My path to publication: A comedy of failures

I wrote last week about how I hadn’t planned on becoming a writer, and how writing was something I came to after being unemployed for a long time. So already my path to publication was a little longer and had more forking paths than some people.

I completed the rough draft of my novel in about six months in 2011, and I spent the next four years first learning how to revise a novel, and then going through the slow and painstaking process of actually doing it. When I decided to give the writing thing a try in 2010, I said I’d give myself five years to have made some tangible progress, and so in the beginning of 2015, when I was so sick of the manuscript I could barely stand to look at it, I decided it needed to go out to agents.

 

The Bible

I had The Bible — and by bible I mean, of course, the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. I read all their how-to’s and tips for great cover letters, and I bookmarked lots of articles like Nathan Bransford’s blog post on finding an agent. My book, MONA AT SEA, is about a young woman and I was fairly young myself, and I decided I wanted a junior agent, a young woman, someone who might see herself in my protagonist. Lena Dunham had recently made news for having gotten a $3.5 million advance on her collection of essays and, being myself not averse to large sums of money, I looked around the internet to try find out who her agent was. Turns out it was Kimberly Witherspoon of Inkwell Management. I didn’t think I could hope to attract her attention, so I instead sent a cold query to one of the junior agents on the Inkwell roster. It was only the second query letter I had ever sent, and I wasn’t expecting much, but I was thrilled beyond belief when I received a request for a full manuscript two days later. And three weeks after that I had an offer of representation from a junior agent who worked with Kimberly Witherspoon. The contract was signed, sealed, and delivered. I thought I had it made in the shade with lemonade.

 

Me after signing with Inkwell

My agent, Lena Yarbrough, immediately set out helping me polish the manuscript in preparation for going on submission. Her suggestions were astute, and the manuscript was far, far better after she’d helped me polish it. We went on submission in early summer of 2015, and there was immediate interest from an editor at a big press. I waited, my finger more or less poised atop a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. My agent called: The editor is interested, she said, but she has some qualms and she’d like to see a rewrite. Of course I was happy to rewrite it. If she’d wanted the whole thing rewritten with dinosaurs on Jupiter I would have done it, so desperate was I to get a book deal. I cranked out a rewrite, addressing exactly what the editor had flagged, sent it back to my agent and waited. And waited. And waaaaaaaited. Months went by and one editor after another passed with the same notes:

The book is hilarious, but we don’t know how to market it.

Finally the editor who’d shown initial interest responded to say she loved the edits, that we’d done everything she asked for, but that she’d have to pass because her entire press had restructured and was pivoting away from literary fiction.

It was hard to hear. I was at a friend’s wedding when I got the email, and so luckily I was distracted, but news like that never feels good. Summer ended, then fall, winter, spring. The rejections kept coming. Finally in May of 2016 I got the death knell: My agent emailed to say that she was so sorry, but that she’d run out of editors. MONA was dead. I was crushed. And there was nothing that could be done. So I did what any self-respecting writer does when they get a crushing blow: I took my bitter self out to a bar and got really, really drunk.

 

Here’s me so drunk I turned into a panda

I had myself a pity party for one whole weekend. I ate candy bars and sang off-key to Lady Gaga and ignored my kids, and when Monday morning rolled around and I had to get back to real life I felt stung and disappointed, but actually okay. I had just gotten into LitCamp, my first writer’s workshop, and so I had that to look forward to. At LitCamp I was around serious, professional writers for the first time ever (my socializing until then had been almost 100% dictated by the preschool pickup and drop-off schedule). When I came back after four days my head was spinning with new ideas, new friends, new words. And more than that: I’d met so many professional writers who’d also had their first book get rejected by publishers. I learned that that was even…common! And I came away thinking something else:

I’d gotten an agent on only my 2nd ever query letter. I’d gotten into a juried writer’s workshop. And though editors hadn’t picked up MONA AT SEA, they had said again and again that they wanted to see my next book when it was ready.

Well, I thought, I’d better get writing then.

So I put MONA in the proverbial drawer and got to work on my second novel. I learned how to write short stories and essays. I joined a writer’s group with people I met at LitCamp. And I read. Like my life depended on it. I read anything anyone recommended. Rilke, Kafka, Woolf, Garcia Marquez, Allende, Dostoyevsky, Paul Harding, Roxane Gay, Vanessa Hua, Jess Walter. I devoured books like I was in one of those training montages from a martial arts movie: the novice has to carry water from a well, break boards until her hands bleed, and practice Tai Chi in front of a setting sun.

 

It was exactly like this except with books

I was getting stronger and better, more confident in my abilities, and more willing to advocate for myself (which was handy because at that time my agent informed me she was leaving the profession — something that happens A LOT). I would send MONA out to a small press every now and again, but I never heard back. And that was okay because my eyes were already on the horizon. I knew I would get there, but I knew the path would be long and very meandering.

Fast forward to 2019 when I saw that The Santa Fe Writers Project was holding a manuscript contest judged by Carmen Maria Machado. I LOVED her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and I thought, What the hell? Why not? I entered MONA AT SEA into the contest, thinking it would be cool if I got an honorable mention or something. Months went by and a long list was announced. I made it! Then a short list was announced. I made that, too! Then a list of six finalists was announced, culled from over a thousand entries, and there was MONA AT SEA, incontrovertible in pixelated black and white.

Then on a Sunday morning I got a short email from Andrew Gifford, Director of SFWP, saying he loved the manuscript and was it available?

Dear reader, I didn’t believe it. I looked at the email, couldn’t decide what to make of it, and went about my day. I’d pull out my phone, read the email again and again, trying to understand. Was he saying what I thought he was saying? Surely there was a catch. It couldn’t just…happen…could it?

Yes, I typed tentatively into the phone. It’s available. Well, Andrew said, can I send you a contract?

And the funny thing is that I wavered. I actually thought about saying no. It sounds crazy, after so many years and tears, but I did actually have a lot of trouble deciding what to do. It had been so long since I’d pinned any hopes at all on MONA — 8 years since I finished the rough draft, 4 years since it had gone on submission, and 3 years since it had gone into a drawer. Like any relationship run its course, I had moved on. I had a new manuscript, a new writing style, new ideas, new goals, new motivations. Could I go back into the manuscript? Tear it down and rebuild it? Was that what I wanted?

In my soul searching I came across a quote that ended up making my decision for me:  “The work we do lacks meaning if it does not serve the community.” — Rachel Pollack, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom

I needed to believe in my book again, and I needed to see how MONA could help other people struggling with unemployment, lack of direction, self-harm, and who wanted but couldn’t find what was meaningful in their lives. I knew how much books had changed me for the better, how they’d taught me compassion and empathy and expanded myself beyond the borders of myself into something better, more humane.

Yes! I wrote back to Andrew. Yes!

 

   The exact pose I struck after signing the contract with SFWP

So it’s a little over a year later and here I am counting down the months until July 2021 when MONA officially releases (though you can, of course, pre-order it here!!!). And it’s been a long and winding road, a road that’s been ten years in the making, but I don’t have any regrets. If anything I’m thankful for the opportunity to have failed, to have seen my dreams go up in smoke, because I learned that I can bounce back from failure. I stared straight into the jaws of my worst nightmare and I didn’t die. I came out stronger.

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Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.

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This article has 2 Comments

  1. This is really inspiring! I love hearing success stories from writers, but I think I feel most connected when people are willing to share times when they struggled and got crushed. It makes the story human, it makes it ache. You’ve had an amazing journey–and it sounds like you have an amazing book! Congratulations!!

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