In the last fifteen years, I’ve finished twelve books, almost finished a few others, plotted another dozen, and jotted down ideas for a hundred more. Maybe not a hundred, but, you know… a lot. I just really like making up stories. And I can totally see myself doing it for the rest of my life. But it turns out there’s this one thing many writers do that I haven’t done yet – get books published.
It’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I’ve kind of forced myself to take a hard look at why it hasn’t happened yet. So bear with me while I reminisce, and ruminate, and most likely over-analyze, because this is probably going to be one of my longest blog posts ever.
First of all, you should know that it’s not for lack of trying.
The biggest reason I haven’t had a book published yet, I’d say, is due to sheer stupidity. No, not on the part of the publishing industry – I have only myself to blame. And I’m not being graciously self-deprecating or anything like that, I really have made some serious mistakes. Scratch that… I’ve made all the serious mistakes. Pretty much everything an aspiring writer can do wrong, I have tripped over, and fallen into, and wallowed around in, and raked over the top of myself.
Let’s start in 1998, when I finished writing my first book. I putzed around a while trying to figure out how to get one of them suckers published, and then, I naturally started querying. Within six months or so, I landed my first agent: Debbie Fine from Southeast Literary. Sound familiar? It might. If you’re agent research has ever led you to Writer Beware. Southeast Literary happens to be number 17 on their all-time, “20 worst agencies” list. (I should mention here, that shortly after signing with them, I ignored a full manuscript request from a legitimate, well-respected agent). Anyway. Long story short, I drank every drop of Ms. Fine’s Kool-Aid, paid all her ridiculous fees, and subsequently wasted an entire year waiting for her to send me some good news. Nothing ever came but placations and excuses filled with important-sounding, publishing lingo. And requests for more money.
Finally I wised up (a little), and I moved on.
For my next trick, I decided to turn my first book into a series by writing three more books. Because hey – doesn’t a complete four-book series sound infinitely more appealing than a paltry ‘one book with series potential’? No? Really? Well maybe it was just that one premise. People are reading books about young wizards these days, so I’ll just scrap all that other stuff and write a fantasy trilogy. But I won’t start querying until I’m happy with both the first and second book.
So yeah. Somewhere around 2005, I realized that I’d written six books, and really only had one project to market. And when that didn’t go well, I finally did something I should’ve done before I finished my first – I decided to learn how to write more gooder. A lot of writer’s resources had blossomed on the net by then, and I know this sounds hard to believe, but I never thought of looking into any of them, or reading any of the amazing ‘how to’ books out there, until I’d written six freaking novels. In other words, I wrote six books without ever bothering to learn how to write.
I won’t bore you with the details of what I learned, or how quickly, or where I learned it, but I swear to you – I pursued ‘better writing’ with laser-like intensity. You’ve probably heard it said that many writers don’t produce anything worth publishing until their third book? For me, because I’d just started to make my first real effort to improve my writing, that was my eighth or ninth book. Once I started doing all the hard and normal stuff most writers do to improve their craft, my writing finally began to improve. Obviously, I stopped writing books in a series (I still planned them on paper), and my seventh novel was a little better. But still not good enough. My eighth was even better, but still not good enough. That book, however, was the first one that began to catch the eye of a reputable agent here and there. I started getting requests for partials and fulls, sometimes several at a time, so I kind of knew that I was finally on the right track. Ultimately, number eight still wasn’t up to par, and they all passed. Including one guy who requested six months exclusivity – SIX MONTHS! Which I happily gave him. (Another huge mistake, perchance?) Anyway. Somewhere around that time, I went ahead and wrote my ninth book.
At this point, my memory's a little fuzzy. I’m not even sure what year we’re talking about – 2007 maybe – but for some reason, I never queried that book, and I never let anybody read it. My wife claims she’s read it, but I think she tells me lies to make me feel better. In retrospect, I think it was a fun story with a unique premise, and perhaps the most interesting narrative voice out of all my novels. I finished it, I edited it a bunch of times, but then I just kind of set it aside and wrote another book. No clue why. If I know me, though – and I think I do – I probably just got excited about the premise of my next book. My tenth book.
Here’s where things get interesting. Also, where I did the thing that turned out to be my most major setback to date. I began querying my tenth book in the Fall of 2008, and within a few hours of my first day of querying, I had a full manuscript request from a very reputable agent: Ethan Ellenberg. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just tell you that I ended up signing with him – after only sending out a grand total of five queries. I thought I was “in”. I was sure I was “in”. I’d paid way more than my fare share of dues and there was nowhere to go but on to absolute, best-selling, blockbuster success. Because getting an agent is the hard part, right? They just send it on to some of their editor buddies, and ‘cha-ching’ – book deal!
Of course, if it’d all worked out that way, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
I’m guessing that if you’re still reading at this point, then you’re probably going to be very curious as to what went wrong in our three year relationship. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a concrete answer to that. But you know how all the advice, in all the forums and all the articles, says that you should make sure you and your agent are a “good fit”? In retrospect, Mr. Ellenberg and I were not. I think I even sensed that during our initial phone conversation, but I swept it under the rug. Because after ten books… I finally had a good agent, baby!
I like to think that I’m a big boy. I’m pretty thick-skinned and independent – I really don’t need anybody to hold my hand. So before I type this next thing, you should know that I rarely approached Ethan with concerns or questions. But in three years of ‘working together’, we had only three phone conversations, and maybe twenty emails. He seemed pretty excited about old number ten, but after one round of submissions, he suggested we turn our attention to my next project. So I wrote another book.
And he passed on it.
Honestly, that threw me a little. I didn’t know agents “passed” on books by writer’s they’d signed. But whatever. I started yet another book, and meanwhile, pitched him the most promising of my older books. He passed on that too. And when I did finish my twelfth book, guess what?
On the surface, that might seem weird or callous, but one thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that all of my books are very different from one another. I don’t just get one kind of idea for one kind of genre, I get crazy-stupid, butt-loads of ideas from every obscure corner of the cosmos: adult, young-adult, middle-grade, science fiction, horror, high fantasy, mythic fantasy, contemporary fantasy – the only thing my books have in common is that they depart from reality in a major way. So Mr. Ellenberg got excited about (and wanted to represent) a first-person urban fantasy with an irreverent narrative voice. The next thing I sent him was a serious-toned murder mystery set in the distant future. And after that, a book about freaking faeries. Should I have, instead, gone with the haunting tragedy based on Scottish folklore? I don’t know. But I don’t think my books were all that bad, and I don’t think he was a bad agent. I think he simply wasn’t interested in representing the kinds of things I was trying to send him.
So like I said – “bad fit”. And unfortunately, it took almost three years to admit it. That whole time, I knew things weren’t going well, but I figured that as long as I already had an agent, one who sold a lot of books for a lot of writers, it was still my closest and best shot at getting one of my books published. And finally, in the Summer of 2011, I realized I was deluding myself. Because really, why would anybody take time away from clients who earn them money to promote books they’re clearly not excited about? And how many more books was I going to have to write before I came back around to something that excited him again?
So I wrote him a friendly, ‘I don’t think this is working’ letter, and that’s where I’m at now. Unagented, unpublished, with twelve books on the shelf, and somewhere near the middle of one of the longest ‘road to publication’ stories ever. Notice I’m still assuming there’s a “pub” at the end of this road. And even if there’s not, I’m probably going to keep on writing. Even if the only form my stories ever take are Lulu beta copies that I circulate among my friends and family and co-workers. I just like doing it. Like I said in the beginning – I LOVE making up stories.
In the meantime, I don’t mind taking a few steps backwards. It’s kind of fun learning to query all over again, and seeing which agents I remember and what houses they’re at now – they’re kind of like old friends who were never really my friends but I haven’t stalked in a long time so now it’s interesting to see how they’re doing and who they’re representing and what their houses look like on Google Earth.
Let’s just hope that there aren’t too many more mistakes an aspiring writer can make, because if there are, then I’m probably destined to make them. In fact, if you can think of one that doesn’t appear in my little ‘comedy-of-errors’ here, then post it in the comments. Maybe I’ll see ‘em coming for a change.
And hey… thanks a heck of a bunch for taking the time to read all this. My hope is that maybe one little writer somewhere will see this blog post, and perhaps, just maybe, learn enough to avoid one or two of the idiotic blunders I’ve made in my ‘not-quite’ writing career.