Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How I got my agent, got a book deal, and finally got around to writing one of these posts

When I was first learning about the publishing business (something I’m still doing), some of my favorite posts were the “How I Got My Agent” and “How I Got My Book Deal” articles. When all I had was a half-finished manuscript, it was thrilling to hear success stories. At the time, I had my share of daydreams about writing my own such posts, but when those milestones happened for me, I never quite got around to sharing my experiences. So here goes. Sort of.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve always written. Ever since I learned how to make letters, I’ve been putting stories on paper. I started out with hand-scrawled, two-page epics about unicorns and moved on to sprawling Southern family sagas I never finished. It never occurred to me that writing was something I could pursue professionally. As a kid, I also happened to like math and science, and those were the skills everyone seemed to regard as useful. I majored in biochemistry, went on to grad school in the same subject, and figured I could always write in my spare time.

I didn't know how rare spare time was going to be. Graduate school was by turns exciting, frustrating and dull, but it was always all-consuming. There was no room in my brain for anything else, and all those half-finished writing projects I'd optimistically kept on my computer gathered digital dust for four and a half years.

That November, The Enabler and I celebrated Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. Most of our friends didn’t have the vacation time or the money to fly home for such a short break—hell, half of my friends were spending their “day off” in the lab, just like every other holiday. So The Enabler and I found ourselves at a Thanksgiving Day potluck with a large group of friends and strangers, making conversation and trying not to talk about work.

After dinner, the hostess started a party game. Everyone was supposed to ask a question, and we all wrote down our answers anonymously and shared our lists with the group. The goal was to guess who belonged to which list. A lot of the questions were things like Who’s your favorite Seinfield character? (Elaine) and What’s your favorite book? (Pride and Prejudice, of course). But someone—I don’t remember who—asked the following: What are you afraid you won’t accomplish before you die?

The answer came to me out of the clear blue sky, as so many true things do. I’m afraid I’ll never write a book.

It shocked me. I had no idea writing a book was that important to me. I had no idea it was important to me at all.

I went home and stared at all the unfinished novels on my laptop. I had stories about estranged sisters and stories about the dysfunctional Southern aristocracy. I had three pages of a silly space opera with lots of techno-babble and no plot. I had fragments of poems from college and a collection of rambling personal essays. None of it grabbed me.

This happened to be 2008, the year the financial crisis hit. There was a lot of panic floating around my department about how we were going to find funding in the new economy, and that panic was piled on top of my own terror about graduating and finding a real job. I also happened to be reading Twilight at the time—the first vampire romance I’d ever read—on the recommendation of a close childhood friend. All of these things were crammed into my head, and something in there just went click. I thought: This whole vampire thing—it’s not just about sex or lust or power—it’s about fear, and a writer could do some really interesting things to symbolically explore fear in a fantasy landscape.

It’s possible I’m too dorky for my own good.

Anyway, I started reading more genre fiction. I started devouring genre fiction. I’d always loved science fiction and fantasy, but now I started seeing these fascinating themes in all flavors of speculative fiction, the way writers played with mythical creatures and made them represent all the scary intangible fears and desires I was grappling with myself. I discovered paranormal romance and urban fantasy: Diana Rowland, Nicole Peeler, Jeaniene Frost, Ilona Andrews, Carolyn Crane, Kelley Armstrong, Jenn Bennett, Patricia Briggs, Jaye Wells, Charlaine Harris. I wrote a paranormal romance of my own. It came pouring out of my head like I’d knocked the tap off a hose. I realized, finally, that this was what I wanted to write.

The book was terrible. Half of it was set in a city in France I’ve never visited. It featured two first person viewpoints, neither of which was the hero. There were no sex scenes. I didn’t just make all the classic first novel mistakes, I invented new ones.

But I finished it. I finished it, and I revised the hell out of it, and I queried it.

Thank goodness no one wanted it. I got a few nibbles here and there, but after a few dozen rejections and half as many revisions, I faced the fact that the manuscript was never going to be fit for public consumption, and I shelved it.

Somewhat to my surprise, I started another one right away.

That’s when I knew I wasn't going to quit. The ideas kept coming. I was working on one book and jotting down ideas for the next. A whole world fell into place in my head, a universe of interlocking stories, people and places and relationships, dozens of them. I couldn’t write fast enough.

Unfortunately, I also had to write my dissertation. For weeks, I did nothing but write. By day, I wrote down my science, detailed technical descriptions of biochemical methodology, a precise accounting of ten fruitless experiments for every one that worked. A litany of failure. Every night, the stories were like therapy. I finished my dissertation and my second manuscript in the same week. I was exhausted. I graduated, and I sent out queries while I looked for a job. This time, I knew I had something worth reading. I got job interviews, I got manuscript requests, and about two weeks before my new job started, I got an email from Sarah LaPolla. I opened that email with my heart in my throat, waiting for a rejection. It wasn’t a rejection. She’d made me an offer of representation.

We eventually sold that book, now titled Twisted Miracles, to Carina Press in a three book deal. This past Thanksgiving was the five year anniversary of the one that sent me to my laptop in a frenzy, and my debut novel comes out in two months.

I’m pretty excited about it. And I figured this was my last chance to write one of these posts.

That’s my story so far. Whatever you’re wishing and hoping for this year, I hope it happens for you in the best possible way.


  1. First off, I am so impressed by anyone who can complete a dissertation. That is such an accomplishment.

    Reading this, it's no wonder we got along so well; I see many similarities to my own journey in yours (ending with signing with Sarah!). I was also posed a question in a group setting of what was my biggest dream to accomplish, something like that. This was a church group, and I hate to say it but I prepared something appropriately churchy, when the person leading the group, the pastor and his wife actually, specifically clarified this could be anything at all, it didn't have to be spiritually related. So mine was write a book. I never looked back!

    I was also similarly motivated by Twilight back in 2007or 2008 and wrote some crappy sort-of urban fantasy stories that led nowhere. I read a bunch of UF at the time (I'm currently taking an online RWA course taught by Kelley Armstrong--I mean, how could I not for ten bucks?!). Twilight, for as much I can't stand the last book in the series, tapped into something very real in the first book; something that I think many of us who were teens ten years prior to its release, wish we'd had. I so wish I'd had more YA books back then, the good and the bad. Just a culture that paid attention to us.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing this!

    1. Thanks for sharing this! Coincidence, or a sign that our agent has a particular kind of taste in authors? Hmm...

      I remember being struck back then by how much I'd needed someone to ask this question before I could answer it. It wasn't as though I'd never thought about writing a book before, but something about that question made the goal crystallize for me in a way it hadn't before.

      I completely agree that there's something primal about Twilight (though I admit I've only read the first one.) After I had my mini-epiphany, I read that book in a way I'd never read any other. I deconstructed it in my head, and now I can't go back. Everything I read, I'm taking mental notes on the plot, the characters, the structure--but especially the theme. Twilight has a special place in my heart, because it was the first time I read a book and actively tried to see how it was stitched together.

      Oh, and novels are longer than dissertations and require way more revisions. So don't be impressed. (But, wow, did that process teach me how to handle failure and criticism. Eesh.)