As anyone who's wrapping up National Novel Writing Month knows, perseverance is the key to conquering any writing challenge. Here, author Lisa Preston shares her experience leaning into perseverance and succeeding with a dash of luck.
This is for anyone who ever wanted to write, wanted to get published, wanted to be read. Yes, be read. As Garth Stein told me, art is a dialogue. We want our story, our painting, our composition to be read, observed, heard. Without an audience, there is no dialogue, no opportunity for the creation to be appreciated by someone other than the author. Writers need their work to be read, and for that to happen, they need to get published, preferably well-published.
While different writers might suggest different levels of achievement that would satisfy their description of well-published, two factors are often included in the aspiring well-published writer’s goals: gaining a large readership (people the writer does not know, as opposed to a readership primarily composed of family and friends); and, earning decent pay.
How hard is it to get well-published? The kind of published that has you signing a contract for a nice advance in a multi-book deal represented by a stellar agent? The kind of published that has your publisher assigning you a publicist, handing out plenty of Advanced Reading Copies, getting your novel promptly to the trade reviews, and scheduling appearances? It’s bloody, sweaty, teary hard.
And it’s totally do-able.
The key ingredient you must bring to the table is perseverance. Gold standard perseverance. Perseverance Plus.
Understand that perseverance isn’t just try, try again on submissions. Perseverance is try, try again in learning your craft. Try, try again in rewriting your manuscript. Make that plural—manuscripts. Then repeat that process: get better, work harder, rewrite more, learn more, read more, write more, query more. Then, do it all again. And again.
My mystery novel The Clincher comes out in November from Skyhorse Publishing. I wrote the first draft fifteen years ago.
Yes, fifteen years ago.
After many dozens of queries, I had accepted literary representation from an agent who enjoyed my second novel, a contemporary/women’s fiction. I wrote two more novels that fit that bill while I was represented by Agent Number One, then—because she didn’t make a sale on those novels—turned to writing something different. I world-built a new mystery series, wrote the first book, wrote the second, started on the third.
My first and third agents loved that first mystery and tried to sell it, but we never got a deal.
Readers who pay attention are now wondering what happened with Agent Number Two. Okay, side-trip on the road to becoming a well-published novelist: when fiction wasn’t selling, I wrote a niche nonfiction book that had been stirring in the back of my brain. In ways, nonfiction is easier. You see a hole in the market, you fill the hole. Submit your hole-filler to the right press, get an offer, then get an agent with the email subject line: OFFER ON THE TABLE.
When push time came, Agent Number Two was not sufficiently interested in my fiction to try selling it. Many dozens of queries later—all the while writing, rewriting, and studying the craft—I signed with stellar Agent Number Three. Back on the road.
But there’s one crucial factor not under the control of you or your agent: luck.
That’s right, we had no luck. Agent Number Three tried hard—around thirty submissions to a variety of good and great publishing houses—but didn’t get an offer, and eventually stepped aside. I was back in the land of the un-agented, with a shopped novel. The only way to keep going was to write something new, study the craft, and rewrite.
With the same spirit that led me to turn to a mystery series after the contemporaries didn’t sell, I crafted a book club-ish, domestic thriller (Orchids and Stone) which, after dozens of queries, got me Agent Number Four.
These were my Groundhog Years: the agent wasn’t trying very hard to sell the novel, the novel didn’t sell, I parted with the agent, and went back to submitting dozens of queries which eventually netted Agent Number Five. That agent didn’t try very hard to sell the novel. The novel didn’t sell. I parted with the agent and went back to sending out dozens of queries to get Agent Number Six. Throughout all of this, I rewrote my novels (rewriting is the main area where aspiring writers don’t work hard enough), wrote new novels, studied the craft, got published in anthologies, and filled a few more holes in the nonfiction book market.
Within a couple of weeks of my cold query, Agent Number Six offered representation. I accepted. In a few more weeks, he came to me with a multi-book, five-digit deal. I accepted.
Orchids and Stone came out in trade paperback, audio, and e-book in 2016. Booklist called it riveting, and it was downloaded over 125,000 times in its first month. On Amazon, it hit #3 and garnered over 1,400 reader reviews.
Sophomore novels are usually tougher asks, but I’ve built ultramarathon-level perseverance. I’d never done better work than what I offered in my second published novel, The Measure of the Moon, which earned new readers and a nice review (“gripping”) from Publisher’s Weekly.
Contract fulfilled, my agent doubled-down and brought me another offer for a new multi-book, five-digit deal, this time for a fresh mystery series.
The Clincher comes out in November, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and there is nothing I enjoy more than thanking the readers who have encouraged me to persevere.
Lisa Preston began writing after careers as a police sergeant and paramedic. The Clincher is her third published novel. Her debut, Orchids and Stone, reached bestseller status; her second novel, The Measure of the Moon, earned critical acclaim. She lives with her husband on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula.