When I think about the first part of my journey toward publication, I often wonder if I wouldn't have rather shoved bamboo underneath my own fingernails. Because essentially this is what I did, on and off, for seven years.
I had this idealistic and completely oblivious understanding of the publishing industry. Basically, all I knew is you wrote a book, and then some stuff happened, then you got an agent, and then some stuff happened, and presto! Great American Novel! All you needed to do to snag an agent was to write this crazy thing called a query letter. No problem. I threw one together, and sent it off. But just in case things didn't go well, I made a point to tell NO ONE what I was doing.
And so began the torture. I queried a lot, and I got a lot of rejections. I spent a lot of time waiting for the mailman and refreshing my email inbox. And then I spent a lot of time feeling like this would never happen. That I was not a good enough writer. That I wasn't smart enough. That I didn't know the right people. A lot of time swearing off my writing addiction because in the end, it just wasn't worth the high.
Four books and seven years later, I still couldn't quit. The cravings hit again, and I started writing ARTICLE 5. But before I queried I did something I hadn’t done previously. I contacted a local author, who'd been written up in the paper after publishing her debut novel. I was scared to death – she was like, famous. She mentioned a few concepts I’d never heard before: beta readers, and critique partners, and national writing groups. How had I missed all of this? I hadn’t done enough research, that’s how. I’d been too scared to talk to anyone about it, that’s how. I'd been trying my best solo, but was flying blind.
She gave me some invaluable feedback on my query, and after revising I found myself in new territory. Agents were actually requesting to read my work. I'd put myself out there, changed something in my process, and in turn altered the outcome. Shocking, I know.
Here’s a bit of it. I have to say, even with the help, it’s still pretty humiliating. But this is an exercise in humility, right? (Wait…wasn’t that the blog topic? I’m confused…)
Let’s see if we can spot any major red flags.
Dear Ms. MacKenzie,
Running for her life from the Moral Militia was not exactly what Ember Miller envisioned for her senior year in high school. But then again, she also didn't think her boyfriend would send her to the reformatory for a sin-cleansing and arrest her mother. So much for trust.
ARTICLE 5 is a 150,000 word speculative young adult novel. This coming of age story takes place in a parallel time, when the government has produced a moral backlash nearly as terrorizing as the war that preceded it.
Ember is horribly betrayed when Chase Jennings returns home a soldier a year after the draft. The military has changed him; he's only a shell of the boy she once loved. Apathetically, he follows his orders to arrest Ember’s mother on an Article Five violation, and forces Ember into moral rehabilitation. But his cold exterior is just a front. Chase is hiding something that will change everything, and with the Moral Militia hot on their heels, it is only a matter of time until Ember learns the truth.
There are a couple more paragraphs, but you get the point.
150,000 words?! Holy crap! Also, it’s not speculative. I didn’t even really know what that meant at the time, but it sounded good, so hey…
Somehow, even naively broadcasting my 150,000 word count, I met Joanna. I'd never been in a culture of writers, no one besides my husband had read ARTICLE 5 (or anything I'd written), so I had no idea how to talk about my story. Joanna could talk about it. She talked about the characters like they were real people, something I thought only I did (and only in my head). She could see the world they lived in, and the struggles they endured, and the conflicts they might face in the future. And craziest of all, she liked it. Like, liked it. I didn't know what to say. The first time we spoke on the phone I probably giggled inappropriately. I may have screamed at random or even wept uncontrollably. Other parts are just sort of a black hole in my memory… I think it's probably better that way.
Thank everything holy I got a second date.
Joanna is an editing agent, and prior to signing contracts we did a lot of revisions (like the kind where you cut 60,000 words and gain fifteen pounds). It scared me at the time – would she like what I’d done? Would we part ways? When she called and offered representation I may have asked if she was lying. I’m really, really glad she wasn’t.
I will never regret working with her prior to signing with her. I learned more about my writing and myself that way. I learned how we work together. And when the time came for submission there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that she was the best person to represent me.
And for the record, I haven’t picked up a stick of bamboo since we first met.