Write book. Add water. Grow dollars.
No really. There are people roaming this earth, perhaps in your very neighborhood, who actually think that’s how publishing works. Be prepared for a long entry, because this could take a while. Maybe I am feeling like standing up and sharing more with the class because my book publishes nationwide in less than a week, and the whole thing has got me speeding along on the feelings train, which has made me feel extra chatty.
I can’t speak for any of the authors out there, but that’s certainly not how it worked for me. I’m not sure when my actual journey to publication began. I started writing when I was probably six or seven, and by “writing” I mean I made up stories in my head, usually at bedtime and during long car rides. I don’t remember much about my early years, but I am fairly certain I thought books just appeared on bookshelves, or Santa brought them. I had no idea what it took to write one, or what an advance was, or royalties. Really I just knew that I liked Ramona and Beezus, and the American Girls too, with a good dose of Goosebumps to keep my nightlight burning.
By elementary school, my inner little tadpole writer had evolved into something resembling a frog. I was writing my stories down; I just wasn’t sharing them. In the fifth grade, I had a very lovely teacher, whose classroom I fondly remember as a magical place with pink beanbags and student artwork clothes-pinned to a line over the desks. She doled out a lot of writing assignments, and while the other kids groaned, I really took a shine to this. A one-page story, for me, averaged a good five pages front-and-back. I assure you, I wasn’t preparing for my breakout dystopian debut; I was just having fun. I sincerely loved to write, the way some students love basketball, or science. I loved writing the way bullies love ants and magnifying glasses.
I’ll spare you the details of my torturous high school years and skip ahead to college. By college, staring at my course selection booklet, it occurred to me that I could study anything I want. I promptly signed up for every English course my credits allowed, and ultimately became an English major. I was exposed to some of the most shocking and literary prose I would ever have the pleasure of reading. I developed a dead writer crush on TS Eliot, and I read Atwood’s Surfacing in a day, and my pulse was beating in my ears when I read a passage of Angela’s Ashes.
It made me think very seriously about my own writing. In fact, no, that’s not even a fair statement. The types of books I read in college made me see the entire world in a way that made me think very seriously about my own writing. I looked at my short stories, and my unfinished drabbles, and I wondered if it would ever be publishing material. I wondered if I even wanted to be publishing material. I had romantic daydreams of trade paperback. I wanted to write a quiet little novel about a messed up family, perhaps, or a little boy who lived in an ordinary world but had a bit of magic to him—maybe the magic was in his mind, or maybe he had an illness that made him delusional. I thought I might one day be published locally. I still had no idea how publishing worked, but I thought maybe I could publish it myself and sell it to coffee houses or something.
Fast forward to my sophomore year. I had still yet to commit to anything that was novel material. I had lots of drabbles. Lots of cheesy poems. Lots of things the world would never see.
Then my dad died. I was sitting in my room and I heard a thud, and I came downstairs to find that my dad had suffered a massive heart attack that killed him instantly.
You might be asking what this has to do with writing. I am not the type of person who uses sadness or anger or anything like that to channel my writing. In fact, my writing has NOTHING to do with what I’m feeling at the time. And anyway, losing my dad left me feeling like my insides had been scooped out with a melon-baller for a long time. But it did leave me with a sense of urgency. I felt unbearably still while the world sped on around me. I needed to do something or I’d lose my mind. So I did the only thing I’ve ever done when I’m at a loss: I wrote.
By the end of college, I’d finished a story that was, I’m not going to lie, quite saccharine. It was about death and ashes and alcoholism. It may never see the light of day, but even so, I am proud of it. It was the first time I set out to finish something, and I did, and it turned out as I would have hoped. Imperfect, quiet, something that might be read in a coffee shop. Something that would have lukewarm reviews, and perhaps one impassioned email from a fan before it fizzled out of existence.
I got an office job, fully expecting this to be a permanent fixture in my life. And on my free time, I researched query letters. I sat in a bookstore café and wrote down some agent names from a reference book, and I mailed out my queries. I knew what I was doing the way a baby chick covered in slime knows how to punch through its egg, which is to say I just felt my way along and hoped for the best.
I could paper the walls with my rejection letters. I still have them, and I’m sure I’m not exaggerating. One rejection in particular was insightful and personal and invited me to try back with any future projects. Something in me really wanted to work with this agent. And I mean really really, if-you-buy-me-this-puppy-I’ll-never-ask-for-anything-else-again badly. I didn’t take the invitation lightly. I was back later that year with my next project. This time, rather than call if a coffeehouse novel, I’d say I thought of it as indie, maybe-barnes-and-noble-would-carry-it-but-probably-not title. I sent it to the agent, and a couple of weeks later, she offered representation.
This was back in 2008. Working with my agent has been one of the most astounding experiences of my life. Our partnership started with a rejection letter, and has weathered many rejections that followed. I’m very fortunate to be represented by someone who appreciates my work for what it is, understands my process, and knows how to get the cogs turning when I’m discouraged or feeling stagnant. We went out with two manuscripts that didn’t end in any deals. In 2009, I was working on yet another manuscript, and it was frustrating me to the point that I took a day off of work to sit at home and work on it.
My agent, sensing my despair, made the suggestion that I write something out of my comfort zone. She suggested a short story, and left me with a pile of reading suggestions, among which was The Eyes of the Dragon, which is not something I might ever have read on my own. I was surprised by how much I loved it. And I thought, if I can be this surprised with something I’ve read, maybe I can write something that surprises me, too.
That’s how Wither happened. I thought it would be a fun little short story and maybe I could submit it to a contest. But the more I wrote, the more the world and the characters expanded around me. I was about halfway through the manuscript before I realized it would have to be a series in order for me to address all the issues it raised.
I finished the first draft and sent it to my agent. I spent the next several days biting my lip and wondering if I should bother writing the sequels. I had, after all, a track record of rejection letters and I didn’t know if Wither (which was untitled at the time) would even sell. I opted to distract myself instead.
It sold. I was sitting at home in my pajamas, googling stuff and eating rice-a-roni, and my agent called me. I knew something was up because a.) it was after 6 PM, and b.) I could actually HEAR the grin in her voice.
When she told me about the pre-empt by Simon & Schuster, I blurted something rather unladylike and almost dropped the phone. I think I blacked out for a second. She asked if I wanted to accept the offer, and I said “WAIT! Wait wait wait, can I talk to the editor first?”
For all the research I’d done into agents, I had no idea what working with an editor was like. If my story would be changed. If I’d have to compromise my values to fit into some cookie cutter market.
My editor, as it turned out, was absolutely lovely. We talked for a very long time about the story, and her reactions as she read, and the things she enjoyed, and the characters, and her reactions. Overall I felt very good about the whole thing, and I accepted.
This was all in October of ’09. It’s March 2011 now, and I’m six days from the date that’s been on my calendar since then. Wither has a title, and it has a cover, and it’s all printed and bound and sitting on my nightstand. I’ve come farther than I ever thought I would. My destination was not what I anticipated. But then, publishing is such a tumultuous thing, and to have any predictions about it at all is just silly. What I’ve learned about this experience is that every book has a story. And I don’t mean its plot; I mean the author’s story. There very well may be authors who never saw a rejection letter. I wasn’t one of them. If you told me two years ago that this is how I’d be spending my spring of 2011, I would never have believed it. I would never have anticipated it.
Instead, I would have gone back to my laptop and worked on my manuscript some more.