My Bumpy Road to Publication

As a writer who’s been commercially published for most of my books and short stories, I’ve been asked about my road to publication. Most assume I sat down and zipped through my first novel, sent it off for publication, and presto! I became a published author. While that can happen today—with self-publishing and with those few fortunate writers who secure an agent and a huge publishing deal in a matter of weeks, that’s not the way it happened for me. My road was pretty darn bumpy, so bumpy that if I hadn’t been driven to succeed, I would have given up years ago. Thank goodness I couldn’t see then all the detours and dead-ends my journey would take. 


While writing my first novel long before self-publishing exploded onto the scene, I had visions of grandeur, imagining publishers wooing me, offering vast sums for my masterpiece. After all, I had an extensive background in writing and editing. I’d proofed secret documents, opened a bookstore and met published authors, copy-edited manuscripts, took several creative writing classes, held a position as acquiring editor for a small press, and later founded my own editing company. I thought I knew how to write a salable manuscript. So with high expectations, I mailed my queries to several agents and stayed by my phone to answer their calls begging me to sign with them.


My opulent visions dissolved faster than a popsicle in the Sahara Desert.


After about a month, my SASEs started to arrive. All of them were rejections with no explanations. Just a simple, “No thanks,” “Not for us,” and one so crushing that I bawled for two days.


I’d read other authors’ bios and most said they received rejections early in their career, so I shouldn’t have been shocked. I think what did affect me was the lack of explanations. No one said what was wrong or gave suggestions on how to improve. So blindly, I went over each page again and tried to correct, to tighten, to try to read through someone else’s eyes.


In the early 1990s, critique groups didn’t exist in my state. I joined a writer’s group about four hours away and each month traveled that distance to sit in on the meeting, hoping to learn even one thing that might help me. That lasted nearly a year. Each month I listened to guest authors speak about their upcoming new releases or what they were doing in their lives now that they were “published authors,” a title I longed for with all my heart.


I took more classes, rewrote my manuscript, printed more queries and sample chapters, and mailed them to a new agent list. Again, the rejections poured in. Again with no explanations.


Five years later, all the while writing, revising, attending more classes, I began to receive little notes at the bottom of the rejections. Notes with valuable suggestions. One agent even took the time to call and go over what she saw as problems and told me how to correct them. While I’d hoped for an offer for representation, I was thrilled with the suggestions. So, more classes, more how-to books. And I rewrote my manuscript again, thinking this was the final time. Now it was gold—or so I thought.


With my brand new revised manuscript, I set off for a ten-minute pitch session with my dream agent at our state’s writer’s conference. I waited in the hotel’s hallway with other hopefuls, trying to get my nerves under control. I took deep breaths and rehearsed my pitch. When the assistant called my name, I entered the room, shook the agent’s offered hand, and promptly forgot the title of my book. I’d blown my chance and wanted to sink right through the floor. Thank goodness she was gracious enough to lead me through some questions until I felt more comfortable. And she told me to send the full manuscript to her N.Y. office. I sailed out of that room and headed home to mail it.


While I had an answering machine, I didn’t want to miss her call offering a contract, so I counted the days until my package arrived at her office. I added a few more just in case. After all, she had bestselling authors who demanded her time as well. But oh, my manuscript shone. I’d incorporated the previous agents’ suggestions, had taken more classes, so what could go wrong? I was about to find out. 


Three week past my red-circled date on my calendar showing the last possible day she’d received my envelope, I watched the mail truck enter my street on the opposite side, inch down the street, then up again. When it stopped at my mailbox. I dashed out of the house so quickly I’m sure I left a vapor trail behind. But there was nothing from her.


I watched that mail truck and dashed out of the house each day for three months until I’m sure neighbors thought about sending for the squad in white coats—the ones carrying those little nets. Finally, my neatly-typed SASE arrived. A rejection. I knew that before I even took it out of the mailbox. I’d learned from the meetings that agents call when offering contracts. I carried the unopened envelope inside as slowly as if I were about to undergo a painful medical procedure. When I finally opened and read it, all of my hopes, my dreams, my efforts faded into nothingness, as if I hadn’t spent the previous several years in a fervor to achieve my dream. Seared into my brain were her words:


“Brenda, you write well, but your story is all over the place. You need to learn modern story structure.”


I doubled over and wept until I was too exhausted to shed another tear. Several days of extreme self-doubt passed. Wrapped in a shroud of grief, I lost interest in everything around me. I didn’t pick up a book—which had always been my salvation during times of stress. Then anger wormed its way into my consciousness. In all the classes I’d taken, why hadn’t I learned structure? I went over every page of instruction, every note I’d collected from the various classes and found nothing other than vague abstract references to structure. Anger fueled my buried determination, and I searched the internet for the best school of instruction I could find, one where the professors had written something more than papers on the subject. I wanted to learn from those who’d actually gone through the process and knew what and how to teach. And found the university I thought was the best. So, late in life, hair already sprouting strands of gray, I sent in my application for as many summer sessions as they’d allow. I felt a little awkward staying in the dorm with young women who were just starting their lives, but nothing would deter me from my goal. Those summers changed my writing life.


Again, I rewrote my novel and again, sent it to agents. An agent responded. He only offered one month of representation, but I held that piece of paper as if it were a gold bar, reading it again and again. Then I burst into joyous tears. He didn’t just send an offer, he sent an affirmation of my work, my efforts, my ability as a writer. I could make it.


My road to publication still took many detours—my life took detours: a total personal life change, a move to a new state. Periods of intense grief for a lost life and an inability to be productive nearly buried me, but as in the past, I picked myself up and began again.


The next few years brought ups and downs: contracts voided when a publisher’s line closed, publishers shutting their doors, royalties lost, agents retiring. Some successes which brought pride and renewed my determination.


Now writing my current novel, reflecting on what I’ve learned during my years of writing, of failures, of successes, it’s that anyone can learn to write. Like any profession, it takes learning the craft, practicing again and again, much like a concert pianist hones natural talent before playing to a paying audience. As a writer, I’ve learned some people will ridicule my work; others will exclaim I’m the best writer ever, but I can’t let other people’s opinions affect me. After all, I truly believe we writers offer a special work of art to the universe: a unique world seen only from our own eyes. Most of all, I’ve learned to never give up going for my dreams. None of us should.