The story behind my first book
In this feature exclusive to BookPage.com, each month, four authors are asked a question about the craft of writing to give readers an insight into how their favorite writers think and work. For November's author forum, BookPage brought together Silas House, Carla Neggers, Jill McCorkle and Jason Pinter to ask: How did you get your first book deal? And what's your #1 piece of advice for authors trying to get a first book published?
Getting my first book deal was a long, long process. The hardest part was getting an agent, and the way I did that was by finding out who the agents were for my six favorite living authors who wrote books remotely similar to mine. Thankfully, one of them took me. I tried to get published in as many literary journals as I could, and I also applied for lots of grants and entered plenty of contests . . . agents pay attention to merits like that. But the main thing is to have a good book, and to make sure it is absolutely ready before sending it out to agents. Without a good book it doesn't matter how many publications or awards you have. And it certainly doesn't matter if you know an established author or not. . . the only thing that really matters is having a book that's good enough to be published. So my main advice is to make sure the book is ready to be seen, and ready it by reading as many good books as possible and really knowing the craft. Go to workshops and readings and immerse yourself in the world of literature. And above all, be determined, and patient. And don't allow yourself to lose your passion for writing by getting caught up in the business of getting published. The writing is the most important part, after all, and if you are not loving it (despite how hard it is) then that will come through in your writing and you'll never get published.
Journalist and novelist Silas House is known for writing Southern fiction. He made his YA debut in September with Eli the Good.
My first book deal was pretty unconventional in that I sent my novel to my former teacher, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., not knowing that he had decided to open his own publishing house which became Algonquin Books. I already had an agent who had agreed to show my work and so I let her know that Louis Rubin had said he would like to publish The Cheer Leader. Because it was a new house, it would be a two-year wait instead of the standard one, during which time I finished my second novel. Louis and Shannon Ravenel, who was my editor there, decided to publish both books at the same time, which was frightening to say the least, but ultimately was very much in my favor. People were so interested in Algonquin and what was going on, that I think I got far more attention than I would have if I had published the novels separately and/or with a big house. I was really in the right place at the right time and have always felt extremely grateful.
The advice I would give to those wanting to publish is to write and write and write and then read and read and read and then write some more. I think the more you write, the more you write, and I think the more you get used to sending pieces out there and having them return, the better off you are. I think it takes persistence and the best thing you can do is zip up some extra layers of skin and stay with it. Learn to hear what is good criticism and make use of it and keep trying and believing in yourself while also focusing your mind on new work at hand. I think sometimes people make a mistake by never giving up on a particular piece and simply deciding something was learned and it's time to move forward. There really ARE times when quitting is the right thing. I have a sign over my desk that says: "When the horse is dead, get off of it!" I think many of us have that first unpublished novel in a drawer. I loved my first novel because I learned so much from it but truth be told all these years later, I'm glad it's in the drawer.
My first book deal happened in a very different publishing environment than today's, but two things about my experience still resonate. One, I had a completed manuscript. It wasn't the book that sold first (although it did eventually sell), but editors read it, liked my writing and wanted to see something else. They knew I could finish a book. If I were starting out today, I wouldn't submit to agents and editors until I'd finished at least one book. Two, I was clueless about publishing! While that definitely has its positives, there are so many great writers' organizations open to aspiring writers that no one has to be as green as I was. Believe it or not, having a grasp of the business can actually help writers better focus on what we love to do—writing our books.
Carla Neggers is the best-selling author of dozens of romantic suspense novels. Her latest, Cold River, goes on sale November 24.
I wrote The Mark when I was 25 years old, and my eventual editor and publisher felt like it offered something different than what they’d seen in the thriller genre. My protagonist, Henry Parker, was younger, a little different than what readers tend to see in crime fiction. I was ecstatic when Mira Books not only wanted to publish The Mark, but to buy it as the first in the series. I’m about to publish the fifth book in my Henry Parker series, The Darkness, which will be out on November 24.
I always tell aspiring authors to read everything they can in every genre, fiction and non-fiction. And if they face rejection—as so many authors have, including myself—they need to use that as inspiration to hone their craft. Let it light a fire under you. Always aspire to be a better writer. Your second book will likely be better than your first.
Former book editor Jason Pinter is now the author of five acclaimed thrillers.
Tom Robinson is an author publicist and media consultant working with authors across the country. Visit his website.