Yesterday, someone asked me how I first got published, and when I knew that I wanted to be a writer. It made me remember that I’d detailed both those things in a blog that I posted all the way back in March 2007, several months before my first book even released. Since this is release week for my 30th(!!!) story, BOTH FEETIN THE GRAVE, I thought I’d repost that journey here. My former post had been titled REJECTION, RUDY, AND NO REGRETS:
“I get asked a lot about how I landed my first publishing contract. To help with illustrating, I’m using the movie RUDY. It’s about a young college boy who longs more than anything to go to Notre Dame and make the football team.
At the beginning of the movie, we learn Rudy is obsessed with the lore and legacy of Notre Dame football. More than anything, he wants to make the team. Problem is, he’s short, not very athletic, and doesn’t have the grades to get into Notre Dame. In my case, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was twelve years old, but I’ve never been to college, I’m not particularly intelligent, and I don’t have any “in” with the publishing world. So, Rudy goes to a local college and studies his ass off while also trying to get into shape for that magical day when Notre Dame will approve his transfer to their campus. In my case, I buy books on writing, try to figure out what a “good” query letter is, and research agents in my genre.
Every semester, Rudy applies to Notre Dame (or I send out multiple query letters and sample pages to agencies.) Every semester, Rudy is turned down (or I get back those dreaded form letter rejections.) No one in Rudy’s family thinks he has a chance, either. Neither do his friends (for me, it was hearing lots of “writing is a nice hobby.“) But, Rudy is determined despite the odds (and so was I. Or, more accurately, I figured I had nothing to lose. I was already unpublished, so there was only one way to go from there.)
Rudy would get his rejections on good days and bad ones. So would I. Rejection has no mercy for timing. One day sticks out in particular: I had a blasting migraine, and I was leaving to meet my family at the hospital where we were taking my grandmother off life support. Why I checked my mail first, I’ll never know, but I did…and found not one but two rejection letters from places I’d thought were sure things. I’d been querying for about a year then, and that day, I almost gave up for good. However, my grandmother hadn’t let a paralyzing stroke ruin the last eleven years of her life, so I decided that I couldn’t quit so easily, either. I kept revising my novel and query letters, and kept sending more out. Months later, out of a batch of five I’d recently sent, three came back with form rejections…and two were requests for full manuscripts.
Let’s jump back to the movie. Remember when Rudy opened that letter from Notre Dame, knowing if it was a rejection, he’d miss his last chance to transfer in time for football try-outs? How he sat on a bench outside, read their acceptance out loud, and started to cry? Well, when I opened the email from an agent who’d rejected me before and who I only sent to again because I figured it couldn’t get any worse…and saw her reply asking for my full manuscript, I teared up, too. For Rudy, his chance was being accepted into the college where his beloved team played. For me, it was having an agent and a publisher interested enough to read my entire book. Delighted, I sent my manuscript off to both places.
After a few weeks, the agent sent me a detailed reply saying that while she liked my characters and my writing “voice,” my book wasn’t strong enough for her to represent it. She cited several reasons why. Ow, ow, ow! Think Rudy being bashed around in football try-outs by all the bigger, more athletic players. But, at the end of her critique, the agent invited me to resubmit if I wanted to revise.
Here is where my reaction was different from Rudy picking himself up and going right back at it without complaint. My first instinct was to email the agent back to tell her how WRONG she was, because my book was perfect, perfect! (yes, I was young and foolish.) However…I took a deep breath and thanked her for her time, and then later that night, I looked at her critique with my wounded ego locked up. After I did that, I decided to revise. Or, like Rudy, I finally got up and went back onto the field for more. A few weeks later, I sent my amended book off to the agent, confident that now, she would like it enough to sign me.
To summarize her response: Better, but still not good enough.
I was awash in disappointment, but once more, I hid that and thanked her for her time while also promising to fix all that was still wrong. I revised again (flash to Rudy getting pummeled by the merciless linebackers), and when I sent it to her a couple weeks later, I was positive that THIS version was a winner.
Her response? Not quite there yet…
In my newbie immaturity, I confess to wondering if she was a sadist tormenting me for her own amusement (I know now that agents are too busy to do that.) The ironic part? Later that day, the small-press publisher who’d requested my full manuscript called to tell me that she LOVED it, and wanted to publish it in its original form. So, I had an agent who didn’t want me yet, but a publisher who did. It was instant gratification versus more uncertainty. My family didn’t get my hesitation, either. “You want to get published? Well, here’s your chance!” was the paraphrased version I heard from them.
I was torn. The publisher was legit – no fees, no scams, no hidden cost-sharing. But, the initial print run was tiny, and furthermore, after revising twice, I didn’t like my original version anymore. So, with a lot of fear over burning a bridge and possibly kicking myself for the rest of my life, I told the publisher no. Then, I revised my novel again, sending it off to the agent a third time.
Six weeks later, she said yes. Cue the Notre Dame coach telling Rudy he’s made the team.
The next three months, I’ll compare to the part of the movie where Rudy was a member of Notre Dame football team…and no one but him really noticed. His family didn’t get to see him on TV, because Rudy wasn’t a starter. So, Rudy practiced with the team, but never got to play in the games, which made it not ‘real’ to them. Rudy’s coach promised him that one day, he’d let Rudy dress and run out onto the field so everyone could see him as an official Notre Dame football player (much like my new agent told me that she thought she could sell my book.) But, as in life, there were complications. In the movie, Rudy’s coach retired in the middle of the season, and another coach took over. Rudy didn’t know if this new coach would let him play, yet still, he trained every week with the team.
Time stretches. Rudy gets despondent. At one particularly low moment, Rudy wonders if all his efforts have been a waste of time. But, with the help of his teammates (in my case, it was my agent sending my book to a second round of editors after every editor in the first round had passed on it), the news finally comes. Rudy will dress and run out onto the field in the last game, showing everyone that he’s accomplished his dream of being a Notre Dame football player. For me, it was my agent emailing to say that I’d been offered a two-book deal by Erika Tsang at Avon/HarperCollins. In fact, Erika loved HALFWAY TO THE GRAVE so much that she offered the deal before she’d even finished reading it (not kidding – Erika still swears to this.)
My publishing contract felt similar to Rudy finally running onto the field of the school he loved to be counted amongst people he’d grown up admiring: the Notre Dame football team. For me, my team was the publishing world, and with this, I finally had my chance to be the thing I’d grown up wishing that I could be: an author. It was more than worth what it took to get there. Now, of course, I’m hoping/dreaming that the rest of my story will be similar to Rudy’s – that I’ll get time to play on the field, sack the quarterback (or the odds against being a successful writer), and maybe even get hoisted on my friend’s shoulders at the end of a job well done. In short, I’m not done dreaming yet.”
Friends…some things might have changed since I first wrote this in 2007, like traditional publishing being the only option for writers back then, but what hasn’t changed is my awe and gratitude that I still get to be doing my former dream as my job. You’ve made that possible, readers, from the very first book to this one, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. I’d carry YOU off the field if I could 😊.
As a reminder, if you want to hang out with me and both halves of the dynamite writing duo, Ilona Andrews, we’re doing a live Zoom chat TODAY at 4pm Eastern. Details and registration link below.
We’ll be talking about writing alternate POVs, male characters insights, returning to a beloved series, sexy (or not) vampires, badass heroines, and more! The chat will be moderated by Meena Jain from Ashland Library. You can REGISTER HERE. Hope to see some of you there!