figurative trenches. If I can’t be a good example, at the very least I can be a horrible warning! 😅
Haha. You always bring a smile to my face, Brian! I think an eery yet cozy place is a great way to describe these crazy query trenches! Let's start out with the nitty gritty... will you please share your query stats with us?
Alright. Buckle up. Numbers are happening. As a qualifier to my approach, my querying process was very much in line with the “Thomas Edison model.” I believe Thomas Edison once said, “I had no idea what I was doing but I just kept doing stuff and eventually I invented the lightbulb. So yeah. You’re welcome.” (he absolutely did not say this)
BEHOLD THE STATS!
Time Spent in the Query Trenches: 25 months (1/27/17 - 2/17/19)
Number of Agents Queried: 85 (from 69 different agencies)
Number of Requests for Additional Work/Full Manuscript: 1
Number of Twitter Pitch “Likes”: Unknown but in the ballpark of 5-10
Number of R&Rs: 2
Number of Rejections: 593 (but let’s round that up to a solid 600, shall we?)
Number of Offers: 1
Agent and Agency: Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency--Melissa is now with Storm Literary Agency.
600 rejections…such a testament to your stamina, dedication, and drive! That’s almost a query a day that you sent out for two years. How did you keep track of it all? What was your method for organizing queries? Spreadsheet? Query Tracker? Etc.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Either I had stamina, dedication, and drive...or I was certifiably insane. However, in my defense, I wasn’t sending the same manuscript to the same agents--that would be insane! For organizational purposes, I kept a simple Excel spreadsheet that kept track of the agent, agency, manuscript, date of submission, means of submission, type of rejection, and notes on the agent/agency. I liked having my own system that I could control and edit. It worked for me. You have to find something that works for you. Some people swear by querytracker but I never tried it. I just liked having my own little system.
It may break down mathematically to a query a day (keeps the doctor away!) but my usual rhythm was alternating periods of sending out multiple submissions in bursts and then waiting--though I was never really “waiting” because I forced myself to stay busy, developing new content, revising, reading, researching, and critiquing others’ work. You have to stay busy or the waiting eats you from the inside out.
One of the healthiest things I think I did was when I changed a submission to “rejected,” I would force myself to immediately send out 3-5 queries to “counterbalance” the emotional blow of feeling rejected. It gave me back control. It moved the ball forward. It became a reflexive discipline in which I alone had the final word. Didn’t catch a fish? You can either sit there, slumped in defeat on the shore, or cast out ten more lines--you only catch fish if you keep casting! Doors only open for fish who knock (how’s that for imagery?).
You are amazing, Brian! I am so glad you are a fish who knocked because I adore your debut and really can't wait to get THE BOOK OF RULES on my self! I also really love your post about lessons learned from your rejections, and mainly just want to tell readers that it’s a MUST READ. Please readers… go check it out HERE! (And then come back and read the rest of this wonderful interview, of course.)
I would love to know, how did you handle the rejections? Did any sting more than others?
I have another interview where I discuss this at length on Daniella Levy’s website The Rejection Survival Guide. This interview gives a really good psychological snapshot of how I was personally processing rejection around the middle of my querying journey. Ultimately, it was about the story I told myself. We all tell ourselves stories every day--every second of every day. We’re story creatures. We can’t NOT tell stories. It’s how we make meaning out of the chaos of existence. So I kept telling myself that it was going to happen--that I would find my yes. I also told myself that I was not my work. I was not my manuscripts. This helped me keep a healthy sense of humor and attitude and to avoid seeing myself as what was being rejected. Sure, some hurt like hell. Some made me question my work and voice and approach. But I didn’t let that negative self-talk win the day. I tried to just have fun with it. I liked the stories I was telling and I thought others might like them too. Finding an agent was not my everything. It wasn’t something I desperately needed for approval. Anytime my heart slipped and started telling that story...it wasn’t as fun. It needs to be fun. So I held on loosely but didn’t let go.
Another story I told myself that helped me process rejections is that specific agents were rejecting particular manuscripts--not me as a writer. This gave me permission to share more than one manuscript with the same agent (after enough time had passed after the rejection). To me, it was always, “Okay...not this...BUT how about that!?” And I had A LOT of stories--some I shouldn’t have queried, but having that next story lined up helped keep my submission momentum going strong. I think there were 25 stories in all that I queried at least once in those 25 months.
Little moments of encouragement from agents go a long way. I had a few very uplifting rejections in various forms that just kept me going.
Also, the encouragement from critique groups, friends, and family also helped me to continue the journey with hope. I simply wouldn’t have had the drive, attitude, or the quantity or quality of stories without people in my life speaking into my work, my heart, and cheering me on.
This is all seriously SO inspirational, Brian! I think being able to keep it fun, remember just how subjective it truly is, and to write more stories are all great pieces of advice. You were a query trenches king! Tell me... how did you find agents to query/how did you decide who to query?
There were many sources--Twitter, google searches, blogs, Manuscript Wish List, but the place that got me started back in January of 2017 was the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. This is a PHENOMENAL place to start if you are not sure where to even begin. I circled all the agents I was interested in and then jumped online to see if the information was accurate--there is turnover and fluidity within the industry all the time (example: Melissa moving from Apokedak to Storm) so you always want to double-check on the agency website that someone is still there. The good thing about that book is that they update it every year. There’s also tons of articles and examples of exemplary query letters and interviews with industry professionals. It’s worth every dime and penny. Having that physical book as a companion was probably the first major step I took to investing in myself and seeing myself as a writer. Membership in SCBWI was also a formative decision and I was fortunate enough to receive membership as a gift from my parents for several years. Membership in SCBWI was another major source of support, inspiration, information, and evidence that I was taking my work seriously. Buy that book! Join SCBWI!
I agree completely about SCBWI! Game changer for sure. Go join, readers!
So Brian, how did you ultimately connect with your agent? Did you cold query? Participate in a twitter pitch event? Or connect in some other way?
Melissa has a really good article she wrote for Manuscript Wish List about how we began our partnership. She talks about persistence and politely trying again even after rejection. I like seeing it from her perspective. As for my point of view, her agency was just one of many I was actively querying. I had sent something in June 2018 and then another submission in the late summer. Both ultimately were assumed rejections. But as my usual practice was, I tried again with a third. By that fall, I sent another story (NINJA NOODLES) and I got a response! Melissa requested more work to send to the senior agent (she was not yet taking on her own clients). Having that request for more work was the most thrilling thing. Out of nowhere, it felt like something was finally...happening. It wasn’t a yes...but it was a “not no.” A maybe. That maybe sent me over the moon.
Absolutely! I am so amazed with how querying authors go from months and years of "nos" to that sudden "not no" in a day. it's thrilling. How much time passed between querying your now agent to getting “the call”?
4 EXACT MONTHS! I submitted my third query and manuscript on October 15th, 2018, and had the offer of representation on February 15th, 2019. The birth of my son was a welcomed distraction as I squirmed, waiting 😆. Also, the offer of representation was actually the second phone call we had. The first happened about two weeks before the offer.
Oh my goodness! I think I would have died waiting that long! Glad you had such an awesome and welcoming distraction! Can you tell us more about “the call” with Melissa? How did you know she was the right choice?
The first call felt a little like a casual job interview. Melissa wanted to know more about my life as a writer, my background, how I got started, etc. When I get really excited on the phone, I pace like a caged panther at the zoo. My wife thinks it’s terribly annoying when I pace like that. Lucky for her, I was in a study room at the library where I worked, walking myself dizzy. I just had to MOVE!
After that phone call, I got an email requesting a second phone call a week or two later. This was “the call.” I was in my kitchen for this one. There was also a lot of pacing. And a lot of floating. Don’t think my feet touched the ground for most of it. Hard to describe that feeling--utter disbelief and concentrated joy. Like butterflies raging in your gut after a first kiss.
In the conversation, Melissa said she had good news and bad news. She explained that Sally (the senior agent) was not actually in a place where she could expand her client list for picture book authors at that time. So it was a little bit of a rejection--I came this far only to hear another “no?!” But then she shared the good news. She mentioned that she had been promoted to the role of Associate Agent and that she would be building her own client list and that she wanted me on her team. WHAT?! Totally didn’t see that coming. After receiving some coaching from published friends on how to proceed next, I thanked her for the offer and asked for a few weeks to think on the decision since I had outstanding queries with other agents. We agreed to touch base about the offer within 2 weeks of the call.
Starting a new journey with an agent who was building her list was exciting to me. It meant I would have her full and undivided attention and that she would be hungry to learn and eager to begin the submission process. But I wanted to be fair to the other agents I was interested in as well. I sent out a few final agent emails mentioning the offer and our timeline. Sleeping on the decision for several days was crucial. This was no small choice. Prior to accepting her offer, I sought counsel from trusted friends and family as well as published authors in my community. I also sent Melissa an additional list of questions over email to aid in my decision--there’s no way you’ll think of everything to ask on the call since the emotions are so overwhelming.
Considering our conversations and her answers to my questions, I was ready to commit before the two weeks were up. Here’s what I kept coming back to and what ultimately persuaded me to take the leap: Melissa believed in my voice. She explicitly said as much in our very first phone call! I can still hear her voice ringing just as loud today. She had read several of my stories and liked my humor and style. That’s what it really came down to--her belief in my voice. This one element has kept me going through the highs and lows of our journey together--she always knows just what to say to encourage me and cheer me on. If ya’ll haven’t queried Melissa Richeson...you’re wrong. Fix it. NOW! Saying yes was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What an amazing phone call!! I love everything about this. And Melissa sounds absolutely amazing. I also love that you had advice from agented authors on how to handle the call... and you've totally paid it forward in that regard. I'll always be grateful to you for being that person for me to coach me through "the call." We're just about ready to wrap this awesome interview up, Brian! You've been wonderful. If you could give querying authors a piece of advice, what would that be?
Write a lot of stories. Get them out. And don’t query until you have 5 good ones. Critiqued, revised, good, solid stories. Because what happens if they ask for more work but you only have one story? RED FLAG. Nope. Don’t do it. Take your work but not yourself seriously. Separate yourself from your work. If you take things too personally, you won’t stomach this journey. Doubt your assumptions. Your best book might be your worst. Your dead manuscript might be your best--keep an open mind about everything you write. Don’t tie yourself to rules and conventions and “story formulas.” Break the rules. Shatter them into a million stupid pieces. Write a bad book on purpose. Write the worst book ever. Write a book that no kid should ever read and that should never be on the shelf. Experiment. Innovate. Be bold. Be ridiculous. Be ABSURD! Mostly...be you. We only have one you--so why write like anyone else? Finally, and probably most importantly, give yourself permission to fail. Fail a lot. Fail all over yourself and all over the place. And laugh while you fail. Because it’s okay to fail. And failure is how lightbulbs (and books) get made. That was like eighteen pieces of advice, and a little preachy...but...there you go (dropkicks mic, saunters stage left).
(Standing Ovation! Bravo! Encore!!) Love every single one of those 18 pieces of advice! I especially love the advice to take your work but not yourself seriously. Gold Right there. I'm about to let you go, Brian but before I do, where can we connect with you online?
You can connect with me on Picture Book Spotlight or on the Twittersphere (@BrianGehrlein) where I’m probably tweeting about wolves. I also respond to Morse Code, smoke signals, signal flares and carrier pigeons. Cause...birds.
There you have it, dear readers! Go on and prep those back yard fire and send your smoke signals, because you don't want to miss any chance to connect with Brian! But seriously, thank you so much for joining us today, Brian. This has been an absolute blast and a complete inspiration. See below for an awesome Giveaway opportunity from Brian, and make sure to read to the very end in honor of Picture Book Spotlight.
GIVEAWAY OPPORTUNITY! Brian will be giving away a PB MS *and* query critique! Retweet THIS tweet and follow Brian and Kailei on twitter for your chance to win! Winner will be announced on twitter on Monday, October 26th.
About Brian Gehrlein:
Brian Gehrlein was born deep within the bowels of a top secret government lab. The scientists weren’t exactly sure how it happened and none of them ever thought to ask why...but there he was--a bouncing baby boy, bursting from the bubbling vat of some bioluminescent, gelatinous gloop. Being raised by top secret government scientists had its perks. Brian had an above average appreciation for alliteration. He liked tinkering with things and was always curious and up to mischief. Then one day...Brian escaped from that top secret government lab. He emerged from the belly of the beast and found himself on a desert highway, cutting through an arid hellscape of impossible proportions. He wandered for days. He stumbled down that asphalt river, surviving only on roadkill carrion and saguaro juice. He crawled until he saw the bright lights of a distant suburban oasis. A town called Liberty. And liberty it was. For Brian...was free. Free to write books for kids. Free to teach high school English at a local public school. Free to raise a family, and live out his days removed from the stifling confines of a top secret government lab, buried deep within the unforgiving salt flats and sand wastes of a forgotten and forbidden desert --the American Dream. But he thinks about his past from time to time. He wonders about those top secret government scientists in their clean, white lab coats. The ones he called Mom and Dad. The ones who taught him to spell. And rhyme. And the delicate intricacies of quantum physics, subatomic particles, and the principle of superposition. He wonders if they...miss him. Do they lie in their government-issued cots, beneath soft electrical hums, wondering about him? Perhaps. Or perhaps still they never truly existed. Perhaps he was born to normal human parents called Russ and Linda. Yes, perhaps. One can never really know the truth of such things. One can never really know...
About Kailei Pew
Kailei Pew doesn't generally write amazing bios. But when she has the chance to interview Brian Gehrlein, she absolutely takes the opportunity. Until she starts trying to write said bio and realizes that it's an absolute art form. Of Van Gogh proportions. And she sees that she is no Van Gogh. But perhaps she could be the Monet or a Picasso of bio writing. Perhaps her skills are simply... different. And while there is nothing wrong with different...Kailei is quite certain she will have to go back to regular, ordinary, shall we say boring bios after this particular bio. And yet, this feels like exactly what it should be when interviewing the amazing Brian Gehrlein. Indeed, Brian would be proud... or face palming. Yes, probably face palming. For truly, no one should try to be Van Gogh when they are simply... not Van Gogh. And if you are still reading at this point, in honor of Brian and Picture Book Spotlight, it felt only appropriate to throw in an emoji code. Yes, the above hint was definitely about an emoji code. And what is the code you ask? A wolf. Because, Brian. Add in a wolf emoji to your retweet, and Kailei will throw your name into the mix an extra time. And don't worry dear readers... Kailei has learned quite painfully that she is no Van Gogh and will be returning to your regularly scheduled boring bio next week. You're welcome.