Today’s publishing landscape is both convoluted and shifting. The advent of the e-book and the corresponding explosion of self-publishing have in one sense democratized a process formerly reserved for the few. These developments have, at the same time, both flooded and muddied a literary pool in which the traditional filters have been breached.
When I set out to make writing my second career, I had no interest in self-publishing my work. Which is not to denigrate self-publishing – indeed, it may be the wave of the future – but simply to say that if my writing proved inadequate to the standards of the industry as traditionally constituted, then I was content to declare the whole adventure a failure.
There are several obstacles standing between an aspiring author and “traditional” publication. The first, of course, is writing a good novel. The second is finding a literary agent willing to take it on. The third and final obstacle is interesting an acquiring editor from one of the “big six” publishing houses.
After moving to Santa Fe in 2006, I spent the better part of two years writing my first novel, an equestrian-themed legal mystery called Hush Money. I then mailed query letters to New York literary agents whose names I’d mined from The Writer’s Market. Thirty or so letters went out, and thirty or so form rejections came back.
I had, meanwhile, begun work on my second novel, Hard Twisted, a work of historical/literary fiction based on a Depression-era true crime. Two years later – and four years after I’d left California to go all-in on the novel-writing business – I found myself with two completed manuscripts, no agent, and nary a publisher in sight.
I won’t say that I was discouraged, exactly, because I still had faith in my writing. But I sensed that if there was a breakthrough in my future, it would have to come from outside the established query-and-pray paradigm.
And so it was that, in early 2010, I entered my manuscripts in a pair of area writing contests. The Tony Hillerman Prize, sponsored by St. Martin’s Press, awards a publishing contract and a $10,000 advance to the best first mystery novel set in the American Southwest (liberally defined to include Southern California.) And while the SouthWest Writers’ International Writing Contest offers no publication guarantee, it does award prize money in fourteen writing categories.
Fast-forward to August of 2010, when an e-mail advised me that Hush Money had been selected as a top-three finalist in SWW’s Best Mystery, Suspense, Thriller or Adventure Novel category. Two days later, a second e-mail arrived, telling me that Hard Twisted was a finalist in the Best Historical Novel category, with the winners to be announced at a banquet to be held on September 10.
Lynda and I attended in person, along with some (obliging) Pasadena friends in town for the weekend. By evening’s end, both Hush Money and Hard Twisted had won first place in their respective categories, with Hush Money taking home SWW’s grand-prize Storyteller Award, for which it bested over 680 contest entrants. (I would later learn that Hard Twisted had come in a very close second.)
The logjam was broken. Within three weeks I’d fielded multiple offers before signing with the David Black Agency in New York. And shortly thereafter, just as young über-agent Antonella Iannarino was shopping Hush Money to the publishing world, the second shoe fell with a bang.
Editor Peter Joseph of St. Martin’s Press called to advise me that, while Hush Money had not won the 2010 Hillerman Prize, he was nonetheless interested in acquiring the novel, and a sequel, for publication by SMP’s Minotaur Books imprint. Sold. Soon after, editor Anton Mueller of Bloomsbury USA offered to acquire Hard Twisted. Sold. And so, after five years of toil and frustration, a career was launched in a span of two months.
That, for what it’s worth, is my “breakthrough” story. If it inspires others pursuing the writing life, then I’m pleased. Because the world needs writers, and writers need each other when the going gets tough. Which, I now understand, is pretty much all the time.