This week, I’m happy to share another guest post. My friend Cindy Baldwin has written a bit about her journey to becoming a published author. She’s very open and honest about the hard work and effort it took. Her middle grade novel, Where the Watermelons Grow, is scheduled for publication in 2018. Reading her story has inspired me to keep writing and keep trying. I hope it inspires you too!
Behind the Scenes: An Author’s Difficult Journey to Publication
Publication is a Journey
Few things were more comforting to me as an aspiring author than hearing the behind-the-scenes stories of how other authors weathered their paths to publication. So often, the parts of an author’s career that we talk about are the exciting ones—the agent, the book deal, the publication day. As wonderful as these milestones are, focusing only on them, rather than on the (usually long) journey that brought authors there, can make the time spent in the trenches of drafting, revising, querying, or submission feel even more difficult.
Like most authors, the path to my book deal was long and not very straight. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember (the oldest story I’ve ever found was from age seven), and knew as early as high school that I wanted to make a career as a novelist. Still, it took more than a decade, and five different novels, from that initial decision to signing my book contract!
The First Attempt
I attended my first-ever writing conference and sent my first-ever queries within a few years of finishing college. I was querying a book that I loved, a young adult Beauty and the Beast retelling inspired by a mysterious pine hedge in my childhood neighborhood. After several months of querying without luck, I entered Brenda Drake’s fantastic Pitch Wars contest, hoping that a two-month writing mentorship could help me figure out why agents weren’t interested in my query.
I didn’t get into Pitch Wars, but I did get valuable feedback from some of the mentors I submitted to. Just like the agents I’d queried, these mentors suggested that my retelling wasn’t original enough, didn’t stand out enough from a market positively soaked with fairytale retellings, particularly more common fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast. Receiving that feedback plunged me into a serious bout of questioning and writer angst. Did I actually have any original ideas? Would I ever be able to write something that “stood out in the market”? If I couldn’t make things work with this story that I loved, how could I have the emotional energy to continue to throw myself at agents who weren’t interested in the things I wrote?
The Second Attempt
After a few weeks, though, I pulled myself out of the depths of despair, decided to put the retelling on the shelf for a little while, and went back to the first draft I’d been working on a few months before: A strange, lyrical, meandering exploration of family and loss and generational trauma, set in my favorite place in the world (the Outer Banks of North Carolina, not far from where I grew up). This book became the book of my heart; I poured every bit of myself into writing it, and when I was done, I started pitching that one. At first, agent requests for my full manuscript poured in. Yes! I thought. It’s finally happening! But after only a few months, the stream of full requests turned into an equally steady stream of full rejections. Convinced that my book had potential but needed a lot of work, I once again applied to Pitch Wars—and this time I got in!
The two months of the Pitch Wars revision period were some of the most amazing in my writing life. In two months working with my mentor (author Rosalyn Eves), I learned more than I ever did in all my college writing classes combined. By the end of Pitch Wars, I’d completely overhauled my manuscript, and learned so much about plot structure and characterization. I felt confident that after Pitch Wars ended, I’d be able to find an agent who loved this book as much as I did.
But within a few months of the contest’s end, it was clear that the book of my heart still wasn’t good enough to make it in the overcrowded YA fantasy market. More depressed than I’d ever been, I put that book, too, on the shelf. For weeks, I seriously considered giving up writing for good; I was convinced that I’d never be able to write a book others adored, convinced that I’d always be almost good enough but never quite get where I wanted to be. Ultimately, the only thing that kept me from quitting was the simple and ironic truth that I’d quit writing before, and always ended up coming back. At least I could save myself some time, I thought: I’d query one more book, and if that one didn’t take, I’d seriously consider giving up novels forever.
The Third Attempt
Within a month of that decision, I’d sent off a handful of queries for the middle grade book I’d just finished revising, entered the Twitter #DVPit pitch party, and received ten offers of representation from amazing literary agents. Two months after that, my book went to a small publishing house auction, and I signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins Children’s Books. In the space of just a few months, I’d gone from being ready to give up forever, to having suddenly achieved my longest-held dream.
Most authors I know have very similar stories. In almost every quick and flashy success story, there are quiet years of work, effort, and rejection that laid the groundwork for the eventual triumph. A popular statistic is that it takes ten years to have an “overnight success,” and in writing, that is often quite true! While this can be a depressing thing to think about, I actually find it extremely hopeful and motivating. After all, if success takes so long and all the authors I know and admire have put in years of unseen work and disappointment to get where they are, then that means that I, too, have the chance to make my dreams come true.
Before I signed with my agent, I’d sent somewhere around 170 queries (most of them on the second book I sent out). Many authors I know have sent even more and waited even longer.
In the end, so much of a writing career is equal parts luck, perseverance, and flexibility!
If you want more from Cindy, check out her blog.
You can also support her upcoming novel by adding it on Goodreads.
What are you willing to do to get published?