Honesty, Perseverance, & How Book 5 Became My Debut

I started writing seriously in the middle of the night.

It was the summer of 2011, and I'd just graduated from college with a journalism degree. I'd landed my first full-time job as the producer of a morning news radio show. The show started at 5 a.m., and I had to be at the station at 2 a.m. For a couple hours, I was the only person in the newsroom, which meant I fielded more than a few creepy calls from people who like to call radio stations late at night. 

So I played loud music and composed long emails to myself (I shared a computer with the other producers and didn't dare save anything personal on it) - scenes of what would become my first finished novel. 

I've always yearned to tell stories: as a kid writing strangely morbid books on stapled-together construction paper, as a teen writing song lyrics, as a college journalism student. It hadn't actually occurred to me until the summer after college to try to get something published, though I knew my odds of success were probably slimmer than a paper cut. That's why I view that time as when I "got serious" about writing - it's when I started writing with the goal of publication.

I worked on that first book for about a year, though I didn't really know how to decide that I was "done."  I joined a critique group I found on Meetup, and every cell in my introvert body protested as I submitted two chapters of my book and braced myself for feedback. 

They didn't hate it. I didn't exactly know how to classify the book - women's fiction, or maybe new adult, though that didn't exist yet - but one group member told me my voice felt very YA. That sparked something in me. I hadn't read YA since my early teen years, when I devoured Meg Cabot and Laurie Halse Anderson and Margaret Peterson Haddix. So I decided to catch up on what I'd missed since then - and oh my god, I fell in love. What I related to most was this ache, this longing that so many books had. A longing to be loved, to fit in, to achieve something, to discover who you really are. I like to think all my books have a strong sense of longing - it's my absolute favorite emotion to write. It's so painful and beautiful, and it's something many of us feel deep in our bones.

After incorporating some feedback from my critique group and obsessively reading Query Shark, I decided to start querying Book 1. I sent around 30 queries and received only one partial request. I felt pretty strongly that YA was what I wanted to be writing, though, so I shelved Book 1, which I now refer to as my "practice book," and moved on.

Book 2 was a YA about an all-girl band, loosely based on my experience in a band in high school. It had four POVs, and I  had no idea how to structure it. I hired a freelance editor, who pointed out to me that my writing was mainly telling instead of showing. This was hard to swallow at first, especially because, growing up, teachers had always told me I was "a good writer." But I could get better. I wanted to get better, to learn, to push myself. I revised Book 2 some more. I entered it in contests and sent more than 120 queries. I had about a 10 percent request rate, and a few of those requests turned into R&R's that were ultimately rejected. But something great had happened while I was querying that book - I leaped into the writing community on Twitter, and I connected with friends and CPs I'm still close with. 

While I was querying Book 2, I drafted Book 3, a YA contemporary about a girl with Tourette's syndrome and small-town political scandal. I sent 10 queries to start and received a couple full requests right away, which made me feel INCREDIBLE. I'd never gotten that many responses so quickly! One agent replied back with an R&R a few days after I sent her the full, and after we talked on the phone and exchanged a few emails about how to change the direction of the book, I revised it. She offered representation in June of 2013. 

No matter how many times you hear that "your first book probably won't sell," you think you'll be the exception. Book 3 was on submission for a year, and it didn't sell. And the only thing I could do at that point, since this was now something I knew I wanted more than I'd ever wanted anything, was write another book. 

While on submission with Book 3, I wrote Book 4, a tragic story about a roller derby girl with PTSD. I was in a dark place emotionally, and that made its way onto the page. I revised and revised and revised while rejections on Book 3 trickled in. 

Since I was young, I've struggled with depression, anxiety, and OCD. A lot of that has gone into my books, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. I've tried medication and therapy and have finally found a combination of both that's put me in a good place, but it took a long time to get there.

While writing is an incredible outlet, the rejection takes a toll. The waiting takes a toll. The best thing I can recommend if you're struggling with something similar: have another outlet besides writing. For me, that's dance. Several nights a week, I can completely clear my mind and focus on the movement and the music. I'm not fantastic at it, but I love it.

Still...I had moments of hopelessness. Haven't we all? You will never get published, my mind told me, and I started to believe it. I started to believe that all the "just didn't connect with it" rejections meant there was something wrong with my writing I might never know how to fix. 

Book 4 went on submission in spring of 2014, and I started working on Book 5. It was without a doubt the toughest thing I'd ever written, but I loved the characters. While I was drafting Book 5, Book 4 received a vague R&R from an editor. I switched gears and started working on that, but I'd forgotten how dark the book was. While most of my writing is dark-adjacent, some of it was so personally upsetting that I was having trouble even opening the document. So after Book 4 had been on sub for six months, and without completing the R&R, I asked my agent to pull the remaining submissions. I felt so much more strongly about Book 5, and I wanted to devote all my energy to it. And wow, did it require a lot of energy.

I rewrote the book from scratch twice because I couldn't get the voices right. Couldn't get the pacing right. Couldn't get the ending right. I'd never rewritten anything from a blank page before. It was daunting and exhilarating. My CPs loved it, and my agent and I revised it a couple times before going on sub with it in summer of 2015. It only went out to a handful of editors, and when my agent and I had differing visions for it, I decided it would be best if we parted ways. The split was amicable.

The book had only been seen by a few editors, and it hadn't been queried. Some friends who'd recently left agents found new ones within weeks. That...was not the case. Fortunately, I happened to know a lot of other writers querying for the second or third time, and their support was amazing. There are people I texted and IMed and DMed with every small victory. It's so, so important to have people who will celebrate those little victories with you. 

I set my first queries in October of 2015, and in March of this year, after I'd sent about 80 queries with a 1/3 request rate, I accepted an offer from Laura Bradford. We did one revision before going on sub with Book 5, now titled FINGERS CROSSED (though that is going to change), in early April, and in late May (we accepted the offer a few minutes before the Memorial Day holiday weekend!), this happened:

I cried a lot. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it. I cannot wait to hold this book in my hands (pet it, hug it) and see others' responses to it. People talk about the book of your heart, and this one absolutely is mine. I put everything in it that I love and wanted to see more of in YA: ambitious girls with sharp edges, flawed characters confronting guilt and mortality, practicing Jews, which I rarely saw in books when I was growing up. Romance is a big part of the book too; there's both a doomed forbidden romance and a sweet first love. 

The two sisters each hold a piece of my soul. Tovah is, in many ways, similar to who I was in high school. Adina is everything I was too scared to be in high school. She's all the thoughts I had but never acted on.

Here's a collage I made to give you a better idea of what it's about:

You can also add it on Goodreads.

Another exciting thing is that Simon Pulse also acquired the book I drafted while querying Book 5! It's about a girl who donates a kidney to her guy best friend. She's been in love with him for a while and now thinks because she's made this tremendous sacrifice, he owes her to be in love, too. But now that he's healthy, he's experiencing many aspects of life for the first time, including falling for a guy, which is thrilling and confusing. It's tentatively titled A YEAR OF BAD IDEAS, and it's due out in 2019. You can add it on Goodreads, too!

Now it's time for the Oscars speech. Thank you to my incredible agent, Laura Bradford, who made me feel so comfortable with her during our very first call, who I've already learned so much from, who is a wonderful advocate. My editor at Simon Pulse, Jennifer Ung - her excitement (and the whole Pulse team's excitement) for this book has made me teary more than a couple times.

I owe a hundred thank-yous to this book's many readers in all its many iterations. Thank you to my dear friend Rachel Simon, a talented, selfless individual with whom I have a bizarre amount of things in common, including our names. You are such an unwavering champion of my work and of so many others' work. Thank you Paula Garner, Natalie Williamson, Natalie Blitt, J.C. Davis, Jeanmarie Anaya, Nikki Roberti, Tracy Gold, Maya Prasad, Richelle Morgan, Jamee Kuehler. And an enormous thank-you to Jen Hawkins. Jen, had it not been for your insistence that this story needed to be heard, I may have given up on this book. Also thank you to wonderfully supportive writer pals Helene Dunbar, Joy McCullough-Carranza, Kit Frick, Sarah Glenn Marsh, Heather Ezell, Tabitha Martin, Rachel Griffin, Megan Lally, and the entire Pitch Wars mentor group. 

If you've read to the end of this, or if you just skimmed all the way down - if getting published is what you want more than anything in the world, DO NOT GIVE UP. Keep writing. Keep reading. Take a risk. Write something new. Write something that scares you. 

Keep writing. Keep writing. 

There is someone out there who needs to read that story.