How’d I get my book deal?
Simple version: I got a sharp agent.
Extended version: A few years before she died, the great Octavia Butler visited Bryn Mawr College, where I worked. In the assembly hall, a student raised her hand and waxed eloquently about Octavia’s sparkling talent. Octavia’s response was something like (I’m paraphrasing), I’m not talented, I work hard.
When she first started out, she woke at 2 a.m. to write, before reporting to her job as an inspector at a potato chip factory.
It was probably my Yankee roots, but her notion that hard work trumps talent inspired me. My life didn’t resemble hers. But I could still work hard.
At that point, I was spending two hours a day riding commuter trains. Which meant — factoring in time lost to motion sickness and walking between Eighth and Eleventh streets for connections — I read about a book a week. I read a little of everything, fiction and nonfiction alike. I soon adopted the belief that just about any book — even those I slog through or abandon after a few chapters — can teach me at least a little something about the craft of writing.
Meanwhile, I workshopped my own fiction with a writing group, a handful of likeminded college friends. For about two years, with their guidance, I worked on the same two short stories. One eventually earned a handwritten rejection from the editor of a respected literary magazine, who called my fiction “tonally successful.” I happy-danced when I read that.
The other short story won a contest and was published in Yankee magazine. I happy-danced again, and sent Octavia thankful vibes.
After that publication, nothing really happened. I kept writing and submitting but, aside from a poem published in a small journal, I received no love. Years went by. Then, in 2007, I was rejected by eleven graduate-level creative writing programs.
Two programs accepted me, and those acceptances felt good. But I wasn’t sufficiently excited about either school, so I shelved the MFA plan, and instead wrote a novel that just about every literary agent in the world rejected. (More on that experience here.) A few agents emailed to say that I came very close. One agent wrote, “keep writing.”
I clung to those emails, little flares of hope. Roland Merullo once told my husband to “celebrate every step” on the path to publication. I think that’s sage advice, and I think “good rejections” are a step on the path.
Even those good rejections hurt. To coin a phrase, it’s a good hurt. Getting rejected desensitized and humbled me. Too, it tested my mettle. I wanted a book deal. I wanted it bad. So I kept giving myself chances. And eventually, I got an acceptance. A big acceptance, the only kind that really mattered to me: a book deal.
When All Come Home scored me an agent, I celebrated by calling a few friends and loved ones, and then I took a nap. I woke up when my brother-in-law Micah knocked on the door bearing The Glenlivet. Then I resumed the nap.
When I learned that Dutton would publish All Come Home, Matt and I silently hugged and swayed for about two minutes in our living room, donned Phillies red, and went to a game. The next day I called my mom and told her, and she cried. I called my dad, and he got weepy too (though he’ll never admit it). I called my sister Annie, and she yelled, “shut up!” like Elaine on Seinfeld, and I could hear the enormous smile on her face. And my brother Rob kept repeating, “Totally awesome. But I’m not surprised.”
Unlike Octavia Butler, I never rose at 2 a.m. to write, before going to inspect potato chips. Turned out, “working hard” for me meant working through rejection. I’m not alone. Many published authors received hundreds of previous beat-downs—if not from MFA programs or literary agents, then from magazines or publishing houses. And no matter how much or little “natural talent” you have, writing a book is a sustained effort, carried out over months or years. So is getting it published.
So, to sum up: How’d I get my book deal? I do the same as many others in my situation: I read my butt off; I write, rewrite, and submit; I get rejected; I believe the positive messages encoded in “good rejections”; and I celebrate — and share — every step.
I use present tense because, even though I have a book deal, the journey’s not over. And in the years to come, as I grow and evolve, I’m sure I’ll be adding to that above how-to list.
P.S. The book Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb is a bible for many aspiring authors. Happily, Laura will be our guest this Saturday, October 24.
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