When I Was Plucked From the Slush Pile (And It Only Took Ten Years)

Since I’ve been a struggling writer for over a decade now, I’m well aware of publication myths. I swear, I wish that story about Stephenie Meyer sending out a grand total of nine queries had never hit the Internet. Nine queries, and she landed a great agent and went on to make a kajillion dollars with the Twilight series. (She was first starting out! She didn’t even know how to write a query!). Then there’s Veronica Roth, who wrote Divergent in college and is now a household name. And I recall reading about how Diablo Cody wrote Juno in two weeks at a Target Starbucks, although I can’t seem to be able to verify that now.

Those stories never interested me. They depressed me. I wanted to be a writer so badly, and success seemed to just fall into others’ laps.

Other stories helped me, fed my desire. These were the stories about writers who were rewarded after epic displays of patience. The ones who were rejected, over and over (and then over and over some more), and then suddenly rewarded with mainstream success.

I haven’t yet experienced mainstream success. My new book comes out in April of 2024, which is over seven months from now. But I have a traditional book deal, and the road to that was so long and twisty I want to share it because maybe it will give hope to other writers like me.

I started writing in 2008–always middle grade fiction, because it catered to kids of the age where books most impacted me. 2008 was when I graduated law school, and also when the bottom dropped out of the economy. From 2008 until 2012, I wrote three books and sent out literally hundreds of queries to to literary agents. Every time I received a request, my heart jumped. It never, ever got less exciting, less numbing, even though the next email from the agent was always a polite pass.

It was EXACTLY like this:

Copyright Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes)

Finally, in 2012, I landed my first literary agent. In fact, I had TWO offers, both from really great agencies. Really great agencies. Like, top-tier. My now-husband came home with flowers from Costco and a bottle of fancy wine and said quietly, “I know how hard you’ve worked for this, and for how long. I don’t know what else to say.”

And then the book that got me my agent didn’t sell. OR the book after that. And then we did an exclusive submission to another publishing imprint. No dice. Three books, three sets of closed doors.

When my agent wasn’t interested in my next project–and honestly, I felt guilty about all the time he’d invested with no output–I shopped it around and got my next agent. That book sold to a small publisher, and I’m choosing to omit details on that experience. Soon thereafter, I parted ways with that agent, and my next was enthusiastic about my project, All Sales Final, a middle grade twist on Stephen King’s Needful Things. I loved that book, and I was devastated when it didn’t sell.

Because my husband has been unflaggingly supportive about something I’ve wanted so much, and for so long, he instructed me to send All Sales Final to Kirkus Reviews. He said we both knew it was good, and the validation would help me not be so down about my (lack of) writing career. I balked, but I eventually relented. All Sales Final received a Kirkus star and was included in its Best of 2020 publication. Still, when I chose to hire a professional cover designer and to self-publish it, it probably sold a total of about 200 copies. And that’s being generous. That’s not a big deal, as I hadn’t expected anything spectacular to happen, but it was still depressing. All Sales Final deserved more.

During COVID-19, I wrote another book. That was rough; because I had an infant and a toddler, I very rarely had time to write, and it took forever to finish it–a protracted, painful process reflected in the finished product. I didn’t even bother to shop it around. Still, this was–what? Attempt number nine?

Then, my family moved from Naperville, Illinois to Alpharetta, Georgia. Once there, I was struck with a great idea for a black comedy thriller, for the first time venturing into adult fiction territory.

In writing this new book, I broke my major rules. These are major rules every writer needs to adhere to in trying to get a book out there. One, I didn’t show it to anyone, including my two writing partners who have seen everything I’ve written; and two, I didn’t prepare anything resembling an outline.

And I wrote it in two months. Like, for real two months. That is not an exaggeration.

When I was done, I looked back on my storied history. Three agents, five books on submission, and no career. The publishing landscape was changing. And this book–it was good. I had never had a feeling about a book the way I did with this one. It was fun, and dark, and I knew it had the benefit of diverse, strong women characters.

Maybe I didn’t need an agent. Maybe I should approach publishers directly, just to see what happened. So, as my husband was driving us back from a family trip to Asheville, North Carolina, I sat in the passenger seat with my hotspot and fired off queries to publishers that accepted un-agented submissions.

Then I sent no queries for two months. I had no time. Ever. I have two littles, and I also practice law. Hence, sending queries from a car hotspot.

In June, as I was helping the kids beat the crap out of pizza dough from Trader Joe’s, my phone lit up with an email. On the screen, I could only see the first few sentences, and right away it caught my eye because it was phrased differently than the normal request or rejection. I opened it up, and it was an offer to discuss how to “bring Neighborhood Watch to Turner.” I was so excited I jumped up and down and accidentally popped my three-year-old in the face. Then, I spent the next five minutes consoling him, and finally re-opened the email. There it was. An offer, which turned into an official-official offer after a subsequent discussion.

According to Ryan, my editor, Neighborhood Watch found its way on the slush pile, where an assistant started reading it and loved it. “Hey, you should check this out,” she told Ryan. “It’s about these really awful people getting killed in this rich neighborhood, and told by a bunch of different viewpoints.” “Alright,” he told her. “Keep reading, and let me know if it holds up.” “It holds up! Seriously, Ryan, I think you need to read this.” (I’m killing the actual dialogue, but that’s the gist.). So he did, and Neighborhood Watch became one of roughly a dozen books Keylight (the fiction imprint of Turner) will publish in 2024.

From the slush pile. The slush pile. The one book no one else saw, the one that took me no time to write, the one not backed by an agent. Turner/Keylight has been amazing (ARCs were ready nine months ahead of the publication date), and I’m so grateful to be in good hands.

We have a ways to go, of course. April of 2024 is a while from now, and who knows what kind of a success Neighborhood Watch will be? But damn, I’m already a writer’s myth. Let’s go for broke!