Ten years ago, I did a thing. I wrote a book. I decided to get it published and life happily ever after. If you’re shaking your head or laughing at me by now, you probably know what I’m about to say. I wish I could tell you I emailed my story to an agent who immediately offered to represent me and landed a million dollar deal with a big name publisher within a week and the movie will be in theaters next year. Heck, I wish I could tell you I got an agent, a publishing deal, and my book is available nationwide right this moment. That's not what happened. Not even close.
The truth is, it took three years to get an agent for that book and nothing happened. A year later, I signed on with a different agent and still nothing happened. I wrote a second manuscript and we started over with submissions to editors. Life threw me a couple of vicious curve balls and I had to shift my focus away from writing for a few years. Things crumbled down around me and I hit a low point that I never want to see again. Ever. I had a mental and physical breakdown that almost ended everything. But I lived. Somehow, I crawled out of the rubble and dusted myself off. I polished up my manuscript pitch and got it ready to email to my agent. My confidence was shaken and I panicked when it was time to hit send. I didn’t know if I still had an agent after all that time, or if our contract dissolved after a few years of being in the void. Even worse, I didn’t know if I deserved an agent at all. The story that I queried to get representation in the beginning was on indefinite hold and I was working with a totally new project. It hadn’t really been field tested and I was still a nobody. I tried reaching out to a friend to see if the new piece was worth bothering with at all. I finally just wrote a painful email that said something like “I know it’s been forever and I’m totally okay if you’re not my agent anymore…” and sent it. Miraculously, she was still on board. We’d had our eye on a certain publisher before my giant writing hiatus and officially submitted the pitch for The Saline Solution in November of 2018. January, 2019, we got an offer. A decade after my first query, I signed a publishing contract.
Ten years. My kids were 11, 9, 6, 4, and 2 when I set out to get published. They’ll be 22, 20, 17, 15, and 13 when The Saline Solution is released. I had kids in elementary school, preschool, and my youngest was being potty trained. Now I have two adult kids in college, two teenagers in high school, and a middle schooler. I went from 31 to 41. It’s been a long time.
What I’m learning is that most of us have very different experiences on the road to publication. So many famous authors were rejected hundreds of times before they got a break. So many. Sure, you’ll find plenty of success stories from authors who were picked up fast and sold their first books to major publishing houses. You’ll also hear about authors who gave up on querying or skipped it altogether and went straight to self-publishing. The factor that I see more than any other—the common element in most of these stories—is perseverance. With few exceptions, most of us have read rejection letter after rejection letter. We’ve been turned down more times than we can count. It takes querying the right agent at the right time, and having that agent pitch to the right editor when the market is right. It takes the stars aligning. The time might not have been right for my book when I wrote it, but it is now. I drafted The Saline Solution before the #metoo movement. It’s more relevant now that it was when I wrote it. The right agent, the right editor, the right time. If I’d given up after letting go of my first agent, or after shelving my first project, or even after my world collapsed, I would’ve missed that window.
When you finish your manuscript, polish it. Polish it again. Get it as clean as you can before you query it. Have other writers read it and really listen to their feedback. Polish your query. If you’re not getting submission requests from your query, figure out why. Go back to the drawing board again and again until it works. Don’t stop writing. Write while you’re waiting. You might find yourself at a dead end like I did and a second manuscript could save your career. Write often. Read often. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t listen to people who tell you no one can teach you how to write. There’s always more to learn. Take classes, read books, find your voice. There are patterns and formulas to all of this. There are rules. What I’ve learned in the last six months of research between rounds of editing has helped me see where my first manuscript went off the rails. I know how to fix it.
When it comes down to it, a great manuscript and a well-written query are more important than a thousand Twitter followers and a professional website. Those can come later. All the flash and glitter in the world won’t make up for a crappy manuscript.
You got this.
Recommended resources in no particular order;
Verbalize by Damon Suede: A unique approach to crafting characters and scenes that really drive your story through creative use of verbs. Activate is a thesaurus of verbs that’ll help you really get the most out of Suede’s advice.
Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig: This one’s fun to read even if you’re not a writer. Wendig practices what he’s preaching.
On Writing by Stephen King: Always inspiring, King should be on every writer’s shelf. This is one of my favorites.
Find Your Writer’s Voice by Bria Quinlan and Jeannie Lin: Stephen King has a sharp and unmistakable one. Shirley Jackson’s is breathtakingly beautiful. This book can help you find and develop your own voice.
MasterClass.com: A subscription gives you access to amazing courses from big names in the industry like Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, James Patterson, and Judy Blume. Well worth it.