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How I Got a Book Contract at 21

From Then to Den.

To be published by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, May 2019

From when I started writing novels just shy of sixteen years old, one thing always frustrated me. I never know how novelists got there.

To the contract, I mean.

There was always something about how they started and where they were headed now, but something always felt missing. It always seemed to go along the lines of:

"I wrote a lot of terrible books in high school. Then, I wrote TITLE OF AMAZING NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER, and Harper Collins picked it up."

That's fantastic! But how did you bridge that gap?

In an effort to provide that missing piece, I'll share my story below. Contracts, of course, aren't cut-and-paste formulas. But I hope this provides you with an encouragement that:

You can do this.

Don't stop now.

Give it one more day, one more shot, one more email. And then one more. And then one more.

In the beginning . . .

It all started as me and a high school friend ventured from our slamming lockers to another classroom. Cradling the textbooks in her arms, she went on to describe some 300-page book she'd written about superheroes.

I chuckled. "I don't know how the heck you can just sit at a computer and write hundreds of pages. I couldn't do it."

So I did it, starting the next week. The first book was awful, maybe an X-Men fan fiction at best. But, at the time, I thought I had struck gold.

So I wrote 5 more books, 10 . . . 15. And I shipped some out to a list of publishers and agents I'd found in a several-years-old Publisher's Marketplace. I'd wondered why no one would take it on.

Down a Rabbit Trail

Frustrated after forty queries or so, I decided to take my next project into my own hands. After completing a manuscript for Nanowrimo, I decided at eighteen to self-publish on Amazon.

It got a couple hundred buys. That's it. And some mediocre ratings on Goodreads.

That's when I realized how much a traditional publisher brought to the table. I didn't know how to market, which avenues to explore, and frankly, how to write to survive in Indie.

To Taylor University

So where did I go to learn all these wonderful things? I would pursue a degree in Professional Writing in a small patch of land rented in a cornfield in Upland, IN: Taylor University.

There I met a professor who had written over 60 books and wasn't like Mr. Rogers . . . he didn't like you the way you were. Our papers bled with more red than a battlefield. He pushed us to get published in as many mediums as possible: devotions, poems, short stories (until I acquired 200 bylines).

But, what's more, is he had us go to writer's conferences. To pitch. To agents, and editors . . . as freshmen, we stood quivering with our One Sheets in hand to engage in the dreaded one-on-one appointments.

Write to Publish

At one, I met Cyle Young, a literary agent who somehow manages on some weekends to write 30,000 words at a time.

He was interested in YA. I wrote YA.

He was interested in acquiring younger authors. I was nineteen.

I sat. I pitched. His expression was ambiguous (so he probably didn't like my pitch much) but he kindly let me send him three chapters and a proposal.

So I did. And he sent me edits (which took me about 20 hours to complete).

So he set up a Skype call. And asked me the dreaded question: What's your platform?

I didn't know. At the time, I didn't really have one. I'd maybe had 30 bylines at that point, had done some freelancing for N 2 Publishing, and that was it. So that was my answer: I didn't have one. So Cyle politely passed.

The Greatest Teacher (Experience)

Devastated but determined, I decided to work harder than ever. I acquired a job at our school newspaper, I got 170 more bylines, I took on several more jobs in the publishing field.

1. One with a Pub Board

2. One as a Publishing Intern

3. One as an intern . . . for Cyle Young

I didn't think he remembered me (he gets hundreds of emails a day). He did. After we had a meeting with the other members of the agency, Cyle suggested I send my manuscript to one of his associate agents who I was working with.

So I did, gut squirming with anticipation for what was close to being the two hundredth rejection letter I'd ever received. It didn't come . . .

She said she loved it and would love to represent me.

Lukewarm Thoughts From Publishers

The manuscript was titled Lukewarm. The publishers had just about those feelings toward it. But it was OK, because my parents were beginning what would be the beginning of a six-month separation and then divorce after twenty-six years of marriage.

So I did what any normal twenty-year-old coping with severe depression and anxiety would do. I wrote a 90,000-word book titled Den.

It was rough. Incredibly rough. I'd never been in such a dark place in my life, and the writing showed it. But I sent it to my agent anyway after it went through several drafts and I pitched it to a few publishers at a conference.

One was interested, but the Pub Board had some problems with plot holes.

So I fixed those.

And then, the voice had issues. We couldn't hear Danny (the protagonist). None of his sarcastic wit translated at all. I'd had trouble throughout the process finding him to the point I wanted to pitch the entire project since the main character just wouldn't speak to me. So, I reworked that.

Then, about a month later, I received another email. The book needed more edits. I'd been sparse with descriptions (my worst area) and too liberal with the dialogue tags. Frustrated, I glanced at the email with tears in my eyes.

I'd thought: The book was never going to be ready. I didn't have a big enough platform. Someone else would do ten times better than I ever could with this project.

But I edited anyway.

Why? I didn't know how many more drafts it had to go through, but I knew these characters had a story to tell. And I couldn't let it sit incomplete for the rest of my life.

Then, I sent it.

About a month later, returning from a solemn viewing of Infinity Wars, I pulled open my email in the Taylor University parking lot and read:

Hi Hope,

I hope this email finds you well! I have reviewed your manuscript and believe DEN will be the perfect addition . . .

It had happened. It had finally happened.

Five years, five writing jobs, and 200 articles later, it finally happened.

I was going to be a published novelist.


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