Just like any arduous expedition, my road to publication was fraught.
I’m not ashamed to say I cried after my first rejection. And again after my 100th. And when that anonymous RWA contest judge commented it’d be easier to eighty-six my manuscript and start over than to fix all that was broken. Aaaand again…. after my first webinar, a first-page critique, wherein a big agent declared my book would never sell and if it did, it would sell for 99 cents.
I was devastated. After months of pouring deep and profound brain things out of my head (Madagascar), my book was nothing but a four-bit whore.
I wanted to destroy expensive things and scream like a banshee, but I have neighbors and a semi-not-crazy reputation to uphold. So, instead, I downed a shot of whiskey and strapped on my hard shoes. Two hours of Irish dancing and a bloody blister later, and I was sorted, once again ready to raise my pen, polish my words, and beg a literary agent for the time of day.
I would not be held down by self doubt and the opinion of over 100 industry experts. Nope. I knew I had a great book. I knew I just needed to find the right cheerleader to champion that book, and I knew I wouldn’t give up.
Ten months after that first rejection, I signed a contract with an awesome publisher. I have a debut novel release on the horizon, another novel to submit, a literary agent to submit it (and any other fiction or nonfiction that leaks out of my head), a squadron of writerly friends–critique partners, beta-readers, book bloggers, fellow journeyers–and a butt-ton of bookly PR info zinging around my gray matter.
So….how did I get here?
Milestones. My journey to a book contract had…milestones. But before you read those, heed this:
What follows might piss you off.
(…I broke some “rules.”)
Milestone #1 I wrote a memoir, and it honed my “voice.”
Until I penned that sucker, my writing was everything but serious. I’d taken a few creative writing classes in college (mostly auf Deutsch), and I’d written a few short stories for my own entertainment. I read a lot (always have), and I’d always wondered if I could write a novel, but I’d never actually tried. Plus my writing was a bit…stiff.
Maybe some will say my writing’s still stiff, but I really don’t give a shit.
Here’s how the memoir project unfolded, and for those keeping track, this is the first publication process “rule” I shattered (annotated with a *.) One day, whilst watching Fox News, I heard mention of a memoir literary agent and thought, hmmm….I should write a memoir. I then googled mentioned agent, found her email addy, whipped out a note* and hit send.
Not a query. Certainly not a book proposal, because what are those? I’d never heard of them.
One week later, I got a reply: “Call me. I’d love to discuss further.”
I called; we discussed; the next day, I signed a contract, and BOOM. I had a non-fiction agent. [I should note: going in to this memoir dealio, I had a unique story. I’ll leave it at that.] I then set to boiling 7 journals and a bin full of research down to 70k-ish words plus a 100+-page book proposal. It took a few months to write the proposal but only about 5 weeks to write the memoir. I was a machine, editing as I went and just letting the words flow. I didn’t give a rat’s ass if anyone liked it, I was writing it for me, and it was cathartic.
My agent had a few editorial suggestions, but called me up to tell me this: she doesn’t give out many A’s, but she was giving me an A on my proposal. She LOVED the memoir. LOVED it. She only had a couple suggestions to tone down some insensitive references I’d used. Oh, and to cut a horribly horrible preface I’d spent the last of my 5 weeks writing, rewriting, editing, and hating. It was bad. So bad I’m tempted to paste it here for posterity, and maybe if I get enough comments on this post I will. Other than that prologue from bad-writing hell, she said my memoir was awesome, and she was excited.
After chatting with her, I had another light bulb. I should write a fiction book.
Milestone #2 I wrote down my falling-to-sleep fantasy story I’d been telling myself for almost a year.
It was just like writing a memoir, because
- I knew the world.
- I knew the story.
- I knew the characters.
What I didn’t know was industry standard word counts, that I should self-edit out words like “that” and “really” and “very,” and that getting a fiction agent wouldn’t be as simple as light-bulb, note, call, contract, done-within-a-week.
Milestone #3 Holy shit, I have a novel. Now what?
Four months in to my fiction project, I had what looked like a book, so I emailed my memoir agent, because in another two months, I’d have my novel-baby all shined up and ready for professional eyes, and I had no idea what to do with it.
I was still terribly industry-naive, and when my agent told me she didn’t represent fiction, it was a bit of a shock. I hadn’t realized agents specialized.
But my agent had a partner who did represent fiction. YA fiction, which was great, because I was 60% certain I had a YA fiction on my hands. I finished my book, sent it to a few of my friends to read, made some more edits, and sent it to my agent who passed it to her partner.
Milestone #4 Rejection #1
God bless my agent’s partner–she was so sweet about it. I’d sent her an epic, 148k-word, “YA” paranormal “romance” (the quotes, because I was wrong) in funky formatting, strange fonts, and chock-full of really’s and very’s and that’s and waaaaay too many dialogue tags. Without a query*, because, again, what the hell’s a query?
For other new writers, here’s some guidance I wish I’d looked up BEFORE submitting my manuscript:
- A really awesome query example: Falls the Shadow query sent to agent Sara Megibow
- Some guidance on manuscript word count from Lit Rejections: http://www.literaryrejections.com/word-count/
- How to know your audience (readership.) ie What’s the difference between MG and YA: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-key-differences-between-middle-grade-vs-young-adult
- What’s the difference between YA and Adult: http://wolflit.com/the-difference-between-ya-and-adult/
- What is New Adult (NA)? Some say NA is synonymous with “upper YA,” “mature YA,” and “crossover fiction.” The term New Adult was coined by St. Martin’s Press as “a fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult.” See Wikipedia for a list of references and more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New-adult_fiction
- Genre definitions from Writer’s Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-all-articles/qp7-migration-fiction/genredefinitions
- Difference between thriller/suspense/mystery from Daily Writing Tips: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/is-your-novel-mystery-thriller-or-suspense/
- Difference between thriller/horror: http://www.bang2write.com/2013/11/whats-the-difference-between-horror-thriller-part-2.html
- Definition of Romance (from Romance Writers of America): https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=579
- How to write a query from AgentQuery.com: http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx
- How to write a synopsis: https://janefriedman.com/novel-synopsis/ or http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2012/04/17/how-to-write-a-1-page-synopsis/
How to write a synopsis in a nutshell: Incident (Story Advancement) + Reaction (Color) = Decision (Story Advancement) read more
- Check your character names fit with your time period: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/
- Find the right agent for your manuscript by reading what agents are currently looking for at Manuscript Wish List (MSWL): http://mswishlist.com/
- Here’s standard manuscript formatting guidelines from Folio Literary Management: http://www.foliolit.com/submissions/formatting-your-manuscript/
Or, here’s manuscript formatting in a nut shell:
- ALL CAPS
- Upper right: NAME [carriage return] STREET ADDY [carriage return] CITY STATE ZIP [carriage return] PHONE [carriage return] EMAIL ADDY
- Upper left: READERSHIP GENRE (ex YA THRILLER) [carriage return] WORD COUNT: 74,000 <– Round to the nearest thousand
- Center of page: TITLE [carriage return] BY [carriage return] NAME
- No header, no page number.
- Everything in Times New Roman, font-size = 12-point.
- 1-inch margins all around.
- Everything double-spaced
- Turn off widow/orphan control
- Each chapter starts on a new page, 3-4 carriage returns from the top of the page.
- Header: upper left should have Author Name / Manuscript Title
- Page numbers: upper right.
- First line of paragraphs indented 0.5″ (NOT using tabs, using indent)
- One space between sentences (not two)
Here’s an .rtf Template I made: Novel Manuscript Formatting Template
Finally, 25 Editing Tips to Tighten your Manuscript: http://thewritelife.com/edit-your-copy/#.ygbpzl:xaj
Milestone #5 Finding an Awesome Critique Partner
Rejection #1 was well-deserved, but I still cried. I mean, is 148,000 words really too long? And what the hell is “pacing?”
Here are some definitions of common lingo used in rejections and how to fix the issues:
- What is “Pacing”? The AP Glossary of Literary and Rhetorical Terms, including “pacing.”
- Showing vs. Telling: an exercise. Click here for Creative Writing 101 Exercise or read another here: http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/bobtam/website/show_not_tell_exercise.htm
- Stilted dialogue: http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/stilted-dialogue
- Head hopping? Cliches? Double writing? Cut that shit out: https://www.dropbox.com/s/u4vijrya0inqs8g/Writing%20Tips.pdf?dl=0
I reread that YA agent’s note a few times. Like thirty. And it never morphed into an offer. 🙁
Well, I’m a bull-by-the-horns kind of person, so I figured I could wrangle another agent. After all, it wasn’t difficult to find a nonfiction agent, so how hard could it be?
“Literary Agent,” I typed into Google, and just as I’d poised my middle finger over the enter button, my email dinged. It was that YA agent with a suggestion and a gift straight from Heaven in the form of an editorial intern, who’d worked on YA manuscripts and was willing to help me. If I could get my beast-of-a-novel below 90k words, the agent would take another look at it, because she liked the premise, and she liked the main character.
With the intern’s help over the space of a few months, I significantly tightened my manuscript, but I just couldn’t get my word count below 90k.
Plus, I wasn’t convinced I had a YA story. My protagonist was 18, and though she is a senior in high school at the beginning of the book, she leaves for college about 1/3 of the way into the novel. Plus the subject matter was dark, edgy. So I did some research, joined QueryTracker and Publisher’s Marketplace, researched a ton of agents, and began querying.
While querying, two things happened:
First, one agent who really liked my story, but thought my writing could be tighter, suggested consulting a professional editor. I tried several and spent WAY too much on people who were glad to take my money, but in the end (and for one reason or another) couldn’t help. Only two editors get my highest recommendation:
- Maxwellian Editorial Services: http://maxeditorial.com/
- Jessica Schmeidler: http://www.jessicaschmeidler.com/contact-me/
Second, I stumbled across Maggie Stiefvater’s Critique Partner Love Connection <–Just type that into Google. (She hosts it at the beginning-ish of the year.) There I found my lovelies–my forever friends in the writerly world–my critique partners. (No you don’t get to know who they are–I don’t want you stealing them, they’re MINE!)
Here are some places to find a CP:
- Maggie Stiefvater’s Blog: Maggie Stiefvater’s Critique Partner Love Connection
- Miss Snark’s First Victim: Critique Dating Service
- Agent Query Connect: http://agentqueryconnect.com/index.php?/forum/6-aq-connect-wanted-ads/
- Tumblr- How About We CP: http://howaboutwecp.tumblr.com/
- Twitter. During writing contests like #PitchWars is the best time.
At about the same time I found my CPs, I discovered Twitter and the wonderful world of Twitter pitch contests, which rescued my sanity. Or pushed me over the edge–one of those. Anyway, somewhere along this wretched path to publication, my confidence waned. I think it was after my 200th rejection. Maybe after 250.
Whatever. In any case, I needed some fellowship, wanted an alternative to querying, and, should one of the author-judges actually pick my entry…well that kind of validation might very well recharge my near-broken writerly spirit.
I’m now forever her biggest fan, and @Michelle4laughs is a name you should tattoo on your arm and stalk–erm, follow–on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Michelle4Laughs
Here’s a pretty good Guide to Twitter Pitch Contests by agent Carly Watters: http://writersinthestormblog.com/2014/09/the-ultimate-writers-guide-to-twitter-pitch-contests/
And here’s a good schedule of online pitch contests: http://carissa-taylor.blogspot.com/2013/01/contest-madness.html
Milestone #6 But for real. I’m ready.
Critique partners really shined my novel and taught me how to tighten my prose even further. I finally had a manuscript of 118k words, which was a New Adult, Fantasy Adventure with Romance. I was 90% sure of this.
But I was still being rejected. At least by now I was used to it. I didn’t even have to open my emails anymore to log them (yes, I kept a spreadsheet.) Anything that started with Dear Author or Dear Writer or “Unfortunately” I just filed.
What I needed was real feedback from industry experts–agents or editors–something concrete from the very folks I was trying to woo. I joined SCBWI and RWA, through which I signed up to have a first-page critique and a 10-page critique from big literary agents.
The experience was a little painful, but invaluable, and I learned something super-important: my opening sucked.
Some agents and their interns who screen their queries read only the first page of a submission, and that first page had better:
a) set the tone and mood
b) establish the voice of the main character
c) hint at the genre and plot of the story
d) build the world (it can be subtle)
e) NOT contain boring backstory or any backstory really…
…if your first page can’t do that, it will not stand out, and agents/interns will pass.
And there was this thing called The Market. Apparently, anything that smelled even slightly paranormal was a plague rat–too difficult to sell–and so it was an auto-reject for most agents.
Milestone #7 Realize I might have to Self Publish…
…and that I’d have to then sell my book.
The problem was, I had no idea if my book would sell. After fixing my first pages, I wanted a complete stranger to tell me how they’d review my book had they purchased it off Amazon.
I reached out to bloggers who review fantasy and paranormal books. I knew they’d be brutally honest (they were), and their feedback was super helpful. They pointed out typos, character flaws, and a few inconsistencies. Also, a few gave a quote, an “early reader review,” for my website. Here’s a place to find a list of bloggers you can sort by genre: http://www.theindieview.com/indie-reviewers/
These were the bloggers I contacted:
- Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
- Truth About Books
- Writerbee’s Book Reviews
- Paranormal Chica
- Amanda’s My Own Little Corner
- Doodles, doodles everywhere
The reviews came back (in no particular order):
- 5 stars x1
- 4.5 stars x1
- 4 stars x2
- 3.5-4 stars x1
One didn’t give a star-rating, but did remark that I’d found myself another fan who was anxiously awaiting Book 2. 🙂 Another blogger called my male MC an asshat..hahahah <–I laughed so hard! It was the perfect description of the guy!! Two bloggers compared my book to Harry Potter and one used so many F-words to describe her desire to see the sequel, I blushed.
NOW I was ready to sell my book!
Milestone #8 Shit! I know NOTHING about selling books
I needed to learn, and the best way to learn how to do something is to just frickin do it. So I scoured the internet for remote job listings in the publishing industry, and on BookJobs.com, I found a list of internships. Well, hell, I was willing to work for free, so I ctrl+f’d “remote,” and found Inklings.
I had zero experience, but that’d never stopped me. What I did have was a positive attitude, a willingness to learn whatever Inklings put in front of me, and a work-hard-play-hard mantra. So when Michelle Johnson called with a phone interview and asked if I could set up a blog tour, I didn’t hesitate.
“Blog tour? Sure!” I said with a voice full of confidence even as I furiously Googled “what the hell is a blog tour.”
I figured it out. I read everything I could find on author brands and book-selling. I participated in Facebook release parties; I set up an agency blog list, and when I didn’t find the guides I wanted to pass along to the authors I was helping, I sat down and wrote them myself. How to set up Rafflecopter. How to hold a Facebook Party. How to Make a Book Trailer. How to Make an Author Website. How to run a Virtual Scavenger Hunt.
Milestone #9 Making a Conference Connection
About the time I started interning, I was three weeks in to writing my next novel, a YA Thriller, and I went to my first conference, a small one in Vegas, where I met #PubLaw attorney Susan Spann. After her presentation, she offered to look over any contract any of us had that needed some legal eyes.
At that conference, I made my first pitch. And my second. And a few others. Two editors from small presses asked me to send my manuscript, and just like that I discovered there were publishers I could submit to without an agent.
When I submitted to those publishers, I also submitted to several others I’d found on Publisher’s Marketplace. After several weeks, I had six requests for my full manuscript and four offers to publish.
Also, I’d just put the finishing touches on my YA Thriller.
Milestone #10 Choosing the right path
Since I was interning at her literary agency, I asked agent Michelle Johnson for some help in navigating the right path for my novel-baby. She read the manuscript and let loose a barrage of emails with a clear message: THIS STORY IS AWESOME. Also, paranormal was a tough sell, but not impossible.
Now I had a choice. I could take a contract with a great small press and have my book published for sure. Or, I could sign with an agent for the book, submit it to the big publishers, and hope they’d pick it up.
For me, it was a no-brainer. Omnific was a great small press that’d given me a great offer. Their covers were beautiful. They were super-responsive, super patient, and super-in-love with my book. They were “romance without rules,” and I knew they were the right home for EERIE.
I contacted the cornucopia of publishing contract knowledge and wisdom that I’d met in Vegas, and even though she was on her way out of the country, Susan Spann made time to go over the contract with me and held my hand through the entire negotiation.
Michelle Johnson provided endless guidance and support even though she was making nothing off the deal.
I was surrounded by experts; I knew I had a great deal in front of me, so I grabbed my pen, and I John-Hancocked that sucker. When it came back counter-signed, I broke out the apocalypse whiskey, destroyed a crystal glass just to hear it shatter, climbed onto the roof, and screamed:
Milestone #11 I HAVE A BOOK DEAL!!
Neighbors be damned 😉
Epilogue #1: How I Landed a Fiction Agent – in a nutshell. It happened during one of our chats that Michelle Johnson asked if I’d written anything else. So, I sent her my YA thriller, and SHE LOVED IT! She offered to represent my fiction (not Eerie, though, because I already had an offer from a publisher, and Michelle’s not a shark). Still, I asked if she’d consider representing my sub-rights for Eerie, since I knew I’d need help if/when anyone ever inquired about them. And that is how, shortly after I signed a publishing contact for my dream-book, Eerie, I signed a contract with my dream agent. 🙂
Epilogue #2. EERIE is in fact selling for more than 99 cents.
Release: Dec 2015
Buy on Amazon: http://www.amzn.com/dp/B0176M19RM/
Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency represents the sub rights for this title.
30 Days with Dr. Death won 1st place in the 2015 New Jersey Romance Writers Put Your Heart in a Book Contest!
Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency represents this title.