Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to Get Published, Part Three: The Book Contract

You know when someone asks you a question, and the only answer you can think of is, “It’s a long story….”? Well, this is one of those long stories. When people ask me how I got a book contract, I’m never sure if they really want to sit down and hear everything. So I’ll say it here instead, where hopefully only people who are interested have to suffer through it.

Things don’t always (or, actually, often) work this way. My story is not typical. Then again, if there’s anything I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that no one’s story is typical. But you can still learn from other people’s experiences, even if your own experiences won’t look the same.

Around Thanksgiving during my senior year of high school, my twin sister Erika, a future elementary education major, was reading a lot of kids’ fantasy series. She didn’t like a lot of them because they were predictable and used random bursts of magic to solve whatever problem happened to come up. “You got poisoned by a snakebite? Don’t worry, we happen to have a venom-reducing emerald on hand.” (No, that really happened. Honest.)

So she did the only reasonable thing to do when your sister is a writer. She said, “Hey, Amy, I know what I want for my birthday. A book.”

And I said, “Well, it’s six months early, but okay. What book?”

“I don’t know. You haven’t written it yet.”

Silence. “Um…what do you mean by that?”

She explained. The qualifications were that it had to be a Christian fantasy for upper elementary kids that didn’t have any convenient magic as a plot device. I had written several (pretty terrible) chapter books before this, so I was used to writing long. And I thought, “Hey, why not? What do I have to lose?”

Except, you know, all of my free time for the next few months. Thankfully, I’m one of those rare writers that actually enjoy nearly every tedious part of the writing process, except possibly outlining, which I avoid like the plague.

So I sat down and got to work. During Christmas break and the many snow days we had that winter, I sat in front of our fireplace and typed like a madwoman. As the snow began to melt, I finished up the final chapters. By our eighteenth birthday in May, I had given the book two or three editing passes, and presented the 40,000 word chapter book to Erika. At the time, it was called Reap the Whirlwind.

Erika loved it…and also made her own editing read-through with things to change. Kind of ungrateful to treat a birthday present like something that needs to be fixed, when you think about it. But it was helpful. My mom did the same, catching things that Erika missed. And then I joined in the editing party too, making small changes and scrapping the first two chapters and completely rewriting them.

Then, that summer, with only a part-time job at an ice cream parlor to keep me busy, I wrote the sequel, Escape from Riddler’s Pass. Just for fun.

Whenever I had free time my freshman year of college, I would read through both of them again, happily making changes and fixing plot flaws. My roommate Ruthie spotted more things for me to fix. And I got several volunteers from the elementary students I worked with at church to read through the first book and give me feedback.

All the time, I was thinking, “You know, just in case this goes somewhere.”

Meanwhile, Erika, not a fan of how long the writing and editing process takes, had been nagging me since the day after our eighteenth birthday to somehow, magically get the books published, which in her mind could include banging on someone’s door and shoving the manuscript in their face if I needed to.

I explained that it didn’t work that way. That hardly anyone gets book contracts unless they’re already really famous. That you have to go to writer’s conferences, which I couldn’t afford. That Christian publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. That she should just leave me alone, because it was not going to happen.

Except there was a Christian publisher that still accepted unsolicited manuscripts, a smaller house called Warner Press that had just started publishing juvenile fiction. I had discovered this during the lengthy research process of looking for possible markets for my books…you know, just in case. But I didn’t tell Erika that.

Turns out, Warner had just had a lot of success with a Christian fantasy series. Turns out, they had guidelines on their website for how to submit manuscripts.

By now, it was November of my sophomore year, and I thought, “Hey, what do I have to lose?” So I borrowed the car, said I needed to run errands—which, in my defense I did…sort of. I went to the bank, anyway. But I also sneaked to the post office without telling my family and mailed off a cover letter, chapter summaries, synopsis, and sample chapters of my book that I had printed when no one else was around. I put my college address on all of the forms so my parents wouldn’t see any suspicious mail while I was at school. I did pretty much everything except wiping the scene clear of my fingerprints.

That way, if I was rejected, no one would have to know. Let’s face it: it was a pride thing. Now that I’ve submitted more manuscripts and taken more risks, I’m not as afraid of rejection. But I didn’t want Erika texting me every day asking if Warner had gotten back to me, especially if they didn’t accept the book. I was already getting my hopes up, and I wanted to be the only one who was disappointed.

Then I waited. Not nearly as long as some writers wait, but it still felt like a long time. Finally, in mid-January, I got an email from one of the Warner Press editors, asking if they could see the full manuscript.

This was good, right? So I sent the whole thing, still not telling anyone about any of this. Because I’m kind of ridiculous like that.

It was J-term at my college, and I was the typical college student, working on my American Lit homework while wearing a sweatshirt, slumped in a beanbag chair inside a large fort in my suite made of sheets, stacked furniture, Christmas lights, and duct tape. That’s when Warner Press decided to Skype me. Talk about great first impressions.

Anyway, they said that they loved the book and wanted to publish it, and didn’t I say I had another one too? And I said, “Yep” and generally sounded fairly stunned and inarticulate the entire conversation.

So I sent them the second book to look at, they drew up a contract that I signed a week later over a Grasshopper sundae at a local ice cream place, and the book went through about a million more editing cycles on their end.

Oh, and I finally told my family. They were probably more excited than I was, although I think Erika must have said a million times, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!” Also a little bit of I-told-you-so, which I probably deserved since she was right all along.

Those are the things that happened, the plot points that you would put on an outline. But, as any writer knows, the real story isn’t just the plot. There’s a lot more going on inside the characters that you have to know in order to really care about the story.

But this is already too long, so I’ll have to get to that next week: the good, the bad, and the ugly of being in the position of a published author. It’s like a backstage pass inside of my head.

If that doesn’t scare you away, nothing will.

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