Is the Hunt for Publication Already Over?

Over that past month I’ve been submitting The Other Side of Fear like crazy, and I think I might be done. I’ve sent either a query, sample chapters, or the full manuscript (or some combination of all three) out to 17 literary agents and 2 publishing houses. I’ve heard back from two agents so far. Both rejected the book, though one of them did forgo the traditional form letter to send me a nice, brief personal note about how much she admires the project but doesn’t feel she’s a good fit for it. Fair enough.

That doesn’t answer the question implied in the first sentence of this blog. Namely, why am considering quitting the hunt? I’ll get to that.

If you’re like me 11 years ago, you stumbled on that word “query” above. It’s short for “query letter,” and it’s the most basic document an author sends out when submitting. It’s a pitch, both of your book and, a little bit, yourself. It’s maybe the most difficult three or four paragraphs an author will ever write because it has to do so much in such a small amount of space. Agents and publishers receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of query letters every year, and there’s lots of ways to do them incorrectly. You both want to follow the expected format and convey the right information, and also stand out from the pack. It’s not easy. It really is a horrible piece of writing I loathe and hope to never write again.

When I first started this process, it was helpful to me to see what other authors had written as their query letters. In the spirt of that, here’s what I’ve been sending out (though I will modify it here and there, depending on who I’m sending it to):

 

Dear Mr. Agentman,

After my father is shot twelve times in an armed robbery and survives, I begin a journey of self-discovery and questioning of my faith that brings an unwanted, angry tension to our relationship. Eight years later, Dad is brutally gunned down again—this time with fatal results—and my world goes spinning.

There’s only one word to describe your dad getting shot a dozen times: cool. I was twelve. The cost of terrible violence was more than just unknown to me—it was negligible. I never doubted Dad would live. He could put footballs into orbit, just like Superman. Only good things came from the shooting: my sixth grade popularity profile went way up and, bonus, my family got on national television. William Shatner said Dad’s name! That was the peak. The comedown was finding out Dad was human after all—fallible. He saw the world simply. Matters of faith were matters of fact to him. It frustrated us both that I so desperately sought a deeper, seemingly elusive understanding of things. Then, when I was nineteen, Dad was killed in another shooting and I started an investigation into who he really was and what he was all about. I’ve never been as distraught or learned so much in such a short period of time as I did during the week that followed.

My book, THE OTHER SIDE OF FEAR: A COMING-OF-AGE STORY BETWEEN TWO SHOOTINGS, is an uplifting personal memoir about forgiveness, the challenges of faith, and how losing a parent can, in fact, be a very good thing.

If you are interested, I’d love to send you the completed 88,000 word manuscript. I’m a former Art Director, the writer and illustrator of the YA novel “Paper Bag Mask”, the creator of the comic “The SuperFogeys”, and the award-winning filmmaker behind the short film “The Shift”, now streaming at VidAngel.com. I live with my wife and three daughters in California. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Brock Heasley

 

It’s not terrible, is it? It doesn’t seem like much now, but man did a lot of work and revision go into it. And every time I hit “send” on an email and put it out into the digital ether? A heart-stopping moment. Every time. (That’s also about when I would second guess literally every single word in the email, but let’s not get into those neurotic weeds.)

I would be very happy to never send that letter again, and the thing is…I kind of think I’m never going to. Because, yesterday, I got another email back from one of the people I’d submitted to. It was a brief email. I knew immediately it was another rejection. The brief ones always are, and I’ve gotten so many I’m just numb to them. I feel no anticipation whatsoever, no thought at all that the letter back with be anything other than a rejection, so what’s to get worked up about?

Like I said, it was a short letter.

But (and you’re ahead of me here by this point), it wasn’t a rejection at all. It was an offer of publication. One of the two publishing houses I’d submitted to got back to me and they “love” the book and would like to publish it. It was that simple. A short email, giving me one of the greatest bits of news I’d heard in quite some time.

I spent a year getting to this point the last time I shopped this book, all those years ago. This time, it only took a month. I didn’t see that coming.

Now, there is a big difference between this time and last time. Normally, publishing houses are not places authors have access to. You need an agent to even approach the larger publishers, but for smaller and more niche publishers you just need a great, marketable story. The two houses I submitted to were chosen carefully. Both of them cater to the exact audience I think would really come out and support this book, and both of them have a long history of success.

The one who wants to publish the book? The very first submission I made this year.

I’m purposefully not telling you the name of the publisher. You might know it, you might not, but I’ll only feel comfortable sharing it once the dotted line is signed. There’s still a lot to figure out. There is the matter of what the contract looks like, of course, but also all those agents and the other publishing house I haven’t heard back from. It is customary to give notice of an offer to give everyone a chance to put the submission on the top of the pile and determine whether they’d like to pursue it or not. After a short period, I’ll close the window and make a decision.

In the meantime, I’m excited to talk to the interested publisher and find out more about what they see for The Other Side of Fear and what our agreement looks like. That’s the next step for them. The next step for everyone else is just to wait and see what happens.

But, barring some massive issue I don’t see coming, The Other Side of Fear will be published. How about that?

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

How We Did Prom While in Quarantine

I just had to share this. Thanks to COVID-19 and sheltering, my daughter’s Prom was cancelled along with every other Senior’s Prom in the country. Sensing a need, John Krasinski, through the power of his excellent new YouTube show, Some Good News, provided a virtual Prom with performers like Billie Eilish and the Jonas Brothers. It was pretty freakin’ fantastic.

Here’s a little video I put together of what the experience looked like in our house. (And credit where it’s due: my wife is pretty much responsible for all of this. I hung the lights. That’s it.)

What’s not included in that video is the 2 hours of dancing we did after the show was over. We just didn’t want the night to end.

Huge thanks to our friend Megan who made the corsage at a moment’s notice with whatever she could find around the house and some succulents from our friend Kristie’s yard, and to Katie, Elora’s friend, who lent her the dress (and then just gave it to her when she saw how well it fit)!

The next day, Krasinski put some clips from our experience into Some Good News Episode 4! We show up at 16:15 and 17:53. It was an honor to be included. This show is putting some real positivity out into the world, proving that good news can be incredibly entertaining.

It was an awesome night and far, far more memorable than any traditional Prom would have been. We’ll never forget it.

(Also, given the millions of people who witnessed it, I think this means my daughter has officially been crowned the Prom Queen of the World.)

 

The Hunt for Publication

It takes a certain kind of guts to dive into waters full of teeth-baring sharks with a taste for blood. To dive back in for a second time after you’ve already been chewed up and spit out? Well, that’s just  masochism. You probably don’t have me figured for a masochist, but I do love to prove people wrong.

I’ve written about this before, but to recap: I full-on signed with a pretty terrific literary agent to represent Raised by a Dead Man, got the book in front of the very best editors at the very best publishing houses, and got so, so rejected.

Okay, I exaggerate. A little. I got some really lovely notes from some of those editors, a few of them even speaking with some passion for the story and the way I’d written it, noting things like the balance between humor and seriousness, the honest take on faith, and the self-deprecating voice. To have the book understood and appreciated at that level was its own reward, for sure. The negatives leveled against it had mostly to do with trying to figure out how to place the book within the marketplace, and the quality of writing being not quite what it should be.*

*This was all eight years ago. Having now given the book a full rewrite as a better and more experienced writer, I have to say I kind of get the criticisms about the writing. It wasn’t quite there.

So, to try again–to really start over at square one since my literary agent has long since moved on–is a daunting, punishing task. And I’m honestly just sidestepping the emotion of it all this time around. I have, as they say, become acquainted with grief.  Rejection and I are old friends by now. He stops by now and again, I let him in, he sits on my couch and downs a cold root beer, and then I see him on his way and promise my wife I’ll never let him in again. But, of course, I do.

Thankfully, I have my wife’s encouragement this time. She’s never stopped believing in this book, even when I did. If angels are real (and they totally are), they should take lessons from her. She’s a college professor; I bet it would be a pretty good class.

So, the hunt for publication has begun once again. The way it works is, you send out what are called “query” letters to potential agents, along with sample chapters and whatever else their guidelines ask for. The letter is designed to interest them in you and your book and make you both sound like the hottest thing since sliced bread was a hot new thing. (Egyptian times? I dunno.) It’s a piece of advertising, really, written by the author, i.e. a person who isn’t used to writing that sort of self-aggrandizing thing. Thankfully, I’ve gotten more comfortable with that part of the job in the intervening years.

I’m a little older, a little wiser this time around. For all the rejection I’ve received over my creative life, I’ve also experienced the incredible highs of acceptance. Some that are well known, some I can’t talk about yet. I pretty much roll with it either way and keep my expectations in check at this point. It’s healthier that way. I know that not trying is the only actual failure, and trying only to have failed is a step in the right direction (though maybe not towards the destination you thought you were heading).

As of this writing, The Other Side of Fear has been submitted to 7 new literary agents and has already received its first rejection! That deserves an exclamation point, believe me. Rejection is inevitable, and the first one means things are moving again. I’m excited.

I’ve also submitted the book to two smaller publishers. That’s a change from what I did eight years ago. Back then, I shot for the moon and only the moon. I still would like to hit the moon, but I don’t see failure in reaching the lower atmosphere anymore. I think TOSOF (as I needfully acronym it whenever I can) could find a good home at a smaller publisher. Or, at least, I want to be open that.

That’s what this is really about to me: being open to what the book needs to do and be. Because, years ago, I thought I knew. I thought I knew for sure. And I was wrong. But there’s one thing I’m still sure about: this books needs to exist and it needs to be out there.

I got an email on Sunday from Jean-David, a man in France I do not know who stumbled upon my comics a few weeks ago and then from there found the book chapters on this blog. He read them quickly, and then wrote me. Here’s part of what he said (quoted with permission):

I had read like the first three parts and was finding them beautifully written, with an earnest power of conviction and a show of faith that felt sincere yet non-ostentatious… I wanted to read this book to the end… [The rest of the book] lived up to the beginning. Again, it’s beautifully written, brave and bold but not overbearing, honest and true; it knows what to tell and how to tell it.

Jean-David then went on to tell me about a personal experience he’d had with losing some close friends, how reading the book helped him process some of the difficult thoughts and feelings he’s been dealing with ever since, and that the widow left behind by one of his friends happens to be able to read English. He asked my permission to share the book with her. Which I, of course, granted.

And that is why I’m trying again. Because I think there’s not only room in the world for a book like this, but there’s an actual need for it. I didn’t make up this story, it was given to me. And I feel a sense of responsibility about that. Jean-David is not alone in reinforcing that responsibility. There have been other, more private messages. People who have connected profoundly with my dad (and, I guess, me) and his story of simple faith, forgiveness, and steadfastness in times of trial.

One of the reasons this book failed to find publication the first time around is because it straddles the line between being a book for the faith crowd and being a book that can also appeal to the Barnes & Noble crowd. You’d think that would be a plus, but it turned out it wasn’t. The list of books put out by a publishing house is largely determined by what the marketing team thinks can sell, not by what an editor or publisher with vision wants to put out. Raised by a Dead Man occupied some nether space between audiences, so they didn’t know what do with it. With the rewrite and renaming to The Other Side of Fear*, I have admittedly tried to offer a bit of a corrective. Is it enough? I don’t know. I suppose I will find out.

*When I first wrote the book, I actually called it Bullets and M&M’s. Then, since no one liked that title, I changed it to Raised by a Dead Man. No one liked that title either, but by then they felt too sorry for me to say so. (Jerks.) For a little while, I called it A Suspicious Peace, but that was a title you literally have to couple with a yawn to get through, so it died a quick death. The book is now called The Other Side of Fear and consensus, finally, seems to be on my side. In total, that’s a 15 year journey. Maybe it was all for finally settling on the proper title so it can be properly appealing. Pretty long away around if you ask me.

Maybe you’d like to find out with me. I think I’d like to make this a more open process than I did the last time around. I want to write about the highs and lows of the road to publication for what I’m hoping will be my third book.* Some things I will not be able to share (like the specific responses of agents and editors) out of a sense of propriety on my part, but where I can or have permission (like with Jean-David), I will.

*My first other books are a YA novel called Paper Bag Mask and SuperFogeys Vol. 1: Inaction Heroes, a graphic novel. The stories of how those came about you can find elsewhere.

It’s a heckuva process. It took me a full year to secure a literary agent for Raised By a Dead Man. Will The Other Side of Fear take as long? Gosh, I hope not, but I’ve also made peace with the idea it may not find an agent at all. I figure that’s a much healthier place to be in, right? Let’s see how this goes, together.

Photo by Laura College on Unsplash