So one of the questions I get asked most frequently is, how did you get published? A fun variation on that, which usually cuts to the heart of that matter is, how can I get published?!
Interestingly enough, when I go to writers conferences the question changes. Oh, don’t get me wrong; everyone (myself included) loves to hear about that first book deal! But people tend to be less interested in how I came to have a 4 book deal with KTeen and far more fascinated by my age.
Excuse me, but just how old are you?!
And upon hearing my answer (23), somebody within earshot tends to proclaim, “Holy crap! I could be your mother!”
Um, I think my parents would have broken that news to me by now.
Anyhow, after years of being on the receiving end of stares, praise, open-mouthed gawking, heartfelt congratulations, and lovingly-delivered insults, I’ve come up with some theories for my early success that might just answer everyone’s questions.
So this is how I skipped a decade in my career.
I would like to preface my theory by saying that it is heavily based on the stories I have heard from other authors about how they got their big breaks.
We all wanted to write in high school. Or at the very least, we thought we wanted to write. Maybe we just wanted to see our name on the cover of a book. Regardless, we were fascinated by the idea and we bought journals and imagined all the cool things that we might someday put in them.
And then the worst thing ever happened. The kiss of death for all aspiring writers. We were asked what we wanted to do professionally.
It was kindly asked, maybe by a teacher or a parent or family friend, but suddenly we were put on the spot and our answer wasn’t good enough. We couldn’t tell these people that we wanted to write books for a living! We definitely couldn’t tell them about the stacks of romance novels in our bedroom and how someday we’d love to try writing one of our own!
“Oh, really?” They might say. “And what’s your backup plan when that doesn’t work out?”
“That’s a tough industry. Are you sure you really want to do that?”
“Hahaha! So maybe you’ll teach writing someday? Have you ever considered being a teacher?”
“You might want to take a few business courses in college. Major in something useful.”
“Don’t you need to be in a real relationship before you can write a romance? Those trashy books aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”
Maybe we heard something else entirely. That we weren’t considered good writers when compared against, oh, I dunno…Hemingway! Maybe someone pointed out that our grammar could use work and that until we had comma splices down to an art form we shouldn’t even consider taking on such a large project. Maybe we were told that to be a real artist we had to come from a tortured past–and that our lack of suicidal ideation disqualified us. Or that to make our writing better, we should make it sadder.
There were rules. Arbitrary ones about adverbs and adjectives and which ones belong in prose and which merely clutter up the works. We were told that we should write “said” instead of “clucked” or “whimpered” because it’s so much cleaner. We were instructed to “show” not “tell” so many times that we wanted to show somebody the door–and maybe give ‘em a small shove to hurry up the process.
And at some point, it seemed as if a consensus was reached: we were not worthy of being writers.
We need to be practical. Realistic. Prepared for the harsh realities of life.
So we didn’t write, or if we did, it was a secretive act of defiance and shame. It’s worthless, we told ourselves. Something that shouldn’t be read because we don’t know what we’re doing and anyway it’s just for fun.
That’s what we told the people who bothered to ask.
This is the part where things became really murky for us. Maybe we travelled, or started bouncing between crummy jobs just to pay the bills, or went to college and stopped reading for fun because…
Maybe we got married and had kids and thought, Okay, so adulthood should kick in any second now! Maybe our only goal was to pay off all those student loans before we turned 90 years old.
All those warnings that we should major in something, “practical” might not have helped us find a job, but the pressure still cranked up. If we didn’t figure out something, the plan was to survive on Top Ramen forever. Sometimes we comforted ourselves by saying this:
Some of us tried to be logical–and postpone paying back student loans–by rushing into grad school.
And then something awful happened. Maybe we fell sick. Cancer. Breast cancer. Lung cancer. It’s a tumor, but it might be benign. It wasn’t us, but our mom. Our best friend’s dad got hit by a car and we didn’t know what to say that could possibly make anything better. Maybe our grandpa was barely conscious and we had to say goodbye. Maybe we couldn’t say goodbye.
Maybe we knew this was going to happen. Maybe we tried to stop that person from doing that thing, but it didn’t work and here we are buried neck-deep in the rubble between what could have been and what used to be.
Maybe it wasn’t any one thing, but the weight of our lives started conspiring with gravity to maintain a constant pressure. We found ourselves crying after work. Wiping away the tear tracks and reapplying makeup in bathroom stalls, because if the stress showed on our faces we could kiss that promotion goodbye.
That’s when we started reading again.
Books that made us feel better in high school. Books that made us weep because they ripped out our hearts, but it’s the good kind of pain that reminds us that we’re human. Books that made us smile because we can relate to the main characters and suddenly our daily lives become an inside joke. Books that made us laugh out loud and forget about our problems entirely.
That’s when we thought, I miss this. I want to do this. Why didn’t I do this? What was I so afraid of?
We became time thieves, stealing minutes from work to jot down dialogue in that same bathroom stall. We plotted a particularly difficult sequence in the middle of a meeting. Someone passed us on the street and we found ourselves thinking that our heroine would never wear those clothes.
We drank way too much caffeine.
We searched for people who shared this passion with us, because they might see something that we’d missed. They might suggest something which would make all the difference! And even if they didn’t, at least they wouldn’t dismiss all of our hard work with a shrug and an eye-roll.
We wrote, The End, at the bottom of the manuscript, and it was magic. But we couldn’t decide if it should be in italics or if it should be bold, so we tried every combination.
Our friends read it and some of them had excellent advice and some of them had no idea how to give a critique but were trying their best to be helpful. We pitched agents. We attended conferences. We sent out query letters.
We sank time and energy and money into this endeavor of ours, even though we knew that some of the most important people in our lives probably thought it was a waste.
Okay, so maybe sometimes our friends were right to be concerned.
We gritted our teeth and smiled as people asked if we’re going to be the next J.K Rowling. We crawled into bed and debated giving up entirely when we received form rejection letters.
I am sorry to inform you that…
Yeah, so were we. In fact, we were heartbroken. But we kept sending out query letters or maybe we put it aside and began writing a new book…or both!
And eventually we got the call that changed everything. An agent loved our work! The world was suddenly overflowing with flowers and happiness and sparkly bits of confetti! We danced for a solid week. We imagined giving up our day jobs. We decided to “follow” all of our agent’s clients on Twitter! Heck, we followed everyone connected with the agency!
Then came another wave of rejection. It hurt more than we probably expected, because somehow we thought our agent’s mind control powers would work on the Big Six and the acquiring editors would be all over us within a week.
We worried. We stressed. We sent neurotic emails to our agent and friends. We became on first-name speaking terms with our nearby baristas.
And then we got that other call. The Call.
So-and-so loved it! It’s a small advance, but the royalty rates are great! It’s an eBook only deal, but it will get your foot in the door! It’s going to auction–bidding war, here we coooome!
Maybe our call sounded a little different.
I think you should self-publish this, get a grassroots movement going, and then we’ll show (name redacted) what you have planned to write next!
The stories divulge even more wildly from here. Some debut novels become New York Times Bestsellers. Some go out of print. Some get rave reviews from Kirkus…only to be ripped apart on Goodreads.
Somebody once reviewed my debut YA novel by saying, Awkward is the devil’s way of poisoning young minds.
That same reviewer gave me 3-stars. Go figure!
So if you are wondering why I’ve avoided mentioning myself until now, it’s because my story fits into the one I laid out. The fear that I would never be good enough, that I would never be smart enough; the soul-crushing, gut-wrenching pain of rejection after rejection…those experiences have been present and accounted for in my road to publication.
But there were a few things I had going for me.
I had access to blogs.
More specifically, author blogs. And I read every scrap of advice Meg Cabot ever wrote for young writers. I memorized the most crucial parts and I followed her instructions. I’m paraphrasing, but these are essentially her rules:
1. Don’t tell anyone you want to be a writer–they will only try to talk you out of it.
2. Don’t take writing classes–they will probably kill your soul.
I paid attention to her books. More specifically, I noticed how quickly she wrote them. And I realized that I would have to be able to keep up a steady pace if I was ever going to support myself that way. So I began writing a novel as my high school senior project. (There is more to that story, but I’ll save it for another blog post.)
I was also incredibly lucky to have a supportive mother and a teacher that went above and beyond for me. Jane Claussen agreed to be the advisor on my independent novel writing project. She didn’t really do much advising. She read what I turned in, said that she couldn’t wait to read the next scene, and asked me to write her in as the villain.
I never did.
Actually, she did inspire me to write a character in Jane’s book, Invisible. And I was thrilled to see that the reviewers seemed to enjoy her fictitious doppelgänger as much as I liked spending time with the woman behind it.
Mrs. Claussen and my mom believed in me when it felt like nobody else did.
Another turning point happened during my interview with an alumna from Lewis & Clark College. I was really nervous. I had visited the campus and I thought it might be the perfect fit for me, which meant that I wanted her to pass on a glowing recommendation.
But she asked me what I thought I would regret the most about my time in high school…and I just blurted out the truth.
“I hate my math class.”
She nodded, but didn’t seem particularly impressed.
“No, I mean I really hate it. I’m completely behind and at this point I’m not entirely sure it’s humanly possible to catch up. The only reason I’m in that stupid class is because I know four years of math looks good on my college application.”
That’s when it dawned on me.
“Lewis & Clark doesn’t care about math, right?”
She stared at me in confusion. “Um…”
“I did really well on my AP tests, so three years of math probably won’t stop me from gaining admission, right?”
The alumna looked increasingly uncomfortable. “Well…”
I threw my hands up in the air. “It’s a waste of my time! I could be writing and instead I’m sitting in that classroom trying not to lose my freaking mind! I think I should stop going entirely. Yeah. I am definitely going to drop that class. Wow. That’s so cool. Thanks. So…to answer your question: no regrets!”
My interviewer looked panic-stricken.
I’m guessing none of her other high school interviewees decided to lighten their academic course load in the middle of their session with her.
I was also right: Lewis & Clark accepted me without four years of math.
I spent that extra time writing and grieving the loss of my grandpa. Part of the reason I had fallen so far behind was that in the wake of his death I couldn’t bring myself to care about calculus. I forced myself to keep up with my other school obligations, so I guess my mom was willing to be flexible when I said, “Please don’t make me go to that class today. Please don’t.”
Maybe she could tell that I was seconds away from falling apart completely.
I do have regrets from high school and one of the biggest is that I didn’t start writing sooner. That my grandpa never got to share this journey with me. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when I left a copy of my autobiography Marni on his grave only a few years later.
I don’t know if I attended the Willamette Writers Conference because of my mom, or Jane Claussen, or because I no longer believed in God and figured I should be making my own destiny.
For those of you wondering about the God thing; it’s pretty simple. My grandpa lived a long, full, happy life…and then he died. Which meant that if God existed, he was a total jerk.
A sterling example of Marni Logic.
I paid for that conference with my babysitting money. And because I was way too
cheap thrifty to fly, I shared a ride (and a hotel room) with a woman who was certifiably insane. I honestly called my mom from a Burger King parking lot on the road to Portland and said, “I think I’m going to die.”
She thought I was joking.
She wished me good luck and I spent the rest of the ride making sure that Mrs. Insane-o had access to chocolate at all times so that she wouldn’t randomly decide to stop driving–on the highway!
But Mrs. Insane-o certainly motivated me to meet other people and try to find another ride home (I did! Which is probably why I’m still alive today!) and one of those people heard about a company looking for teen girls to write their autobiographies and passed on the info to me.
When I came back from the conference, I sat outside for a couple of hours by my neighbors koi pond and asked my grandpa what I should do. He seemed to be of the opinion that I should go for it.
So I did.
I was hired to write my autobiography my freshman year of college and by that point there was no turning back. Ready or not–and the answer was not–I was going to be published. My whole life story was going to exposed for anyone and everyone to read. That’s when I ran to the school library and checked out their copy of Ella Enchanted.
Fast forward a year and I was a sophomore in college. I was trying to do publicity for my autobiography and learning pretty quickly that it is hard to make anyone care about your book. I also wasn’t writing for myself anymore. I had decided to take a whole bunch of English courses and since I was in a creative non-fiction class, I didn’t have the drive to work on a novel. Or maybe I was just being lazy.
When I think about that year what I remember most fondly was the English course which didn’t exist. That’s right; I created a 400 level course just for myself. I awarded myself an A and received zero college credit, but it was totally worth it.
I called it, Major Figures in Literature: Nora Roberts.
I read almost everything she has ever written. I immersed myself in her worlds and I ignored a whole bunch of my college assignments in the process. I didn’t care. That’s not entirely true; I did care, but I didn’t want to stop.
Reading romance novels in college made me want to keep writing.
They made me realize that I didn’t feel like myself unless I was working on a project. Sure my characters drive me nuts, but they also make me exquisitely happy. And that’s the life I want for myself–and for all of you!
This job does not come easily. Not for me, not for anyone. You have to decide whether you can finish a novel, tear it apart in edits, send it out into the world for criticism, and then start the process all over again.
But if this is something you want more than anything else in the world, then I vote you skip the decade of denial. I vote you try to make that dream happen now.
If you want to hear about a few other pivotal moments in my writing career, check out my YouTube video on that subject
And if you are reading this thinking, crap, I wish I had pursued writing from the very beginning instead of trying to be rational! I’d like to remind you that those years weren’t lost. You spent them gaining life experiences and testing yourself in a million different ways. And you also inspire me to be bold in other areas of my life, to face other types of rejection and failure.
So thank you!
And because I know this incredibly long blog post should end on a really upbeat note, I just want to say that I have now met some of my favorite authors whose books got me through hard times.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips!
Jay Asher, Laurie Halse Anderson and Stephen Chbosky!
And you know what happened right after this photo was taken?
I met a fan of my own!
This is without a doubt the coolest job ever.
So best of luck and happy reading everyone!