Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How I went from being a teenage writer to a novelist (Part One)

Every author’s story is different, and your path will be totally different than mine. I don't intend for this to be a "how to" manual on getting published, but a source of information that can help you avoid mistakes I made.

Since first grade on, I wanted to be a writer. Sometimes I wanted to be a writer and a doctor, or a writer and a veterinarian, but "writer" was always in the picture. In my elementary school years, there was lots of creative writing time. I wrote all kinds of short stories, many that involved horses. And dynamite, though never in the same story.

This is the first story I ever wrote:

Once upon a time there was a little girl.
Her name was Stephanie.
She had a little dog.
The dog’s name was Toby.
The little dog said, “Arf, arf.”
Stephanie pet her dog.

And that’s the end.

Not exactly brilliant stuff. I guarantee you, my teacher wasn’t waving it in front of the class saying, “Behold! Stephanie Leigh Hines will someday be a novelist!”

What I lacked in raw talent, I made up for in desire, determination, and confidence.

In middle school, we did next to no creative writing. We had journals, but I’ve always found my actual life way too boring to routinely journal about. So I started writing stories on my own. I was always the main character, my friends the costars. There was some real creativity going on in those years. Like the story about the girl who killed others when she got angry just by using her brain waves. Or the story I wrote where I tried to use initials instead of names. (That one is called “The Seven Nothings.” I remember the title had a very deep meaning to me at the time, but for the life of me, I can’t recall what it is now.) Oh, and one where everyone thinks this girl is totally normal, but she actually has some really horrible secret that she’s hiding. And an ex-boyfriend who can read her mind and basically haunts her. I could never think of a big enough secret, though, so that one fizzled out quickly.

I wrote a lot of beginnings, but rarely ever made it to the middle of a story.

In high school, I still wrote, but my classes required more of my attention than I was accustomed to. I didn’t get really serious about my dream until my junior year of high school when I took a creative writing class. We did journaling and poetry (both of which I stink at), playwriting (that was better), and then a children’s book. I couldn’t think of any ideas for a children’s book, but I had an idea for a “teen book.” My teacher said that would be fine, so long as I stayed within 14 pages.

I wrote 14 pages about, basically, a failed relationship of mine.

When the class was over, and I realized there was so much more to the story, I fleshed out the story to be 90 pages, single spaced.

It was my first real attempts at writing a full-length novel, and it was terrible. Some of my friends really liked it, though, and their encouragement lit a fire under me. I got on-line and started researching publishing houses.

I quickly noticed that the big houses had phrases under their submission policies that basically said, “No unsolicited submissions.” After a little more research, I learned that meant they had to request my manuscript. I didn’t really know how to make that happen, so I started looking for houses that allowed unsolicited submissions. I found a handful, none of which I can remember the name of.

I printed off five or so copies of my book. Prepared my “SASE” (self-addressed stamped envelope, which I assumed they would use to tell me what a gem of a writer I was, and how they couldn’t wait to publish my book). Then I mailed off my package and began to wait.

Time went by. Lots of time. A couple of form letters came back, the ones that say something like, “Dear Author, thank you for your interest in our publishing house. Unfortunately, at this time, your project isn’t right for our needs. Best of luck in your writing endeavors.” Several didn’t even bother to respond.

But one apparently read the whole stinking thing. Looking back at this now, I marvel that any of them might have read even a page or two. They wrote back that for my age, the book was very good, but that it lacked a tight, satisfying ending.

I thought this over. That was true, it didn’t have a tight, satisfying ending, but that’s because in real life there hadn’t been much of one. (I can’t keep myself from interjecting that the lesson you should all take from this is to MAKE STUFF UP. I’d somehow lost track of the fact that I wasn’t writing an autobiography, but a NOVEL. Anyway, moving on.)

Instead of sending my book out to more publishers, I decided to write another novel. After several false starts, I finally landed on a book idea I liked. And I had just graduated high school, so I had some more time on my hands.

It took me about six months to write the first draft. And this one was actually real book length. During that time, I discovered there were books I could buy that were full of publisher addresses and requirements. I also noticed they had a big section on “literary agents.” I knew movie stars and athletes had agents, but I didn’t know writers did.

As I researched, I learned that was the way to go since a lot of editors would only work with agented authors. The book said literary agents liked to see “query letters” in which I should describe my book and my credentials. Then they would either ask to see the manuscript or tell me I wasn’t a good fit for their agency. The book suggested picking five agents at a time to mail letters to.

I don’t remember how I picked my five. I think I knew at that time my book was considered “Young adult fiction,” which is what the industry calls books for teens. I probably just picked the first five who wanted YA fiction and were open to new authors. I wrote about a hundred drafts of my query letter, then put it and my SASE in the mail.

More waiting.

This process actually went faster. Within about 6 weeks, I’d heard back from all five. Two sent form rejection letters, one scribbled on my query letter “Not interested,” and mailed it back to me, and two WANTED TO READ MY BOOK.

I was smart enough to realize I should get back to them quickly, but also smart enough to realize my book was still largely in first draft form.

I worked myself hard for a week to get that baby whipped into shape. One of the agents had also requested a “synopsis” (insert me going ????) and a bio that included my credentials. (Er … high school newspaper? “A” in creative writing class?)

Finally I got everything sent off, and then I sat back to wait for a letter that I assumed would say, “How has nobody snatched you up yet? I’m the luckiest agent in the whole world to be signing a writer like you!” I mean, I told my parents and boyfriend, “Anything could happen. They probably won’t like it,” but I knew these were smart, savvy agents who would recognize me for the budding talent I was.

Uh, not exactly. Both said a vague no (“Stephanie, this just isn’t the right project for my agency at this time…”)

This was followed by lots of crying, and lots of my parents and boyfriend (who’s now my husband) saying, “It takes a lot of tries. Just keep sending it out and eventually you’ll find the right agent.”

This is true when you’ve written a good book.

As I reread my manuscript, I thought, “This totally, utterly sucks. I can do better.”

At this point, I’d decided not to go to college. Instead I was living in an apartment by myself and working as a secretary for my dad’s company. It gave me lots of time to write, and that’s what I wanted. I wrote a book basically about how confusing it was to be eighteen years old. How until then, everyone around your age has been doing the same thing as you. My friends and I had all gone different directions, and my life no longer looked like all the others around me.

It was a beast of a book, and the most confusing one I’ve written to date. I insisted on including every facet of my life in there. For the third time in a row, I’d forgotten to MAKE STUFF UP.

For this one, I didn’t even bother looking for agents. I knew, as I started the editing process, that it was too confusing, and too sucky to every get published.

For a few years I floundered. I wanted to write “serious books.” The kind students would read and study in English class. But I couldn’t come up with any ideas that excited me for more than 20 or 30 pages. I had a couple ideas for books about teenagers, but I discarded those almost instantly. I felt it was time for me to grow up and stop writing high school stories.

Then, in the winter of 2004, when I was 20-years-old, inspiration struck in the form of a Delia’s catalog. Little, Brown and Company had taken out an ad for three book series that are now very familiar to me: Gossip Girl, The A-List, and The Clique.

As I stared at the page, it occurred to me that I was 20-years-old, about to get married, and still those books interested me. Not just that, but I felt drawn to them. What did that mean? I sat there and puzzled over the ad for a few minutes, and that’s when it hit me—I’M SUPPOSED TO WRITE YOUNG ADULT NOVELS.

I was stunned by this idea. And thrilled to finally feel some sense of direction in my writing career. I shared my revelation with my parents and fiancĂ©. All three were like, “Well, yeah … you didn’t, like, know this already?”

Read the rest of the story here.


  1. Wow, you didn't get your first rejection letters until then?? I started collecting them at 14, LOL. Some of the form letters, to be sure, and one that I still have stashed somewhere. It was the form rejection, with this note handwritten on. "I can't publish this, but you've got talent. Keep writing."

    The book was terrible, but that note from a big-shot editor was one of the things that convinced me it was a process worth pursuing.

  2. How nice of that editor to take the time to write that! And he was right :)

  3. Aw, shucks. ;-) And it was especially nice given the fact that my book didn't even begin to fit in their line, LOL. (FYI, that was the story that eventually became FIRE EYES.)

  4. LOL, loved the story! And congrats on getting published! I queried my first novel at 13 - over 30 rejections and only 1 full. :( Considering that I thought my novel was the best thing ever when I queried it, I was pretty bummed but reading it back, I realized it was utter drivel except for the first few pages. That agent still has my manuscript to this day (only a few months later) but I'm not hopeful. The book is plain bad!

  5. Hey Stephanie! That story is truly inspiring. A lot of my English teachers have given me lots of competitions to enter to get my work published. I haven't acted on it yet but reading your story gave me a bit of an idea of how it is in the 'real world.' hahaha! :D

  6. Your blog is very inspiring and just so fun to read. At least you are blessed now with the published books you have! :)
    You inspire me to keep on writing and not to give up so easy.

  7. I laughed numerous times reading this. Thanks so much.