People rarely consider the connection between living in poverty and living with chronic illness, but without the ability to work full time it's nearly impossible to support yourself. My financial situation stabilized once I was approved for Federal Disability—a process that took five years—but "stable" doesn't mean you aren't still living below the poverty line. At the start of 2013 I set myself an asinine goal: I wanted to work my way off of Federal Disability and become financially independent by becoming a published author. My inspiration for this was J.K. Rowling—who had once been a writer on welfare, before Harry Potter became a phenomenon. But I knew the odds weren't good, and pursuing a career as a novelist often inspires the advice "don't quit your day job."
I came to writing novels after spending 20+ years dreaming of being an independent filmmaker. I wrote a ton of screenplays, but in 2012 I had to face a very difficult truth: I was no longer well enough to take my filmmaking dreams into the real world, where making a film—being on set—required long, arduous days. It was a blow to my entire identity, both that I was never going to be a Palme d'Or winning director (yes, I had lofty goals), and that my health, truly, impacted my day-to-day functioning (yes, I had been in denial). After decades with Crohn's disease—and the removal of key portions of my digestive system—my body and stamina just weren't what they used to be.
I started off writing Young Adult novels—four of them, fantasy and sci-fi type things. And then I had a revelation. I took a long, hard look at what I liked to read, and realized I was writing the wrong books—the wrong types, and for the wrong age. I didn't regret switching gears though: I felt like my learning curve had been pretty slow, and I needed to write several books to learn how to write a novel (which is exceedingly more complex than a screenplay). When I started writing adult novels, I revisited some of the concepts I had used in the scripts I'd wanted to direct, as a few of them were pretty good, and I didn't want to squander those ideas if I could repurpose/re-imagine them.
Right after I finished writing BABY TEETH, my sixth novel, I submitted it into Pitch Wars—a contest run by Brenda Drake where writers seek the opportunity to work with a mentor. This was my third year/third book I entered in the contest, and I was so fortunate that Margarita Montimore selected my manuscript. Under her guidance, I embarked on an intense two-month revision period. I'm not going to lie, it was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, but I'd entered Pitch Wars to learn how to do better revisions, and to experience what a professional writing career might be like. I got everything I'd hoped for out of the contest, though my confidence wavered for a while. I started to question if I had what it took to make it in the publishing industry, and considered the possibility of simplifying my life by going back to my roots, poetry.
Afterward, in spite of getting a lot of requests during the Agent Round of the contest, I was back in the query trenches. When you're in those trenches, the walls can seem insurmountable. You keep sending your stuff out, sending your stuff out, hoping someone "gets" your work and loves it enough to champion your career. Between mid-2013 and January 2017 I sent over 300 queries (for several different books), although most of my actual manuscript requests started with Twitter pitch contests (and then the Agent Round of Pitch Wars). But ultimately, I got my agent from a query letter.
Sarah Bedingfield of Levine Greenberg Rostan requested my full manuscript two days after I queried her. Eight days after that, she asked if we could talk on the phone. Now, writers are always eager to have The Call—that magical phone chat where you know your query trench days are behind you. But I'm kind of a skeptical person. Pretty much I'm always waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. So when she said in her email that she wanted to discuss "editorial ideas" I took the cautious approach: maybe this would be a Revise & Resubmit call. I prepared for it to be both A Call and THE CALL, and spent the weekend praying that I'd love her suggestions for my book.
I knew during that phone conversation that I wanted Sarah to be my agent. It was extremely important to me that her suggestions resonate, and her ideas were simple and impactful—I was smacking myself that I hadn't thought of those details myself! In this business, getting notes from people is commonplace, but getting notes that make you shout out "Aha!" with a big smile on your face are rare. However, it's standard protocol to alert the other agents whom I'd queried/sent my manuscript, to let them know about the offer I'd received and give them time to offer/decline. So I couldn't accept Sarah's offer on the spot.
|Happy me, signing the agency agreement|
It was very humbling, after years of no offers, to end up with more than one. And it was even stranger to find myself composing a "rejection" email to an agent! On February 6th, 2017 I formally accepted Sarah's offer, and on February 9th I signed the agency agreement. After completing the small revisions we'd first discussed, she sent me a few line edits. And in a very short time, BABY TEETH was ready to go on submission to editors.
Over March 8th-9th, Sarah submitted my book to thirty-three editors. On March 15th, we received a six-figure, pre-emptive offer from Jennifer Weis at St. Martin's Press. I drew a green maze on the 3/15 square in my calendar… That is the day my life changed. I trembled as Sarah gave me the news over the phone, and fought tears as I explained to her what this means to me—to actually succeed at this insane dream of working my way off of Disability and out of poverty. It was the most surreal day of my life.
On March 16th I spoke with Jennifer for the first time, and I was so thrilled with her enthusiasm and vision for my book. I had spent four years trying to educate myself about the publishing industry, so I wouldn't make the mistakes I'd made pursuing film, and I understood it was standard procedure to make revisions. But, to my surprise, no major edits were deemed necessary—and after so many years of writing, I feel like I've finally done something "right." Jennifer, Sarah, and I are starting to brainstorm some ideas for giving the ending more "oomph," and I can't wait for people to read What Happens! If all continues to go well—I still can't quite drop my long habit of expecting the other shoe to drop—my book will be available to the world in spring/summer 2018.
I do not expect to be the next J.K. Rowling; I'm perfectly happy to simply—and finally—be able to share my work with people in a meaningful way. My first "treat" to myself after finding out about my book sale was to schedule a hair appointment (which was something I've been struggling to regularly afford), and then a dentist appointment (and finally sort out the difficulties I've been having, an expensive proposition without dental coverage). My next move will be an actual move—I'm heading back "home" to Pittsburgh this summer. I hadn't planned on staying in Rochester, NY this long, but New York had more to offer in the way of healthcare for the working poor, and the cost of living in this part of the state is lower than the 'burgh. After I relocate, I plan to cross off something that's been high on my bucket list: I'm going to buy a damn sofa!
I am incredibly grateful to Sarah and the vision she's had for my book, and glad she has such a great agency behind her. And I also can't thank Jennifer enough, and the whole team at St. Martin's Press who are working to bring BABY TEETH into the world. Sometimes just thinking about what's happening now—and going to happen soon—makes me a little nervous, a little stressed. It's all very exciting, but we're talking about some big life changes here. It seems like a miracle that after thirty years of submitting my work—poetry, stage plays, short stories, screenplays, novels—everything basically changed in the span of a few hours. So when I find myself getting anxious I do the thing that always grounds me, that always makes me feel good: I sit down and write.