grilled cheese and soul-destroying rejection

This post was inspired by this comment, from Erin

Grilled cheese. This is how I impress people and make friends. It’s also, apparently, the centerpiece of the most boring scene ever written.

A couple years ago, a family friend mentioned that she lived next door to this big-shot book agent. He specialized in fantasy and sci fi. He had four other houses. The books he represented got turned into movies starring Tom Cruise.

(I’d be OK with this being a character from a book I wrote. source)

“You’re writing a book– right, Kate?” the family friend asked.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I said. Or something to that effect.

She put me in touch with him. He offered to read my manuscript. I died of fear and joy and then fear again. And then joy. This is it, I thought. This is my big break. Kate, girl, this is the best thing that will ever happen to you.

I was not exactly putting all of my eggs in one basket. I had just started grad school. Just moved to NYC. And it was more about offering up my entire soul than anything to do with eggs, I think.

I sent him the book I’d worked on in college. It was the story of a dangerously powerful young woman named Sanla who is attending an all-girls boarding school at the edge of an enormous jungle, when suddenly she is selected by the Master Mage– the most powerful man in the world– a mysteriously blind, surprisingly young man with long curly black hair, to become his apprentice. But Sanla has the wrong kind of magic. She is a dark mage. And dark magic has long ago been outlawed. It is the magic of dirt and instinct and poverty. The ruling class practices a magic based on memorization, and words, and levels. Could it be that the Master Mage is experimenting with the dark? Could it be that the world is about to change, because of one little orphan girl?

Well, yeah.


The agent read my manuscript and he wrote back. He wrote three long paragraphs. Let me summarize:

“You’re a good writer, but this book is so friggin’ boring I can’t even believe it. NOTHING HAPPENS. They talk a lot. They eat a lot. And the food sounds good. But there’s no action. Maybe if you wrote a different book, it’d be better.”

(what my book was. source)

(what it should’ve been. source)

“No problem!” I wrote back, swallowing my pride. In one week, I wrote about 80 pages. It was a new book. This one was about a girl named Raphaela with unusual abilities who is starting college at a university that looks a lot like Columbia. She has been admitted to a special program called LINK, for a mysterious group of students who all have certain strange talents. The program is run by a maverick young professor who is blind and handsome. It seems that the co-chairs of the philosophy department are stealing people’s free will, and only LINK can stop them…Raphaela is about to learn who she really is…But first…grilled cheese!

(I wanted to show what she ate– which was a lot of Oreos and some very creative grilled cheeses.)

The famous agent read my 80 new pages. Which was really very nice of him, in retrospect. He wrote back. This email was even longer, which I knew immediately was terrible news.

In summary: “This has no shape. It didn’t go anywhere. It’s boring. Like, so boring I almost fell asleep. No one would ever find it interesting. And what’s with all the food? But you’re good with words. In ten years, I expect to see you published as an author. But for now, write short pieces and make a name for yourself. You’re not ready.”

In slow motion, I fell back onto my bed. It was not a real-sized bed, because I was living in the tiniest apartment ever. It was also broken. You had to know where to fall, or the whole thing might collapse. Go ahead, collapse, I thought. I cried for what felt like hours, possibly years. I couldn’t write books. All I’d ever wanted to do was write books. I was bad at the thing I loved most. I was despicable. Also, I wanted to kill the agent. A lot. How could I kill him? How could I know which one of his five houses he would be in? It was going to take a lot of planning.

This guy who liked me was coming over just then. I’d forgotten about him. He knocked and I let him in and then went back to bed.

“Whoa, whoa…” he said. “What happened here?” He was holding his guitar. We were supposed to jam.

“Um,” I said. “My life is over. I can’t hang out.”

To his credit, he proceeded to recite the entire text of “The Lorax” from memory, in an effort to calm me down. It did help a little.

And then life, inevitably, went on. I was bitter and I threw myself into my thesis research. I grinned an empty, cynical grin when people mentioned books. I swore a lot. Wore all black. Chain smoked. Packed a lot of heat, in case I ran into the agent. Kidding. But I really wouldn’t go into book stores for the longest time.

(sometimes I really want to be her when I grow up. source)

And then, a little over a year later, I started blogging, which was the first creative writing I’d done since the rejection. God, I love to write, I thought. Why the hell did I stop?

And then, recently, I read those 80 pages aloud to Bear. The ones about the girl named Raphaela and the college that looked like Columbia. They were good! The writing was funny and clever and sweet. I liked Raphaela. I could totally identify. I think she was even homeschooled, like me. Funny.

We got to the scene where she’s making a grilled cheese for like three pages.

Bear said, “I’m not trying to be mean, I really like this book, but this is a really boring scene.”

“But it’s so delicious!” I said.

“Yeah, but you’re listing like every single ingredient.”

“But they’re all important!”

“Yeah, but we don’t need to know everything that’s in her refrigerator.”

“But it says so much about her, as a character!”

“Does it?”

“Uh huh.”

OK, it was boring. It was super boring. It was a scene about making a grilled cheese.

But you know what? It sounded like an amazing grilled cheese. And I am proud of that. Maybe I don’t know how to write an action-packed scene, but I know how to make a grilled cheese.

Here’s my current favorite:

Sourdough bread, sliced thick, slather with butter. Cook in pan over low/med heat, with fresh mozzarella slices, sprinkled goat cheese, heirloom tomatoes, and bacon. After it’s crispy on both sides and the cheese is gooey, remove and pry open. Put a sauce made from mayo, stone-ground mustard, and Frank’s hot sauce on one side, and scoops of avocado and arugula on top of the tomatoes. Close the bread, slice the sandwich in half– serve. You will be loved forever. Maybe not as an author, but as an impressive grilled cheeser.

In fact, maybe I’ll make one right now.

*  *  *

Unroast: Today I love the way I look in stripes. Check it out!

(I’m having a taking pictures of myself kind of week. What am I, fourteen? Nope. Just love to look at myself. )

P.S. Check out the awesome thing that is happening with a blue coat. This is all ETDC reader Melanie. She is awesome.


Kate on February 3rd 2012 in fear, food, writing

63 Responses to “grilled cheese and soul-destroying rejection”

  1. margosita responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    They say you have to kill your darlings. And I love that your darling is a grilled cheese sandwich!

  2. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    LOL! Exactly!

  3. Sarah Rooftops responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at somebody else’s pain (I’m sorry!). This was all so painfully familiar… except the bits about being able to make hot food which tastes good… never got the hang of that…

  4. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    I take that as a HUGE compliment :-)

  5. Melanie responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Love the striped shirt. I’m a stripey lass myself.

    That grilled cheese sounds spectacular. I would substitute sriracha for the Frank’s. MMMMMMM…grilled cheese. My goal has always been to win the lotto so I could open a grilled cheese diner/dive bar, where my waitresses were allowed to be smarmy to jerky diners. Some day. Well, it would also probably be better if I actually bought lotto tickets, which I don’t.

  6. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Oh my god, that would be amazing. The grilled cheese diner. I also think it should probably be a tiny, specialty shop in the Village. That probably already exists, actually.

  7. jc responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    I recently discovered the sourdough makes the best grilled cheese too! Sometimes I just do sourdough, butter, pepper jack/cheddar, and a sprinkle of truffle salt (a little goes a long way!)

  8. Lynellekw responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    …but what happened to the orphan girl?

  9. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Ah, for that, you must read the book!
    But here’s a hint: she triumphs at the end.

  10. SFM responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    Do you ever make grilled cheese with mayo instead of butter? More convenient and quite good.

  11. Kate responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    Nope! Never tried that. But I might miss the butter taste of the bread!

  12. Madison responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    uhhhh, you are so cute. love your style, and love that photo. also, I must make that sandwich tonight!

  13. Erin responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    “To his credit, he proceeded to recite the entire text of “The Lorax” from memory, in an effort to calm me down.”

    This made me giggle.

    That grilled cheese sounds amazing. Going to have to give it a whirl. Thank you!

    After grilled cheese, I think my second favorite thing that you write about is rejection. That probably sounds terrible. What I mean is that you make me feel like it’s really, really ok and normal to fail at things sometimes. Which I know, of course. But sometimes I need a reminder.

  14. Cari Ellen responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 10:38 pm #

    UH Hello??? Date for grilled cheese please? I know it will taste 100 times better if you make it. Please? Pretty Please? I would even eat it with the bacon and I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years.

  15. Christina McPants responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    Hey, don’t forget half of the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series is them eating sandwiches and drinking coffee!

  16. Sarah responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    I’ve never commented here before, although I have read every post in your blog. I just have to say that I think you are an amazing writer. I was actually just thinking of the book you mentioned earlier this week. You let me read it when we were in college together and I thought it was really good! So good, in fact, that I’ve been periodically thinking about it and wondering what happens next over the last 5 years. So yeah… that guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I know we haven’t talked in a while with life being so busy but your mentioning that book compelled me to say something and to remind you that you rock.
    PS. I still think of you every time I drink root beer. :)

  17. Val responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    Oh my gosh, I cannot remember who it was, but some writer had like seventy rejection letters on a book that ended up a best seller. I wish I could remember the details.

    Don’t give up on your book! Do you still have it? Maybe you could go through it again and see if any improvements come to you, and give it another go. it does sound interesting. love, Val

  18. melissa responded on 03 Feb 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    you sure have an interesting imagination. I am so over fantasy themes, but that dark magic stuff sounded pretty interesting. With the poverty angle thrown in there, I would probably expect it to be some kind of relevent satire.

  19. Nina responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 12:59 am #

    The Lorax from memory? that is the single best idea i’ve ever heard for cheering someone up. except that The Lorax is the most depressing Dr seuss book so perhaps i’d choose another to memorise

  20. Anna responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 2:35 am #

    It’s the times when your idea gets rejected that makes you think “hey, JK Rowling was rejected eight times by eight different publishers; and now people have branded the complete end of her series ‘the end of an era’”

  21. Iris responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 7:21 am #

    This post made me crave a grilled cheese sandwich so bad I had to go make one. Problem: I’ve never made one before and it turned out more as a scrambled sandwich than an actual grilled cheese.

    Also, you’re an awesome writer and I would definitely read a book written by you. Maybe your forté is more non-fiction than fiction, though?

  22. San D responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 8:46 am #

    Have you looked into self publishing? With the amount of hits and fans you have on this site, you would definitely fulfill your dream of having your book read. Also “self publishing” doesn’t have the stigma it once had in the literary world. A self published book (like using Xlibris for example) can be sold through Amazon, so you wouldn’t be storing them in your Brooklyn loft. Waiting for “The Man” to approve might not be the way to go to expose you as a writer.

  23. Stacie responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 10:10 am #

    It was Kathryn Stockett’s The Help that was rejected 60 times. And, then look what happened? Keep on trying!

  24. Emmi responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 10:39 am #

    I would totally buy both those books! They sound amazing. Just the thing I love to read, very Juliet Marillier :)

    Who knows, maybe that criticism will turn out to be exactly the thing you needed to really refine your stuff. And look at it this way, a big-shot told you that you’re a good writer! How amazing is THAT! The more you write, the better you’ll get, always. So whether it be this year or in ten years, I will definitely be purchasing any and all books you write. Looking forward to it!

  25. Kimmy Sue Ruby Lou responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    now i’m hungry…and i was reminded of my favorite stephen king novel, gerald’s game…he devoted 20 pages or so to describing this woman (naked and trapped under her husband, who croaked on the “down low”….she’s also handcuffed to the bed)…trying to reach for a glass of water…what a freaky book, but i was so impressed by the fact that i was enthralled by those 20 pages or so describing nothing more than a woman trying to get a GD glass of water…keep doing it your way, maybe you should write a funny cook book about all the different ways to make grilled cheese…it’s all important, and not!

  26. lik_11 responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 3:28 pm #

    There is a place in Cincinnati called Tom & Chee’s. They served tomato soup and grilled cheese. It’s pretty awesome… though yours sounds even more extravagant & delicious than the ones they have. (mmm Avocado!)

  27. Susan N. responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 6:00 pm #

    My teen daughter and I love your blog. Insightful, witty, genuine, very creative! Keep on…

    But, I couldn’t help noticing that your male protagonists were both blind. Significance?

  28. Kate responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    @Cari Ellen
    Absolutely!! And I’m happy to make yours without bacon. No pressure!

  29. Kate responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    I was just thinking about you the other day!! Thanks for commenting, and for reading. ROOT BEER! And I still remember the book you were working on really, really clearly…. AMAZING.

  30. Kate responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    @San D
    I’d definitely consider it– but first I want to try going the traditional route. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not “real” unless one of the big publishing houses accepts it. I know that’s ridiculous. But it’s hard to get it out of my head, and I think I have to give it a shot.

  31. Kate responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    Yes– I actually think the criticism helped a lot. I am writing a book now that is pretty fast-paced and exciting, and has a lot of mystery. It’s fun to push myself to write non-boring stuff! And thanks for saying that– about buying something I write. I really appreciate that.

  32. Kate responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    @Susan N
    Thanks for letting me know!! I know there are at least a few other mother/daughter duos that read ETDC, and I think that’s awesome.

    So basically what happens with my books is that I have a few characters that I don’t want to let go of– they’re just my favorites… so I find ways to include them in the new plot. The blind mage was one of my archetypes. I liked that he was both handicapped and gorgeous. He was vulnerable and powerful. I loved the combination. He’s been in maybe four books I’ve worked on. I loved him for YEARS. When I was 14 or so, I had a crush on him. On my own character. :-) So dorky.

  33. Sarah responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Mmmmk so that grilled cheese sammie sounds good, even to me, the queen of the lactards.

    (Also, I love how Bear qualified his comment: soitotallydon’tmeantobemeanorwanttohurtyourfeelings, but….)

  34. Mara responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    I’m so hungry right now! •w•

  35. Alpana Trivedi responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but when I was in India for two years (from ages 9-11), I was making up stories to tell my brother and the two kids in our neighborhood. Here’s the gist of it:

    There was a dumb good guy and a smart (and manipulative) evil guy who lived as roommates. And the evil guy was horrible to the good guy every day. He did the most horrible, god-awful thing to him every morning before leaving the house. He……he….THREW UP ON HIM!!!! And the dumb good guy always had to clean it up every day, because the smart evil guy escaped after throwing up every morning. One day, the good guy met this smart, genius magical fairy who taught him to outsmart the evil guy and they got married and lived happily ever after. Well, that was the short version of it. When I told it to my brother and the neighbors, they laughed so much and I think I was laughing while I was telling it too.

    I know this was probably the lamest story ever, but at the time throwing up on someone seemed like the worst thing you could do to him or her, so I found it funny. I guess this is my lame attempt to make you feel better. The point is, I told stories because I liked it and as a child, I had my “priorities” about what was the important part of the story.

    I kind of like the grill cheese part of yours, but then, I’m obsessed with my food. LOL. Don’t get me wrong, Kate. By no means am I making light of your situation. I’m just saying that from what you said about your story it didn’t seem that boring. And I guess I told you my boring one to make you laugh. I mean, I still find it funny. I guess I’m simple-humored. LOL.

  36. Kate responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 11:32 pm #

    I grew up with a little brother who occasionally threw up on me. I find that story extremely captivating :-)

  37. Alpana Trivedi responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 11:41 pm #

    But he didn’t do it on purpose. My character did so on purpose. Of course, as a child I didn’t know that throwing up is not something you do as a routine. LOL. But that’s what made it so funny. I’ve got more. Remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Well, I made one up about Goldilocks, who had a dark-haired sister named Blackilocks (I didn’t know what else to call a girl with dark hair:)). They both get kidnapped by an evil witch who doesn’t know how to do any sort of housework or even cooking, so she basically makes them work as maids. The sisters basically end up getting her sick by putting too much hot spices like cayenne pepper into her food and she’s so dumb she doesn’t suspect a thing. Then they escape. Of course, that’s another short version. But my brother laughed at that one too.

    Sometimes it’s good to write/tell a story just because it’s fun AND funny to do so. It doesn’t have to have a practical outlet.

  38. Alpana Trivedi responded on 04 Feb 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    I also wanted to add that I love your blog. It talks about many things I’ve thought about and wanted to put into writing myself, but got too lazy to do so. I guess I need to work on that, huh? But I HAVE been keeping my resolution to journal every day. Have a good night.

  39. erica responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 9:30 am #

    Kate makes the most delicious grilled cheese sandwiches ever. Just to be clear, if I were Kate, I’d be writing a memoir about grilled cheese. I’m pretty much completely vegan now, and eating dairy has become a serious liability to my digestive tract, but I’d totally eat her grilled cheese, even knowing that I’d pay for it later.

  40. Kate responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Thank you! When you’re back in the city, you’ll have to tell me how to make the vegan version.

  41. Frances responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Here, all the rejection letters:

    Just think, you can categorise all your disappointments under “in hindsight, of course, they were sadly mistaken…”

    happy monday xx

  42. Karmel responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    I have you pegged as a solid non-fictionalist/memoirist and can’t really picture your talents shining through fiction. This sort of work (blogging about life) suits you because you can’t really seem to get away from a recurring topic…yourself. And this is not an insult, though it sounds harsh, and by prefacing it with ‘this is not an insult…’ I’m not trying to be an arse in disguise. But ask yourself, what do you really care to explore? To find out more about?

  43. Kate responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    Fantastic! Thank you!!

  44. Kate responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 9:04 pm #

    The funny thing is, I’ve been writing fiction forever, and only started blogging/writing memoir-y stuff about two years ago. I can’t quite think of myself as a non-fiction writer, and I am definitely not ready to give up on fiction. If all I did was write about myself I would go insane. And feel incredibly self-centered and gross. I think there needs to be a balance! So maybe I can do both? That’s the hope, anyway…

  45. Alpana Trivedi responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    Karmel, I think you missed the point of this blog. It’s not that Kate focuses solely on herself. She says many things “out loud” in her blog that many people can identify with, but might be too hesitant to say out loud. It’s one of those “Oh, I thought I was the only one who thought like that” but then finding not just like-minded people who share that perspective, but maybe some different perspectives as well. It’s basically building a community. And she has good intuition about people. A lot of human nature is hypocritical (living life almost requires us to be every now and then), but Kate puts a very analytical and insightful spin on it and still manages to speak to a wide audience.

  46. Kate responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Thank you– I love this analysis. You’re right- this is what I’m trying to do– build community by pointing out how common so many of our quirky little struggles are. I want to share the specifics of my effort to find self-acceptance because I think they aren’t really just about me. I think they involve themes that everyone has to deal with. But Karmel’s also right. I’m still starting with myself. And that does make it a lot easier. It’s not research based. It’s observation based. Which is what enables me to write so frequently. If I presented more balanced analysis, it’d take me a lot longer!

  47. Alpana Trivedi responded on 05 Feb 2012 at 9:55 pm #

    Kate, do you remember your bad egg article? Well, I’m having one of those days today. I’ve been in Norfolk, VA for a month now. And it seems that my mind is looking for reasons to be negative. I think it’s partly the old drama I brought with me from home and my last command. Some days are ebb and some are flow.

    Today, I was just having lots of crying spells and thinking randomly about bad stuff even though I had lots of free time and it wasn’t raining (I have major rain rage like most people have road rage). I feel like a bad egg today. And I know it’ll go away eventually, it’s just hard to explain that “blah” feeling.

    But that’s what I meant about your blog in general. I think many people think that whining about daily life struggles is a luxury they shouldn’t indulge and then sometimes people make them feel like they should be grateful for the apparent good things that are there, which just makes them feel worse for feeling bad in the first place and it’s just one big ungodly mess after that. I think your blog basically says “I understand and I’ve been there and I don’t judge you.”

  48. Ellen responded on 06 Feb 2012 at 10:04 am #

    I’ve been reading (and occasionally commenting) for a while, and I don’t know why it never occurred to me before to tell you that I’m a copyeditor. Sadly, I work in educational publishing and can’t help get your books published, but if you ever need a copyeditor, I would be thrilled to help! I think you’re an awesome writer, and I personally always love reading about the food you make. (In fact, I think you could totally start a food blog, if that was something you’d be interested in.) On an unrelated note, I just got my hair cut really short on Saturday and was thinking of you! I should take a picture of myself eating cake with my short hair and send it in. : )

  49. Vanessa responded on 06 Feb 2012 at 10:13 am #

    I feel like a lot of fantasy books are boring like that. I was super into Game of Thrones for like two books. By the third, I realized I didn’t give a rat’s ass who ended up in the Iron Throne and all the politicking was zzzzz.

  50. Jennifer responded on 06 Feb 2012 at 10:59 am #

    Oh my goodness I want a grilled cheese SO BAD right now!

    I am also lactose-intolerant.

    I may need to run out and buy some of my fancy soy-based cheese this morning, JUST so I can satisfy this craving.

  51. Krystina responded on 06 Feb 2012 at 11:56 am #

    The fact that it is noon and I am starving, you got me totally craving a grilled cheese. I have only made them the plain old way though. Just cheese, butter, and bread. I think I’m going to “go crazy” and experiment with some different ingredients. I also think you should keep on writing and don’t get down because one man says your book “is boring.” I don’t like every single one of Tom Cruise’s movies. So boo-yah… :) You are a terrific writer. You march to your own beat. “A good voice isn’t so important. It’s more important to sound really unique.” Stephen Malkmus

  52. Sooz responded on 07 Feb 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    You should write a cook book. Like Julia Childs did. I bet it would be awesome. I’d buy it. Especially since I’m now hankering for a grill cheese sandwich!!!!!!!!!!!! :)

  53. AT responded on 07 Feb 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Holy…bleep! Just reading the description of that grilled cheese without even a single titillating visual was enough to drop my jaw in awe. That sounds SPLENDID. I was already thinking all kinds of indecent things and then you just took it to another level with the sauce, avocado & arugula.

    Seriously all I can now think about is that sandwich. What have you done?!

    *foodie rant over (at least publicly)*

    (also, how cool is it that you’re actually morphing your reader’s requests into entertaining posts?!)

  54. Kate responded on 07 Feb 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Hey, thanks for that! What’s your request? :-)

  55. AT responded on 09 Feb 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    My request is in the comments on this post:

    #45 :)

  56. Kate responded on 09 Feb 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    Oh no! I’m sorry I missed it! Thanks for reminding me.

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