Faith and Vision

I was so happy to announce The Secret Sea. As I mentioned when announcing it, the book actually sold to Feiwel & Friends nearly two years ago, but for various reasons, we had to delay announcing it until now. I am over-the-moon in love with this book and I’ve been champing at the bit to talk about it.

This book excites me for so many reasons, most of which I can’t reveal because they’re spoilers. But it’s a fun cast of kids, it’s a great age group to be dealing with, and as I said in the previous post, it’s basically the kind of story I’ve always imagined myself telling. And now I have.

It also excites me because it almost didn’t exist. And I thought I would take a moment to tell you why.

There’s a persistent myth that once an author is published, he or she will always be published. This is untrue.1 The fact of the matter is, you can publish one book — or two, or ten, or fifteen — and then never another one again. As with anything, publishing can be fickle, whimsical, arbitrary, mercurial. Publishing one book is no guarantee of publishing another.

Since the publication of my first book, I’ve had three separate books I’ve tried to publish that no one wanted to take a chance on. One of those books came very early in my career.

My second novel, Boy Toy, had just come out and the critical acclaim was terrific. My agent took my third book — a middle-grade fantasy novel — and sent it off to my editor, confident (as was I) in her immediate and enthusiastic offer of sweet, sweet cash.

Instead, she declined. Just wasn’t her cup of tea.

I can be honest about this now, years later: I was shaken. My agent immediately submitted the manuscript to five other editors.

They all turned it down, too.

Now, since you’re reading this BLog, it should be obvious to you that my career didn’t end then and there. Fortunately, I’d been working on another project (which became Hero-Type) and that one was happily snapped up. Whew!2

A friend of mine said to me, “You were rocked by that rejection because you thought you would never hear no again after you heard yes.

She was right. Like so many people, I thought getting that first book published was all that mattered, that afterwards I would publish whatever I wanted.

So. Not. True.

I tell you that so that I can tell you this:

About two years ago, a series of little notions and tidbits and thoughts that had been burbling away in the toxic acid pit of my subconscious finally burst through the surface and bobbed there, having coalesced into an actual Idea. Soon thereafter, this Idea began to take on the characteristics of a Story. I had some characters, a premise, the early kickings of a plot.

And I was excited. I didn’t know the whole story — not yet — but there was enough of it there that I was in love with it already. I didn’t want to wait to write this thing — I wanted to sell it immediately. This way, the book could be published as quickly as possible when I finished it.

Now, if you’re a new author, you pretty much need to write your whole book before someone will give you money for it. But if you’re established, you can sometimes get away with showing a publisher a taste of what’s to come — the first couple of chapters, say, and a synopsis of the rest of the book.3

Now, like I said, I didn’t have the whole story yet. But I felt like I knew enough of it. I wrote the first two chapters (they were heavy on character and atmosphere; they were also short, totaling a dozen pages) and then a synopsis. Since I hadn’t really figured out the rest of the book, though, the synopsis was long on suspense, short on actual answers. Imagine someone saying, “Here’s the most amazing story ever!” and then telling you the set-up and then saying, “I’ll tell you the rest some other time.”

Still, I thought that the premise itself was so strong, the characters so deep, the voice so clear, and my enthusiasm so bleedingly obvious on the page that everyone would overlook the fact that I hadn’t (yet) figured out, y’know, the major plot.

I showed it to my agent. She, too, was caught up in my enthusiasm.

We submitted those two chapters and the synopsis to a dozen publishers. We heard things like this:

“the plot is quite involved and has so much going on”

“there seem to be a lot of moving threads here”

“the plot is too complicated and ambitious. It isn’t clear from the sample chapter and synopsis how he would connect the two worlds”

Now, I want to make sure that you understand in no uncertain terms: I am not gainsaying or mocking or criticizing or denigrating these editors for their comments. For one thing, they are absolutely entitled to their opinions. For another, they’re not horribly wrong.

When you have a grand total of 12 pages of prose and what was, I admit, a rather lackluster synopsis, it’s tough to gamble with your employer’s money. I don’t blame a single one of these editors — or any of the others — for passing.

My answer to those concerns was — and is — I’m a professional writer. That’s how I’ll tie it all together.

But while it makes perfect sense for me to have confidence in my abilities, it’s just as understandable for editors who’ve never worked with me to have concerns. At this point in my career, I’d published some critically acclaimed books, but nothing that had blown up. I hadn’t won any awards. I hadn’t hit a bestseller list.4 I was a name and a promise and a few pages of words.

Trust me, I was saying. I know it’s not much right now, but trust me — I’ll make it awesome.

And they didn’t trust me, and I don’t blame them.

This post isn’t so much about “some people said no to me.” No, it’s really about the person who said yes. I had to tell you those nos so that you would understand why the yes is so important.

Liz Szabla read those 12 pages and that horrendously anemic synopsis and — not to put words in her mouth — she probably had somewhat similar reservations. She was probably concerned with the complexity and ambition of it all. How would Lyga make all of this work? Did he have the ability to pull it off?

Good questions. Fair questions. And, when spending money, necessary questions.

The only difference between Liz and those other editors is that Liz decided to trust me. She sussed out my vision from that submission package and even though there was much (so much!) that she couldn’t see or divine from it, she decided that the vision was worthy and worthwhile. I met with Liz before she officially made an offer on The Secret Sea, and we discussed the book. I admitted that it was — obviously — very much a work in progress. I suspected that the book would be long, I told her, and quite possibly very dark.

“Just tell your story,” Liz said.

And that, truly, is what this particular BLog post is about. Authors out there who just read the words “Just tell your story” may have gotten a bit misty-eyed. These are the words we long to hear.5 Because they communicate to us that the person saying them understands our vision. Or, if not understands it, at least has faith in it. Or faith in us.

This business is a business of people and relationships, someone told me once. And it’s true. I have been fortunate to work with some wonderful editors in my career thus far. Each one had a different style and different expectations, but they all had this in common: For the book in question, they had faith and they had vision. (In some cases, I had to remind them that they had faith! I told one editor who was leery about something in one of my books, “Look, you once said that you believed that I handled tough subjects gracefully. Trust me that I’m doing that here.” She agreed.) They had faith in me as an author and they had the vision to see that while we didn’t have a map, we would still get somewhere worth going.

“Just tell your story.”

Liz could see what the others couldn’t. And that is absolutely not a slam on them or their judgement. They just couldn’t see it. As I said before: I don’t blame them. I didn’t put my best foot forward and the price of that was a lot of rejections before I luckily stumbled on the editor who could see what was in my head.6

So, thank you, Liz. For imagining the gold covered over with all of the silt and mud. For believing in me. For believing in the story. For saying, “Just tell your story.”7

And thank you, Margaret. And David and Greg and Jody. And Alvina. I got here because of you guys, and there are so, so many other places to go.

  1. I’ve written about my concerns about this fact here.
  2. Whatever happened to that other project? In retrospect, it wasn’t ready for prime time yet. I still love it and still go back to it every now and then. Someday it’ll be ready.
  3. This is how I sold Archvillain and Mangaman, as well as I Hunt Killers.
  4. With the sort of poetry that only happens in real life and is mocked in fiction, I hit the New York Times bestseller list literally the day we sold The Secret Sea.
  5. Along with “Six-figure advance.”
  6. Here my agent clears her throat and says, “Luckily??? I hand-picked Liz!” Which is true!
  7. And I did. And it’s long. And it’s quite dark after all…

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