“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, wow. What have you published?”
“Well, I’m a writer, not an author. I haven’t published a book yet, but I’m working on a novel.”
“Oh. That’s interesting. Have you heard of publishing on amazon?”
“Yeah, I have, but… it’s not that simple.”
I can’t tell you how many times I had this conversation with new acquaintances. Actually, I can. Millions of times, or maybe thousands. There’s never a question about the book itself (or maybe once in a long while), all that matters is being published. And that spark in people’s eyes when they realize they might be in the presence of greatness—a writer!—and the disappointment when they realize they were mistaken, those things never get old.
Anyway, in January 2016, after years of laboring on my manuscript, I was ready for the next chapter: turning my novel into a book and my writer self into an author. I had taken a few publishing classes during my MFA studies and also at Hugo House, and I had watched scores of other writers walk the path before me. I had an idea about the process. I knew that publishing was hard, very hard, and that I must stay away from everything that makes it look easy. That included self-publishing on amazon.com and print-on-demand services, which leave the highly-specialized work of a publisher to the author.
There was only one path for me, the long, arduous one, the one that involves convincing a literary agent to represent me to a publishing house—a path that takes years and has a tiny chance of success. Sounded like everything else worth pursuing in life. But if I were to have even a tiny chance of success, I needed a plan. That was why I registered for a weekend-long publishing workshop offered by The Business of Books, a Seattle-based company teaching writers how to publish their work.
The instructors, Kerry Colburn and Jennifer Worick, who authored between the two of them more than forty books over the years, taught me how to write a book proposal, how to compose a query letter and a cover letter, and how to go about finding agents to submit to. They outlined my plan for me, and so I began.
Step 1. Genre and Competing Titles
Helpful staff at libraries and bookstores offered to guide me, if I told them what genre I was looking for. Each time I explained what my novel was about, I was sent to the Science Fiction shelves, though I was pretty sure I was writing Historical Fiction, but not history as it happened, but how it could’ve happened. After weeks of research, I was convinced that I was writing Alternate History, but then thought harder and pulled back because I was actually writing Reimagined History, which is not a real subgenre. So, I eased out of Alternate History and called my writing Speculative Fiction, which is housed on the Sci-Fi shelves in bookstores and libraries, as the staff had been trying to tell me all along.
That was where I found novels with some similarities to mine, and I began reading them, which is an ongoing task, especially since Speculative Fiction tends to run long—all that universe building and sprawling sagas. Meanwhile, I trimmed my wordcount, because I was told by fellow writers that first novels cannot be longer than average. By the way, my novel is called The Wedding Bell, a title that is not what it seems to be—in accordance with the rules of Speculative Fiction.
Step 2: The 30-Second Pitch
This was hard. Like reading a person’s entire life in one lonely tear. I had so much to explain and only fifty words at my disposal. In my story, there are multiple subplots, multiple points-of-view, even multiple kingdoms, which I made up, just so everything is even harder to explain.
My good friend Cristina, a painter and photographer in her free time, told me to think about movie trailers. Pick a few strong images, stick them together and ask a question with them.
By June 2016, I had my pitch (and still tinkering with it now):
First century CE. Rome is marching. Cities and temples are falling. On the western shores of the Black Sea, a young princess is her father’s only hope to unite his chieftains against the Roman threat. In a country where a taboo on female rulers still stands a thousand years after gardens turned to wasteland on a queen’s watch, will the chieftains rally around their princess? Not until she passes the King’s Challenge.
I just couldn’t do it in fifty words or less.
Step 3: The Book Proposal
Everything that has to do with selling my novel and me as a commercial product on a saturated market goes into the book proposal. Among them, a brief explanation of the whole concept:
The Wedding Bell is a coming-of-age story inspired by the ancient civilizations of today’s Eastern Europe and Russia. As a speculative novel, The Wedding Bell is the reimagined origin story of the concept of an only god: What if that idea had spread throughout the Roman Empire not from the early Christians, but from a different source? What geopolitical conditions could have caused the emergence of such a radical idea? What emotional needs would it have satisfied? In The Wedding Bell, Princess Andrada, a natural-born leader with the mind of a scientist, brings about this crucial shift in human history. Against a backdrop of complex enemies and conflicted allies, Andrada is a strong female protagonist who defies cultural and sexual norms, uproots the faith of her ancestors, and sets the world on a new course.
…a positive comparison with a handful of my competing titles:
The Wedding Bell will have great appeal to readers of alternate history such as Emily Barton’s The Book of Esther (Tim Duggan Books, 2016), historical fantasy such as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky (New American Library, 2016), religious thrillers such as Ian Caldwell’s The Fifth Gospel (Simon & Schuster, 2015), and cross-genre speculative fiction such as Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (HarperCollins, 2014).
…a description of my intended audience:
A story set in a region of Europe rarely explored in English-speaking literature (aside from the vampire genre) will resonate well beyond the American readership. The Wedding Bell will captivate feminists, the scientifically-bent, the LGBT+ community, and those who question mainstream religion. It will even speak to video gamers fascinated by the politics of warlords in the age of empires.
But that was not all. I also wrote a proposal for a series based on this first novel, a presentation of my bio and author platform, a list of marketing strategies, and anything else I could think of that might make me and my product appealing.
In March 2016, I submitted my 30-page proposal to The Business of Books for review. The feedback I got was constructive, and helped me rewrite my proposal to where it looked like a business plan, which was the goal.
Detour 1: Learning What Real Lack of Control Looks Like
In April 2016, a nonfiction author I know and admire offered to read the first twenty pages of my novel. She liked them well enough that she wrote to her literary agent, then she told me to submit a cover letter and my first pages through snail mail to her agency.
I felt a bit embarrassed cutting in front of the line like that—publishing was supposed to take long and was supposed to be hard—but I was thrilled.
The catch: this author’s agent was retiring, and her agency might not take on new projects.
I spent days assembling my package, even spent hours at Office Depot comparing paper, and clips, and folders, then I walked to the local post office and entrusted my precious documents to a clerk for shipping.
After a lost FedEx package that was eventually found, a resubmission of my package, a score of poorly slept nights, a few moments of hope and a ton of worry, I received an email from the agent saying that she wasn’t taking up fiction anymore, best of luck to me.
Step 4: The Query Letter
Having a book proposal—even though fiction agents don’t ask for one—helped me approach the query letter, the most daunting task of all, with some degree of confidence.
Still, it has been the hardest work of precision ever. I spent days debating with myself, and with a few merciful souls in my circle of family and friends, about the precise wording of a phrase or another. I woke up in the middle of the night, with a new idea, which I typed in a special document in my phone, only to discard it as silly the next morning. I revised and revised and revised and revised.
Detour 2: Learning How Much Work There Was Still to Be Done
In June 2016, a photographer friend of mine who had a cousin who was a literary agent offered to put us in contact. The agent seemed interested in my pitch, so she asked for the manuscript. My friend asked for the first twenty pages too, and concluded that my novel was not her cousin’s thing, but was encouraging otherwise.
After a week or so, the agent wrote back saying that my writing didn’t engage her.
Step 5: Another Rewrite
I had failed to keep that agent’s attention, so I went back to my manuscript and thought hard about how I could make my work even more engaging. And good things came from it.
My brother, a computer scientist and avid reader of Speculative Fiction, had no choice but to go through the whole manuscript, and his feedback strengthened my novel. His newly-expressed respect for my work strengthened my confidence. More friends read and gave me ideas on how to tighten up my first one hundred pages to keep the reader as engaged as possible. After months of work, there was not one drop more I could squeeze to make things tighter.
Throughout the summer, I bounced between working on the novel and working on the presentation of the novel until, in September 2016, I had another draft of my manuscript, a query letter, and a list of ten agents with interest in my genre. Some were the agents who had helped publish those books similar to mine. Each entry on my list meant days of research of the agent’s previous work (using Publishers Marketplace, the agencies’ websites, and beyond), of reading their interviews in Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, Salon, Literary Hub, etc.—a little bit like stalking them, and, as a result, creating an emotional connection with each person, all the better to get my heart crushed when they said no.
I submitted my query letter and my list of agents to The Business of Books for feedback, which came back quite reassuring.
Step 6: Professional Editing
In August 2016, I wrote to Dave King, coauthor of the bestselling Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and asked him if he would consider working with me. He said yes, and in September 2016, I submitted my manuscript to him.
While waiting for his report, I kept improving the manuscript (did another rewrite in fact) and took care of errands that had been waiting for months if not years. I also spent my weekends playing with my kids (and, a few times, not that many, playing King’s Quest and Skyrim on my Xbox).
When the editorial feedback arrived, I was terrified to open the file. Reading it brought upon an instant headache, because the report was so positive. Mr. King called my novel “an absolutely wonderful book” and “a brilliant work of historic fiction.” He said that my characters seemed human, worthy of empathy. He called one particular plot twist “delicious.” He also pointed to a few unclear plot issues and ways to simplify.
It took me a day to recover from the daze, but when I did, it occurred to me that I could ask Mr. King for permission to use his quotes in my query letters to agents.
He said yes, absolutely, the praise was well-deserved.
Step 7: Submitting to Agents
By now, we were in the midst of elections season in the US, and it seemed to me that my novel was of no consequence compared to the apocalyptic struggle happening in the real world. To get some distance from things I had no control over other than through my vote, I worked on addressing Mr. King’s editorial suggestions (did another rewrite in fact).
I had asked Jen and Kerry at The Business of Books when to start submitting to literary agents, and they had told me to wait until January 2017. But a dear friend of mine (also a writer and editor) thought that there might be a small window of opportunity in the first week of December, when agents are back in their offices, all their projects for the year having been finished before Thanksgiving, but when inboxes needed to be cleared before the winter break.
So I took her advice and submitted to eight agents during that first week of December.
Step 8: Waiting
My friend had been right. Agents do clean their inboxes at the end of the year.
As of this writing, I’ve received four form rejections, the worst kind of answer you can get, apart from no answer, which by now I assume I will get from two other agents on my list.
Step 9 (More of a state than a step): Persevering
Of course, this is not the whole story. I didn’t include here my failed attempt to work with a famous story doctor back in April 2016, or the forced downtime when one or both of my children fell sick and then passed their American childhood germs to my unprepared Romanian immune system, or the many other ways in which life interferes with the best laid schemes.
But here I am, continuing to polish my manuscript and to study the publishing world. If I wanted, I could publish my novel on amazon.com in less than a week, but I’ve seen enough good writers do just that and watch their work get instantly buried under thousands of other books by the end of the day, never to resurface again. I could even upload my novel here, on this website, but I won’t find readers for it this way.
When I wrote the gist of this piece during writing practice, a few writer friends at my table were sympathetic and concerned, the way seasoned parents are to new ones who think they’re well prepared for what is to come just because they took some parenting classes and saw a cousin change diapers once. They told me that they had all been down this path before, and that I would never get published this way. Better try self-publishing.
“I can’t do that.”
“Oh, yes, you can.”
“But I don’t have the skills to publicize the book, to get it in front of readers.”
“That’s true, that’s the hard part.”
Yet, that part—it seems like the whole to me.
The thing is, I don’t want my novel published, I want it read. I want it to live in people’s minds. I’ve been working full-time on my writing since I left Microsoft in 2005. I had to rebuild my brain to think in another language. I earned an MFA degree in Creative Writing. I failed to make my first novel work, so I threw myself at studying even more, and I wrote a second novel—The Wedding Bell—while being a parent of one, then two small children. I researched every historical aspect in my story. I trained myself to think like a general, a teenage boy, an old medicine woman, a murderer, a high-priest, a bard, and many others. I created my own process, because being sleep-deprived required having a process to get back to once I got derailed by whatever parenting threw at me. I finished my novel, and then spent a whole year just preparing it and me for publishing.
So, what’s my plan for 2017?
Step 1: Research Literary Agents
Step 2: Begin Work on Book Two of My Speculative Fiction Series
This story has been updated with the latest excerpts from the query letter.