My brother in law has this great story. His friends had a little lad – about 7 – who was really shy, nervous about going in public, hated talking to strangers or doing anything independently. He had trouble making friends at school and he didn’t show any interest in sports or music or anything else his parents had tried. But he was given a copy of the film Happy Feet and he LOVED it. Became completely obsessed with it. So when his parents suggested they go to Melbourne Zoo for his birthday and he agreed, even though it would mean crowds and big spaces and such, they were thrilled.
On the day he was so chatty and excited, and they’d never seen him so animated as when he was watching the penguins at the zoo. Success! Right near the end of the day he needed to use the bathroom and announced for the first time ever that he wanted to do it by himself. His parents were so pleased that he was relaxed in public and showing signs of independence that they sent him off happily. But he came back soaking wet, silent, and unwilling to explain what happened. A little embarrassed and worried, they checked the bathroom to see if he’d caused some kind of flood, but it seemed OK so they assumed he’d just turned on the tap too hard and given himself a fright. Still, all in all, a successful day.
On the way home from the zoo, though, they heard a strange noise and their son was still acting strange and refusing to answer questions. When they heard it again they pulled over and checked his backpack and found . . . a wee penguin. Turned out he’d leapt into the penguin enclosure and nabbed one to take home.
Incredibly mortified, the parents had to return the poor little bird to the zoo (but the zookeepers were very understanding and no-one got in any trouble).
Now, this story is not true.* It’s on Snopes. But I can see why it gets repeated, because it’s fun, it’s outrageous but not outside the realms of reality – the penguin enclosure at my local zoo only has a 3 foot high wall, and penguins are neither terribly shy nor at all aggressive, so it seems POSSIBLE, but unexpected. Great story.
This story I’m about to tell? It’s not that good. It’s a boring story.
So: I wrote a book. I sat on it, gave it some time and space, like you’re meant to, then I edited it. Then I gave it to beta readers. In the meantime, I researched the hell out of everything you need to know about querying. I read the entire Query Shark archives. Every entry on every agent or publisher blog that I could find. Dudes, I spent a LOT of time on the internet, I’m not going to lie. My parents would not approve of how much screen time I was getting during this period.** I revised again after feedback. I started tentatively drafting a query.***
I was pretty prepared. But because I am nothing if not an anxious perfectionist, I still didn’t think I was quite ready. No-one truly independent had seen my work. Maybe I was terrible and just didn’t realise it – a clueless idiot thinking I knew more than I did? My local Writers’ Centre was launching a professional development program designed for novelists who had a completed draft but had not yet published (It’s called Hardcopy, and it’s brilliant, and only getting better each year – you should check it out if you’re suffering from the writerly affliction) so that seemed like a good option. A chance to reduce the risk further and learn more about the industry.
That program took the better part of a year, during which I kept improving the manuscript and reading more and more. By the time I got to actually sending out my first query, I was ludicrously over-prepared. I had spreadsheets, people. God, the spreadsheets. My spreadsheets would make you weep. I had folders of documents sorted by country (I intended to query Australian, UK and US agents) containing every variation of query letter, partial and synopsis I thought I could be asked for. I haunted Querytracker and Absolute Write and followed every agent and editor I could on twitter. I could probably have quoted the answer Janet Reid had given to pretty much any question you’d want to ask an agent.
I knew the rules. I knew what to expect. I had a strategy, I had a pragmatic attitude, I knew I would get a lot of rejections and I would not take them personally. I would not do anything dumb.
So, I queried. And I got requests – partials and fulls, some even from pie-in-the-sky top agents – and rejections too. I followed instructions and didn’t get my hopes up too much and kept querying, and updating my spreadsheet (and keeping my phone by my bed so I could check emails first thing in the morning, like a crazy person). And then, as is the nature of publishing, the slow process suddenly got fast when I got an offer, then another, then another, and had to make a really tough choice in a very short time. All of a sudden I had my agent, the wonderful Julie Crisp. Yippee!
Then edits, edits, more edits. Eventually my little MS went on submission with publishers on both sides of the pond, and I got to practise patience again as the process is totally out of your hands. (Yes, I felt a bit lost without my spreadsheets). Then, this happened: super ridiculously exciting press release.
Diana Gill at Tor US bought my book.
Two books, in fact: the Poison Wars, starting with City of Lies in the first half of 2018. Not sure how I can adequately convey how exciting this is in the context of my dry, boring story, but it’s basically the dream of my entire life, something I always wanted but didn’t really REALLY think would actually ever happen. Diana is a fabulous editor and I am ridiculously privileged to be working with her. Tor puts out one of the most impressive SFF lineups there is. I am, to put it the way my 5 year old would, happy infinity to the power of infinity.
The reason I’m telling this story like this is that I’ve read plenty of publishing stories which are remarkable. Serendipitous. Based on factors unavailable to most people (a huge social media following. Knowing someone in the industry. Winning a noteworthy competition, or attending Clarion West). Or just wild outliers of success: debut authors getting million dollar advances. Bidding wars. Books getting snapped up after only a week of querying.**** These stories are great, but they’re also too easy to use to create barriers for yourself – reasons why you can’t do something or won’t succeed at something. It’s easy to think I can’t do that or only once I do this other (very difficult) thing first.
Sometimes, what you need to hear is a boring story. Do the work, don’t be an idiot, follow instructions, and that crazy improbable dream starts being more realistic. If this weird dumb frustrating awesome industry is what you want to be a part of, YOU CAN DO IT. You don’t need to know anybody. You don’t need a degree in creative writing. You don’t need to attend a fancy workshop or meet your agent or editor at a convention. You don’t need 10,000 followers on twitter or to be famous or to do something shocking and different in your query letter or have published a dozen short stories or indeed to have done anything except write a good book. You can be pulled from the slushpile and achieve your dream.
I did it, and you can too.
Now go hug a penguin and have a bloody great day. I sure am.
* Yes, apparently my brother-in-law is a shameless liar, but since I’m now literally launching a 100% lie-based career I can only applaud him.
** Sorry Mum, the ole one hour on, 3 hours off rule has been smashed.
*** By tentatively drafting, I mean working and reworking relentlessly for weeks, just without any expectation that I would get to the final product yet.
**** I mean, these things are fine – great – if you have them! They can definitely help. if you can get into and afford to go to a workshop, by all means do. If you like and are good at short stories, that’s a great way to get into pro markets. If George Martin is your uncle, exploit the hell out of that connection.