How I Got Here (In 12 Paragraphs, or 10 Phrases)
A light rain quenches budding pink peonies, a chilly May here in Oregon that’ll produce a bumper blueberry crop. I’m wearing shorts, a pastel tie-dyed tank top, deep neckline. It’s not an ideal outfit for today’s 45 degrees. But it is, I chuckle, indictive of my kind of timing: Off
So, the five years writing and revising my upper-middle grade novel, Taylor Before and After (and another five before that, writing three other stories), debuting New York’s vulnerability to corona and publishing house lockdowns was neither surprising, nor sad. Because at the end of my challenging, unpredictable, 3570-day journey, a blue-covered book sits in my shelf—with my name on it! And I want so much the same for every wishful writer. Here’s how I came to be an author. (Or, if you’re in the mood for the bones of it, just read the bold words to light the path to publication.)
As a kid, I read and read and read and read. Main characters were among my best friends, and my real friends and I swapped The Chronicles of Narnia for Choose-Your-Own Adventures or Flowers in the Attic. In between, I scribbled out jacket blurbs for unwritten books, and thought I might do that for a living. But it turned out that wasn’t a thing. So, minoring in English, I majored in teaching at Sacramento State University. And soon, I had my own classrooms—first a second grade, then an eighth—where I centered the curricula around the joy of literature: novels, short stories, poetry, lyrics. Then out of nowhere, in my mid-thirties, I tried writing. AND IT WAS SO FUN: Creating characters, whipping up settings, exploring conflict and resolution. Simultaneously, I moved on to an adjunct professor of research writing, integrating lessons on thesis and parenthetical citations with essays like Hughes’ “Salvation,” or Staples’ “Just Walk on By.”
“The first three novels go under your bed,”
“The first three novels go under your bed,” I’d heard at a writing conference early on, as I listened to editors interpret and predict market trends, and clunkily pitched my first work to agents and editors. The “bed” idiom didn’t trouble me at all. I had written a story I thought was a good one, and I was sure it would turn into a book. Alas, it turned out, the idiom had actually catapulted me into the grief cycle; First phase: “Denial.”
A couple of manuscripts later (and 20-something query letters to agents) I tried to defy the stashing of words under beds. I was excited to join a local writing group, beefed up blog-skimming, and hand-wrote thank you notes to authors, agents, editors for…anything. Investing in the Big Sur Writers’ Workshop, partway down California’s coast, I rubbed erasers with established kids’ authors. And that was inspiring! Instead of wallowing in the “anger” phase, I skipped to the “bargaining” one: Switching genres from young adult to speculative fiction, back to YA. Every night in a Monday writing group, I brought a piece of my YA literary paranormal. And every Monday night, I brought back reactions, questions, answers, feedback. This was the “acceptance” part of the grief cycle. I was learning about writing, and talking about writing, and writing writing, and finally, when the hollow voice of a teen who could “see” but struggled with what to do with it prompted two agencies to CALL the same day!
The trouble was, I had lost my phone. Just for the day, but also for THE Day. I thought it was over. But when Holly Root, with her easy laugh, offered to sign me, I took my family out to tacos.
Hah! That elation melted into worry and dismay when all nine editors requesting the manuscript from my new agent shot it down in days. Apparently, I had missed the paranormal market by minutes. By then the passes returned, the industry had shifted back to contemporary. The trend was over. It had gone that fast. So much for following crazes. From then on, I’d lead with heart. I’d be brave, and true to myself.
I thought I was fired from the agency. Let go. Cast out of Root Literary for non-performance. I would completely understand: Literary agencies are legit business, not charities. But Holly had told me something I’m excited to share with to-be authors: She said that I was “lovely” and patient. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t checking my email and phone for messages from some obscure good news, because I was; I just wasn’t asking her about it every day. This takes serious self-restraint and distraction. (While waiting, it helps to LIVE, experience, collect ‘research’, to tell yourself to keep writing.) Because 1) You ARE a WRITER!!! And 2) The pay-off of patience is worth it. Since signing in 2010–ten years ago!!!—I have noted how hard agents work. They read a ton! They travel a lot! They have other clients, contracts to draw up, and meetings with editors–plus personal lives, partners, pets, kids, friends, and activities. They want to sign clients who bring JOY, not extra effort.
When Taylor Before and After, my FOURTH story pitched with an upper-middle grade readership, it sold in FOUR days!!! to an ambitious editor at a big house…who left halfway through my deadline. Are you getting the drastic swings, the ups and downs??? Enter second editor, new to the house, who didn’t acquire the project but had to make it better and see it through. She brought another layer to the edits, which I was very lucky to receive. I used every word on the eight pages of notes to revise like nobody’s business.
In the two years during my publication phase, my acquiring editor had left, the house got itself into political turmoil, and a global pandemic cancelled my book tour and made marketing impossible. But I was not going to go through that whole awful grief cycle again. Instead, I followed all the phrases bolded in this piece. Honestly, I did. And now, I’m wrapping up a follow up novel.
If I have learned ONE THING over the last ten years, it’s that the publishing process is not an easy one. The timing might be all wrong. Things will happen, and not happen. Peonies will bloom. There may be rain. But. At that same conference with the turned-out-to-be true “first three novels go under the bed” adage was another line I heard and never forgot: “If you keep at it long enough, you’ll get there.”
A National Endowment of the Humanities fellow in Hawaii, Jennie Englund lives in Oregon and teaches research writing and firefighters. Taylor Before and After is her first book. Twitter: @englund_jennie; Instagram: JennieEnglundBooks