My journey to publication

I’ve always loved hearing authors’ stories of their paths to publication. These past few months, talking to book clubs about my novel The Wrong Kind of Woman, I’ve found that others wonder about this too: How did you get started, and how did you go from writer to author, they almost always ask.

In my case, depending on how you look at it, my publication journey took either 12 years or 25 years.

First steps: Quitting, then (much later) trying again

In my twenties, I worked as a junior editor at a women’s magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, editing novel excerpts and short stories. I loved the editing work, and I loved to read ARCs and galleys, talk on the phone with agents, and correspond with authors (yes, by snail mail). In my free time, I’d begun writing a historical middle-grade novel, and I signed up for a fiction-writing class at the New School.

At the first class, the teacher gave a writing prompt—write up a memory, giving as much sensory detail as you can. She asked the group (25, too large for a workshop, but I didn’t know that then) to share what we’d written, and comment on others’ writing. When my turn came, I was barely able to read, fearing that my passage was terrible, which it was. No one commented on what I’d written, and I was mortified. After that first class, I quit: I couldn’t face the scrutiny, or dismissal, or whatever it was.

I didn’t try again with a fiction-writing workshop until I was 39, partly because of that old fear, that people would say my was terrible, or that they’d say nothing at all. But at 39, I was less chicken about being vulnerable in a fiction-writing class, and I had a little more time , since my kids were school-age. I’d also learned about online classes, where I wouldn’t have to read my work aloud, and no one could see my burning face. I took my first classes through UCLA Extension, with novelists Caroline Leavitt and Rebecca Johns.

For the next ten years, I took classes, went to conferences, wrote lots of short stories, and two novel drafts. I began submitting my stories to literary magazines and had a few accepted, and many more rejected. Through one class, I also found a wonderful writing group—three other women working on novels, and we traded work monthly.

The worst novel in the class, and a new obsession

One year, at the Taos Writers Conference, I joined a six-person master class with Jonis Agee. I slowly figured out that my novel draft (about a woman whose childhood best friend starts a fraudulent Christian weight-loss program) was the worst one in our small group. But instead of despairing, I started revising, using what Jonis had taught us. Still, halfway through that revision, I got obsessed with another subject: the family of the artist John Singer Sargent. I’d gone to an exhibit of Sargent’s early work at the Corcoran Galley in DC and couldn’t stop thinking about Sargent’s sisters—Sargent and his sisters grew up in Europe, never living in the US, and had what seemed to me a lonely existence.

Pretty soon the Sargent family became my project. I focused on one sister, Emily, who was mildly crippled from a back injury, wondering what it was like to be the shy, unglamorous sister of someone who made a fortune painting portraits of the era’s most glamorous and beautiful people.

I spent about eight years on this novel, researching, writing scenes, taking more classes, going to more conferences. Revising. I began to query agents in late 2014, and my stats over a year and a half of querying are, I think, fairly typical: I sent out 48 queries, got lots of rejections, 15 manuscript requests, and one offer of representation. I signed with Sharon Pelletier, a young agent at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. I revised twice more for Sharon, and nine months later Sharon started submitting my novel to editors. But that novel didn’t sell. It got a lot of compliments, but most of the editors said it was too quiet.

Failure, and beginning again

On the advice of other writers, when I started querying, I also began work on a new project: a novel set in 1970 on a college campus, about a woman trying to find her way after her husband’s death. And I returned to class, which kept me from dwelling on the agents’ and editors’ rejections. (These were novel classes with Sarah Stone, through Stanford Continuing Education, and Matt Saleses, at Grub Street.)

So by the time agent Sharon submitted my Emily Sargent novel to the very last editor, in 2017, I’d already told her about this new novel draft, which was very rough. And I’d decided to apply to MFA programs, something I’d been thinking about all those years. By the middle of 2018, I’d started an MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I had the chance to workshop the new novel draft. Around that time I sent an early draft to Sharon, and she gave me helpful revision notes.

I revised the novel twice more, and in March 2019, Sharon sent the manuscript to a handful of editors who’d already expressed interest. A week after that, the manuscript sold to April Oz, an editor at Mira Books/HarperCollins, on a preempt (which means an editor offers more money than she’d originally offered, to keep others from bidding and to complete the deal). By July 2020, I’d graduated from my MFA program, and in October of 2020, The Wrong Kind of Woman was published. (Into a pandemic and election frenzy, but that’s another story.)

Over the years, I gave up writing many times in frustration, then started in again. My journey to publication was slow, slow, slow, then fast. I now know that this slow, twisty path to novel publication is the norm; it’s the rare author who writes her first novel, gets an agent, and sells her book in a short timeframe. But that’s okay! As one of my writer friends says, “It takes as long as it takes.”

Here are a few bits of wisdom I’ve learned over the years:

It helps to get used to rejection. Most writers face it at every stage of the writing process—rejection from peers, and teachers, in workshops; rejection from literary magazine editors; rejection from agents; rejection from book editors. Rejection will be there after publication too, when your book doesn’t get the pre-pub attention you’d hoped for, or doesn’t win an award, or doesn’t make it onto the best-of-the-year lists, or doesn’t sell the way you’d imagined.

You can (and should) find your people, but it may take a while. I found my people—writing groups, beta readers, writer-friends—through those classes and conferences.

Perseverance is a writer’s superpower. I heard this from teachers over the years, but I’ve seen it in practice too: the writer who perseveres is the one who will be published. In my classes, writing groups, and conferences, I met other writers who seemed far ahead of me, more talented, but at some point they stopped writing and submitting. I’m still writing, still submitting, and if you’re a writer, I hope you’ll keep going too.