Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The long answer to what seemed like an easy question

Since I announced my three-book deal with Sourcebooks, Inc., I’ve had tons of aspiring authors ask some variation of this question:

How long did it take you to get published?

The answer is more complicated than you might think. My apologies for the lengthy blog entry, but hey, you asked.

I’ll skip the details of building my writing skills as a newspaper reporter and marketing copywriter, or earning my oh-so-useful degree in English literature.

What you’re really asking is:

When did you first start writing fiction?

Or, let’s be honest here:

How long do I have to throw myself at this @#$% wall writing manuscripts and queries until I’m ready to poke myself in the eye with a fork?

Which leads me to my first caveat, one I touched on in an earlier blog post: You can’t judge your own journey to publication on someone else’s. It’s different for everyone. Some writers sell their first book, and some try their damndest for 20 years. Honestly, if I’d known at the start how bumpy my road to publication would be, I’m not sure I would have kept going.

I’m not saying that to scare you. It's good that none of us knows how many tries it will take until we reach our goal because the idea that success is just around the corner is what keeps us going. That, and the fervent desire to gloat maniacally to everyone who said we couldn’t do it.

So here’s my story:

I started writing fiction the summer of 2002 after my book club read a novel by an uber-famous romance author and I announced that if that crap could get published, so could I.

My first book was an action/adventure/romance targeted at a new line Harelquin-Silhouette was debuting the following year. My book sucked, and it didn’t take me long to realize that. I started writing a new one even before I got the rejection on the first. That second book earned me the elusive request for revisions, a sign that I was almost there.

That second book didn’t sell either, but the third one did. I got “the call” on May 19, 2005. It was my “I have arrived” moment. Little did I know.

As an aside, you’ll notice that it took almost three years from the date I started writing until the date of “the call.” That’s not because it takes me a year to write a book. It takes me three months, sometimes less. It’s the @#$% submission process that takes forever, one of MANY reasons I tell any aspiring author to get a good agent.

My other reasons are coming up.

So I cashed my advance check from Bombshell and spent the next 15 months doing revisions, brainstorming titles and cover art, and writing two follow-up Bombshells that never made it to contract.

August 2006, I got the “un-call.” My editor phoned on my 32nd birthday to let me know the Bombshell line was being canceled one month prior to my scheduled debut. My book would not be released, nor would my two follow-ups. I was out on my butt.

To add insult to injury, this was the same day my cat died and my boss informed me that if I continued violating the company’s hosiery policy, they would fire me. (I did. They didn’t).

A little shaken, I moved on. Since action/adventure/romance wasn’t what I wanted to write anyway, I tried a new path – straight up romantic comedy with a dollop of mystery.

I began the new book in August 2006, queried agents in November, and by mid-December, I had four amazing agents offering to represent me.

I picked wrong.

I’m not saying this to diss the other agent, as I know the agent is tremendously successful and has many satisfied clients. It just wasn’t the right fit.

I figured this out over the course of the year in 2007 as I wrote four new partial manuscripts (none of which the agent liked) while the book that had originally earned the adoration of four agents failed to sell.

Once I’d parted company with my first agent, I tracked down Michelle Wolfson – the agent I realized I should have picked to start with.

With my tail between my legs, I asked if she’d still consider representing me. To my delighted surprise, she took me on. I signed with her in January 2008.

Thus began another long submission process with multiple manuscripts. Michelle sent the original book to a small handful of editors my first agent hadn’t tried. The response was good, with several editors sending my book for second reads or to the editorial board as a recommended buy.

Sadly, the book still didn’t sell.

Michelle was undeterred, which is what I love most about her. I wrote another book, this one straight romantic comedy with no mystery. Again, we got close. Several times we were on the brink of popping the champagne corks.

Still, no deal. It often came down to strange things, like another book at that publishing house that was too similar to mine. At one point, three different editors who loved my book ended up leaving their jobs before a deal could be made. Michelle and I joked that I was cursed.

Oddly enough, the feedback we were getting was all positive. If an editor had said, “this chick can’t write,” I might have been discouraged. Instead, I felt motivated. I joked with my critique partners that it had become a“literary grudge f**k” for me.

My lowest point came one week after my 35th birthday this past August 2009. We were waiting for a decision on a submission that seemed like a done deal. Something good was about to happen.

Within the same 24-hour period, a nerve test revealed that my recent elbow surgery had failed, my elderly dog developed a severe vestibular condition and couldn’t walk, and my younger dog collapsed from an undetected bleeding tumor and had to be put down. My pets have always been my babies, so this was a particularly hard blow.

Then Michelle called. The book deal wasn’t going to happen.

I expected to collapse. I didn’t. Oddly enough, it was the thing I needed to push me from being horribly sad to just horribly pissed off. “Literary grudge f**k,” indeed.

Despite the setback, Michelle still believed in me and wanted to keep fighting. Plenty of agents would drop a client who wasn’t earning her keep, so the fact that Michelle wouldn’t consider giving up is a big part of the reason I kept going. The support of my family, critique partners, and beta readers helped too.

I wrote a brand new book. Michelle suggested offering it on an exclusive basis to Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks – an editor who’d come very close to buying my previous romantic comedy, and a publishing house we agreed would be a good fit.

Over the next few months, there was a lot of back-and-forth with Deb as we brainstormed marketing hooks and titles and plotted future books. One of the best things about Sourcebooks is that they believe in building an author’s career for the long-term. They want authors with multiple book ideas and a commitment to growing a readership.

When Michelle called me last Thursday to say they were offering us a three-book deal, I was thrilled. Best of all, two of the three books are already written. One of them, in fact, is a book Sourcebooks rejected a year ago when we just couldn’t get the marketing hook right.

And two of the three books began with those partial manuscripts my first agent just wasn’t interested in.

So you see, there is a happy ending. But it’s a damn long story. Would I have preferred things to go more smoothly? Hell, yes. But sometimes you have to experience some bumps in order to appreciate smooth sailing when it comes along.

I’m not sure I would have realized how amazing Michelle is if it weren’t for my experience with my first agent.

And I’m not sure I would have appreciated this book deal quite as much if it had dropped effortlessly into my lap.


Linda G. said...

You are what I and my writing buds call a Kickass Writer. You don't give up. You stick with it. You roll with the publishing punches. (And, near as I can figure, publishing has a LOT of punches.)

That, m'dear, is why you have your much-deserved 3-book deal now. Well, that and your awesome talent, and your equally awesome agent.

I am proud to call you my agency sistah. (A term, btw, I first heard from Susan Adrian. I was so jealous she had agency sistahs, and now I'm happy to have my own, especially in such a kickass agency.) :)

Patrick Alan said...

You're just a baby! I turned 36 this past August.


Linda G, thanks for the comment, Agency Sistah (and thanks to Susan Adrian for the term!) I think I might have "Kickass Writer" printed on a business card.

Patrick, you know, I keep forgetting I'm 35 and telling people I'm 36. Then my husband will remind me that I'm a year younger than I think I am. It's kind of nice!


Jess said...

What a roller-coaster! I'm glad there's a happy ending. :)

Stephanie Feagan said...

Congratulations on your sale, Tawna! Regarding Bombshell, such a bummer to have a book sold but never pubbed. (My 4th book with Bombshell suffered the same fate.) I remember when it happened, and I felt so bad for you! But look at you now! I'm glad you stuck it out - looking forward to reading your books!


Jess, there were definitely times the roller coaster made me nauseous, but I'm glad I stuck with it!

Stephanie! I've been wondering what you're up to, since your Bombshells were hands-down my very favorite. I had drinks last week with a former co-worker who still claims to be your biggest fan and always wants to know when you'll have a new book out. Sorry to hear the fourth Pink book won't be published, but I'm eager to hear what comes next for you!


Stephanie Feagan said...

Wow, Tawna - you just made my day! My week! Thanks so much! In truth, the 4th book wasn't a Pink book, which made it almost more of a bummer. I'm still working, off and on, on a new Pink book, sort of a more 'grown-up' version, so maybe some day. For now, I'm writing YA because OMG, it's way fun! Just accepted an offer yesterday - see, we're soulmates! Anyway, good to 'talk' to you again, and all the very best!!!

Dorothy Dreyer said...

Wow, what a journey! Thank you so much for posting it. You've reminded me to stay grounded (which I especially need now as an agent has finally requested my full ms - I have to remember that this doesn't guarantee anything yet). Congratulations on sticking it out, and big congrats for your book deal!

Angela Ackerman said...

Two words: YOU ROCK. Seriously, who can read that and not be inspired? Congrats on your success--it was well earned!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your remarkable journey with us. It helps to be reminded to hang on tight and grit your teeth through the roller coaster ride. =)

Laura Fenske said...

I am not a writer, but boy do I love to read! So, thank Tawna (and to all the writers) who are working SO hard to get great books to people like me who want to just feed on your brillance.

Tawna, we are determined to get over the pass to Bend and visit. We're housing an exchange student (highschool age) for 3 weeks at the end of March through the middle of April. So, maybe we could bring him/her out with us and show them that area of Oregon and get in some good visiting with you guys at the same time. I'll keep you posted as I know details.

Unknown said...

That is without a doubt the most harrowing journey to publication that I've read yet. You should become a motivational speaker. :)


Stephanie, yay for you on the offer! Do you have a blog? Where can I read all about it?

Dorothy, yes, I've had many of those "I have arrived" moments (first request for revisions, first book deal, first offer from an agent) where I think THIS IS IT! I'M HERE NOW! But alas, there are no guarantees, except that it takes a whole lot of perseverance to make it in this business!

Angela, thank you, but I have to say that Michelle rocks a lot harder than I do!

authorwithin, you definitely need plenty of good anti-nausea medication for the roller coaster of publishing. I prefer mine in the form of red wine.

Laura, I'll be sure you get your very own copy of the book when it comes out. Our door is always open for you guys and the exchange student!

KLM, though I know my journey to publication was especially bumpy, I also know it's not entirely unique. Sadly, it's a lot tougher than we all want to imagine when we first start out!

Thanks for reading, everyone!


Anonymous said...

Tawna, Thanks for sharing your experience. I guess I'm warped because it gave me hope :) I'm impressed with the the sheer volume of books you've completed. Your work ethic must be something to behold. Congrats!

jm tohline said...


What a lovely, lovely blog entry.

Not sure if you saw my post from today yet, but...well, your post helps to make my situation better. Thanks for that!

Anonymous said...

So, my question is, can you quit your day job now? :)

Claire Dawn said...

First off, which part of you is 35???

Now that's out of the way, you seem to be the master of the "bad day"! Hope that's all over now!

Interesting road! Not to be morbid, but you know how people always say when someone dies quickly, "Well at least he didn't suffer," but when they have a long-drawn out death, "Well at least everyone got to say goodbye"... I always make these sort of comparisons.

Is it easier when you suck and you know you suck and you have to work long nad hard at not sucking? Or is it easier when you're almost there, but just can't seem to "close the deal"? Just like the earlier example, I don't think either path is pretty.


laurasibson, you know, I hadn't actually tallied up the number of books I've written until someone emailed me today asking about it. Total count in 8 years = 8 full manuscripts and 6 partials. Gah!

JM Tohline, I did read your blog entry, and your agent situation made me grit my teeth. On the bright side (there's always a bright side!) you get to start fresh!

claudiaputnam, funny you should ask about the "quit your day job" scenario. As luck would have it, I was laid off three days before Christmas. Since I'm a glass-is-half-full kind of gal, I've been looking at it as an opportunity to devote myself 110% to my writing career!

Claire Dawn, you know, I used to think about that all the time -- like wouldn't it be better if I could get some NEGATIVE feedback so at least I'd feel like I had some control, something I could fix? But then again, this process is brutal enough when you're getting GOOD feedback. I imagine it would be soul-crushing to get a lot of negative feedback.

Thanks for reading, guys!


Rebecca said...

Sure seems like a long process. Glad you were able to stick it out.

Deborah Small said...

Wow. Thank you for posting this brutally honest recap of an arduous journey to publication. It emboldens me. My experience is eerily similar (choosing wrong agent; editor rejections complimenting the writing but having no idea how to market, etc; writing new book at agent's request that was then rejected by said agent who I eventually 'released'); reading your 'adventure' shows that it's part of the process, and encourages me to keep going! Thank you!

And thank you Linda, for 'introducing' me to Tawna.



Rebecca, it was a much longer process than I'd hoped for, but at least it had a happy ending! :)

Deb, thanks for reading! I think those of us who endure a particularly bumpy ride to publication should form a special club or something. Want to work on the secret handshake with me?


The name is Ashelynn said...

I'm a little late to the party, or whatever, but this is really motivational. Does it scare me? Hell yes. I've read your other blog posts, especially the one that you're tougher than you think, but if this happened to me - I might have just gave up. This post, the fact that you kept at it, gives me a lot of inspiration and determination.

You amaze me, Tawna. You scared me to death with this post, yet you also managed to bring motivation to me. Thank you. :)

John Ross Harvey said...

Interesting read, I will certainly keep these ideas in mind. Agents are obviously helpful, I certainly hope they are cost-effective. My budget is limited and why I've gone through 2 self-publish outfits as myself with one, and pen-name as romantic comedy author Nahtan Hoj with the other. I really want my 7th book to be a real publisher, but I may have to wait for my 10th or 12th or whatever. I never give up. Even with a troll causing me unending grief by posting scathing reviews of my books its never read. Unlike it, I move on.


Ashelynn, so glad to simultaneously terrify and motivate you!

John, not sure if you'll check back and see this response, but you should run, not walk, RUN from any agent who wants to charge you a dime before the book is sold. Any professional agent doesn't make money until he/she sells your book, so the whole idea of it being "cost effective" doesn't really hold up. You aren't paying anything until you've got a book deal, and a good agent is able to negotiate your advance high enough to cover his/her 15% anyway. Start with agentquery.com as a good resource for finding a reputable agent, and good luck!


Sophia Chang said...

And THIS is why we adore you.

I had one of those days today when I really needed a nice, hefty "My Publication Story" wrought with ups and downs and this really made me feel better. (I hope that doesn't come across as Shadenfreude! I meant you cheered me up and renewed my writer's vigor!)

In fact I just read this post out loud to my significant other, it was so amazing.