Thursday, January 21, 2010

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

If you're reading this thinking, "Hey, where's part one...?" It's right here.

As a reminder, I've just discovered I want to write YA novels. On with the story:

That summer, I wrote a book that I called “Clarity,” about a high school senior who finally discovers the right path for her life. (And believe it or not, it didn’t occur to me until just now why that subject excited me so.) I would say this is my first non-sucky book. It’s not good, but it doesn’t suck.

I finished the book, and then somewhere I read the advice that I should read some books from my own genre. Oh. That had never occurred to me. I went to Barnes and Noble and looked at the “teen” shelves. I didn’t recognize a single name or title. They had the Gossip Girl books, but I’d read one of those and knew that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

I noticed they had a lot of books by some author named Sarah Dessen. I read the back cover copy of a few, and landed on This Lullaby.

Over the next couple days, I devoured the book, and then fell into a deep funk. Sarah’s book was SO GOOD. It was so funny and insightful. My book wasn’t funny OR insightful. In fact, I was suddenly convinced that my book totally stunk. That I needed to try again.

I became a little obsessed with Sarah Dessen. My husband grew very tired of hearing me talk about her. I went to her author website, which I’d never done, even though I’d loved a variety of books in the past. I discovered she had a blog, and began reading regularly. And then I found where she talked about how she developed the ideas for each of her books.

For This Lullaby, she’d had writers block until a friend commented how Sarah always wrote about quieter girls, and that maybe she should have a bolder main character. Sarah said this made her nervous because she had been a quieter girl, and wasn’t sure if she would even know how to write a bold character.

Reading this got me thinking as well. I’d always written about characters who were like me (or some who flat out were me). Even the story I was working on at the moment was pretty much about me, but just as a girl who wanted to write for television instead.

That’s when I unlocked what had been going wrong in my writing. I’D BEEN WRITING ABOUT ME. And it wasn’t supposed to be about me, it was supposed to be about story.

So, yeah, it still took me a whole other manuscript to figure this out.

I finished the book I was working on, called The Escape Route, had a few people read it and give me their thoughts, and then I started mailing out my query letters. This time, while I waited, I started a new book. And I made that main character as opposite of me as I possibly could. The result was Skylar.

As I worked on Skylar’s book, I told my husband, “This is going to be the book that gets me published.” I was right, but it was three years later before that happened.

For those three years, I had the luxury of writing full time. The first year, my husband was finishing up college and was in and out of the apartment all day. The following two years, we’d moved away from home, and he was gone from about 7 to 6 everyday, plus was getting his masters. I had a LOT of time on my hands, and I used it well.

During those years, I worked on both The Escape Route, which still hasn’t seen the light of day, and Skylar’s book. There were a couple of other projects I started, one of which I finished, but The Escape Route and Skylar were the two books I always came back to.

My original attempts at finding a literary agent, where I received invitations to submit from two of the five, appeared to be beginners luck. I queried dozens of agents and got nothing but, “No thanks.” Finally, I decided to try my luck at a writer’s conference.

I had decided The Escape Route totally reeked and stuck it in my “retired” file, so I brought Skylar’s story with me to the conference. I had an appointment with an acquisitions editor for a minor publishing house, who flipped through the manuscript while I (nervously) sat and watched. She read snippets and told me she thought it looked great, then asked what the book was about. When I told her, she asked how old Skylar was. I said, “Eighth grade.” She made a face and said, “Eighth grade? No high school student wants to read about eighth graders. And this book is far too mature for middle school students. Change Skylar’s age, and we’ll be interested.”

Okay, I quickly figured out that meant rewriting the entire book. But I didn’t want to lose my contact, so I pulled out The Escape Route and skimmed it. “You know,” I thought, “this isn’t too bad.” I’d learned all kinds of things at my writer’s conference, and I knew I could brush it up in a matter of weeks. I e-mailed my contact and basically said, “A rewrite will take me a couple months. In the meantime, would you be interested in seeing a different project?” and I gave her a blurb for The Escape Route. In short, she liked it and I sent in the full to be considered for publication.

While I waited, I rewrote Skylar’s story and submitted the first three chapters for a contest.

And then 2007 came, and my dark year started.

First, after seven months of waiting, the publishing house sent me a form letter stating that they weren’t interested in The Escape Route. Seriously. Seven months, and then an envelope arrived one day with a , “Dear author,” letter. Maddening.

Then Skylar, who I thought would at least final, bombed in the contest. One of the judges was smart and helpful. Two of them I doubt had ever read a YA book in their entire lives and had some really dumb stuff to say. (This is something I used to hesitate to share, but now that Skylar’s been published and my editor loved things those two judges hated, I’m not too worried.)

I heard "no" after "no" from agents I queried. One said The Escape Route had a boring plot, another said Skylar was unlikeable. I received harsh and unexpected criticism from a fellow writer.

I would walk into Barnes and Noble and want to burst into tears. (Part of this could be because I was pregnant at the time.) I looked around at all the books and thought, “There are so many books in the world … why should I even bother? What makes me think I have anything interesting to say? What makes me think my words are valuable?” Sometimes I would just curl up on the floor of our apartment and cry. I thought about everyone who’d doubted me and hated that they had been right. I thought about how I’d arrogantly dismissed the idea of college.

But my husband is awesome. He routinely told me how much he believed in me. I remember when we got the form letter from the publishing house, the one we’d been waiting on for seven months, and I just cried and cried. When I was done, Ben forced me to make eye contact with him and said, “I believed in you yesterday before this letter showed up. And I believe in you just as much now.”

That kind of belief is powerful.

I steeled myself and examined the comments I’d received about Skylar. Yes, some were dumb, but a couple rang true. I began brainstorming how I could make her more likeable, relatable.

I got the first three chapters rewritten (this is rewrite number 4 for those keeping track at home) just in time for a big conference in Dallas. I got shut down by a big publishing house as soon as they heard I didn’t have an agent, so I switched my focus purely to agents. I walked away with an invitation from my first choice agent to submit a proposal (first three chapters and a synopsis) for Skylar. A month later, another invitation followed from an agent who’d just had a chance to review my materials.

I sent off proposals, then focused on rewriting the rest of the book as much as I could. I was 8 months pregnant, and we were in the middle of moving from Orlando back to Kansas City.

In December of 2007, I was in the middle of contractions when I received a rejection from my first choice agent. She said my story needed a lot of work still. Fortunately, being in early labor helped distract me from feeling too disappointed.

And then when my daughter was a week old, the second agent sent me an e-mail that basically said, “I like this. I like you, but … your sentence structure is primarily passive. If you can revise and make your sentences active, then I’d like to see the first 100 pages.”

Um, I didn’t even know what that meant. I wrote back and said I was holding a week-old baby, and could I have about 6 weeks to make the changes? (And to figure out what the heck she was talking about!)

Grammar has never been my thing. I reread what my grammar books had to say about active sentence structure about twenty times before I thought I maybe, kinda understood what I was being asked to do.

I made the changes in 4 weeks and sent the e-mail.

While I waited to hear back, I worked on the rest of the book as quickly as I was able. I was making good progress when the agent e-mailed me and said she had a lot on her plate and had changed her mind about allowing me to resubmit.

Dejected, I stared at the computer screen and reread the e-mail a few times. Then I called my husband to tell him the bad news. He was outraged on my behalf, said a lot of, “She doesn’t know what she’s missing out on!” When we got off the phone, I read the e-mail a few more times, and then wondered if my e-mail to her with the 100 pages had gotten lost. I knew it was a long shot, but I e-mailed back and said something about how I understood how valuable her time was, and that I was curious to know if she knew I’d sent the first 100 pages a month before?

About 20 minutes later, she sent an apology e-mail, said she’d never received mine, and asked that I resend. I did. It took about a week for her to finally receive the e-mail, and then the waiting began all over again.

In the coming months, I polished up the rest of Skylar’s book. I finished up with edits on Friday, April 4th.

On Saturday, April 5th, in the middle of the KU/UCLA basketball game, the agent called my house. She said she was just about to finish the first 100 pages and that she needed me to go down to my computer and sent her the rest right away because she HAD to know what happened.

Our families happened to be over watching the game, and my parents ran out and got champagne despite my protests about how it may come to nothing. (And this time I really believed that.)

On Monday, the agent called to say she loved my story, she remembered loving me when she met me at the conference, but that she wasn’t too familiar with the YA market and didn’t know if she could sell me. She wondered if I’d be interested in signing something where we agreed to work together on this project, but that if it didn’t go anywhere, we’d either part ways or try to find a way to make me more “sellable.”

That ended up being unnecessary. A few short months later, Revell Books said they not only wanted my book, they wanted it to be a three-book series called The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt. Book one, Me, Just Different released last July in a whirlwind of fun and craziness. Book two, Out with the In Crowd came out the beginning of this month, and book three, So Over It, will release in July.

I was 25 when Me, Just Different hit shelves, to which almost everyone around me said something along the lines of, “Oh, to be so successful at such a young age!” But it was no fluke. It wasn’t because of abnormal talent or handy connections. It was the three things I mentioned earlier—desire, determination, and confidence. And with those three things, there’s no reason why you can’t become a novelist as well.


  1. A BIIIIIIG "aw" on Ben's believing-in-you comment! So sweet. And let's note that you got The Call about the contract on Ben's birthday. That's just too cool to not include!

  2. Okay, hi; this is Claire Martin again. I just sent you an email, then found this. Wowwwww. 5 years. Is there any chance at all that a sixteen-year-old could get published?

  3. Hi Claire! That's so weird that you should ask. I just posted on that subject here:

  4. This post is so inspirational to me... but I guess thats one of the things I am seriously scared of; giving up on my dream of getting published.
    Well, thats one of them... the second biggest is harsh, crappy, terse critisism. :( I mean I WANT critisism, I hate it when my friends send me a message back after I've sent them a chapter of one of my books and say. "I liked it" and thats it... I like it that they liked it, but I want more than just "i liked it". :P
    But yeah, I'm so scared that it'll never happen. And that I'm a bad writer... and harsh critisism.
    That's the only thing in the WHOLE WORLD I want more than anything just to get published!! Next to owning a horse haha... and being a worldwide phenomenon.
    Ugh... the world of a writer... so tough... =/

  5. You're not alone :)

    In the beginning, I recommend only showing your writing to people who will be honest, but yet people who believe in what you're doing. People who will criticize constructively.

    I used to be terrified of criticism, but you really do get used to it. You learn it's not personal, that they're really just helping you to make it the best manuscript they can. (Assuming you're relying on the right people, that is.)

    And if you want to be a writer, there's really no way around it. Even if your writing partners, literary agent, and editors have nothing but fab comments for you, you'll deal with the harshest critics of all - readers. That's why it's good to build a support system.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It's really encouraging, because I was really wanting to know about this kind of stuff. I was also wondering if it's possible to be a teen publisher, so i willl have to look up what you posted as a answer to 'claire's' question. How long is a book usually? I mean, i was trying to figure up how long my storys would be as a book and like getting no where:) and mine are no where close to 100 pages:)

  7. Hi! So glad you were encouraged.

    It's easiest to go by word count. My books are between 55 and 60k and they're about 260 pages in book form.

  8. Your story has inspired me, Steph. I can't believe I hadn't read it before. Thankyou thankyou thankyou for writing it. I'm excited about life -- as in, right now in my heart it feels like Summer. ♥

  9. Emii, that is such a perfect description! I know exactly what you mean :)

  10. Yours is a pretty incredible story. I'm so glad you made it through all the tough times to achieve your dream (and now to inspire and helps others to achieve theirs).

    This is a fantastic blog for teen writers :) Glad I found it.

  11. Wow! That's amazing, I'll have to check out your books sometime! :D
    Great post(s), I really enjoyed reading this :)

  12. I know it's 2013 and this was written ages ago and I'm abominably late -- but this is such a happy story it makes me want to cry! Super inspiring. Dogged determination is what separated the "maybe" authors from the "WILL BE!" authors. I'm so happy your story had a happy ending. I hope Skylar's will too, by the way. I've only read book 1 so far but I will definitely be reading the other two soon! :')

  13. Thank you SO MUCH for writing this! I really need to work on the last 2 - determination and, especially, confidence.

  14. Whoa this is inspiring*-* I've been writing for a couple of years now, and with four books on my shoulders I think the all suck. But you gave hope, so thank you, thank you, thank you. Although I have one problem, and it is that I don't live in America. In fact, English is not even my first tongue. So yeah.