One year ago, today, my life was irrevocably changed. In the past 365 days, one question has been asked of me more than any other. How did it happen?
Everyone’s journey to and through publishing is different. I’m not sure we can even define a standard process anymore. From seasoned writers who’ve struggled for a decade to land that book deal, to writers new to the craft who have it fall into their laps, there is a unique story to be told. Here is mine.
As with most things, it all started with my mother. She is an avid reader, always working through three or four books at a time with no favoritism to any particular genre. She’s been keeping a log of her books since she became pregnant with me. It’s a binder with a handwritten numbered list on looseleaf paper separated alphabetically. At the age of fifty-eight, her count is up to 4,085 books. She encouraged me to read and what girl wants to disappoint her mother? I read the childhood classics, and school-assigned books, plus every copy of Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club series. Even then, reading was building the foundation for becoming a writer.
I first started with writing poetry around the age of ten. I wrote about flowers and nature, things that I found beautiful and that could be praised in short lines of prose. As I grew, so did my vocabulary and my attention span. The teenage years were the darkest–as they usually are–and it was then that I developed a knack for painting pictures using words. The poor tortured soul of the misunderstood high school student opened her wounds and bled onto the paper, or at least that’s what it felt like back then.
As an adult, I continued to read, driven by the desire to find specific kinds of characters and original plots. It was this search that led me to pen my first full-length story. I searched for what I wanted, and when I couldn’t find it, I figured I’d try writing it myself. After completing the first story, more tales were suddenly begging to be written. The more I wrote, the better I got. The better I got, the more I enjoyed it. The more I enjoyed it, the more I wrote. It was a cycle of storytelling and inventing characters that came to me like a slow motion Baywatch lifeguard. Now, when I look back on those first stories, I cringe. They’re a mess of purple prose and misused words, but I still take pride in what they represent–a beginning.
When I completed my fourth full-length story, I sat back and examined it more closely. I thought to myself, This is a great start, but it could be so much better. So, I rewrote it. I brought in friends who gave feedback. I rewrote it again. I joined a local writers’ group and shared it with them. I rewrote it again. I attended workshops, read instructional manuals, and practiced my craft every day. Then, I rewrote it again.
In April of 2012, I attended the Jambalaya Writers’ Conference in Houma, Louisiana. Though I never dreamed of publishing this story, I was eager for feedback from a professional. I was lucky enough to grab the last available appointment to pitch my manuscript to a literary agent. She was a tiny woman with gray hair and a smoker’s voice from New Jersey. She was blunt, but friendly. I was terrified.
I sat in the small room and, after a shaky introduction, began my verbal pitch. Two sentences in she began shaking her head. “No, no, no. Nobody wants to read about an unlikable main character,” she told me. I backpedaled and tried to redeem my protagonist, but it was too late. Instead of suffering any further humiliation, I asked if she could just read my query letter. She agreed. I slid the piece of paper across the table like it was a ticking bomb and tried to keep the tears at bay. After about a minute, she looked up and smiled. “This sounds great. I’d request the manuscript if it was long enough.”
This interaction led me to reexamine my novel. I edited, revised, rewrote, deleted, and rearranged it for almost an entire year. When this was finished, I found myself sick of the story and the characters. I wanted to kill them off in a horrific fire, but somehow resisted. I took a step away from the manuscript and let it marinate for a couple months. I didn’t look at it, touch it, or edit one word during this time. One evening, I hesitantly reached for it and began another read through. When I finished the last page, there was a whirlwind of unfamiliar feelings swarming through my head. Pride, satisfaction, and the undeniable knowledge that I was a writer.
I returned to the same conference in 2013 with my manuscript and query letter in hand. I was ready to pitch, push and pimp my story to anyone who would listen. After arriving, I learned that all the sessions with editors and agents had been filled and I was out of luck. While disappointed, I vowed to make the most of my day by attending sessions and learning all I could. I also entered my first page into an anonymous reading to be critiqued by a panel of experts at the end of the day.
I sat through presentations on marketing, self-publishing, how to get an agent, and the do’s and don’ts of querying. One of these sessions was led by Rachel Ekstrom, a literary agent with the Irene Goodman Agency. After the presentation, I introduced myself and asked if I could give her my query letter. She kindly agreed. With the exchange of a single piece of paper from my hand to hers, my pitch was over, my opportunity passed. Though I knew she would be busy and overwhelmed with other authors, I was confident in my query and hoped for the best.
After a jambalaya lunch (because what else would they serve?) and keynote speaker, I attended a practice pitch session with NY Times Bestselling author, Heather Graham. She spoke about what to do and what not to do when selling your book to an agent. And then, she asked for volunteers. I stepped onto the stage with her and introduced myself. We had a conversation about my unique name and promptly jumped into our roles of agent and author. Heather asked questions and I answered. I pitched the hell out of my story to this admired author and a room full of fellow writers. By the end, they were all smiles and applause.
The last session of the day was the anonymous reading of first pages. Those who turned in their work, and some who didn’t, sat in a room and listened as a page was read and then the panel of experts critiqued. This panel consisted of two editors from St. Martin’s Press, two literary agents, Heather Graham and a very opinionated local bookstore owner. The first few critiques seemed to take forever and I found myself worried that they would run out of time before getting to mine. As the hour passed, that mindset changed into “Oh dear God, I hope they run out of time before getting to mine.” A majority of the the pages read received bad or unfavorable critiques. These comments varied from “I’d work on your pacing” to “I’d never continue reading this.” With each page that was read, dread sank heavy in my gut and I wanted to flee the room.
Finally, when time was almost up, Heather Graham stood at the podium and read the first few lines from my novel. Everyone quieted and listened, giving it the same attention as those before it, while I held my breath and tried to reign in the urge to vomit on the library carpet. When the last sentence was read, there was a moment of complete silence where I was left teetering on the edge between my validation and rejection. I don’t remember who was the first to speak, but soon they were all singing the praises of my page. It was surreal and thrilling, and though it was anonymous, one look into the audience could have easily identified its grinning author.
After the conference, there was a wine and cheese social on the roof. As I sipped my plastic cup of Cabernet served off of the reference cart, I felt untouchable. After two glasses, I built up the courage to approach Rachel Ekstrom, again, and let her know which page was mine. She surprised me by remembering my name and said she would definitely take a look at my query letter. I then noticed that the two editors from St. Martin’s Press were available. I introduced myself to Rose Hilliard and thanked her for the kind things she said about my writing. She wanted to know more about my book and suddenly, all my preparation, all my work and dedication to this project converged into a perfect casual conversation about graffiti writers, tattooed boys and a dangerous love. I left that evening with Rose’s email address and a request for my manuscript. Life was good.
I emailed Rose my novel Monday morning. I’d heard rumors about the publishing industry and how everything takes longer than the rest of the world, so I didn’t expect to hear back from her for a while. Two days later, on an average Wednesday afternoon, I received the mother of all voicemails. It was Rose, and she loved, loved, loved my book. I must have listened to that message eight times before I could even comprehend it. With shaky fingers, I wrote down her number and returned her call.
Turns out, talking to Rose was a breeze. She gushed about my story, my characters and all the little details that made my manuscript special. I really felt that she connected with the story the way I intended. There’s no greater feeling.
Rose couldn’t offer guarantees at that point, but she was pretty sure they’d be making an offer. She asked if I had an agent. I told her I did not, but that I’d queried Rachel at the conference. Rose volunteered to contact Rachel on my behalf. She forwarded my manuscript with instructions to READ THIS NOW. Six days later, I received a phone call from Rachel, offering representation with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Of course, I accepted. That same day, St. Martin’s made their first offer.
After four days of what I like to imagine as hardcore, cutthroat, wild and crazy negotiations, Rachel called with an offer that we couldn’t refuse. In her, I’d found a cape-wearing professional, a fearless advocate, and a down-to-earth girl whose smiles can be heard through phone signals stretching from Manhattan to Baton Rouge. There were chirping birds and double rainbows and soft, purring kittens with tiny ringing bells. Okay, maybe not, but it was still spectacular. Two weeks, to the day, after meeting these ladies at a small writers’ conference in the middle of a Louisiana swamp, I had a three book deal with a considerable advance and a team of people who believed in my writing.
Whatever notions you believe in, be it fate, luck or destiny, know that none of them can take the place of hard work and a great story. In a capacity that I never imagined, I am now a full-time writer. This means little more than sitting my butt in a chair and typing words all day. Sometimes my words make sense, sometimes whole pages are dropped into the Trash icon of my MacBook. I take breaks and occasionally venture outside my writing cave, because what greater inspiration and story research can we find than the interesting and complicated world we live in.
Beautiful Addictions was released in ebook form by St. Martin’s Griffin on January 28, 2014. The print edition will be released June 10. For those of you who enjoy the freedom of audio, Beautiful Addictions will be released by Audible on May 13.