Can You Get Here From There?

My path to Publication

by Roberta A. Isleib, Ph.D.

I'm a Ph.D. clinical psychologist who has spent more years in school than I care to admit. Plus I have a typical New England obsessive and guilty work ethic. So when I took up golf about ten years ago, I grew horrified with the amount of time I was spending learning to play the game. Not to mention the time spent out on the course hitting lousy shot after lousy shot. There had to be a way to justify the hours invested…

My creative and maybe even logical solution turned out to be writing articles on golf psychology. Through dint of dogged perseverance, I managed to have a few of them published: "Choosing the Right Golf Pro" in National Golfer, "Raise Your Competition IQ" in Golf for Women, and "Unscrambling the Scramble" in Tee Time. Not exactly a career's worth, but a beginning.

Then, a couple of years ago, I complained to a friend about spending more time sending out query letters than actually writing. She suggested combining my experience in psychology with my love for golf and mysteries. So I hatched the idea of writing a mystery about a woman caddie on the PGA tour and her pal, a sports psychologist. With Tiger Woods mania incinerating the PGA Tour, I was sure the story idea would be a natural. Besides, this was fun! Any time I spent on the golf course or attending tournaments or even reading golf magazines was, you guessed it, research.

After an agonizing year of writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, I felt I was ready to look for an agent. I knew there was no magic formula for this subject-so again I turned to the process I knew best-research.

I studied Elizabeth Lyon's The Sell Your Novel Toolkit and Jeff Herman's Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. And I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and Sheree Bykofsky's Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published, and Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages, and more. I made huge charts of agents who had interests like mine (mystery, sports, psychology), or who had some feature in their personal background that made me think we might connect, or who had sold books with some similarity to mine. I attended mystery conventions (Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, and Left Coast Crime) and talked with people there about the process. I attended the International Women's Writers Guild "Meet the Agents" forum in New York City (http://www.iwwg.com). I groveled in front of everyone I even remotely knew connected with the publishing business. And I suffered through multiple rejections and shouldered gamely forward, my skin toughening by the hour. Finally, I hired an independent editor to give me fairly inexpensive but useful feedback on my manuscript. When I'd finished my rewrites, she directed me to several agents.

Around the same time, I dragged myself into New York City for a second round of the IWWG's "Meet the Agents" hysteria. One hundred and fifty wannabe writers crowded the hall to hear nine agents speak about their areas of interest. Then, as Hannelore Hahn, president of IWWG, put it, we "rushed like wolves" to the front of the room, and lined up to give our two minute pitches to the agent we felt most closely matched our interests. The agent I chose asked for a three-week exclusive look at my manuscript. I sent it off, working to keep my expectations low. Two weeks later she called with the news that a second agent had seen the manuscript on her desk, read it, and wanted to represent me. Hurray!

Next came the agony of my agent passing the manuscript around to various editors and receiving polite rejections. After about six months of this, an editor at the Berkley Prime Crime imprint of Penguin Putnam expressed interest in my idea and my character-with a caveat. They wanted my character to start out as a golfer, not a caddie. At home, I kicked and screamed and said "no way!" On the phone, I argued politely and persuasively. But the editorial board felt that a series featuring a prime time player would sell better than if the character was in a supporting role-it was their way or no way. So, like Kenny Rogers, I knew when to fold 'em…and Cassie Burdette goes to the LPGA qualifying school in my first mystery, SIX STROKES UNDER. I used many of the same characters from my first book, but moved the story further along in Cassie's life than I had intended. I've found that I've been able to use some of the material from the first book later in the series and it's been helpful to have that backstory in my head as I write.
To wrap this ramble up, here's my advice on getting published…

First, finish the book and make sure it's your best effort. Take classes, join a critique group, read the kind of books you are interested in writing, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Try to accept constructive criticism-wherever you find it.

Second, craft an irresistible query letter. Elizabeth's Lyon's book The Sell-Your-Novel-Toolkit helps you assess your manuscript's readiness to meet the world and shape a professional and compelling query letter. Then make a list of target agents. Jeff Herman's Writers Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents is a good place to start. Herman interviews agents in detail about their backgrounds, interests, hobbies, the authors they represent, and books they've sold. Slant your query letter using this information. Send exactly what they ask for and don't forget your self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE.) Agents receive an overwhelming volume of mail. A sloppy letter or disregard of their guidelines may be all it takes to land your hopes in the circular file.

Third, network! Attend conferences, conventions, and classes in your field of interest. You could make a connection that will elevate you to the top of somebody's to-be-read pile. And you'll have fun along the way.

Fourth, develop a tough yet permeable skin, and PERSIST. Most agents don't have the time or interest to comment constructively on your work. If you do receive congruent feedback from several sources, pay attention. This may provide a positive direction for your future revisions. If you receive rejections from the first wave of agents you approach, send out the next five letters. Meanwhile, start on your next project. Getting published is a slow, frustrating business in which only the relentless prevail!

Roberta Isleib's first mystery, SIX STROKES UNDER, (Berkley Prime Crime, 2002,) was nominated for an Agatha for Best First Mystery and an Anthony for Best Paperback Original. A BURIED LIE was published in May, 2003, with PUTT TO DEATH to follow in April, 2004.

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