Apparently the relentless, soul-crushing pursuit of something can end in sweet, sweet vindication that (almost) makes up for the nights spent wondering: Is this going to actually ever happen?
For me it happened last week when I signed a book deal with Skyhorse Publishing. Their children’s imprint, Sky Pony Press, will be publishing my debut YA novel in the Spring of 2017.
But it started way before that. When? I’m not really sure when I inceptioned myself that being a writer is what I wanted. Early, I think—maybe way earlier than I actually can pinpoint. Who knows these things. I can say more accurately that my first attempt at writing a book was eight years ago during student teaching. It was an awful, embarrassing attempt. Wincingly bad. More false attempts followed because that’s one thing I’m really good at: getting really excited about writing a book and then giving up after 3,000 words. I never planned or plotted or got feedback. I just kept it all to myself and did a bunch of really crappy writing. I was my own worst enemy.
An M.A. in History at Villanova changed that, exactly how you’d assume: my professors completely shredded my writing. They Marine Corps Boot Camp Drill Sergeanted me. I was bushwhacked. If it was a movie, it would be rated R for extreme and gruesome violence. I went into that program thinking I knew history and how to write; I quickly realized that I didn’t know history and that I had a serious crap-ton to learn about good academic writing. That was hard. As someone patently insecure, I struggled taking criticism. I didn’t get defensive, but instead convulsed with unnecessary panic. I worried that I’d made the wrong choice to start the program and that I couldn’t get the grades needed in order for my school to partially reimburse me. Around that time my wife reminded me that I live in habitual hyperboles. She told me to relax. Things got better.
Toward the end of that program—Fall 2012 I think—the idea for this particular book settled in my mind: a young adult thriller laced with Revolutionary history, but completely modernized. By now I’d honed my writing to a not-awful level and felt really good that a graduate journal had published one of my papers. But I wanted more. Yeah, there’s notoriety from other history nerds, and yeah, my professors were proud; that meant a lot, and I beamed under their condoning nods. But I wanted to write something that was going to be read outside academia—something, that in my mind, actually mattered to me and my eighth graders. In one of the few decipherable lines of Moby Dick, Melville surmised my angst best: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
My mighty theme sprang from a deep well fed by two underground rivers: a father’s unwavering love for his son, and the concept of inherited treachery—being branded by the actions of one’s ancestor. While writing a paper on Revolutionary traitors that fall, this all sort of swirled together in my head and a question surfaced: where are the descendants of the Revolutionary generation today? Like, what’s Washington’s great-great-great-great whatever doing in 2015? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a secret club of Revolutionary descendants today bonding over their ancestor’s mutual awesomeness? But there was a better question still submerged, way farther down that grabbed at my ankles: what about the traitors of the Revolution? Where are they? If Washington’s offspring are living the dream, then what about Benedict Arnold’s? And wouldn’t it be cool if the the descendants of the heroes still actively persecuted the offspring of the traitors out of some misguided sense of honor...?
And The Judas Society was born.
The journey from idea to draft to querying agents to rejections to more rejections was painful. So painful. A few highs, mostly crushing lows. And it all would have ended if not for my wife, whose constant support pushed me to keep writing and sending out queries—reassuring me that “someone will want this”. She counseled against my knee-jerk and ultimately foolhardy decision to self-publish just because I wasn’t happy with the current circumstance. And she was right. Ejecting from the cockpit and hoping the poorly packed parachute would save me wasn’t the right move; I just needed to get serious about flying the plane and figure out how to pull this thing out of the dive.
Most critically, she kept me grounded (yes, this goes against the previous plane metaphor, just deal with it). She reminded me of a salient truth that I struggle with constantly: to make this pursuit ultimate—to give it a preeminent place in my heart above God, my wife, my daughter, above my community that I’m called to love and invest in—was dangerous. It would twist me, distort me, command my emotions and time and mental space in nefarious ways. In this she echoed Pulitzer-Prize winner Ernest Becker (yes, I just dropped a random, esoteric 1970′s cultural anthropologist on you) in The Denial of Death: if I found my “cosmic significance” in this book, I would deify it—problematic because it was never meant to bear the “burden of godhood”. Even if my dream of being published came true, it wouldn’t be enough. Pursue it, she counseled, but don’t make it more than it is. It’s just a book.
You can see how I married up.
Fall 2014 things started to happen. Several agents expressed interest in the book, but the one who shared my vision wanted to see some edits before making an offer to represent it—wanted to see if I could maneuver out of some pretty tricky plot holes. It was a two-way job interview of sorts; I had to buy into her changes for the work, and she had to buy into my cleverness to actually make those changes happen. We both passed. The day before Thanksgiving, Lauren Galit of LKG officially offered to represent me. It was the hardest benchmark in my writing journey to reach, and the most critical.
See, to get traditionally published today, you need an agent because publishers don't (or rarely ever) accept unsolicited manuscripts from unagented authors—see also: me. Agents know the market; specifically, they know what editors are acquiring and what they’re sick of. In exchange for a small percentage of future profit, they agree—after deciding they like you and your book and that it has a chance of selling—to represent you. Think of them as very picky trail guides who only agree to take the people they think can make it to the goldfields of California. (This is a historical reference, you see.) They don’t promise you success, just the chance of it; in exchange you give them some of the gold you find. Sure, you can go on your own, but most likely you’ll die of bear mauling or starvation or cholera (all of which can serve as metaphors for various types of nontraditional publishing). They act as editor, encourager, hard-truth sayer, and above all, champion of your work. A good agent has your back, but isn’t afraid to say things to your face. They also apparently live on their email.
Lauren’s edits, in conjunction with LKG’s associate agent and stellar Middle Grade author, Caitlen, were fantastic. She zeroed in on problems I overlooked, sniffed out narrative miscues, and thus pushed the book to an entirely new level. Edits were too numerous to count; think in the hundreds. It was both thrilling and excruciating. I was finally working with legit book people. I also most definitely sank near or into depression (habitual hyperboles, again). But the thing is, it’s what I needed. It’s what my book needed.
May 2015 brought the awful, three-month wasteland of waiting known as “submission” where Lauren sent out the manuscript to interested publishers she’d previously hooked with a pitch. If you listen very carefully, you can still hear the deafening silence of that waiting. A rejection or two would trickle in with feedback ranging from good to oddly vague. More waiting. An editor would leave a press, and we’d have to find another one there. More waiting. A rejection with feedback that stung. More waiting. A tug on the line: an editor saying she’s halfway through and loving it. More waiting. Depression. Anxiety.
And then Lauren’s email: “The publisher wants to set up a phone call.”
The rest is not always downhill for all authors, but thankfully it was for me. Phone call with editor Alison Weiss at Sky Pony went fantastic; book was passed up the chain; book was approved. Offer was made; offer was accepted. Contracts were haggled over; contracts were signed. Author took selfie with contract. Agent submitted deal announcement to Publisher’s Weekly.
Author screamed for joyous relief.
Silver linings run through this journey. The difficulty of channeling my passion into this book yet not making it preeminent is for sure at the forefront. Another is that I’m not deluded—a latent fear always lurking in the back of my mind. That is to say, my ideas, prose, and ability to execute an idea can actually produce something desirable by people who publish books. My wife has always told me that I can write, and that my ideas were good. I believed her, but it was a hard thing to do. I am quick to self doubt by nature, preferring to think less of myself because it’s much safer. If I go into it saying “just a heads up: this isn’t that good”, then I won't feel the crushing disappointment if others don’t like my work. It’s a problem. Therapy is helping.
The bitter sweet part of all this is that I’ll be giving up my teaching job. JK; I’d never do that. I need inspiration from my amazing students and faculty, not to mention the money. Not that this was ever about money—though to be clear writing is probably the worst way to make money, ever. Yes, money is good. I like money. I’d like more of it. But what I really wanted was a major league creative marketplace. I wanted someone—despite the subjectivity that governs life and the book business—to say, “We like your writing. We want others to read it. Come write for us. Join our team.”
Last week I joined the team at Sky Pony Press. There is no figure of speech to accurately communicate my state of happiness. My emotions transcend hyperbole. And yeah, there’s a ton more work ahead, and a publication date of Spring 2017 that feels like thirty years from now, but that’s fine because this adventure has been wild and this summer epic. I’ll never forget it.
That time I got a book deal.