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.
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!
I dread it when any of my family members ask me what I want to be when I grow up. I can’t exactly tell them that I want to be a writer because they’ll say exactly the same thing as my mom and go, “Really? But that doesn’t pay.”
I’ve made sure that no one in my family knows that I write stories. I’m surprised they haven’t found out actually, everything is right on my computer. The only person who knows that I write is my best friend and a few people online who have the same dream.
This is a weird thing to say, but reading this made me feel like there is some hope for me out there after all.
You have no idea how much your comment means to me. It is possible. And every time you start doubting yourself, I hope you will remember that I was exactly where you are now. And trust me, I’m no prodigy. You can do this. Ignore the haters and hang in there!
Hey Marni! I saw you at RWA when you gave the workshop 50 Shades of YA. You were so funny and real and just so cool. I’m 22 and about to start my senior year at college. I have a minor in English but I’ve taken mostly lit classes because the one writing class I took did in fact kill my soul a little bit haha I loved the prof, but omg…never again haha. Anyway, I’ve been writing since, well before I can remember lol storytelling is in my genes though I’m the first to pursue it professionally. I wrote my crappy books in HS. I just wanted to say that you’re an inspiration to me and I like your tweets. Have a great day!
I am so glad you enjoyed my 50 Shades of YA panel! Thank you so much for sending me such a wonderful message. You totally made my day! Good luck with your path to publication, it sounds like you are well on your way. 😀 I hope you know that the whole RWA community (and beyond) are cheering you on!
Wishing you the very best of luck!
Oh Darling, you are such an old soul. I apologize for the drop-jaw at learning your age because seriously, you could be my mother, you are so wise.
This was a play by play of my life down to the sobbing in bathrooms.
I’m glad you skipped a decade because that just gives you an extra decade of awesome. I see great things, I tell you, Great Things!
I love you oodles! Seriously, don’t worry about the jaw-drop. I get it all the time. I’m so glad you enjoyed this blog post! I see Great Things ahead for both of us. I also predict many conference dance parties. And you’ll be able to say, “Marni Bates? Yeah, I proposed to her. She accepted. But don’t mention it to my husband!”
Big hugs back!
You are so wise. Thanks for this lovely and true post. I think you got it exactly right. I certainly went through that decade — or two — of denial. I love your self-appointed Nora Roberts college class; I think I did the same thing, too!!
Hah! Thanks, Pintip! I’m so glad we got to know each other at RWA13! Talking with you was definitely one of the highlights of my conference experience and I’m counting down the days until I see you again in San Antonio! We shall have to discuss ALL the Nora Roberts books there… 😀
Great post Marni! So inspiring and yes, i am a little jealous.
Ha! You gained so much from that time wandering. At times, I’m a little envious of you, Carey! 😀
Oh, and I love ya!
I can see so much of my own journey in this post. I’m actually really happy that you didn’t have all those years trapped in a soul-sucking corporate job! For me it was a health scare that pushed me to pick up my dreams of writing again.
Also teared up when you were talking about your grandfather. I recently lost my grandpa and wish he could hold my first published book in his hands. But I know in my heart, he can see it. 😀
Your message means so much to me! I’m sorry for your loss–I’m always here for you if you find you need to talk it out. I am sure he can see all of your awesomeness. And I am sure he is tremendously proud of you–I know that I am! *Sends a massive cyberhug*
I love me some Marns!!!! I had a fairly similar story…sort of.
I decided I was going to be an author in the second grade. At that point, I was in love with the written word and already had the inkling that I had no other marketable skills. So, writing it was. I wrote relentlessly — horrible stories about time-traveling orphans, beach combers, and Christopher Pike knock-offs that, for some inexplicable reason (I can only assume it was my summer-long obsession with the movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun), always had an awkwardly written (and ill conceived) dance scene. I kept it up through high school and college and then I got a “real”(ish) job, assuming I would churn out my Great American Novel at night.
But by that time, I was an adult. And beyond bills and an impressive vocabulary of swear words and alcohol, adults posses the one thing that children do not: fear. Paralyzing, irrational, useless fear. I was terrified of being published, not being published, rejection letters, paper cuts, you name it. And I stayed afraid until I was miserable, depressed, considering suicide via White Out, and completely fed up. So I quit my safe office job.
And then the man I thought I was going to marry got down on one knee and broke up with me.
And then my house burned down.
And then I was 27, jobless, dateless, and homeless.
What the hell else was there to be afraid of? Nothing. Let a stodgy agent send me a hand-crafted form letter. Let the Big Six scoff at my attempt to string a sentence together. Go ahead, send me a rejection letter — if you can jam it into my charred remains of a mailbox, more power to you.
I wrote my first novel in my childhood bedroom under a poster of the New Kids on the Block that was still smothered was decade old Bonne Belle Lipsmackers kisses. I had no fear the first time I slapped that poster up (believing also that I would one day be Mrs. Danny Wood) and nearly 15 years later, I was fearless all over again — though I was pretty sure I no longer wanted to be Mrs. Danny Wood (dude has like, nine kids).
That first novel never sold but it snagged me my agent who was as bullheaded and fearless (or as stupid?) as I was. It also snagged the attention of my eventual publisher who bought the second book I wrote — and the third, forth, fifth, sixth, seventh…
I try to be as mature and level headed as I can and learn from the masters and post great inspirational quotes from Hemingway and Bronte and Plath in my office, but the person I really pay homage to is seven years old, clutching a pencil in her fat little fingers and writing about beach combers and dance moves, fearlessly. That kid had it right.
I wish my blog had a “like” function. Or a “love” function, for that matter! Your message is so incredible. I think your success is a true testament to your bravery, determination, and the unbelievable amount of awesomeness that you have within. I am so glad that we’ve become friends. I can’t wait to see you again, mi amiga!
Marni, what a beautiful, beautiful post – your decade of skipped misery was a decade well skipped! 🙂 Here’s wishing you a career of great success and new experiences… none of them even REMOTELY miserable. 🙂 Congratulations on sticking to your convictions and continuing to write!!
Oh thank you, Jennifer! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post! I appreciate your support more than I can express. Keep your fingers crossed for me, will ya?
Marni, not sure which I like better — the wonderful story of your journey (you should be SO PROUD of all you’ve accomplished!) or the pictures of you with your writing idols 🙂
Like Lorie, above, I got all choked up when you talked about your granddad. I’m sure he’s in heaven, bursting with pride for you, and bragging to all the other angels.
Wow! Thank you so much. You made me tear up with that last part. I think my grandpa has been having a blast watching my career take shape. Although I’m sure he would prefer me to give him a great grandchild…maybe someday! 😀 Your message really means the world to me. I just…thank you!
You already know how much I love you. And now I love you even more! Fantastic advice. For me, my 1 1/2+ decades of self-doubt and writing-avoidance started when I was 19 and a fellow creative writing student (aka douche bag supreme) declared that my short story was “trite” in front of the whole class. It cut straight through to my soul. He was so arrogant, so condescending, and I was so young and impressionable, I let it crush me. I didn’t turn back to writing until I was 37. But you’re right about those intervening years not being lost. I got a master’s degree, became a health policy researcher and writer (a very different but still disciplined kind of writing), got married and had children (though not exactly in that order). All these experiences helped make me who I am today and inform my novels. But it sure would have been nice to have your self-assuredness and chutzpah when I was a mere sprite! xoxo
Man, talk about douche bag supreme! I’m so sorry you had to deal with that garbage! But honestly I hope that someday I will be half as composed, competent, and completely made of awesome as you are today. I’m not exaggerating when I say that having people like you in my life inspires me to be brave. I am so glad we are on this path together.
Love you lots!
I’m in awe. Way to be so focused and go after what you wanted. For some reason the song, “Skip to My Lou” just popped into my head and so I’ll be singing it in your honor. 🙂
Ha! Trust me, Chanpreet–I am still figuring out my life as I go along. Going after what you want is so much easier in theory than it is in practice! 😀 I appreciate the singing in my honor! *Skips to the nearest coffee shop*
I haven’t skipped any decades on my journey yet all the negatives above – me too! And more, because I’ve been doing it decades longer. Except I didn’t let any of it crush me, I always saw the non-writing stuff as research, and I didn’t hide my writing or love of romance novels. I was good at lots of things (including math-raising children-running businesses) and enjoyed them while writing was always something I did for me. Eventually all that negative stuff from others faded and turned into, grudging admiration, then finally – when are you going to publish one of those? (I also learned about the business side of books because it was fun for me and gave me personal contact with authors/agents/editors instead of the query-rejection cycle.)
What thrilled me about what you’ve stated in your post, and I know you’re right, is that Blogs are a marvelous (and recent!) addition for shortening a writers journey and diluting all that negative crap. Blogs are great for reading/writing/learning the craft and the business/ and networking with other writers. Blogs are what are shared in other places, blogs don’t have to be approved before publication, blogs bring the mysteries and secrets into the open.
So here’s a secret I’ll share about blogs. Daily posts are not required. Books have been created and published – because of blogs. Blogs are dynamic and can change and grow with the author. A good title, and great content, makes the difference with a blog post.
I came to your blog because a writer friend, Linda Mercury, commented on your FB page and I couldn’t comment there, but you were only one click away. 😀
I totally agree with you about blogs! I’ve absolutely loved sharing my thoughts through this medium. And I loved reading about your journey to publication–thanks for sharing! I hope you stay in touch. 😀
P.S. I totally love Linda Mercury. She’s so sweet!