Falling but Not Failing

Image (c) Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

A novel titled Falling is scheduled to be published on July 6, 2021. There has been quite a bit of pre-publication chatter about it. Many are calling it the beach-read for this year. The truth of that declaration is way above my paygrade but I have read it and suspect that beach-read or not, many other people will read it this summer as well.

Falling has a terrific plot and is well-written, two parts of a creative equation that are not always present at the same time. Falling concerns an airline pilot whose family is taken hostage by an enigmatic individual while the pilot, his plane, and one hundred forty-nine innocent souls are in mid-air. The pilot is given a choice: crash the plane or his family dies. His response is that neither will happen. 

Photo (c) Melissa Young. All rights reserved.

That is the plot. Let’s talk for a minute about the well-written part of the equation, which means that we get to talk about the author. T.J. Newman worked for a while at a bookstore in her home city of Phoenix. She left that worthy and honorable position approximately ten years ago and, as did her mother and sister before her, became a flight attendant. Ms. Newman often found herself on “red-eye” flights, so-called because they are long in duration and take place late in the night. She conceived the idea that became Falling during one such flight. After asking a pilot a “what if” question about her plot and receiving the reaction she hoped for (a look of utter terror) she began writing her ideas, vignettes, sentences, and paragraphs in dim light during her flights while her passengers slept. Her software was a pen and cocktail napkins. She somehow kept all of those little paper squares dry and legible until she could transcribe them into what eventually became the story that she wanted to tell.

Ms. Newman, thanks to her bookstore employment, knew a bit about what she was getting into before she started. Writing the book was the first and extremely important step. The next step was finding an agent. Falling flew out into the ether forty-one times and crash-landed on takeoff. Query forty-two, however, met with success. An agent, who saw something that forty-one others did not, accepted stewardship of Falling and pitched it to Simon & Schuster. S&S offered Ms. Newman a two-book deal for an amount I am too polite to disclose. Let me say that it is enough to keep her in wine, cheese, and whatever else she might reasonably want for the foreseeable future. Oh. I almost forgot. There was a bidding war for the film rights. The winner paid a royal sum for the right to create a movie version of Falling. The book that nobody wanted thus became the movie that everyone wanted to make. 

I originally wrote that last sentence to include the phrase “all of a sudden.” I took it out because what occurred here didn’t happen “all of a sudden.” It took well over a year of writing, keeping those napkins dry and secure, polishing, proofing, and polishing some more, and then getting so used to hearing “no” that, I would guess, Ms. Newman couldn’t believe it when she heard “yes,” “yes,” and “yes” again.

After learning this backstory, one might wonder why the author and her manuscript were rejected by forty-one agents, each and all of whom knew what they are doing and who are probably exhaling a collective “oops” over this missed opportunity. Agents spend a lot of toil and trouble learning what editors and publishers want and don’t want at any given point in time.  Whether an agent likes a book or not is important, but it is but one moving part of the entire process. Another is that an agent, and for that matter an editor at a publishing house, does not get in trouble on the job for the books they turn down. They get in trouble for the books (and authors) they take on that do not subsequently sell, for whatever reason. You, as an author, can’t control that part. What you can control is forming your premise clearly and writing the best book that you can, regardless of genre. When you get discouraged, think of Ms. Newman writing the best book she could on those cocktail napkins at thirty thousand feet in a dim cabin sometime after midnight, and then being turned down forty-one times by individual gatekeepers who, probably to their quiet dismay, wound up looking like Monty Python’s Black Knight. The lesson is that, regardless of the endeavor, we must hack our way through the naysayers until we reach our personal Holy Grail. You have just read the story of one who did. 

Happy reading on July 6, and happy writing for the rest of your days. If you are inclined, would you care to share any encounter with adversity that you have experienced recently, in writing or otherwise? How did you get through it or around it? Thank you.


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

29 thoughts on “Falling but Not Failing

  1. Thanks for the story, Joe, and happy Saturday. My first reaction was “only 41?” When we moved, I left my big fat file folder full of rejection letters behind.

    • You’re welcome, and Happy Saturday to you, Terry! You did the right thing by leaving that folder behind. It’s the future that matters. Never stop!

  2. Great post, Joe. And a great reminder that adversity can be conquered. We simply need to persevere. Or as the signs in coaches’ offices say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” and “No pain, no gain.”

    The adversity I have faced is nothing compared to what Ms. Newman faced, but I still like to complain about it. I tell my wife that I want a salmon swimming upstream on my gravestone. And my current “adversity” is an office stuffed full of over 40 years of paper charts and files and records, etc. We’ve hauled out a few pickup trucks full of trash, but it has to be sorted as to recycle, burn, or confidential. My wife and I say, like the BP Oil exec, “we want our life back.” I’ve persevered by carving out mornings for writing. And the end is in sight, although I’ve been tempted to light a match.

    Have a good day and a great weekend. And hang in there.

    • Thank you, Steve. I’m doing something similar with my own files. I keep telling myself that if it only takes me several months to rid myself of forty-plus years of accumulation, that’s not too bad.

      As far as disposal goes…flamethrowers are legal in Ohio. If you try out one of THOSE in Lowes you’ll definitely get a clerk’s attention!

      You have a great weekend as well, Steve. I hope that the cleanup goes quickly.

  3. Good morning, Joe, and thanks again for talking to the Authors of the Flathead last Thursday. Great to finally “meet” you via Zoom!

    You shared this inspiring story with AOF. What an outstanding reminder that the one who wins is the one who never gives up.

    Writing is a long-haul career where persistence and determination trump talent every time.

    • Debbie, the pleasure was all mine. Thank you so much for having me and for the opportunity to converse “face-to-face” as it were.

      I totally agree with you on the long-haul classification. It doesn’t happen overnight, for sure.

  4. So inspirational, Joe! What a great way to kick off the weekend. Thank you.

    Adversity? You betcha.

    In the fall of 2020, I pitched a historic true crime book about a lone female serial killer who got away with murder again and again and again. It’s a crazy case that also holds impressive historical significance. Oddly enough, no one’s ever written about her. After I submitted the proposal a handful of times, and received several requests for more, the pandemic caused problems with obtaining important records. Which caused a domino effect. Things went downhill from there.

    I also believe things happen for a reason. Sometimes the smart play is let go. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you’ve invested a lot of time and work. I still may write that book someday. Never say never. But if that never happened, I wouldn’t have uncovered the case I’m working on now. Local case with the entire investigative team (6 officers and a forensic anthropologist) rooting for me. I’m finally walking the right path, but it took four different cases–falling and failing–to get here. 🙂

    • You’re welcome, Sue, and thank you for sharing your own story. The element about letting go is, I think, particularly important.

      That story of yours that got interrupted sounds incredibly interesting to me. I really hope that the stars line up for you and that you get to finish it. I’ll look forward to the book you’re working on now, however.

      Not that you need inspiration, but here is a link to “The Wound that Never Heals” by Jim White:

  5. Hey, Joe! I’m such a newbie, I haven’t experienced even one rejection. But, this is a great story. It heartened me.

    I’m preparing to send a MS to an agent who has requested it, but my eyes are wide open because of folks like you who tell us what the publishing world is like. The agent has seen the first three chapters, told me I’d hooked her, and asked me to send the rest to her. I consider that, right there, a feather in my cap. If she decides the story “isn’t what they’re looking for right now”, I’ll keep sending.

    Maybe I should lay in a supply of cocktail napkins for my next… 🙂

    • Hey Deb! Good luck with that potential agent as well as the eventual submission to the editor which is sure to come! Let us know what happens.

      Robert Mitchum in another context said, “Any beer at the bottom of the refrigerator at 6:00AM is good beer.” The same is true of anything that can be used for writing, including but not limited to a crayon and the palm of a hand, whether it’s your hand or not!

    • Whoooo! Best of luck, Deb! That’s extremely fortunate and exciting that you’ve already hooked an agent! What Joe said: let us know what happens!

  6. At a writing conference, someone asked a panel of agents and editors about the book they turned down that went on to explode up the bestseller charts, and whether they regretted it. They all said nope. The agent/editor must be as passionate about the book as the author to make it succeed, and they weren’t that agent/editor.

    All of us authors here who have imagined wailing agents/editors regretting rejecting us don’t believe this a moment, but whatever makes both parties sleep well at night.

  7. Good morning, Joe. This is an inspiring story of publishing perseverance. I’m a veteran of many years of submitting short stories to various science fiction and fantasy magazines, finally making my first sale in 2009, but I have yet to hop on the “query-go-round,” like many of my writer friends have. I went indie as a novelist.

    Self-publishing has it’s own challenges, starting first and foremost with oneself. You’re in charge of everything from arranging for covers, and edits, to deadlines, publishing, and of course, marketing and building an audience. You don’t face rejection in the form of editors or agents, but rather in lack of sales or reviews.

    The challenge, for me at any rate, is in managing your own expectations and keeping yourself on an even keel. It can be hard, even when there hasn’t been a pandemic.
    Late last summer I realized I really wanted to write a mystery after a second go at a sequel to my urban fantasy, Gremlin Night, wasn’t working out.

    The challenge since has been in having the patience to undergo a huge learning curving in writing my mystery, but in also keeping myself on course. Keeping my passion for the project, especially now that I’m in the throes of revision with a ways still to go, has been key.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Good morning, Dale. Thanks for sharing the ups and downs of your own creative journey. There’s nothing like making that first sale. The science fiction and fantasy market can be a particularly tough nut to crack even once, particularly in the short story market. Good on you! I’m also impressed that you made the jump into the mystery market.
      I immediately thought of John Jakes, who was a published but unsuccessful science fiction author who started writing epic historical novels and became a household name. It happens. I hope it does for you.

  8. The truth of the matter could also be that the “name agents” she sent the MS to didn’t ever read her query. It was read by an unpaid intern schlepping through the slush pile and inclined to reject more than to push the story further up the chain.

    • My worst fear, Maggie! If I’m going to blocked by a gatekeeper, I’d at least like to have the honour of it being the actual person.
      All of my query rejections were sent with a simple note from the agent (whether that was real or an intern working under the agent’s umbrella, I never considered) but at least I received an answer. Quite often, you dont even get a return reply.

  9. Thanks, Maggie. That is very possible. Using interns to go through the slush piles has greatly increased at agencies over the past few years. It seems to be the rule now rather than the exception.

  10. Good stuff about perseverance, Joe. Nice to read rejection-to-success stories like this. I like Stephen King’s quote that goes, “I used to have a nail on the wall where I hung rejection slips. Once there got too many, and the nail pulled out of the wall, I replaced it with a spike.”

    On a personal rejection note (other than by girls when I was a pimply teenager), I shopped my first novel on the agent store. I sent about thirty queries and heard back from maybe a dozen. All went, “Thanks, but this isn’t for us.” I saw that wasn’t goin’ nowhere, so I went indie and never looked back. Then one day outa the blue, I got a cold-call email from an agent (not mentioning names here) who followed my blog and she asked, “Hey – are you represented by an agent?” I replied, “No. No one would have me.” So she asked to read the ms for my first work and she came back in a few weeks with, “You got a great voice, but I really didn’t get into the story. However, if you have anything else, please ship it. If you write it, I’ll read it.”

    I took her up on her offer with another ms. I sent it to her personal email address which she left and I shortly got this snotty message back that went, “How dare you bypass XYZ agency’s submission guidelines and send an unsolicited ms direct to me.” I thought “PardonMe???” but I never replied. Out of curiosity, I just Googled her and she’s dropped off the agent scene – probably due to being institutionalized for bipolar disorder or something.

    Enjoy your day, Joe, and thanks for hearing me out!

    • Garry, to begin with the ending, no thanks is necessary. You are always entertaining and informative.

      That story about the agent who turned snotty was amazing. You’re well shut of her. I have had similar experiences in other areas but none quite so dramatic as that. Thanks for sharing and have a great day!

    • Wow, Garry! I’ve heard of some odd duck agents, but that one takes the cake! Good thing she’s gone. I’d hate to accidentally run afoul of that much whackiness in an already stressful situation like cold querying.
      Btw, I follow your blog, and I think you have a delightfully quirky “voice” with just the right dash of dark sarcasm.

  11. Thanks for the uplifting success story, Joe!
    I agree with Terry: only 41??? But to snag a book deal AND a movie offer! Holy Grail indeed!
    Your detail about an agent’s role in choosing manuscripts is so very true “…it is but one moving part of the entire process.”
    They are merely the first stepping stone to a very long (and sometimes arduous) process. And it’s all the more reason for the writer to deeply consider whether or not that agent is “the right one.”
    (Although as writers we should be querying only those who are a good fit for our manuscripts, right?)
    It doesn’t matter if they like it. Can they SELL your lovechild?
    And I feel for this author and her cocktail napkins. Way way back, when I worked for a Big Box lumber store, I scribbled a great many ideas on the yellow notepad in my apron…wherever the idea struck me: up on ladders and lifts, the breakroom, the bathroom…you get the idea. We writers have to be crafty at saving those lightbulb monents!

    • You’re welcome, Cyn, and thank you for your comments. Indeed, we need to do our homework before sending our precious out to an agent. There is a wealth of information out there as to who is looking for what. If your ms. is a thriller you want an agent who is looking for works of that type, as opposed to one who is looking for, say, an upmarket literary novel about social struggle.

      Good on you for writing your ideas down on the fly at work and everywhere else! My all-time favorite story about that concerns Michael Mann who scribbled “MTV Cops” on a piece of paper. Thus Miami Vice was born.

  12. Before I share my tale of woe and how I overcame adversity, my experiences pale in comparison to some friends who recently lost a young child. I cannot begin to comprehend how they survived such a loss.

    One must always maintain some perspective.

    Now for my 780 word tale, a non-writing one.

    Some years ago I was sent from a Yankee organization’s headquarters in the NE to a manufacturing facility in the deep South to design and execute a project on an impossibly tight schedule. Failure would result in the closing of a sister facility employing 250 people. Considering spouses and children, 1,000 mouths would go hungry in an economically depressed area.

    My Fortune 500 employer was a international conglomerate, several independent companies held within an umbrella organization. The corporate jet brought my company president down to the site and he explained to the management staff how critical the project was, telling them he expected their full support of my efforts.

    Piece of cake, right? Other than the rushed schedule, 100 days to do something most others swore would take more than a year, much more. Being a new hire into this organization from a mega international oil company, I didn’t know this company’s internal politics and took things at face value. Big mistake.

    I wouldn’t learn until much later, powerful others within the conglomerate were in competition with my president for a better perch further up the corporate ladder. They were willing to sabotage my efforts and have the organization take the loss in this game of thrones, if it meant taking my president down a couple notches.

    Several false emergencies were experienced every day as I slogged forward, all designed to distract my attention from the critical goal. I ran the project the way we did things at my previous employer when hurricanes took down 25% of the nation’s gasoline supply, kick ass and take names later. A foreign concept to my current employer. After a heated argument with the plant manager, I left his office and walked back through the gates into the several square miles of the manufacturing plant. Looking back I saw an ambulance had arrived at the office building I had just left. I asked the guard what was going on and was told the plant manager had a stroke. He never came back to work.

    My company president flew back to the plant a couple months later and was regaled with details of my unorthodox way of doing things. Which earned me a royal ass chewing in front of the hostile plant management staff. Great fun. I thought I was fired. Afterward, in the hallway, the president told me privately he had to say what he did in the meeting, he was a corporate officer and had to uphold the rules. But then he said don’t let anything I said in there get in your way. Do you think you can still pull this thing off? I told him he just made it 10x more difficult. It won’t be pretty but yes, I can still do it.

    It wasn’t pretty, in fact downright ugly, careers were destroyed. My young wife with 3 small children, one a baby in arms, were confronted at the annual Christmas party with a greeting of “What the hell are you doing here. Don’t you know everyone here hates your guts?” But the project was completed on time; 1,000 mouths won and avoided going hungry.

    Those aligned against me thought 500:1 odds were pretty good. As it was, 20 years earlier a little boy got stung very badly by large fire ants and was told they were impossible to get rid of. Undeterred by the 300,000:1 odds he set about destroying the hive near the house. With kerosene soaked rags wrapped about tin cans to keep the ants from climbing up and stinging him, the boy used a large butcher knife to chop the ants in half as they moved along their trail.

    When the remaining ants hunkered down in the hive, he collected ants in a jar from a rival hive and dumped them on the offending hive. The remaining ants were forced to defend their hive and came out to do battle with the invaders. The boy piled dry brush on the hive and kept a 12 ft wide fire going until sundown. Then he used a shovel to till the area burying the glowing embers. This served 2 purposes. It prevented a possible out-of-control fire during the night and the glowing red embers consumed all the oxygen in the aerated soil, converting it to carbon monoxide. All ants dead.

    The boy became famous all over the town several miles away. Of course the town consisted of a general store and 2 residential houses, but both families knew his name. When the little boy grew up and became a chemical engineer he knew how to persevere in what might have otherwise seemed an impossible situation.

    • Thank you, Lars. Those accounts are keepers. I visualize the plant management as the ants and your actions at the facility as replicating what was done to that anthill those many years ago. I use a borax/sugar/water mix to get rid of mine, but yours sounds much more satisfying.

      Thanks also for putting things in perspective. All else pales when compared to the loss of a child. It’s a violation of the natural order of things.

  13. Hi Joe,

    It was great to have seen you on Debbie’s Authors of the Flathead presentation. Really enjoyed being with everyone there.

    Congratulations and best wishes to Ms. Newman. Sounds like a great story from a determined and talented young woman.

    Reminds me of a proverb: “A righteous man will fall seven times and rise again.” (I’d just like to point out that it took a woman to multiply that by six! 🙂

  14. Thank you, Kay, and it was my pleasure to attend and visit with you as well!

    I take your point about the proverb (such wisdom in those words you quoted) but note that the record for persistence is held (at this point) by James Lee Burke whose book The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected oneH hundred eleven times over nine years. It was eventually published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1986 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I think that it has remained in print since that time. An example for us all.

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