The Road to Publication, Act I: Confusion

Some of the most common questions I am asked about my writing have to do with how I got published. (How long did it take? Did you write a query letter? Do you have an agent/editor?) It’s sort of a long and winding journey, but an important one that’s shaped my life, so being the writerly type it occurred to me that perhaps I should post it up on the blog.

Without further ado I present you with my road to publication (in 3 acts, because like I said, it’s sort of a long and winding journey).

Act I: Confusion

I’m always completely and utterly overjoyed when I hear things like, “I sent out a couple query letters and had an agent by the end of the month,” or “I was on submission for about a week before my manuscript went to auction.” This happened to a close friend of mine, and the only thing that stopped me from jumping over the table and strangling her was the instant onset of depression which immediately immobilized my limbs. Also, jail the fact that we are friends.

Now, I consider myself a pretty grounded person, but I’m human, and that sometimes means my eyes turn green and my nails grow razor sharp and I snarl. But then I remember that I’ve come a long, long way, and that there have been lots of chances to give up, and I haven’t. I’m proud of that. So, I’m not going to make this a bitchfest about how hard it was for me, but rather a message of hope. If you want something bad enough, don’t let it go.

Our story begins about nine years ago, when I completed my first novel. It was a terrible, ugly thing, about a woman who couldn’t remember killing her husband (obviously didn’t make a huge impression on her) and became a prostitute (I’m giggling just thinking about it). Well, I thought it was awesome at the time. And I also thought that all you had to do to get published was write a book. Right?

Um. Not exactly.

My then boyfriend (now husband) bought me a book called Writer’s Market which tells you how to write a query letter, a synopsis, gives you names of agents, etc. So I wrote myself a nice little query letter and sent it out to a handful of agents. Who all said “no.”

Huh. That’s odd. Must be a fluke, right? I mean, I had finished a novel after all. So I rewrote my query and sent it out again, this time to a longer list of agents. From that point forward, my world revolved around checking my mailbox. Every afternoon I raced home thinking, this is it. This is the day. I knew I was standing on the cusp of something big, that my life was about to change drastically. I was already giddy from it.

Each self-addressed, stamped envelope that returned home I opened with a certain reverence, like Charlie, peeling back the wrapper of a Wonka Bar. And each day that didn’t yield that Golden Ticket, I became increasingly less optimistic. My anxiety sharpened as the truth became inevitable. Not one agent was going to read my book.

I received a total of 28 rejections by the time the points were tallied. They were nearly all form letters, stating some variation of: “Dear Author, Unfortunately we are not accepting new work at this time. Thank you for your interest. Best of luck.” Some claimed that they only read manuscripts which had been referred to them by other agents or published authors. A few wrote hand-written responses: “Not for me. Thanks.”

I was devastated. It took a long time to be able to look back on that experience with any kind of objectivity. When I did, this is what I learned:

One, my query letter wasn’t any good. It was too long, and probably thinking I was clever, I reduced the margins and the font to make it look shorter. I never actually gave a synopsis of the story, though went on and on about my characters. And to top it all off, my ill-fated hook actually stated the following: “The mind is the core of our thoughts and emotional dictations.”  Really?  Really. What that has to do with the actual story, I have no idea. I’m sure I thought it was brilliant at the time.

Two, I had made the same dangerous assumption that I see hundreds of people make when interviewed in the audition phase of American Idol: I listen to music; therefore, I know how to sing. In this case, I read books, so obviously I know how to write one. Wrong. I knew nothing of the work that goes into shaping up a manuscript. Nothing of the editing process, beta readers, or critique groups. I didn’t even really know about agents, apart from the fact that I needed one. I knew the publishing industry was hard to break into, but I thought that maybe I was the exception. When I look back I think I must have appeared naïve at best, entitled at worst.

A couple of other things were working against me as well. My book was raw and honestly pretty craptacular, which I didn’t know at the time because it hadn’t even been read by anyone else. It also rang in at about 50,000 words, which is short for a “mystery,” but I had no idea how long books were supposed to be. There was nothing I could do about knowing someone in the business, but frankly, at that point, I was too scared to try to meet someone anyway. What was I supposed to say? “Hi. I want to publish a book but apparently my book sucks and no one wants to look at it.”

Well, yes. In hindsight, that would have saved me a lot of years and a lot of pain. I might have connected to a critique partner, or a writing group, or an author’s organization. I might have actually learned something about publishing (traditional publishing or self-publishing), and had some support, rather than trying to do this all on my own. But the reality was I was too ashamed. I felt like a failure. And besides that, I didn’t even know where to go to ask.

So I shoved the book into a box under my bed, and didn’t even attempt to write again for a year.

Our story continues next week. Same time, same place.

Okay, I can’t leave it this way, it’s too depressing. Let me close with this: Don’t give up. If I’d stopped writing then, I wouldn’t be here now, and where I am now is the happiest I’ve ever been.

Until next time.

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