Guest Author Heather Demetrios: My Publishing Journey
Trying to get your first book published is a marathon, not a dash. I’m not a runner, so the running metaphor stops there, but it’s an apt one to keep in mind as you begin the publishing journey. It isn’t luck, although what’s happening in the market can certainly effect whether or not your book is acquired or the details of your deal. The fact of the matter is that if you write a story readers can’t put down, a story that connects with them emotionally, gives their imagination a workout and — bonus — challenges them in some way, then somebody is going to buy your book. I think new or unpublished writers spend far too much time worrying about trends. This is something you should be aware of, especially in YA, but it shouldn’t ultimately determine what you choose to write, assuming, of course, that you’re writing the story your heart is begging you to put down on paper. Any other story is for the birds.
When I found out that Something Real sold, I felt a little like this:
There’s a line in I’ll Meet You There that pretty much sums it up for me: Getting what you’ve always wanted, after wanting it for so long that the wanting was imprinted on your very being — it was too much.
It was pretty surreal, knowing that after all those years of dreaming that I’d have a real book with my name printed on the front, sitting on a shelf in bookstores around the country, it was actually going to happen. But here’s a little secret I’ll let you in on: I always knew it would. I had no doubt I’d have a book published someday, if only because I refused to give up. I didn’t know when it would happen, or how, though. The uncertainty of those two factors kept me up many a night. Despite loads of rejection, I never lost hope. I was lucky in that I have a supportive spouse and was able to work part-time for those six years of really serious commitment to craft and publication. I needed every one of those minutes to get better, to learn more. In the year before Something Real sold, I also joined an amazing writer’s group that pushed me in all kinds of wonderful ways.
Every publishing journey is different. Mine seriously began in South Korea, when I was an ESL teacher. Blogging about my experiences there led to my first foray into fiction as an adult. Though I’d written fiction in my childhood, I took a long break from it to pursue my love of the theatre. Korea and all the travels I took around that time unlocked the storyteller in me. By the end of my year there, I’d begun work on a middle-grade novel, deciding I’d write for kids, since that was what had prompted my own love of reading. I was also in the middle of the seventh Harry Potter book, which came out while I was in Korea. I wanted to give my readers the same feeling of wonder J.K. Rowling gave to me. I felt like those books reawakened my love of reading and opened up a whole new world of literature for me.
For the next six years, I traveled, wrote, started a theater company, and began two grad school programs in children’s lit, one of which I finished (I now have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts). I switched from middle grade to YA, joined SCBWI, and read every craft book I could get my hands on.
Five years in, I took the writing class that would change my life. I don’t know what it was about this particular class, other than that it was the first formal writing class I’d ever taken. Maybe I was just ready and the environment gave me the push I needed. At any rate, I started work on Something Real in September of 2011 and by June 2012 it had won the PEN New England Discovery Award and sold in a two-book deal to Macmillan. (Incidentally, it was also in this class that a writing prompt led to me writing Exquisite Captive).
I remember when I started working on the first scenes in Something Real for my class, that feeling that I’d finally hit on “the one.” It wasn’t unlike realizing the same thing about my husband. I just had this feeling — this was it. And it was. I think the major reason Something Real worked for me was that it was mine. I wasn’t trying to emulate any other stories or authors and I was finally at a place with craft that I was able to tell a story and tell it well. You should also know that I had two full novels in a drawer by this point — a middle grade and YA fantasy that would never see the light of day. Neither of these was a waste of time. They allowed me to develop my own process, to learn where the gaps in my ability and knowledge were. Both of those books taught me how to write a novel and let me know I could do it.
One other thing happened before Something Real sold: I had an editorial internship at Candlewick Press. My time there gave me priceless insight into the business of publishing and the editorial process. It afforded me valuable connections, yes, but more importantly, it gave me a sense of ownership in my own work. I felt like I knew my craft and my industry, that I was prepared for the arena of publication. It gave me an eye for good stories and honed my personal aesthetic. I know internships like these are hard to come by, but if you do have an opportunity, I can’t recommend it enough.
Marathons, I imagine, are exhausting. The marathon of getting published is no exception. Just like a runner, you have to train: read as much as you can, write every day, and push yourself harder than you ever have before. Looking back, I’m almost grateful for the rejection and the struggle because it made arriving at the end that much sweeter. This is the thing about marathon runners, though — they never run just one, do they?