Part I is here.
Following that Labor Day weekend in 1994, I continued writing and submitting my work. High school buddy Sam and I finished our Rumpelstiltskin novel. I wrote a YA fantasy—the first full-length novel I ever finished on my own.
I found writing alone surprisingly hard. Remember, by this point, Sam and I had written two full-length works together: a full screenplay and a novel. We worked well as a team, in part because we could be totally honest with one another. If I had a really dumb idea or wanted to add a line of dialogue that sounded cheesy, she’d say so.
Facing the computer screen without her to keep me in check was scary. I had no idea if what I was doing amounted to crap.
During this time, I submitted my work and got several positive responses that were still rejections. (“We love the concept! Now send us sample chapters! We loved those, so send us the full manuscript! We still love it, but it’s not quite right for us; sorry.”)
In the middle of all this, I started querying magazines with article ideas. One editor, after seeing several of my queries, contacted me and gave me a small assignment in an upstart newsletter that the magazine was launching.
That assignment led to several more, and more and more. At the same time, a fledgling newspaper (now defunct) needed a writer, and the religion editor happened to know me and ask for my help. I ended up doing articles for her department as well as book reviews and some other articles, some of which landed on the front page.
In the meantime, I kept writing novels, attending local writers groups and going to conferences. I read books on writing. I joined a critique group. I entered contests. I took my apprenticeship very seriously, working hard on learning all I could about the craft of writing. I even served three years on my chapter’s board of the League of Utah Writers, including one year as chapter president. (In that position, I had to organize the League's spring workshop. While pregnant. So fun, and no pressure or anything.)
My most proud moments from this period were taking second place in the League's statewide novel contest two years in a row. I submitted both of those novels for publication and received very encouraging responses—including one rejection that actually put me in a good mood it was so glowing—but yes, rejections to add to my growing file.
A third year I entered another novel in the League's contest, hoping for a repeat award. This time I didn't even get an Honorable Mention. To make matters worse, the judge all but shredded my work. The comment form was littered with every cliche about bad writing. He/she might as well have scrawled, "Do you speak English?" across the top.
The only strength they found in my writing was the fact that I had actually completed a full manuscript, so apparently I must have some perseverance.
But, um, I already had perseverance . . . this wasn't my first manuscript. It was, counting the fairy tale I wrote with Sam, my seventh. I was already a published writer with a couple dozen articles under my belt. I even won a publication award from the League for them. I wasn't a complete amateur.
A writer has to have a thick skin, and over the years I had developed a relatively thick one, especially since joining that critique group (the best thing I ever did for my writing, incidentally). But something about this judge's comments cut deeper than any other criticism I had ever encountered, leaving me paralyzed.
I was a total basket case. My husband could tell I was in a very dark place, so for the only time ever in our marriage besides Valentines and our anniversary, he sent me flowers. I sobbed over them.
I couldn't write for two months. I questioned my ability. I questioned my sanity. I almost threw in the towel. My husband let me cry in his arms more than once, but he never let me seriously entertain the notion of quitting. He knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life.
During this grieving period, I couldn't see how I could possibly keep going. I considered submitting to tiny publishers where my chances would be much better. But I knew I would never be satisfied if I “settled.” I had to keep aiming for the top of the market I wanted to be in. That pretty much meant getting in with one of three publishers (at the time; now there are only two big fish).
I licked my wounds and decided to take a hard look at the book I had entered into that last contest, the one that was apparently so terrible.
It simply couldn't be as bad as the judge had said, I figured, but obviously something was wrong with it, and I was determined to find out what. About three quarters of the way into the rewrite, I had an epiphany and realized exactly where I'd gone wrong. Eureka! (I still think the judge was an idiot. The book wasn't that bad. But yes, I figured out how to make it much better.)
While fixing that book, I resubmitted a novel I'd sent to a publisher once before, but which now had a new managing editor. I'd revised that manuscript quite heavily before submitting it a second time. Instead of a blanket rejection this time, they requested that I revise and resubmit the book. A step forward!
Within days of that request, Valerie, one of the editors at the publishing house, contacted me. She'd seen my work cross her desk over the years and knew my history well.
In an e-mail she invited me to lunch to brainstorm why, since she felt I had talent, I had come so close to acceptance so many times yet never quite made it. We would also come up with ideas on what I could do to push my work over the edge into publication.
To say the least, I jumped at the chance. (I think I cheered, sang, and danced at the chance.)
The next few days were spent feverishly writing synopses of some my books to send ahead of time so Valerie could read them and give me feedback. We met over Chinese and talked for a long time. I came away with fabulous ideas and a better understanding of what the company was looking for.
My biggest problem? The books I had submitted, no matter how well-written, weren’t as marketable as they needed to be. Publishing must, unfortunately, account for the bottom line. It's a business. If they love a book but can't sell it, they probably can't accept it.
When she described the types of books they had published that had sold the most and who their readership mostly consisted of, a light bulb went on in my head.
Ahh . . . so if I tweak X, Y, and Z, this particular book would suddenly appeal to a broader audience. I get it!
I also asked Valerie which book I should submit next: should I rework the one just rejected as I had been told to, or should I submit the one I'd most recently finished and was revising?
She thought my new one—which the judge had hated, but which I had since done major surgery on—had a great shot, and she told me that I could submit electronically to her when I was ready instead of having to do the snail mail thing (way cool). She said she looked forward to helping me break in, because I would be an asset to the company.
I think I floated home.
A couple of months later, when I felt the book was polished enough, I e-mailed Valerie and asked what format to send it in.
Surprise! That very day was her last at the company.
I felt like hitting my head against a brick wall.
~~~ Know of a sale I missed? Let me know in the comments! ~~~ The Book Thief , by Markus Zusak It is 1939. Nazi Germany....
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