Wednesday, August 01, 2007

How'd You Get Your Start?

Over at Fangs, Fur & Fey they're answering a bunch of reader's questions. I thought it might be fun if, as some point, all the Wyrdsmiths chimed in on this one. A first break doesn't have to be a first novel published, but a short story... or even finding the wherewithall to finish something:

"How did you get your big break?

Did you have an awesome query letter? Did you know somebody who knew somebody? What suggestions do you have for new writer's trying to find an agent?"

I actually knew somebody who knew somebody.

The whole story goes something like this (cribbed from my FAQ page):

I'm not sure when I wrote my first piece of original fiction. But, I'm certain did it out of boredom.

You see, I have this tendency to take on really, really boring day-jobs that only require about a tenth of my actual brain power to do. I know that I started writing my "trunk" novel, Sidhe Promised (a classic story of lesbian romance gone hay-wire, the Irish Republican Army, and the faerie folk) when I was working the Publicity department as a temporary, full-time employee of Pillsbury. I didn't even have a computer terminal. Just a desk and a typewriter and the occassional file that needed filing. At first, I typed a lot of letters to my friends who had moved away. Then, I started making up weird limmericks and crazy children short stories with titles like "Alfred the Slug." Then, suddenly, I was eighty pages into a really weird fantasy novel.

At this point, someone probably should have discouraged me. Or, I should have gotten a better job.

But, no. I went home to my Apple IIe and kept typing away. Pretty soon, I had a couple hundred pages. Then, several jobs later, I showed a bit of the novel to someone who wasn't related to me. Granted, she was still a friend, but she was really very encouraging, and told me that I should, you know, finish it and try to get it published. Well, I didn't do anything about it, because I hadn't a clue how a person went about doing any of that stuff. I just keep twiddling away at it whenever I was bored out of my skull, which, frankly, happened pretty often at my job.

Then, probably on my partner's encouragement (or maybe Julie, the above-mentioned friend), I took a class at the Loft on science fiction writing. I remember it was taught by John Hartnett, who, I'm convinced, is a space alien. According to the very exhaustive Locus List, he's published, maybe, three stories in his entire life. But HE WAS THE WORLD'S BEST TEACHER. I kid you not. If I could find this guy, I'd like to credit him for really putting me on the path to publication. But, he, like, totally disappeared. I'm telling ya: Space Aliens. Crop Circles. John Hartnett.

At any rate, John also taught me everything I know about critiquing fiction. He encouraged those of us in his class to start a writers group, which we did. Harry LeBlanc (writing name "H. Couregges LeBlanc") and I formed Wyrdsmiths, which will be celebrating 15 years together as of September 20, 2008.

Being in Wyrdsmiths made me a professional writer. For one, I learned the discpline of deadline. Wyrdsmiths requires its members to turn in some insanely small amount of writing every month, but, when you're used to writing when you're bored... well, I suddenly learned to write every day, at least a little, so I could have something to turn in to group--which I really dug, I mean talk about a cure for boredom...Ain't nothin' cooler than hanging with a bunch of hipster skiffy writers at a coffeeshop every other Thursday night when you're a geek grrl like me.

But, seriously, Wyrdsmiths also provided me with marketing information. Together, we suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the form of "alases" from GVG and Gardner Dozois. Plus, a friend of a friend of a friend of Harry's knew this guy who was an editor at Tor books, named Jim Frenkel. Well, through this friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, I got my work under Jim's nose. Jim didn't end up buying the book (that would be Sidhe Promised) for Tor, but he did want to agent the next one (this little book about a private investigator who meets up with an real angel named Michael -- my alter ego's first published book Archangel Protocol).

As I said, I originally sent Jim the manuscript for Sidhe Promised which he wasn't all that thrilled with. Luckily, I didn't know he wasn't thrilled because he wouldn't return my letters or email. So, I kept writing. I ended up writing about fifty pages of Archangel Protocol when the above mentioned friend of a friend of Harry's, a great guy named Nate Bucklin, suggested that I send what I had of the newest novel to Jim to try to light a fire under him. Well, Nate was right. Jim loved what he read of Archangel Protocol and when we finally met at Minicon, Jim told me he'd love to represent this book when I finished it.

It took me about a year and a half to finished Archangel Protocol (although, at the time it was called Dancing on the Head of a Pin). Once it was done, I thought... okay, here comes fame and fortune. Alas, it didn't quite work that way.

Archangel Protocol was rejected three times before it sold to Laura Anne Gilman at Roc Books.

First, the book went to Bantam, where it sat on Pat LoBrutto's desk, unread for almost a year. Then, it went to Avon for about four months or so, where Diane Gill almost bought it... but the deal fell through. Then, it went to Warner, and Betsy gave it a quick (about a month) no thanks. Then it went to Roc... and at this point, I was really starting to give up. I was thinking: so what I have an agent, I still can't sell anything. In the meantime my short story "Twelve Traditions" made it over the transom at Science Fiction Age and I made my first professional sale. Scott Edelman will long be loved by me for "breaking my cherry" as Gardner Dozois says.

But just to bust another one of my long held beliefs, making that short story sale didn't instantly mean I got respect for my other short stories or for my novel. I was still getting a ton of rejections, right and left. And, I was so depressed about the state of my career that when Jim called me to tell me he sold Archangel Protocol, the conversation went something like this:

Jim: Are you coming to WisCon this year?
Lyda: (irritated) No, Jim. I already told you I can't afford both WisCon and WorldCon and I decided to do WorldCon this year.
Jim: (smuggly, though I missed it) Good, because you can better promote your book at WorldCon.
Lyda: (really irritated) Whatever. I always promote myself, you know that.
Jim: No, I sold Dancing.
Lyda :You're sh***ing me.
Jim: No, I really sold it.
Lyda: You're serious?

Once Jim started quoting numbers I actually started to believe it. Then I started dancing around... which looked a little strange since I was at the Minnesota Historical Society, at work. I told Shawn, my partner, all about it when we went home for lunch. BUT.. it didn't feel real. I swore Jim to secrecy and told him not to tell anyone until we signed on the dotted line. After what happen with Avon, I just didn't trust the deal to go through. But, of course, Jim couldn't QUITE contain himself... he let lots of hints slip out to my Wyrdsmith colleagues at WisCon. It didn't seem real until I got a "welcome to Roc" email from Laura Anne. But, then I told myself, in my more parnoid moments, that anyone could buy a email account and pretend to be an editor. I finally believed it when the galleys came and I saw my name on the spine of the book.

Sometimes, I still can't believe it.

That's my story. What's yours?


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Jason Sizemore, EditorBorg at Apex Digest, found me on Brian Keene's website. We met, hung out, talked about writing and Apex. Next thing I know, he's read a draft of Midnight and asks me to write a "prequel" short for the Apex Online site; at the time, I'd not written a short since college! He also drafted me to read Scott Nicholson's The Home and write a review of it for the magazine. And then - bang, I'm a "contributing editor" for Apex. LOL

lydamorehouse said...

Hey, that's a great story. And a lot shorter than my answer... :-)

Kelly McCullough said...

This looks like fun. I'll play when I get home.

Morgan Dhu said...

Would it be wrong of me to say that I'd be very interested in reading a book about lesbian romance, the Irish Republican Army, and the fairy folk?

Becasue seriously, I would, and not just because you would have written it.

Kelly Swails said...

Short answer: I knew someone.

Long answer: In 2003 I started to write seriously. I've written stories off and on since grade school, but I never considered it seriously as a career choice because I didn't want to spend my life poor and living off PB&J. Several teachers and professors told me to pursue it, ("drop med tech and major in eng lit" type stuff) but I "higher aspirations." I graduated college in 1997; that same year I won $100 in a short-story contest. I wrote some, but nothing consistent. I put "publish a novel" on my life-to-do list but did nothing towards that goal.

In 2003 I said, "Self, you're not getting any younger. You've got a solid job, a great husband, a lovely house. Write." And so I did. I took a creative writing class, discovered I already "knew" most of the "basics," and set to writing seriously. I outlined and wrote a YA novel over the next year; the year after, I wrote the two sequels to make a trilogy. I sent out several queries to publishers and agents; I got one request for a full manuscript but they rejected me. In 2004 I had the nerve to approach an author/editor at a convention. He asked me to send a partial; I did so but he rejected it (at this time I had just written the one book.) The following year at the same convention another author/editor said she'd like to read it (by this time I had the trilogy but she just read the first book). She liked the manuscript enough to finish it, but didn't do anything with it, really. However, the following February, in 2006, she extended an invitation for me to submit a story to Pandora's Closet. I did, she liked it, and it's coming out in ... six days! This same editor is responsible for my Blue Kingdoms invites, which speaks well for me, I guess.

After that first invite, I began to write and submit and collect rejections in earnest. And so it goes. I find that I don't just want to "publish a novel." I want to have a long career with lots of published novels and stories.

tate said...

Morgan, thanks for the vote of confidence about Sidhe Promised, but that book really did suffer from first book-itis. I still love it, so maybe some day I'll resurrect it and try to sell it again.

lydamorehouse said...

Cool story, Kelly S.

Kelly Swails said...

thanks, Lyda. It still feels pretty cool. :)