Did Nothing I Learned Matter?

I’ve been trying to be a professional writer for well over ten years now. Because books mattered most to me when I was in grade school–as an introverted kid who LOVED the smell of books, the feel of that heavy book bag while walking from the library–that was my intended audience. From 2008 onward, I tried to write for them, eventually snagging a literary agent from a top-tier agency, and thinking that finally, finally, it was going to happen for me.

Well, it didn’t. Not with that agent, and not with the next two. Or the five or six collective submissions we had to publishers.

During all that time, I followed the writing rules. I found QueryTracker, a great site with an online forum for writers, and got my first permanent writing partner, Veronica. Eventually, I added Frans and Claire to my list (both published writers), and I never let anything I wrote go out to any third party without their review. Same with my query letters, which are the pitches a writer sends to an agent in an effort to get them to review their work.

Then I had kids, and something happens when you have kids: you don’t sleep, ever. Or take care of yourself the way you used to. I’m not complaining–it’s simply what happens because those beautiful little monsters come first.

So, instead of writing, I found myself reading thrillers. A lot of thrillers. Some were fun to read, and some gave me nightmares. And I began to think to myself, why can’t a thriller also be funny? Must I have nightmares?

Then I moved to Alpharetta, and I had a great idea for a dark comedy thriller that was a caricature of suburbia–rich people getting murdered by a killer with an agenda. I saw Ray first–that character was fully-formed immediately. The same applied to several others.

The problem, however, was I didn’t have time to write. I’m an attorney, and my babies are still small. And I can’t write via a protracted method. But I didn’t stress too much about that. One of my favorite books is The Stand by Stephen King, and that’s written in linear fashion from the viewpoints of the different characters. As an exercise in writing, I wanted to give it a try. It also made sense given my setting and cast of characters.

I finished writing Neighborhood Watch in two months, and I know that’s right because I have the date stamp of when I began: November 3, right after Halloween and my inspiration for a certain chapter in the book. I wrote only when the kids were gone in school for a few hours at a time, saving my legal work for when they were in bed. Something like 1,500 to 2,500 words a day, because I knew that if I fell off my schedule, if I had gaps in writing, I was toast.

When it was done, I didn’t do anything I normally did with a new book. I didn’t show it to Veronica and my other writing partners. Not even a chapter. Same with the query. It wasn’t arrogance–trust me, I’ve been beaten down too much over the years to have any of that.

I just . . . knew it was ready.

I also didn’t try too hard to get an agent. I sent off a few queries, but it was a half-hearted process. When you attempt to get an agent, the rule of thumb is that, after they’ve requested a full manuscript, you don’t check in for six months unless you have an offer to relay to them. I’m sorry, but that’s simply insane.

Instead, I looked into smaller publishers. Nowadays, a lot of them don’t require submissions to be made via an agent. I liked the autonomy of representing myself, and, as noted, getting an agent can take forever. This was a huge long shot though–even if publishers will accept a non-agented submission, agented submissions have the advantage because representation is a form of filtering (i.e., the book is good enough to have someone agree to represent it on commission).

When I sent the email to my publisher which resulted in my book deal, I was in the passenger seat of a moving car on the way back from a family vacation, using my hot spot. When they picked it up, I couldn’t help but ask my editor what percentage of book submissions turned into deals, and it was something like .001%. (I had interest from another publisher as well). I got hugely lucky, particularly because it simply got noticed. Neighborhood Watch could have easily slipped through the cracks.

Here’s my thesis statement, to the writers out there: go where the process takes you. I wrote middle grade books for TEN YEARS, and while I would have loved to have written for children for a living, the reality is that Neighborhood Watch is better than any of those prior books. However, it would not exist but for those books–the practice of my continuing to write, never giving up, and keeping at the craft because I simply love to write. Every book should be better than your last because you learn with each one. Be open to alternatives, and have faith in yourself. If you want to be a writer enough, it can happen. . . it just might not be as you imagined it.