(We’re honored this week to have this post from Kevin Don Porter, whose YA Mystery debut novel, MISSING, will be released in May, 2013!)
It’s the moment nearly every writer hopes for. Dreams of. Works toward. Getting…“The Call.” The call from a literary agent, a “gatekeeper” of the publishing world, which says, “You’re good enough, welcome to the club.” A call that, for many writers, validates years of toil.
When I first tried my hand at fiction about 10 years ago, I knew absolutely nothing—or so I came to realize. Nothing about the craft of writing. Nothing about composing query letters. Nothing about how to properly solicit a literary agent. All I knew was that I wanted to write. I had the desire to tell a good story that would captivate and enlighten readers.
After I finished my first novel, I composed what I thought was a good query letter and mailed off several to literary agents who fit my genre. From the moment my envelope hit the bottom of the mailbox the countdown began. When would it land on someone’s desk? What would they think? Would they love it? Would I be plucked from obscurity and swept into a Cinder-fella whirlwind of success? First the agent, then the six-figure book deal? Publicity, sales, jaunts to Hollywood to pick actors to star in the movie adaptation. I was already on my way.
After days and weeks of agony, because absolutely nothing happens fast in the publishing industry, a thin letter arrived in the mail. One of my return SASEs. This was it. The moment. For a while I just stared at it, wanting to be suspended in the possibility—the chance that my dreams might suddenly come true. Looking at the agency name on the envelope, I tried to remember their submission policy. Did they reply only if interested? Had I sent off sample pages or only a query? I couldn’t remember. My mind raced. Was a thin letter a good sign? Maybe a thicker letter would’ve meant that they were returning my sample pages. They didn’t return sample pages, did they? Maybe this was a request for sample pages? Wouldn’t they have just emailed me for that?
I finally opened the letter, my gaze scanning for words like “intriguing,” “interesting,” and “love.” Instead I found words like “unfortunately” and “pass,” and the phrase that most writers have come to know at some point in their writing life, “writing is a subjective business…” What had happened? Several more form rejections like that would roll in, some the size of little squares and rectangles—apparently my story hadn’t been worth a rejection that was printed on an entire sheet of paper. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I had thought. Success wasn’t going to be an American Idol-style whirlwind.
Instead, success for me unfolded in a gradual process over the course of 10 years. Deciding to work with Developmental Editor Susan Malone was the first, and most important, step in that journey. Susan taught me everything—not only how to find my own voice and how to write characters that leapt from the pages, but about the mechanics of a great story, how to write a query letter, how to interact with literary agents and publishers, and most importantly how to not give up. When I would receive one of her detailed critiques of my stories, I quickly realized that if I really wanted this thing I would have to put in the time and do the work. I read books that Susan referred to me. I read and I continued to write. Over the years, story after story, my writing steadily grew stronger until I finally had a manuscript that showed true promise. One that Susan and I were really excited about.
Although the quality of my stories and query letters had improved drastically so that I could finally be on equal footing with other aspiring authors, I was still at the whim of agents’ tastes and workload. Having a manuscript that didn’t include zombies, vampires, or faeries, and wasn’t considered steampunk or dystopian sure didn’t win me any cool points either. But, instead of form rejections from agents, I began to get several requests for sample pages and full manuscripts—two, sometimes three agents at a time would be reading my work and loving it. Once again, I was on my way. But they all turned out to be close calls. Many agents didn’t feel that they had the right connections to be able to sell the book. Discouraged, I grew wary of the process and wondered if it was time to call it quits for the novel.
But all it takes is one “yes.”
One day a letter had arrived at my dad’s home—where I often sent my mail. When he handed it to me I froze. I had forgotten I had even sent it off. It had to have been mailed six months ago. Another thin letter. I hadn’t had good experiences with thin letters—the memories of rejection came pouring in. When I finally opened it I scanned for the negative buzz words, but didn’t find any. I would actually have to read through to learn my fate. Seconds in, I began to think it was just a courtesy letter offering feedback on my manuscript. How nice. But the last line caught my eye, “…your manuscript can be our Spring release.”
It takes a whole lot of writing, a whole lot of faith and perseverance, and just one thin “yes!”