In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers.
While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote to the left will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!
I’ve been going through my publishing successes chronologically, and at this point, I should be writing about my CICADA story, “Dear Hunter”. But that can wait until next time.
What did I do right about VICTORY OF FISTS, the novel I and my agent just sold?
I know it’s going to seem prosaic, but I’m close enough to this sudden reversal of my “fortunes” that I can see with clarity. Two weeks ago…what was I doing right? Truth? It goes way farther back than that.
I had finished and was submitting a novel called THE BIZARRO FAMILY PROJECT about a teen girl who lives with her grandmother, Esther; her grandmother’s boyfriend, cousins, and assorted friends and guests join them to stay for various lengths of time at a B&B in Stillwater, MN. Suddenly Esther dies. Does her granddaughter, her boyfriend, her other grand kids, and the passel of odd friends have anything in common – other than her? The book was about them all discovering that Esther loved each of them differently...yet she loved them all. Is that enough to stay together?
An editor wrote back to tell me that he wasn’t taking the book because it wasn’t “edgy” enough. Incensed, I said – actually and factually out loud – “Not edgy enough? Not edgy enough? I’ll show YOU edgy!”
After thinking about the students at the high school I work at and what they like, what draws their attention and the popularity of my son’s favorite movie, “Fight Club”, I figured that if I wanted my book to get into a school, I’d have to have a fight in it. I’d broken up MORE than my fair share of them. They drew immense crowds automatically and once there’s one in the school, no one can talk about anything else.
OK. So. Now what? I wanted to offer a solution, but anything I could think of right off the top of my head sounded trite. So I looked at it from another point of view – if I wanted it in the schools – my school in particular, I needed to figure out what ELSE young adults love.
There’s really only one other choice: poetry.
NOT the Robert Browning variety.
The spoken word kind. The Poetry Jam type. The rapper type. The beat type. As a high school counselor, I’ve been privileged to read the intimate poems of hundreds of students. Abused students. Confused students. Enraged students. Pouring your heart out on paper, ipad, twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, or KakaoTalk is common, no matter how good or bad a student is in English class. Kids write poetry because it’s short and expressive and it is unbounded by rules and regulations.
So I rammed the two together: Teen loves to fight but has to stop. Redirects anger into poetry. Wins college (in biomechanical engineering, no less). Gets girl. The end.
I wrote it. I finished it.
SIX YEARS AGO.
I sent it to the editor who’d told me my first book wasn’t edgy enough, but either VICTORY OF FISTS wasn’t edgy enough or I hadn’t polished it enough yet. He was the one however, who commented that it was “FIGHT CLUB” for boys. I sent it out again and again then entered it in the Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award competition. It was a gamble. I waited, watching as more than 1000 novels were entered before the gates closed...
Depression. I would NEVER make the cut.
And then I did: first, I made the Top 1000 Best; a month later, I made the Top 250 Best; another month, and I found I’d made the Top 50!; in June of 2010, the sad news: I was out of the running.
Did I give up and throw it away? I wanted to for a while, but I loved the story. I loved the people. I loved what happened in it. But ultimately, I’m too stubborn for that.
But I DID take the next step – I started submitting the book to AGENTS. I’d never felt I had a story strong enough to make an agent pitch. Over the next year, VoF was rejected another fourteen times by agents and editors. Then the first fifty pages reached my agent’s desk in the summer of 2011 – though she was not my agent yet.
She wanted to see all of it! I sent it.
She rejected it immediately.
She said she got tired of Langston’s constant whining. I read it again, agreed and revised it entirely over the next month. (Did I mention my wife led the cheer section as I did this, constantly encouraging and believing in me and the story? She did. My daughter was also on the squad. And her good friend from school. Without their unwavering belief, I’d have given up.)
I sent it again.
She rejected it, sending notes back suggesting ways I might improve it. I nearly gave up right then, sending it to another agent. It was February, the depth of winter in Minnesota. It seemed like I lived outside of Depression City, MN. I didn’t know what else to do but rewrite it, this time taking the axe to some fundamental aspects of the story, primarily Langston’s motivation. I sent it again.
For five months, I heard NOTHING. The crickets were chirping from the distant shores of the West Coast. Then in July of 2012, she wrote to say she LOVED IT AND WANTED TO REPRESENT ME!!!!
I did backsprings! I “whoop-whoop”ed! I jumped up and down! I celebrated. My troubles were over!
What followed was two more years of submissions during which every single editor that read VICTORY OF FISTS rejected it.
My agent and I corresponded and I was ready to throw in the towel. I entered VoF in a contest. I lost. In fact, the site didn’t even tell me I’d lost. I had to go and look it up myself. I wrote in my sub log, “after 2 years of ineffectual submissions, I am done. VOF is going into the garbage and I'm not thinking of it again. I hope…”
In June of 2014, my agent agreed to try one last submission, MuseItUp Publishing. A 21st Century company, they didn’t offer advances but paid very well for electronic rights. It was NOT self-publishing, it was MuseItUp accepting a MS and agreeing to edit and create a cover and promote the book.
The second week of October 2014, my agent emailed me the following: “Just off the phone with Lea...well, between ending that conversation and a 15 minute confusion with 3 giggle gaggle of girls, I'm back to say YES, sending a contract for Victory of Fists this weekend.”
“WE SOLD IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I sent back to my agent. Got the contract day before yesterday, and there’s a note suggesting a tentative Summer of 2015 publication date.
I’d love to offer you wisdom, advice, or even a conclusion to this, but I think I’m just going to let you draw whatever you need from this. It’s a story with a happy ending that took six years to get there.
I hope you have one of your own.