The last time I blogged about my publication journey I shared my beginnings…how I got into this game. If you missed that part of the saga, feel free to hop into the way-back machine and read that post here.
Needless to say, by the beginning of 2012, I had a self-published debut novel and no one seemed to notice. I know, cry me a river, right? Still, I’m not one to sit down and feel sorry for myself–I’m a do-er. Meaning, in my mind there isn’t any problem I can’t solve if I work hard. So I hone my marketing skills, I try Kindle promos, I go on blog tours. Everywhere I go I’m approaching strangers saying: “Hi, I’m Stephanie Keyes, did you know I have a book out?” or “Hi, I’m Stephanie Keyes–let me tell you about my debut novel.” And I sold several hundred copies of The Star Child that way.
And again, I still felt alone, like I did before. But there was something new. Something worse.
I hated myself!
I hated the person I’d somehow morphed into. I mean, I’m the person who goes out of her way to avoid all salespeople like the plague. There’s selling and then there’s being pushy. It just wasn’t me.
Rewind. I took a step back and asked myself: “Self, what do you really want to do?” The resounding answer was: “WRITE, PLEASE!” That answer became key. I wasn’t desperate for more time to market my work or for more hours on Twitter–I was killing myself on social media and doing all sorts of things that (SURPRISE!) I also hated. No, my answer was and still is, writing. That’s the most important thing.
What happened next was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time…I decided to query small presses. Yes, my book was out there, yes it was selling, but I knew it could do more. Beyond that, I wanted to work with a publisher, learn from a publisher, grow as a writer. I needed someone else in my corner so I could spend time writing.
Out went two queries. One ended in a requisition. The other results in a request for a full manuscript. Now, I didn’t get excited about this. Truthfully, I expected a rejection. That’s not what I got.
Instead, I received…
Congratulations on your wonderful debut novel, The Star Child. We would like to offer you a publishing contract for…
The email came on a Monday at 11:10am from Inkspell Publishing. I still remember, because I was sitting at my desk at work. Some people might respond to similar messages with grace and calm. Not me. I started screaming. Now, let me add that screaming in an HR department doesn’t go down well. Most people thought someone had died or I was having a seizure–or both. Once I shared the email, however, there were about fifty people packed inside my mid-sized cubicle for an impromptu party.
It was so wonderful that I thought about doing this…
Only I couldn’t move my legs that way without seeking emergency medical care.
A week later, I signed a contract for The Star Child, which was later re-released under Inkspell Publishing on September 21, 2012. The Fallen Stars followed in (2013), After Faerie in (2013), The Star Catcher in (2013), and The Last Protector in (2014)–all with the same publisher who first took a chance on me.
Since my debut novel, I’ve written two other YA novels and an NA novel. Each one is in various stages of editing and/or submission to agents.
So…the whole publication path… Here’s what it boils down to:
- Time to write my debut novel: nine months
- Time to edit my debut novel: two years, eleven months
- Time to my first publishing contract: four years, three months
There you have it. That’s my story–for now. A wise agent once told me…there’s no right or wrong when it comes to your [publication] story. It’s just your story.
A lot has changed since I first got the idea for The Star Child years ago, but what hasn’t changed is that innermost truth–what defines me to the core.
I have to write.
I have to be true to myself.
As long as I’m doing those two things? Well, who knows what other adventures are waiting down the road?
When I first started writing, I wrote about white people.
Hands of ivory gripped plasma guns or wielded claymores and bastard swords in thrilling combat. Incantations for spells were uttered by pale-faced wizards. The captain at the helm of the starship I worked into my undeveloped space drama was of European descent, assuming Europe existed.
It’s only now, some fifteen years later, I realize it’s odd that I never considered writing about people who looked like me. I’m black, and it took well over a decade for someone of similar pigmentation to escape my pen.
There’s nothing wrong with white people. I work with them. They’re my neighbors. They’re pretty cool people. Some (most) of my favorite characters of all time were white. Captain Mal Reynolds in Firefly always charmed me with his roguish ways and dogged determination. I was enthralled by Danny Torrance’s struggle against paranormal forces and his own father in The Shining, then by his renewed conflict in Dr. Sleep. Ender Wiggins in Ender’s Game was a brutal little son of a bitch, but there was something I admired about how he reacted to the world’s molding of him into an extraordinary general.
But people who look like me, they exist, and they are doing important stuff. I never considered the notion that they could do so in MY works. I guess part of it had to do with what I saw when I came up. When I read the Hobbit, I knew it was about white folks. Short, hairy, dwarves and hobbits but still, white folks.
I know people who look like me that were the stars of all kinds of interesting stories. My dad used to regale me with stories about playing music in Detroit nightclubs. He told me he used to carry a Luger with him in his attaché because people thought musicians were easy marks. Somewhere in there is a protagonist waiting to have his story told, with his classy handgun and classier music. If that’s real life, why is fiction, especially speculative fiction, any different?
Whenever I picked up new epic fantasies or sci-fi anthologies to read as a kid, or a teenager, or as a desperate college student, there was always a melanin-challenged young man or woman adorning the cover, or implicitly in the context of the story. If the main character wasn’t an alien or some nondescript fictional race, they were white. You don’t often hear about dark-skinned elves. Unless they’re drow or something. Even then, they are still Caucasians. Caucasians with a coat of paint.
It never occurred to me that I could write about someone with darker skin. I didn’t break a mold because, hell, I didn’t know a mold existed. I just thought stories were about strapping young Irish or Anglo or Russian or Swedish people battling evil gods, or taking intergalactic road trips, or unlocking the secrets of magical artifacts. This predetermined mindset is why, if a black man or woman shows up in one of my stories, especially as a protagonist, it was a deliberate choice. I have to make myself do it, and it’s odd that as a black man, that’s my default setting.
I’m not a crusader for racial, sexual, or gender diversity in fiction. I don’t demand or expect authors to populate their stories with minorities to fill a quota, or turn their works into urban, or gay, or trans fiction just to attend to some fashionable need in speculative fiction. I’m just thinking that protagonists who look like me, or people who might be homosexual, or transgender, don’t have to be novelties. I don’t want a black person going on an epic quest to slay an ancient evil to be cause for celebration or deep introspection. Quite the opposite, in fact. Diverse protagonists should be so common as to be unremarkable. Especially for young adults such as myself fifteen years ago. It’s a disservice to people on the cusp of maturity that only one group can be the figurehead of their favorite stories.
If I can do something in this business, express my authority on the subject, then maybe a couple heroes will be able to walk outside without sunscreen, and no one will comment on it. Hopefully more young writers will do the same.
Fiction’s a mirror of life, and hey, there are a lot of different people in the real world driving events. I’m just writing what I see.
John McKeown is an aspiring fantasy/sci-fi author from Flint, Michigan, with a penchant for procrastination. As such, he is woefully unpublished. When he’s not writing about magic and economic collapse, he either rots his brain with video games or destroys his body via competitive martial arts. Follow him on Twitter @Outfoxd21
As of February of 2008, I could safely admit that I’d tried to write a book at least twenty-five times. Some of the earlier versions were even on a typewriter. Yikes! I’d had numerous ideas, numerous characters that I can no longer remember the names of, and even more extremely weak plots. The problem? I’d start writing and lose interest. What was going to happen to Character X’s (because of course I can no longer remember her name) life? Who the freak cares? Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought.
Two things happened that changed that. One, the YA Fantasy explosion in the mainstream publishing market. Two, I got an idea. It turned out that my block about writing had nothing to do with my ideas–just my character’s gender. Yeah, you heard me right. Even though I’d obviously been a teenage girl once, I couldn’t imagine writing one. Instead, I decided to write about a seventeen-year-old boy who’s dreams are haunted by a girl in the beach in Ireland. Everyday, stuff. Right?
Nine months of furious writing followed, along with three years of intense editing, rewrites, and the painstaking creation of my “social media platform.” When I finally had a good copy in hand, I was ready. I signed up for the good ole’ Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City and Pitch Slam! And I just kew, with my carefully-maintained Outlook calendar and organized corporate background, that everyone would love my pitch.
They did. Every agent that I pitched to wanted pages. I was on a high.
It was only a matter of time now. I can even remember stepping into the elevator after Pitch Slam! I was on a total high, until he stepped on. Here’s how it went down…
The elevator doors bounced back open to accommodate an older man–I’d have placed him at around sixty. He brought with him the wafting odor of stale cigars, garlic, and pissy attitude.
The door shut after him. I jammed the “1” button again, if only to get away from the garlic. There’s seasoning and then there’s seasoning.
“You at the writer’s conference?” he asked me.
Crap. Now I had to talk. “Yeah.” Were we on the first floor yet? Why didn’t I take the stairs?”
“Did you do well?” he asked.
“Yeah. I mean all of the agents wanted pages. I was fortunate.”
“Good. I wouldn’t get excited about that though. This is my third conference. Every time they’ve asked me for pages and then I get rejected.”
The elevator dinged and he exited without a backward glance, leaving me hanging in the near-visible cloud of undesirable herbs and negativity. For just an instant his words crushed me. Then I brushed them off.
“That will never happen to me,” I said to the empty elevator.
And then it did.
I sent pages to all five agents who requested them. Every agent declined.
The declines were swift and not form letters. Still, they were declines. So I kept editing, kept honing this one manuscript that I believed in. I read about craft, studied blog posts on dialogue and YA romance, met other authors, and connected on Twitter.
By the time my second son was born in September (yeah, I did all of this while I was pregnant), I decided that I would self-publish. I found an editor, the lovely Kit Domino, to help me polish the manuscript. I located a cover artist, Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics, to create the cover. My late-night reading, because I was up a lot with little “Bam-Bam,” consisted of blogs and books on how to format your manuscript for Ebook.
On December 15, 2011. I self-published The Star Child.
And nobody gave a rat’s ass.
There were no trumpets blaring in the streets. No parades in my honor. My husband bought a copy, but even my mom had to be reminded that it was my release day. All of my experience planning launches in my corporate life mattered not. This was a bigger wake-up call than anything that had happened to me before.
Had I done the right thing? Had I jumped the gun on pressing Publish? Yeah. I so did. Because of all things I’d learned, the one that was missing? Patience.
It would take me a publishing contract and a one-eighty realize that though. Curious? You’ll just have to hang in for my next post. Ha–gotcha!
SO…YOU WRITE YA?
Labels. Oh, glorious labels. Good or bad, we’re addicted to them like our favorite candy or never-ending Netflix marathons. You simply cannot exist if you don’t wear a label. In YA, that label is Ohhh…you write about TEENAGERS? Young adult? Isn’t that for kids? Why don’t you write about someone your own age?
The YA label comes with judgy eyes, snide comments, and a truckload of condescension. Every single author I meet who doesn’t write YA asks me why I do. They can’t understand the allure of writing about children. Here, I will try to answer some of the common questions I face and give you some ammo for the next time you’re cornered.
Why can’t you just make your characters adults?
Attachments. When I have Ashley ride off on the back of some hot guy’s motorcycle, I don’t want her to be thinking about her ex-husband, her seventeen children, the job she hates, and the fact that her legs are full of cellulite. There’s a genre for this: Upmarket women’s fiction.
I want Ashley to be full of adventure and thirst for life experiences (not worn out from her depressing, realistic life). I want her to drop her mundane routine and step into something extraordinary, and you can’t do that as an adult, at least, not without pages and pages of loose ends and backstory. Ashley is still growing, changing, becoming the person she’s supposed to be. She’s malleable, and as an author, malleable = INTERESTING.
Does that mean young protagonists don’t have baggage? Absolutely not. YA is a “genre rich,” and encompasses Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance, Contemporary, Horror, and anything else your little heart desires. So why all the raised eyebrows?
But, YA Fiction isn’t REAL fiction!
Oh ho ho…get ye down off yon mighty horse. Tell that to John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany), John Knowles (A Separate Peace), and if you want something more modern, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I mean, come on! These are great LITERARY pieces. Real fiction. Psh. Psh, I say!
Okay, but YA is just “fluff”. Easy, vapid, fraught with empty-headed ignorant teenagers and bad decisions.
If you believe this, then you have homework. Read these books and then get back to me about how “fluffy” these stories are. I could add more, but I think after just one you’ll be thoroughly chastised and coming back to me with your tail between your legs.
• The Fault in our Stars by John Green
• Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
• Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Every writer I know writes young adult. Isn’t that a flooded market?
It’s true, you might have noticed the Young Adult section at Barnes and Noble encroaching on, I don’t know, the Health and Fitness section, or heaven forbid, Literary Fiction. YA is BOOMING and it’s thanks to authors like Stephenie Meyer, who encouraged a maelstrom of young writers, or John Green, who continues to wow us with his GIANT brain and even bigger heart. It’s also welcoming, encouraging, and one hell of a great place to be.
To answer the flooded market question, no, it’s not. Here’s why: Remember when I said that YA houses Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance, etc? I meant it. There are a LOT of young adult authors, but guess what? There are SO MANY genres that comprise young adult that it doesn’t matter. So you write your zombie dystopian fairy romance or your urban fantasy about the girl who grows stories in her skin. I WANT TO READ THEM. ALL OF THEM. Because young adult truly has all the heart and there’s room for all of us here.
I want to comment on voice. By insulting me as a writer, the young adult genre, or those who love to read YA, you’re stifling our voices. You’re telling us we’re not worthy, or we’re small, or that we’ll never climb the stuffy, turgid walls that surround REAL FICTION.
I’m holding up one finger for you, and here’s a hint, it’s not my thumb.
Teenagers deserve a place to feel safe, so do those of us adults who write YA. And hell, if I can’t climb those Real Fiction walls, so be it. The party is on the ground floor, and it’s filled with other awesome people just like me.
So suit up, fellow YA writers, don your label like proud armor, and let’s have some cake.
Kacey Vanderkarr is a young adult author, and she doesn’t care what you think about that. When she’s not writing, she coaches winterguard and works as a sonographer. Follow her on Twitter: @kacimari
So if you read my first post last week, you know that I’m interested in talking about the guts and the glory of being a writer of YA fiction. Hell, being a writer PERIOD!
I am here this week to talk about the guts…the pain…the struggle. The depression.
Feeling dark about my work is nothing new, but last year my struggle got significantly darker.
It wasn’t one thing, like a particular rejection letter or words of criticism from a critique partner or editor; rather, it was an accumulation of not experiences but feelings I’ve been having about myself as a writer and as a person. Feelings that were triggered by benign events. Friends getting book deals. A rejection of my most recent submission by a favorite publisher. Feedback from my agent. A negative review of one of my newly published short stories. These are normal events in the life of a writer. Sure, they aren’t the easiest moments, per say. But usually any of that stuff would roll over me, wouldn’t set me back, or make me hate myself. In fact, I’ve heard other people get really down on themselves about a rejection, and I always thought, rejection isn’t bad or good; it’s eliminating one person who isn’t a match for my work and therefore, just one more step to a “yes”. Not to mention some rejections are constructive and helpful. I never equated rejection with failure.
Until last year.
The following are excerpts from my journal last year:
…Yet another person has gotten a book deal. Heard about it on Twitter….anger, jealousy, feeling of “it’s not fair”…I’ve worked just as hard, I’ve worked longer, I’ve done just as much, if not more! I’m just as good a writer…why? Despite all I have accomplished…despite all the signs pointing to YES…I’m still a NO and those people out there who are yeses….it’s not fair.
…What have I done wrong? What’s wrong with me?
…Maybe I’m not as good as I’ve lead myself to believe.
…Book deal=validation. Failure to get book deal means I’m a failure….
…Whenever I think about my submissions, all kinds of sadness, frustration, and depression…failure. I have failed. I am a failure. What’s the point?
…Every time I rewrite something for my current manuscript, I feel I’m making it worse. I’m worried I’m going down the rabbit hole.
…With each day that passes and I don’t get a response…I feel worse and worse.
What was starting to happen was that every “no” or “not yet” I heard about my work, no matter if it was from a critique from another writer buddy, my agent, or a flat out “no” from a publisher, I began to internalize the “no” and “not yet” to be about me. And not just about me as a writer, but me as a person. And, the victories of other writers began to feel like rejections of me. Even though I’ve always ascribed to the adage another person’s success is not an indication of my failure, it was almost as if I interpreted events to be evidence that I was a complete and utter failure.
I started to feel stupid. Like, who am I to ever think that I could “make it”? And, how did I ever delude myself into thinking I was good enough?
So you can imagine that at one point, the bough broke. The cradle fell and down came Hannah. With a crash.
What I would like to tell you about is how I’ve come out of the darkness. And it wasn’t one great epiphany or moment out on a unicorn eating peaches. Hells-to-the-no. It was work. Yes. Did you know that not being depressed is the result of hard work? It isn’t the result of a pill you pop or one particular session with a therapist or healer. It is the result of months and months of hard, hard work that really never stops but eventually becomes your new normal.
I could bore you with my self-care routine…because it is REALLY boring. So I will skip that. I will get to the part that might actually be useful to you because now that I’ve come out of the closet about my bout with depression, I have discovered that being depressed is more than common, it is, specifically, very common with writers. Besides the obvious “we’re so isolated” is the less obvious, “no matter how thick your skin is, it’s hard not to take rejection personally when the rejection has been happening for over 10 years.”
Truth–rejection doesn’t get any easier over time. You have to work at NOT taking it personally.
For me, I used to hold on to the “some day”. What I mean is that after the first set of rejections for my first book in my early twenties, I had this thought I held on to, which was, “Oh, I’ve just started. There’s so much time. It’s going to happen. I just have to be patient.” By year 10, in my early to mid-thirties, the fabric of “it’s going to happen” started to wear. By year 15, the fabric tore in half.
What I did to pull myself out of the gutter of self-loathing was…love myself, rejection, self-pity, and all. Every day. Even when I didn’t want to. This was very hard because, truthfully, I’d come to hate who I was.
The day I started therapy was the day I started to become aware of the way I thought about myself and the way those thoughts made me feel. I completed charts about those thoughts and feelings. I journaled about them. I began to separate myself from them, witness them, look at them. The ones that triggered particular sadness or depression or anxiety, I challenged. With hard core evidence. Take the thought of “I’m stupid”. My therapist actually had me challenge this one and the rules was I had to use facts to support it.
Guess what? I couldn’t find any. Not one.
Another thought he had me challenge was, I am a failure.
Same thing, no evidence.
Now that doesn’t mean I went off on a unicorn (let’s say it together now) eating peaches. Once I gathered evidence to challenge my thoughts, I had to look at the facts.
Fact: I have failed to get a book deal…for now.
Fact: I am not where I thought I would be as an author.
Fact: None of those things make me stupid or a failure.
If you build it, they will come. That’s been my motto over the past 10 plus years as an author of young adult fiction. When I couldn’t find a publisher for my first book, My Sister’s Wedding, I did it myself and promptly won a pretty sweet award that led me to my first agent. When I graduated from the Solstice Program and couldn’t find someone to publish my collection of short stories, I created Sucker Literary, and BAM, landed in Publishers Weekly. Cool. Very Cool.
But it has not been peaches and unicorns. (I will discuss this further in my first official post as the founder and regular contributor to this blog next week or so).
So how and why did I create All The Way? I was feeling really depressed a few months back (okay…REALLY depressed. Read more about that here), and I started to feel the itch of needing something more for my writing. Not so much needing more regarding my craft but more regarding my writer’s soul. I carried inside a feeling of not being heard. A feeling of not saying what I needed to. A feeling of “am I truly alone in this feeling?”
So I reached out to my sister in writing, Kacey. We talked….and talked…and then I realized what I wanted and needed. A group of people, brothers and sisters, who were going through the Artist’s Crisis and who wanted to TALK ABOUT it!
Therefore, I created All The Way YA. The place to share the experiences and emotions writers may talk to each other about but hesitate to write about (publicly).
I want this blog to “talk shop” about what we do and what we go through as writers and authors…I think of the “all the way” to mean that we bloggers on this blog will go all the way to share with you our experiences, advice, stories about the realities of having an agent and not having an agent but having a book deal or having an agent and no book deal. The realities of almost “making it” so many times but ultimately failing, over and over. The truth about the solitary confinement of working on your Masterpiece. The truth about getting a book deal FINALLY but realizing that there is still a mountain to climb. All the different scenarios that can occur on the road to “making it” as an author, including defining “making it”.
The YA aspect of our blog really is more because that is where I started, that’s the bulk of my work, though I’ve begun to branch out to New Adult and Middle Grade. Also, authors of YA fiction are generous with their support for one another, and quite frankly, I need more and more of that in my life.
Let’s talk about the emotional turmoil and torture… and the peaches and unicorns.
Why This Blog? (Please “like” us on Facebook.)
Sometimes it seems like all we hear about as writers are the successes. “Hey, I got an agent!” or maybe “Hey, I got a book deal!” I love reading about other author’s successes–it spurs me on and makes me want to work harder. The challenge though, is that writing is, for the most part, a solitary art. So when all you read about are other people’s successes and you’re still plugging away…well you get the idea. I think it’s important that, as writers, we recognize that we’ve chosen a difficult path. Heck, we chosen to ride on a rode with a million and one potholes (that’s the state flower here in Pennsylvania, by the way). Still, there’s value in knowing you’re not alone. That’s why I’m here.
I’ve been fortunate to have met some a-m-a-z-i-n-g members of the writer community and learned a ton as a result. It’s time to pay that forward.
More About Me
Where am I in my writing career…
- I have five publications released as part of The Star Child series.
- I am waiting to hear from agents and editors on a YA Magical Realism that I’m querying, set here in Pittsburgh.
- I’m in the process of editing one YA manuscript, a Middle Grade Sci-fi manuscript, and a YA novella.
- I’m co-writing a New Adult manuscript with local writer Melissa Englesberg and having a blast.
Follow me on twitter at @StephanieKeyes