I get asked about my journey to publication often. I shared it on my blog many years ago, but thought I’d repost it on my website since so many of my readers are curious. Here goes the entire, lenghty story. 🙂 Enjoy and be encouraged in your own purpose, whatever it may be.
Originally published May 5, 2009 at rhondamcknight.blogspot.com
I wrote my first manuscript over a period of years. I began it in June of 2004 and finished it in April of 2007. There were long gaps of time when I did not touch it. Like an entire pregnancy and postpartum period, during my time in grad school (which was most of the time), and during a six month period of time when I decided I wasn’t going to finish it. The original draft was 115,000 words and if I was honest with myself I probably wrote the first draft in less than six months.
Secrets and Lies started as Torn Asunder and then became Issues of the Heart. It was Issues of the Heart for a long time. I was married to that title, and it was the perfect title for the book, that is until I learned a little about marketing. My mentor suggested that the title sounded like a non-fiction book title. I said, “Well, I’ll put “a novel” on it, but then I realized if an author had to put “a novel” on their book just to make sure readers knew it was fiction, that meant it had the wrong title. So, I dug deep in the manuscript and pulled out one of the main recurring themes. Just about everybody in the story had a secret and most of those secrets have led to lies.
Lesson #1: Your title is a marketing tool. It should absolutely capture the essence of what your story is about, but make sure it grabs the reader.
On New Year’s Eve 2006 I decided 2007 was going to be my year. I was going to sell my novel. I made a plan to take the first week of April off from work, clean it up and put it in the mail to publishers who were taking unsolicited submissions (unsolicited means unagented). I followed the plan, took the week off, worked twelve hours a day on the rewriting and edits and by the end of the week put a query letter and the first four chapters in the mail to the publisher I thought would be a good fit for it. I still had some work to do on the manuscript, but I figured I had a couple of months before I’d hear from them with the request for full. Well to my surprise the next week – I mean in exactly seven days I had a letter in my box from the publisher requesting the full manuscript. I seriously assumed it was a rejection letter, so I was pleasantly surprised that they had requested the full and so quickly. There was one teeny little problem, right? The book wasn’t done!
Lesson #2: Don’t do what I did. Make sure the book is finished.
I worked like a maniac to get the manuscript completely finished and read by a few people. I took pictures of the package and put it in the mail on May 16th. I waited, and waited and waited. By August I started thinking, “What happened?” Didn’t they love it? All 99,900 words of it. I sent a follow up letter and received one back that said “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” So then I decided it was time to send my masterpiece to someone else. Remember, I was selling a book this year. Time was a wasting.
Orginally published May 8, 2009
Before I continue this story, I need to step back a bit and clarify something, particularly for those of you who know nothing about publishing and then for those of you who do. It was pretty bold – insane – downright silly for me to say at the end of the 2006 that I was going to sell a book that wouldn’t actually be ready until April. Selling a manuscript to a publishing house is not easy. Even the best manuscripts are rejected. Then there’s the waiting. Publishing has got to have the slowest response time of any business on the planet. I’ve had friends wait a year to hear from a publisher. Editors receive hundreds of queries every month. Wading through the good, bad and ugly is time-consuming. I knew this when I made my declaration, but I’ve got this crazy faith thing going and honestly, it’s been working for a sistah, so it was my faith talking…not my lack of knowledge about the industry.
So, here I am, it’s the end of August. I only have four months to sell my manuscript. I set my sights on another publisher. A small house that does a real quality job with their line. I send two emails; one to an author buddy who is already with the line and one to the acquisitions editor. I ask both to advise the submission process. The editor responded first. I’d just missed the quarterly submission deadline by two days. They wouldn’t be taking new submissions until January. Then my author buddy emailed me and said the same, but guess what? She called her editor and requested an extension for me. I had a week.
Lesson #3 – Network. Develop relationships with other writers and authors. People will help you.
I’m excited now, but I have this huge packet of stuff to do. They want a competitive analysis, a marketing plan, a longer synopsis, egads, another synopsis. I wanted to give up then. But I’m no quitter. I hunker down for the weekend, get it all done, mail my package (I don’t think I took a picture that time) and then I do what? You guessed it…wait.
Now, I’m a proactive girl, I know where my editors live, or at least work, so I’ve already found out the area code this publishing house is in. I always give my cell phone number. Heaven forbid I should get “the call” and it goes to voicemail at my house, or better yet, my husband or son take a bad message. No way. I know what I’m looking for, so when my phone rings on November 1st at 2:15 in the afternoon my heart nearly comes out of my chest. It’s “the call”, “the call”! I slow down because I’m doing about 80 miles an hour on I-85. (Getting dead before they print the book would be like an Afro-Greek tragedy.) I push the talk button, and try to contain my excitement which instantly becomes easy to do when I realize the person on the other end of the phone is NOT the acquisitions editor. Surely she makes “the calls”. If I was in charge, I’d make “the calls”. It’s an editorial assistant, and she’s calling to tell me they thought my manuscript was strong, but they’d like me to rewrite the first chapter. (No surprise there, I’d always hated the first chapter). Her exact words were “African-American readers like drama and we just need a little more of it in the first chapter.” My tongue’s hanging out, because I mean who can’t rewrite one chapter. I’ve heard of writers having to rewrite a quarter of a book. This is it, it’s my big chance! They want me! Almost. She gives me more instructions and follows up with an email. I’ve got until December 28th to get it to them. The only disappointment is I won’t sell by the end of the year, but by golly I’ll sell – so I think…
To be continued on Tuesday!
Lesson #4 – I’m a real stinker to leave you guys hanging this way. No seriously, the lesson is if you don’t like a chapter, why would you think anyone else would? I knew chapter one had issues, but I could not, would not dig in and get creative enough to fix it. The entire manuscript could have been rejected on a bad chapter one. I should have made it perfect.
May 12, 2009
I begin working on the rewrite. I immediately realize why I sent the manuscript off with a bad chapter one; because I couldn’t figure out how to make it better. Really, I couldn’t and now I can’t. I try a few things, submit them to my writers’ group and everyone kind of has the same comments: “Nah, it’s not working.”, “No, that feels like you just dropped it in the front of the story.”, “Hmmm…that’s good writing, but it belongs someplace else in the story.” By mid-December I’m beyond stressed. I email my final effort, the only one I think is any good to my buddy, Dee Stewart and she emails me back that the writing is episodic; I’m telling the story in vinettes, blah, blah, blah. It sucks. I burst into tears. Wah! I email her that I’m freaking out. I can’t execute this change, and I’m running out of time.Deefeels so bad for me that she calls, and we talk it through. She makes one little suggestion and completely changes the opening of the book. Thank you, Jesus.
Lesson#5 – When you’re in trouble, ask for help. Sometimes people are mad busy or they think you’re working it out or assume someone else in the group is helping. Don’t be afraid to send out a distress signal. Let somebody know you’re drowning. They’ll jump in the water to save you. Never, ever, ever let an important deadline or opportunity pass you by without tapping all your resources.
Lesson #6 – Two heads are better than one.
On December 24th (yes, Christmas Eve) I head to Federal Express with my package and send it overnight to the publisher. I feel good. It’s so much better, definitely publishable. I’m in. My novel, Issue of the Heart (at the time) has a home. I’m just waiting for the phone call.
It’s Friday, December 28th and I arrive at my parent’s home in South Carolina. I’d literally just gotten off the road; just gotten a signal back on my cell phone, because I was driving in the woods. My phone rings. I seriously almost don’t get it, because I’ve got a one year old on my hip and luggage in my hand. But I know my husband should be checking on us, so I decide to answer. I look at the phone. I notice the area code. It looks familiar, like publisher familiar. Not publisher #2 that I just mailed my package to, but publisher #1. I answer and the woman on the other end says, “Hello, Rhonda. It’s Joylynn Jossell with Urban Books, I’m calling to tell you we’d like to acquire Issues of the Heart for the Urban Christian line.” It’s “the call”, it’s “the call”, and I’m stunned, so stunned I don’t say anything. She tells me about money, and then asks me if I would like to accept the offer. This is a no brainer, right? But I hesitate; after all I just mailed my revised masterpiece to publisher #2. I’ve moved on in my heart, in my mind, in my pocket (that Fedex package was $32). So she asks me again and this time I release the “stupid button” and say, “Yes!” after I get off the phone I tell my mother and son. I call my husband and my writer friends with the news that I am going to be a published author.
Guess what ya’ll… I sold the novel before the end of the year. Now was that God, or was that God? Crazy faith…I’m telling you. Works every time. I found out some months later that my manuscript was actually rejected by a reader in the Joylynn’s office back in the summer. It was in a pile waiting to be shred. When the reader left Urban, Joylynn decided to go back through all the manuscripts to make sure the woman hadn’t said something was a “no” that should have been a “yes”. Her exact words were “I saved yours for last because it was 400 pages, but it was 400 pages that blessed my soul.” Can you imagine? The devil tried to get in the way of crazy faith.
Lesson #7 – It’s a spiritual one, what God has for me, it is for me.
Lesson #8 – It’s a spiritual one also, delayed is not denied.
Lesson #9 – The post office would have been cheaper than Fed Ex, but the post office closes at noon on Christmas Eve.
To be continued on Friday, May 15th. Getting an agent: Should be easy, I’ve already done the hard work – right?
May 15, 2009
Agents – Who can find a virtuous one?
I’m a silly person. Everyone who knows me well learns that pretty quickly, and I find humor in just about any situation that doesn’t involve sickness or death. I can also readily find a scripture that matches up with whatever the drama may be; sometimes that’s done in a serious vein, sometimes to flesh out the irony. When I began my hunt for an agent the one that immediately came to mind was Proverbs 31:10. You know it ladies, The Virtuous Woman. How did I equate Proverbs 31 to finding an agent? Like a good woman, agents seem to have great value if you have one, but as the word in Proverbs says, “Who can find one?” And who can find one who’ll work with a newbie author? Dare I throw in an African-American newbie in a niche genre? (I just guffawed). I could do a disscertation on the agent thing using chapter 31 of Proverbs, maybe another day. Maybe when I’ve been published longer and know more.
Agents are an enigma to me. In the whole big US of A where 300K plus books are published every year by nearly as many authors, there’s a very small list of people who are considered reputable agents. If that’s not a job that needs to be on the Bureau of Labor Statistics list of “Most Needed” I don’t know what is. Suffice to say the agents’ low supply and high demand lead to this little thing that bugs people like me crazy: the ability to be picky.
I began my search for an agent on January 1st after I left my parents house. I had done some preliminary reading about what to look for, so I created a short list of about ten agents that I was interested in. I had a few “yeah right” choices in the mix, but it was largely comprised of agents who specialized in Christian or Inspirational fiction that had at least one African-American client. (I hate being alone at a party.) I email queried them all and two responded. Both said thanks, but no thanks, and good luck looking. I quickly made a list of five more. Emailed them. None responded. Five more. Not one answer. I waited and waited. Checked my email every fifteen minutes for three weeks and no one answered me. No one wanted to represent me.
From the agents perspective I kinda understand the rejection. Newbie author – they’re thinking what are you going to sell – 5,000 copies if you hustle a little. That’s a buck a book if you average gross and net sales royalties. They get 15% commission. Earnings of $750 a year on the high end for them. Not a mint, but come on my book was sold. They didn’t even have to shop it. $750 to make a few phone calls, negotiate a “standard” contract and send a few emails a year asking me how I’m doing and how’s the 2nd book coming. We’re talking maybe 5 hours of work all year; $150 an hour isn’t bad money, but then again my day job isn’t on the BLS list of jobs most needed, so what do I know about money.
Despite what I considered good agent bait (easy money), I couldn’t bag one to save my life. I’ll always think highly of the few that took the time to respond in the “negative” to my query. If I’m ever in the market for a new agent, I’d come begging at their inbox again. So now you’re wondering – did I ever get an agent? And if yes, how? More crazy faith? Not quite. I asked an author friend to refer me to hers.
Lesson #10 – You’ve already learned this one, but I can’t say it enough: network and make friends. People will help you.
My best-est author friend in the world, Sherri Lewis, gave me a referral to Crichton & Associates. Ms. Crichton, who I now call by her first name, telephoned me and conducted a quick 1-2-3 interview. She asked my about my goals, my future projects, my plans for marketing – yada, yada, yada. She didn’t hear anything crazy or unrealistic, so she offered to represent me. I asked her a few questions, but at this point I was pretty desperate. Sherri and some of the other authors I knew whom she represented had good things to say. Then there was the added benefit of her being an attorney who specializes in contracts. I learned from attending writers’ conferences that the best agents are lawyers because they understand the legalese. By the beginning of February, I want to say February 13, 2007, I had an agent. There was much ((((((clapping))))))) and wiping of my brow.
So what’s next? “Ummm, can somebody tell me when my book is coming out?”
May 21, 2009
Now I have a book deal and an agent. What’s next – the contract? Well yes and no. I was told by Ms. Jossell during the “call” that I wouldn’t receive my contract until March because of something or other. I don’t recall, but I knew it wasn’t coming right away. However, in the meantime, I had an assignment. I had to write a Tip Sheet. A tip sheet is a sales thing. It’s something you complete about your novel so the sales team (who won’t read the book) can pretend that they did when they’re standing in front of B&N, Borders, and all the other many book buyers. I was like “Oh you mean someone’s going to sell my book?” Oh joy! I was thrilled. I’m not sure if all houses ask the authors to do this. I do know other authors with other houses who provide some input into the Tip Sheet, so I’m thinking yes it’s something you do. Well no matter, I was glad to do anything to get this book train out of the station. Ms. Jossell asked me to do the tip sheet right away just in case my book got moved up in the roster. “Moved up?” I thought. “That’s cool. Up from what?” It’s almost March and nobody has told me when my book coming out. I knew Urban Christian (UC) had a lot of authors. I was given an invitation to join a Yahoo Group for UC where we authors meet and chat and share and receive directives from the editor. When I joined in early March the first thing I did was count how many people were on it, but even with the many names (near 25 I would say) I didn’t expect her to tell me February 2010. I mean, for goodness sakes, it’s March 2008, but so it was. I did end up getting moved up to December 2009 obviously, but I was still quite disappointed. I wanted my book out! Now! Or at least in a year. It was not to be. And this is common in publishing. Many houses are 18 months to 2 years out. I was just hoping…
Lesson #11 – It’s not all writing. Be prepared to do things for sales early on in your book deal. The tip sheet instructs you to think about the book from the salesman’s point of view. You have to figure out how to make it stand out from amongst the many, many books the buyers are hearing about or reading about in the sales catalogue. Make it what I call sexy. Christian fiction can be sexy. Sexy just means alluring, attractive, magnetic.
The next post will be the last and I’m just going to kind of go through a list of things that happened next and wrap this series up. Thanks for reading.
June 16, 2009
I’m back with more on the journey. I left off with the contract. You know the part where the $$$ comes into this scenario. Depending on your attitude and goals this is can be the good part or the part of publishing that sucks. I have a good attitude; nothing sucks about attaining a lifelong goal.
My contract was delayed, but I finally got it. I’m a pretty thorough reader, so I sat down and read it, made notes about questions and set a telephone meeting with my agent. She explained all the confusing stuff. What’s the confusing stuff you ask? For me it was book club royalties payments (to clubs like Black Expressions or Crossings), direct sales details (I’m still foggy on that), reserves (that’s where the publisher holds back royalty payments because of anticipated returns from the distributor) and the option clause. The option clause can vary, but it’s basically language around whether or not the publishing house has a legal right to see your next work of fiction before anyone else can. It gives them the right to buy it and in some cases can have you stuck with them. Most publishers require an option, it protects their investment, but the author does have some rights to refuse, all be them limited. Once I understood the contact, I signed, put it in the mail and about a month later the advance check arrived.
Advances come in all shapes and sizes. Let me say for a new author with a small press the size of my advance was not sizable, but it was nice to pull it out of the ole mailbox and take it to the bank. I had my son take pics of me smiling as I held it, and I took great delight in going to the bank to open a new account for my writing business. So exciting. Someone had paid me to write. Let me say here that no matter what the advance, be it $1000 or $5 million dollars, you don’t get it all at once. Most contracts split the payment and it’s done in various ways. I have a two book contract, so I got 1/4 of the total contract value at contract. I’ll receive another 1/4 thirty days after Secrets and Lies is released, another 1/4 when the final edits are completed for my 2nd novel and the final 1/4 when the second novel is released. I know you’re thinking, wow, talk about splitting it up. Yep, that’s what they do, but that’s actually a good split. I talked to an author the other day whose publisher split her advance into eight payments. Can you imagine the manpower it takes to manage that stuff at the publishing house? I mean I’m sure it’s all automated and such, but still, the oversight and postage. Give me a break.
So I gots the big bucks now and I’m wondering is it time to quit my job? Hee, hee, hee…I am so kidding. What it was really time for was to sit in front of the computer and start book two.
To be continued…
June 30, 2009
It’s early summer of 2008, six months after I received “the call”. At this point I’ve been paid. I have a contract that commits me to two books. I want to emphasize here that it’s really important to understand your contract. I don’t know if it’s my publisher or if this is how it’s done with them all, but there was no “this is what you do next” class, but your contract will clue you in to questions you should ask. For example: I’m sitting at my house, looking at the contract one day when I notice it says I have to turn in my first book, Secrets and Lies, on September 1. “Hmmm,” I muse. “What do they mean turn in my first book. I’ve already turned it in.” I mean, I turned it in so they could buy it, right? I think this must be standard language, maybe for an author who is writing on spec. (that’s someone who gets paid before they produce a book); that’s not me. I sent in a manuscript to get a deal. But it keeps nagging at me, so I ask my author buddy, Sherri Lewis and she explains that I actually turn in my final copy on September 1. What you say??? How was I supposed to know that? I get over not knowing how I was supposed to know fairly quickly, because I realize its good news. Good news because I have an opportunity to fix three things that are broken:
1. There are a few things about Secrets and Lies that continue to bug me. Scenes that could have been tighter and dialogue that could have been sharper. I’d assumed I’d get feedback on my editor on this stuff and that would’ve been the time to fix it, but now that I have until September 1, I can work on fixing it myself.
Tidbit #1 – Editors love for you to turn in your best work, so turn in your best work.
2. I had a fault in my critique system. The only people, other than my best buddy, Janice, who had read my book were people from my critique group, ie. other writers. That’s not good. Writers kind of think like writers. I needed more feedback from readers, so I sent the book to several non-writing, avid readers who were not in my circle of friends. They provided really valuable feedback on the story.
Tidbit #2 – You can never have enough feedback and please make sure you do get feedback. Others can see things you can’t see and you need that input to smooth out the wrinkles.
3. I didn’t have endorsements from other authors and I had no idea where getting them came in in the process. So I decided since I had time, to seek them out. I made the changes the readers suggested and printed a few copies of the book and sent it out to get those “What People Are Saying” blurbs.
While Secrets and Lies was out being read by my new readers I realized something else. (As you can see I’m always thinking). My publisher has a lot of authors – 29 to be exact and we’re all competing for 24 slots in the annual rotation. Plus there are a few folks who are pretty prolific that release more than one book a year. If I wanted to be in a book a year cycle I needed to be proactive about making that happen. I contacted my agent and she told me to get her a proposal for the 2nd book, NOW! She’d actually told me that before, but I think I was somewhere being annoyed about my contract being delayed.
So I started to really think about my second book. I’d been kicking a sequel around in my head for a few months, but I decided I didn’t really want to do a sequel. I thought it might be too hard to sell to readers who haven’t read Secrets and Lies. I know that’s kind of a silly thought, because sequels are everywhere, they’re very popular and of course you can write any book to be a standalone title, but I just can’t get the notion out of my head that I’d lose sales on book two, because people hadn’t read Secrets and Lies. Plus I was sick of those folks in Secrets and Lies, really. We’d been married to each other since 2003! I opted to do something different, I decided to do a spin-off. I took a minor character from Secrets and Lies, and gave her her own story world. Cool right. I know, that’s kind of a sequel, but I feel better about it.
The process for submitting book two is to submit a synopsis and the first four chapters. I get that done in a few weeks and submit it through my agent to my editor with a request for a September 2010 release. It’s approved. Yeah! Then I get lots of great feedback on Secrets and Lies, incorporate it and on September 1 – push the send button on an email to my editor. It was a busy summer, but hey, I wanted to be a published writer, right?
Thank you for reading my story. As you can see from the other novels on my website the rest is history.