My Journey to Publication
Jill Williamson on May 21, 2012
My entire childhood, I had a dream. I wanted to be a fashion designer. Why? Well, I was obsessed with making or remodeling my clothing–anyone’s clothing. My mom used to get on my case for taking things from storage and cutting them up without first asking permission.
The Fashion Designer
I loved haute couture and prêt-à-porter. Haute couture is high fashion, those one-of-a kind creations that sit in museums or are loaned to movie stars to wear to the Academy Awards because they’re worth $60,000. Prêt-à-porter is ready-to-wear, fashion that the regular people can afford. My favorite to design was evening wear. I loved the idea of a hand-beaded gown, and I made all my fancy dresses for homecoming, prom, and even my own wedding. But I’ll be honest. I also loved the attention I got from making my own clothes. I’d tell people, “I made this,” and they’d be so impressed. Or my mom would tell people, “My daughter made that,” and I’d feel so good about myself.
I chased this dream all the way to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. And after graduation, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles where he could pursue an occupation in film. Two unpleasant jobs and five years later, I wanted out! Fashion wasn’t quite what I’d built it up to be. And working where I did was a bit like that book/movie, The Devil Wears Prada. I’ve never been a very good suck-up, and to succeed in fashion, knowing how to work people is a big help.
So I got out. I had two kids and played around with starting my own businesses for a while. I designed wedding gowns, created a handbag business, and designed jewelry. All that was a lot of work for pennies. Plenty discouraging.
The Motivational Speaker
So I was home with my little ones, which gave me lots of time to think. My husband was a youth pastor then, and I helped him with the teens. One day we took our leadership group down to Saddleback Church to see what they do, and Doug Fields gave the message. He urged us to “tell our story.” This really hit me hard, and I left eager to do just that. I had such an interesting childhood growing up in Alaska, and I’d made so many mistakes, I thought I could tell my story in hopes that hearing it might help teens. I spoke for free a few places, but wasn’t really sure how one gets invited to speak. I took my kids to MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) and learned there that sometimes speakers are hired because someone read an article the speaker had written for a magazine.
I could do that, right? How hard could that be?
The Magazine Writer
So I looked into writing articles and found out how challenging it really was. But I was determined, so I wrote and wrote and wrote. But I couldn’t simply write one article and sent it to twenty magazines because every magazine had its own submission guidelines and style. Some wanted nonfiction at 1500 words, some wanted nonfiction at 750 words. Some wanted fiction at 2000 words. Some wanted fiction at 500 words!
I worked and worked and worked.
As I was working on all that, two other things happened. One of the girls in our youth group loaned me a novel, which I read and thought, “Whoa! What’s going on here?” in regards to some of the content. Now, I love YA books that are real and deal with brokenness and sin and what it’s like to be a messed up, imperfect teenager on this planet, but I don’t like books that glorify sin and ignore the consequences of it. I had read a novel as a teen that really messed up my view of love and I’m still working through the damage that book did to my heart and mind. Life has consequences–good and bad–and I felt if YA authors were going to be real about the temptations in life in their books and doing what feels good, they had a responsibility to be real about the consequences of life as well. Anything else was unethical and potentially damaging to young readers who are looking for truth in the world, not lies dressed up as truth.
Anyway… so that happened, and I was deeply pondering it all.
The second thing that happened was a new Harry Potter book came out. I think it was Goblet of Fire. And I saw on the news that some Christians were burning copies of the book, which they had deemed evil. This annoyed me. The Harry Potter books might be about “witches and wizards” but they’re really about good and evil and how everyone must choose between the two. And here were some Christians missing the point, entirely. I am a Christian, and I believe there is a place for correction and a place for peaceful protest. But with this situation, I felt like there were a lot of people who hadn’t even read the books getting all red in the face about them. It wasn’t honest or fair. It wasn’t loving or respectful. It was a bandwagon. A so-called “plank in the eye.”
That’s how I felt, anyway.
Well… that got me thinking. I love novels. Why didn’t someone write a really cool book for teens that all Christians would like? ( Yeah… I was SO TOTALLY naive. I have since learned the hard way that no one likes every book, Christians, especially.) But I decided to write my own teen novel. One that would deal with real life issues but wouldn’t ignore consequences or the existence of a loving, creator God. I wanted Christian teens to see how they sometimes look through the eyes of a nonbeliever, and since I had some experience in that realm, the book was just a tiny bit autobiographical. That book was what would eventually become The New Recruit.
And that’s how I got started writing fiction. And it was so much fun!
I struggled for a bit, shortly thereafter. I had started out wanting to be a motivational speaker. That’s why I was learning to write articles. I wanted to allow my testimony to change lives. And here I’d dumped that plan for writing a story about a spy kid. Was I being completely self-absorbed, or what?
I confessed this to my pastor, and he reminded me that Jesus used stories in his ministry. Think about Nathan, prophet of King David, who used a story to convict King David of his sin of stealing Uriah’s wife, then killing Uriah. And it worked! That story hit home and David was changed. Stories are powerful. They can go places nonfiction cannot go.
My pastor also asked me why I felt like my calling in life shouldn’t be something I truly enjoy? I didn’t know. I guess something about telling my life story felt pious and lofty–worthy of pleasing God. But for some reason fiction felt selfish because it was so much fun. My pastor corrected my thought process. He wasn’t going to tell me what to do, but he did say that God gives us talents and desires, and there is no reason not to make a living at something we love, if that is at all possible.
So I took some time to think and pray, and I knew overwhelmingly what I wanted to do. I wanted to write that spy kid book! I wanted to finish it and see what happened.
At that point, I went ALL IN!
When a writer’s conference came to town, I signed up. I just KNEW that when the agent heard about my brilliant story it would be “Move over JK Rowling, here I come!”
Yeah… God humbled me really quickly. And he used literary agent Steve Laube to do it. (Thank you, Steve!) Steve gave us all a change to pitch our stories, and taught us how to do just that. And when my chance came, I babbled on and on, unable to describe my story succinctly. Steve was very nice, but he rejected me. I went up to my hotel room that night and cried. The reality check was a brutal shock. But I realized something. I hadn’t respected my dream. My book wasn’t even done! No wonder I couldn’t describe it very well. No wonder the agent couldn’t understand what I was trying to sell. I barely understood it!
I mean, I’d been sewing clothes since I was nine. I could tell you the life stories of a dozen fashion designers. I’d gone to school for five years to prepare to work in the fashion industry. I did work in the industry, for two separate companies, and then I started my own business. I knew fashion. I had put in the time to excel in fashion. So what made me think I could take two months, write half a book, and get published?
My ego, that’s what.
But I was a tough cookie. And I really felt like this was where I was supposed to be. But believing wasn’t enough. I needed to work hard! And I couldn’t believe how much I had to learn. When I got home, I did everything Steve Laube and the other conference speakers had recommended. I finished my book. I edited it. I joined a critique group. I read all kinds of books on the writing craft. I read my competition. When I finished the book, I put it aside and wrote another book. And I saved up for Mount Hermon, a larger writer’s conference.
I also kept on writing articles. In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he’d had over 100 rejections before he sold his first piece. So I told myself that I should expect at least fifty rejections before I was allowed to freak out. And I sold my first article to Brio and Beyond Magazine in 2006 after only about ten rejections. I was a published author!
In the spring of 2007, I attended the Mount Hermon writers conference. I got my first and second requests for fulls on The New Recruit at that conference. It was pretty exciting. I took James Scott Bell’s fiction mentoring clinic, which was a wonderful experience. I also met Jeff Gerke there. He’s the fellow who taught me what genre I wrote. It was called Speculative Fiction. I was relieved to discover this because I’d been starting to worry that all the books I’d written were too random and that I didn’t have a brand–something I kept hearing throughout the conference that I needed. But Jeff cleared all that up.
I knew then that I was a young adult spec fiction writer! Whoo hoo!
Some things happened in my life over the next year. Both my submissions that I’d gotten through Mount Hermon were eventually rejected. My husband got a job in Oregon and we moved. But once I was settled in our new home, I remembered that Jeff Gerke did freelance editing. So I paid him to edit my little spy novel to find out why I kept getting rejections. I learned a ton from that edit!
I could not afford to attend Mount Hermon that year, so instead, I went to the 2008 Oregon Christian Writers Summer Coaching Conference. There weren’t a lot of editors looking for YA fiction that year. But guess what? Jeff Gerke was going to be there, representing his new company Marcher Lord Press. They weren’t publishing YA, but I submitted my manuscript to Jeff anyway, to see what he thought of my new fantasy novel, which I had tentatively titled Bloodvoices. I just wanted to glean a little Jeff Gerke wisdom, if I could.
When I got my manuscript back, Jeff wanted to meet with me. He’d written, “Why does it have to be YA?” on the feedback form.
So I met with him.
“Is it done?” he asked. “All the way done?”
“All the way,” I said.
Turns out Jeff had been looking for a fantasy novel to complete his fall 2009 releases. He liked what he read of mine so far and wanted to read the full.
So I sent Bloodvoices to Jeff and waited. Not too long after I was sitting at my computer, and Jeff sent me an email that said, “Do you happen to be by a phone right now so that I can call you?”
That email pretty much floored me. I’d been rejected enough to know that editors didn’t tend to call up an author to say no thanks. I figured Jeff wanting to talk on the phone was a good thing. I ran and told my husband to keep an eye on our daughter, then emailed Jeff back, and he called right away.
He wanted to publish my book! We talked about that a bit, and he said he’d email me the contract. I couldn’t sit still. I was so excited.
I pondered very briefly if I should submit the book to anyone else. I had always wanted to be traditionally published, and Marcher Lord Press was a brand new POD publishing house. If it had been that alone, I might have turned down the offer. But I believed in Jeff Gerke. He knew his stuff, and so I decided to sign with him, more than this new press. That turned out to be a pretty good idea.
The Published Author
I started writing in 2004. I received my first offer in the fall of 2008. I’d respected my dream, put myself through four years of “writing school,” and now I was going to have a book published.
How cool was that?
By Darkness Hid came out in April 2009. Jeff changed the title of the book, concerned that with the vampire craze, readers might be disappointed to read a book called Bloodvoices and find no vampires. By Darkness Hid won several awards, which led to my signing with an agent, which led to my publishing other books with Zondervan and Bethany House. And I’m still at it.
It helps to define your goals. Do you want to be published? Does it matter how? Do you want a traditional contract and to have your book sold in bookstores? Or do you think about self-publishing? If you don’t know, that’s okay, but it’s a good idea to think about it and figure it out. Goals are easier to work toward if you know what they are.
If writing is your dream, respect it. Learn what you need to learn. Practice. Work hard and don’t give up!
Make other writing friends. You need writing people in your life!
Learn to take constructive criticism. Also learn to know when it’s okay to disregard criticism.
Be realistic. It’s wonderful to have dreams, but you also might need to pay bills someday. So think about what else you might like to do in case you have to be bi-vocational for a while. Because after eighteen published books, I still don’t make enough money to support myself. If it wasn’t for my husband’s income, I’d have to get another job to support my writing hobby. That might seem kind of sad, but that’s what it sometimes means to have a career in the arts, hence the term “starving artist.”
Enjoy it. If writing isn’t fun, then maybe don’t force yourself to do it for a while. (Unless you have a contract, then you need to learn discipline.) Also, remember, even if you’re not getting published, you’re still creating stories, and you are improving yourself in the process. You’re investing in a wonderful skill. That in itself is a fabulous undertaking, so don’t make light of it. You’re an amazing, talented, creative person who has something to say. Keep on finding new ways to say what you must, because there are people out there who need to hear the stories that only you can tell.