I first started writing the summer of 1998. Back then, I was a teacher on break with three months stretching before me. After years of dreaming, I decided it was finally time to dig in and try to write a book.
For eleven years I wrote, submitting my four novels and six picture books almost exclusively to editors.* This was back in the snail mail querying age. Remember the anticipation you experienced as a child waiting for birthday presents to arrive in the mail? That was me for about a decade.
In spring 2009, I won a contest at a local writing conference. At the last minute, I’d decided to send in my middle-grade historical novel-in-verse. It was my best work, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received alongside pieces meant for the adult market.** My prize included a one-on-one with an editor who specialized in fantasy, sci-fi, and women’s fiction, a world apart from my writing. She took one look at my manuscript and asked, “Why don’t you have an agent yet?”
That’s when I started subbing to agents in earnest, sending three to five queries at a time. By May, I’d gotten my first full request. In June I got two more. In July another two. In September, yet another two.
By October, I’d had ten agents request fulls and two ask for partials. One agent liked my story, but felt some significant changes were necessary. I thought through her suggestions but took things in another direction, coming up with an entirely new, stronger ending. In the days I spent revising, two more agents requested fulls, bringing my total to twelve. I contacted the first agent, telling her I’d made changes to the story, though not along the lines she’d suggested. If she was still interested, I told her, I’d be happy to send it, but I also wanted her to know two more agents were reading the newer version. She graciously told me she’d love to see the story if the other two agents passed. One did. One didn’t.
Writing stats from 1998 to 2010, when I signed with my first agent:
10 manuscripts (4 novels, 6 picture books)
211 rejections from editors (2 fulls and 1 partial requested)
12 contests/grants (1 win)
75 rejections from agents (12 fulls and 2 partials requested)
With my first agent I sold two books, May B. (novel #4, which subbed to eleven editors and had 3 offers. It was orphaned when Random House closed Tricycle Press. The book was days from its ARC printing. Six weeks later, it was picked up by another Random House imprint, Schwartz and Wade, and went through three more rounds of edits), and Over in the Wetlands (picture book #5, which sold to Schwartz and Wade with zero rejections). After reworking several manuscripts, I officially retired most of them and drafted my verse novel, Blue Birds.
In 2013, I was on the hunt again for an agent. I submitted to three agencies and got two offers. I’ve been with Tracey Adams of Adams Literary ever since.
Writing stats for the last five years:
7.5 manuscripts (1.5 novels, 6 picture books — 3 of these manuscripts have been officially retired)
5 sales (3 novels, 2 picture books…the second picture book I hope to be able announce soon-ish!)
2 anthology pieces, including an overhauled chapter from novel #2…the one Stacey rejected in 2008!
3 grants / 2 contests (with no wins)
You could look at these numbers and get pretty discouraged. 14 years to see a book on the shelf? Regular rejection with 7 books sold? I can look at these numbers — even knowing things worked out in the end — and feel the same. I know plenty of people with a shorter apprenticeship. I’ve got lots of friends far more prolific. All sorts of authors I debuted with in 2012 have published far more than I have. Here’s the thing: Your process is yours. Your journey is yours. Each book finds its way on its own.
Two truths kept me going before I sold my first book (and aren’t bad to remember now):
- I have something unique to say (even when I’m not sure what that is).
- My work can only improve if I keep at it.
Rejection continues to be a part of the process. That’s just how it goes.
The writing life (and the publication process) is a long-road, long-view, long-term journey. There’s no other way to look at it.
So, my friends, if you are on this journey, too, take heart. There is no right way. There’s no quick fix. There is no easy road. There is a fair dose of frustration and disappointment. But there is joy and satisfaction, too.
Here’s to all the good work ahead. Here’s to the next twenty years.
*Because an agent isn’t a necessity in the children’s market (but is a REALLY GOOD IDEA), I figured submitting to an agent was an extra, unnecessary step. Perhaps not my smartest move, but it also was not detrimental, as my writing wasn’t yet ready for a sale or representation. These were my apprenticeship years.
**I also wasn’t sure if anyone would understand what I was trying to do with this verse thing. A few months before I had submitted the first ten pages to an editor at a children’s conference. She clearly was unfamiliar with the form and thought it was a rather mature picture book that was missing its ending!