You Just Have to Believe by Deb Jess

There are many days when I still can’t believe I sold Driving Sideways. Which, when I sold it, was called Riding with Larry Resnick. But then, many things have changed since the day of the sale.

I nearly gave up writing in 2002. In fact, I did for awhile. Rejections can be relentless as they chip away at you—you dispatch batch after batch of queries with such hope, sometimes snagging a request for a partial here, a request for a full there, but if you’re continually coming up for air empty-handed, inevitably, you have a moment where you ask yourself: How long can I keep pushing this rock up this hill?

I couldn’t stop writing, of course. When the idea for Driving Sideways came to me, it sunk its teeth right into me and didn’t let go. Almost immediately, things were different. I entered my first chapters in two different contests, and those chapters did well enough to lead me to believe: Hey, I might have something here. I finished the novel and signed with an agent. A real live agent! But part of me still couldn’t believe her when she told me she loved the book. “Really? You really love it?” I kept looking over my shoulder to see if she was talking to someone else. “You love it enough to sign me as a client?”

So the book went on submission in late November of 2005. I tried not to think about it, because I’d wanted this for so long, since childhood really, and I’d gotten so close before but never close enough to see what was behind that magic door. It seemed like a fluke that was happening to someone else. That’s not me actually getting to choose which agent to sign with. That’s not me with a book out on submission to major publishing houses. And when my agent Laura told me in December that we had interest from enough publishers to merit an auction, of course I still didn’t believe her. “No, that can’t be. Really? An auction?”

I think I danced around the house, skipped down the hallways in my office. I am pretty sure I gushed about the very concept to my colleagues, friends, and family. I remember how proud my husband was when he looked at me, because he’d walked with me to the post office as I mailed those batches of unfruitful queries, he’d watched my face fall as I read the particularly painful rejection letters aloud. “This is really happening, isn’t it?” he asked, a bit of wonder in his voice.

“I’m not sure yet,” I replied carefully, more than a bit of wonder in my own voice, too.

One editor in particular was quite fond of the book, and my agent arranged for me to speak with her on the phone before anything went down. After hyperventilating at the prospect of actually speaking with an editor from HarperCollins, after my hands stopped shaking and my voice stopped doing this awful clicking thing, the phone rang, and my stomach lurched and I couldn’t stop smiling. We really connected, and I remember hoping she’d be “The One.”

The morning of the auction was a snowy and cold one. I had an appointment with a client school district, and I have no idea how I sat through that meeting discussing drug abuse prevention grants in a sterile conference room. I just remember this effervescent feeling coursing through me, the feeling of having an amazing secret. People were talking about buying my book that very minute! People actually liked a story I told! Really? Did they really? Was this really happening? On the way out, I confessed my secret to one of my clients. She assumed the same goofy, slightly surreal grin that I was wearing, and as I walked out into the snowy parking lot, she called after me, “Remember us when you’re rich and famous!”

I looked over my shoulder again. Did she mean me? Was she talking to me? The public servant who grew up with homemade Cabbage Patch dolls and second-hand clothes?

On the blizzardy drive home, I nearly hit a flock of wild turkeys crossing the highway. And when I got home, I had some decisions to make. I ended up being incredibly indecisive about most of them, but thank God for the insights and advice of my agent. I hemmed and hawed, made things much more agonizing than they had to be. But I made my choice. I picked The One. After I hung up with my agent, I sat still for just a second, tears welling in my eyes. I did it, I thought, looking at my dog as she looked quizzically back up at me. I actually did it. Then I called my husband at work, my brain buzzing with what had just transpired in my quiet living room, the thin white winter light filtering through the windows, making everything looking like a dream. But it was a dream I actually ended up believing, because it really came true.

PS: the rollercoaster only began with the sale, as my editor left HarperCollins for Random House in the summer of 2006…and wouldn’t you know, I got to come with?

Driving Sideways by Jess Riley

14 Replies to “You Just Have to Believe by Deb Jess”

  1. great story jess. I think we writers veer toward imposter complexes whenever we have an inkling of someone other than us or close relatives actually liking our writing. Its so funny but I guess its due to such continued rejection–works charms on the morale, doesn’t it?

  2. I love all the success stories I’m reading here. It’s inspiring – but I must admit it’s also daunting. Write a book, get an agent, publish! I hope it is that “easy” for me when I finish my book 🙂

  3. Another honest and wonderful story. What Jenny said about the imposter syndrome–didn’t Sally Field say it best, “You like me you really like me!


  4. Jenny you’re right – in this business we get so used to ‘failing’ (being rejected) that sometimes it comes as such a surprise when someone loves the work. And who hasn’t thought of packing it all in?

    Great story, Jess, I’m looking forward to reading Driving Sideways.

  5. I love that you almost hit a flock of turkeys. I know the over the shoulder feeling all too well. I suspect agents must get used to people doing the “you really like it? How much do you like it? Do you still like it now? how about right now?”

  6. “After I finished the first two chapters of a book I was writing, I read them and grimaced…I was ready to pitch the chapters, and my writing career, out the window. A writer friend called…and told me: “Those chapters are fine. Stop being afraid. Stop criticizing yourself. And keep on writing.” I followed her advice.

    The book I almost threw away became a New York Times bestseller.”
    ~Melodie Beattie

    The book was ‘Codependent No More’ and spent over three years on the New York Times bestseller list.

  7. Jess,

    Great story. I remember reading an interview with Alice Sebold about a year after The Lovely Bones had hit the NYT (and every other) list where she described how she still didn’t feel like a “real author”. I think we all have those feelings sometimes.

    You know in the Velveteen Rabbit, if a child truly loves a toy, it becomes real?

    It’s the same thing with authors: At least one person loved your story enough to make it into a book.

    Which means, my dear, that you are the real thing.


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