Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Road to Publication . . .

Nothing in my past would ever have hinted at my becoming a published author. Nothing . . .

I didn’t particularly like writing. I still remember a supposedly “spooky-scary” story that I wrote for a ninth grade creative writing class. It had a decent opening—heavy fog moving in off the ocean and a feeling of doom—and, well, that’s as far as I got. My teacher scrawled “Where’s the ending?” on the top of the page. A technical writing class in college further confirmed that writing was not fun and not for me.

When I think about it, I wasn’t even a voracious reader, but I did become a fan of mysteries, and I’m sure that’s where every writer’s journey begins. Somehow, I skipped over Nancy Drew, the Hardy boys, and Agatha Christie. My introduction to mystery came with the incomparable Sherlock Holmes followed by an obscure collection of George Bagby mysteries that I devoured, and finally my discovery of Dick Francis in 1977. Though I had no inkling of the momentous nature of this event—finding my first Francis, a Reader’s Digest edition of IN THE FRAME—I was taking my first step toward becoming an author.

After reading IN THE FRAME, I read every Francis published at the time, quit the government job I was working, and went to work on a horse farm. That job was followed by stints at the track, delivering foals on breeding farms, returning to college to become a vet assistant, and more horse jobs.

Flash forward twenty-some years. I was a stay-at-home mom with three boys, ages three, four, and five. I had two horses of my own and some borders in the barn. Reading was a pleasant release from my daily routine, and of course, I gravitated to mysteries.

On July 22, 1996, I was nearing the end of a mystery, and I was disappointed with the decisions the author made in letting her protagonist do something that I thought was so stupid in an obvious effort to push the story into an exciting climax. I decided I could do better.

So, why did I think I could do it? This sounds kind of weird, but when I would read, especially a Francis novel, I’d wake up with his voice running in my head. I know. Weird, right? But I had full confidence in myself, and when I began writing, I couldn’t turn it off. I was so thrilled. Those early months of discovering a story were the best I’ve ever had in this business. I was infatuated. Enthralled. I was God of the world I was creating, and I was having so much fun.

I completed the initial draft of AT RISK in three months. As usual, I threw myself into the project and studied tons of books on writing . . . took classes . . . joined a critique group. Because I was exploring the process and essentially teaching myself to write, the early draft was way too cumbersome. I spent the next two years tightening and revising AT RISK (I’d estimate the manuscript went through twenty complete revisions) before I decided to market it. Even so, I began marketing before the manuscript was ready, but when it was ready, it was picked up by Poisoned Pen Press, the second largest publisher of mysteries in the country. And it went on to be extremely well reviewed, including a review in The New York Times. Visit my AT RISK website page.

Getting published depends on both luck and perseverance . . . and skill. If I hadn’t kept revising and improving the manuscript, if I hadn’t been afraid to make changes and put substantial time and effort into the project, the manuscript never would have been picked up. Luck comes into play in finding a receptive reader, because writing and voice and subject matter and the actual execution of the work are all so subjective. Timing’s important, too. If the publisher had just released an equine mystery, they’d be unlikely to look at another so soon.

The publishing climate was different in the ‘90s, too. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to query agents or editors, so I queried both and found a publisher before I found an agent. Interestingly enough, on the whole, the rejections I received from editors were much nicer than the ones I got from agents. In today’s market, though, more and more publishers are closing their doors to submissions from writers, preferring agents to perform a vetting service first. And it’s getting harder to break in and harder to stay in the game once you are published. Despite the seemingly dire publishing climate, readers still need new books to read. Agents still need to pick up new clients. Editors still need to acquire new manuscripts, so don’t give up.

Next time, I’ll post some specific pointers and ask some hard questions for those looking to get published.

Happy reading and riding!
Kit Ehrman


Beverle Graves Myers said...

Kit, do you think an intelligent, motivated individual can teach herself to write using the how-to books on the market? Or should the goal be to complete several writers' workshops. I get this question all the time. Wonder what you think.

Really helpful blog entry.


Kit Ehrman said...

Hi Bev,

Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment! I think any writer can do a lot on her own with how-to books. Writing is mostly self-taught, anyway. And of course, we can learn much about writing by studying the fiction we read. But, there comes a time when every writer needs feedback. We know what we are trying to say, but we'll only know if we were successful with a reader's input. That’s when the writing workshops and critique groups come into play and are invaluable. They not only help the writer with her writing, they also prepare her for developing a thick skin when it comes to receiving feedback, whether it be from a critique partner or (later) from an editor or reviwer.


Grey Horse Matters said...

Your post was interesting. I'm glad you were published, but I can see there are probably a lot of heartaches associated with trying to get a manuscript published. As you say it is getting harder and harder nowadays. It leads one to wonder if it is worth the trouble to put so much time, effort and feeling into a manuscript when the outcome is uncertain. I think this is what actually keeps a lot of would be authors from giving it a try. It's also hard to know exactly how to find agents and editors and publishers. This could be one of the reasons many people don't even try.

Chris said...

Looking forward to reading the specific pointers you're planning to post.

Thanks for sharing these thoughts - it's always good to hear from someone who's been successfully published and get their point of view on how to go about it.

I love that you pursued the passion of working with horses too after reading many a Dick Francis novel, I love that a book can do that to someone!