Having released my debut novel a little over a month ago, the question I’ve been receiving most often (besides, what’s your book about?) is, how did you do it?!
Below I share an overview of this four-year process from drafting through publication. Every journey to publication is different, and since I’ve been inspired by so many pub stories along the way, maybe this will inspire someone else who doesn’t think it’s possible.
1) Brainstorming, drafting and revising in stolen moments
In November of 2013 my love of reading Young Adult fiction finally tipped me over the edge to try writing it. Besides some tales I wrote when I was about 12 years old, I hadn’t written fiction before. I hadn’t even drafted a play (I have a theatre background). I knew I wouldn’t be good at it, but I thought I might enjoy trying it out.
At the time, I had a long DC-area commute and so I began brainstorming my story idea while sitting in traffic, sitting on the train and walking around the city (more on where the story idea came from in this blog). After a few weeks, I finally put pen to paper—well, fingers to keyboard—and started getting my story down. I was subconsciously synthesizing all I’d learned from reading dozens upon dozens of YA books, while telling my own story.
I would brainstorm on my commutes or during long walks, and then steal writing moments when I got to work early, on my lunch break, 30 minutes in the afternoon and occasional longer blocks of time on weekends.
I continued this process for eleven months… and I finally had a completed first draft!
2) Seeking feedback and revising
This novel would not exist—certainly not in published form—if not for my many beta readers and critique partners along the way. (Definitions: a beta reader is an early reader who gives feedback. A critique partner is someone you trade manuscripts with and exchange feedback.)
I began sharing chapters before I finished drafting, starting with... my mom! Duh! My mom was my first and probably harshest critic (better than her just telling me it’s awesome and she’s so proud of me). (She is proud of me, btw).
My mom inspired me to get better, while teaching me an important lesson about feedback: I shouldn’t take every piece of feedback I receive. At first I wanted to, but then I realized that some advice was appropriate to a different genre, or a different story than I wanted to tell. But that didn’t mean I should throw out all of her feedback. I started to learn how to navigate the critique process for myself. Soon after immediate family, I started sharing with my amazing writing group (pictured here: actual still life from writing group meeting). Then other friends, and eventually I was brave enough to make a few new friends over social media, who turned out to be very valuable critique partners.
I also started learning a TON about writing from attending author events at my nearby bookstores (and being brave enough to ask my genuine process questions) and reading tons of articles, blogs and books about writing. Twitter was an amazing tool for finding writing and publishing tips. I went to my new social media network of writers and agents for answers to ALL my questions.
3) Querying, Phase I
I started querying a bit about a year after starting the draft. (Definition: querying is the process of sending a cover letter and sample pages to agents, seeking a literary agent.) This was way too soon, but I didn’t know any better and I wanted to put myself out there. I don’t actually regret this timing, because I got used to seeing the rejection letters and it made this writing goal a real thing for me. For whatever reason, I needed to take this step for myself.
I paused in querying to do another eight months of revisions, working with the valuable feedback of so many critique partners. I started querying in earnest in August of 2015—I got mostly rejections, but I also got some positive feedback! Wow! The gist of the personalized feedback was that they love the concept and story, but they either 1) weren’t quite connecting or 2) the style wasn’t there yet.
I didn’t get discouraged because I knew I was a better storyteller than writer. I could get better at writing. I went back to reading YA, seeking advice online and in real life, working with critique partners and revising.
4) Temptation! Danger!
At the same time that I was getting this excellent feedback from some agents that my manuscript needed work, an independent publisher offered to publish my book! Super WOW! The CEO of the company even called me herself to tell me how much she loved my manuscript, and to pitch me on her company. She said they are different from other publishers because they are transparent, and all about the authors. I was so excited, I told my family the cool news.
But I did what all the Twitter wisdom said to do: research. It was a new company, so that proved to be tricky. There was a local author signed with the publisher, so I made the effort to meet with her… she was happy, but her book hadn’t been published yet. Then I got a long contract document from the pub that left me with many more questions than answers. Like, how would I get paid? The CEO said they are transparent, so I asked a couple questions. The response saved me: they dodged all my questions! When I tried to nicely clarify, they said I clearly didn’t trust them (well, true. There was no history or actual transparency to trust!).
Needless to say, I didn’t sign that contract. I feel like I dodged a major bullet. Especially since I already felt that my manuscript could be better, and this company wanted to publish basically as-is. I went back to revising! Learning and revising!
To Be Continued…
There's more in Part Two of this blog, including the nitty-gritty of it, hiring an editor, Twitter contest experiences, and actually getting the offer!