From Dream to Manuscript: One Writer's Rocky Road to Publication

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Stephanie Meyer’s journey to publication goes something like this: She woke one morning with memories of a vivid dream about star-crossed lovers. Later in the day, she typed their story onto her computer. Three months later, Twilight was finished. Within a couple months she landed an agent who secured a $750,000 offer for her debut. Fast, sweet, and inspirational. Great motivation for aspiring writers. Just remember, it’s typically a little harder than this. My journey, I know, was more convoluted. And much longer.

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Column by Charlie Donlea, author of debut novel, SUMMIT LAKE
(Jan. 26. 2016, Kensington). Donlea was born and raised in Chicago.
He now lives in the suburbs with his wife and two young children.
Readers can find him online at charliedonlea.com.

I started my first manuscript in 2001. Back then, I manually marked my word count each day and still have that tattered page of numbers that grew to 180,000—far too long for a debut novel unless your name is Garth Risk Hallberg. That first manuscript got me exactly nowhere. I queried close to one hundred agents and received nothing but form letters. After a year of rejection, I got up the courage to ask a friend of a friend for a recommendation to their literary agency. He agreed, and weeks later an agent called to tell me a few frank things about my manuscript. First, it wasn’t very good, and certainly not of the caliber needed to compete in the crowded genre of suspense. Second, it was too long. Shoot for 80,000 words, he told me, if you hope to reach readers whose dockets are already filled by bestselling authors. A short book is easier to squeeze in. Finally, this agent told me that although the story didn’t work, the writing wasn’t bad. Stick with it, he said. But try a different genre.

(Tips on how to find more agents who seek your genre/category.)

So I did. I researched what was selling well in commercial fiction and wrote a second manuscript, this time about a husband and wife torn apart by tragedy. It came in at a scant 80K words. I queried it around and, amazingly, began receiving requests for partials. The talented Marlene Stringer of The Stringer Literary Agency asked for the full manuscript and ultimately took me under her wing. With a proven agent and a story I loved, I was on my way…sort of. I didn’t know at the time that it would take another two manuscripts before I made it.

The manuscript that landed me an agent got me close with several publishing houses. Bringing-it-to-the-editorial-meeting, keep-your-phone-on close. In the end, though, everyone passed and I learned the tough lesson that landing an agent doesn’t guarantee a book deal. So Marlene did what agents do. She told me to write another book. I gave myself time to sulk before getting back to it. A year or so later we were at it again with a different manuscript. Editors were on second reads and passing my story up the chain of command. One editor in particular loved it, championed it and fought for it. I had all my hopes pinned to this lone, young editor. But after a long month on the edge, and without the support of her peers, she finally passed. After a year on submission, the email came from Marlene. There’s not much more we can do. I’ll keep looking, but for now start another book.

Here was my gut check. This would be my fourth manuscript. I was unmotivated, less than hopeful, and completely uninspired. I wasn’t sure I had another story in me. But subtle emails from Marlene asking how my manuscript was coming kept me writing. I read voraciously during this time to get a sense of what was selling. I went back to suspense because it was my first love and was wildly popular. I woke early—sometimes at three or four in the morning—to get my work done. In 2014, more than two years after my last rejection, I finished my fourth book, SUMMIT LAKE. We sent it to New York in the spring. Soon, we were getting feedback. A few editors loved the writing and the story, but weren’t sure about the ending. Hearing the same comment from multiple editors, Marlene suggested we pull the submissions until I came up with a new ending. Here I was again, one foot in the door but unable to push through.

Determined not to let this opportunity pass me by, I took a couple of months to rework my manuscript based on these editors’ feedback. I revised the ending multiple times, took feedback from my first readers, and found many dead ends along the way until I eventually created a new version much stronger than the original. We sent it back out, and those same editors who were interested initially became interested again. I was on the edge, where I’d been before, hoping and waiting. In September 2014, more than a decade after that first agent told me my original manuscript was no good but my writing was okay, The Call finally came for a two-book deal.

(Classifying Your Book: How to Research & Target Literary Agents.)

Today, my debut will be released on January 26, 2016. My second will be out in 2017. German rights have sold for each, as have audio rights. SUMMIT LAKE will be featured in the Reader’s Digest Select Editions publication in May 2016 alongside Lee Child’s latest. Not bad company.

I didn’t wake with a dream that turned into a book. I just never gave up on mine.

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