Her reply: How about how you evolved into a published author?
Which is, actually, a pretty good story, with one caveat: what worked for me almost certainly will not work for you. It’s not because I’m irrationally talented and my deathless, unique prose transcends the boundaries that bind mere mortals. Uh-uh. I am, quite possibly, the luckiest SOB ever to earn a contract.
Here’s the deal:
I wrote a book and found an agent. The agent sent the book around, with encouraging rejections, until a small, but highly respected press asked for an exclusive. Said small, but highly respected press then jerked me around for two years before sending me a two-line e-mail rejection—with grammatical errors. (Sorry, I will not name this small, but highly respected press. You can ply me with drink, large sums of money, and sexual favors; I won’t tell. Feel free to try, though.)
I thought the series as envisioned had a low ceiling, anyway, so I re-tooled the main character and supporting cast while waiting for the small, but highly respected press. (This is the one piece of advice that applies to everyone: keep moving. Write the second book while the first is making the rounds. Then the third, if necessary. Someone may ask if you have anything else like this, and you don’t want to have to say, “I will in a year or so.”) The agent and I disagreed on the new direction, which was much harder-edged than the book she had signed on for, and we parted amicably.
I found another agent. She circulated the second book to even more encouraging rejections. (My personal favorite: “Too good for a paperback original, not good enough for a hardcover series.” My first thought: “Make me an offer on a paperback original. The amount of pride I don’t have may shock you.”)
By the time we gave up on this one I had four Nick Forte PI stories in the proverbial drawer and decided to write something else. The agent said it was good, well-written, and she wouldn’t represent it because Italian mob fiction was dead, and that I should have checked with her first. This arrangement did not dissolve as amicably as did the first. I’ll accept much of the blame, as I should have clarified beforehand what she was, and was not, willing to represent. (Another piece of advice everyone can probably use.)
So I did what anyone would do in such a situation. I quit.
At least I tried. Tireless supporter of crime fiction Declan Burke read my kiss-off blog post and recruited a posse of people to urge me to reconsider. Anyone weak-willed enough to quit is weak-willed enough to be talked out of it, so I started a new series. I resolved to write only for myself and whoever else might like to read it; no more chasing contracts. I self-published the mob book for Kindle, as Wild Bill. It sold well into the dozens.
I started a new series, about cops in a small, decaying Western Pennsylvania town. Around this time I interviewed the Dean of Mob Fiction, Charlie Stella. Charlie asked to see my writing, so I sent him Wild Bill, with some trepidation, because you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, and you don’t even think about trying to bullshit Charlie Stella about mob fiction. He wrote an enthusiastic review, so I sent him the first book in the new series, which I had just made available for Kindle. (Worst Enemies, a working class derivative of Strangers on a Train.) He liked that, too, and asked to see the draft of the second book in the series, Grind Joint. He dug that enough to get after me to send it to his publisher, Stark House, which I was reluctant to do, given my previous experience with small, but respected, presses. Unknown to me, he also started in on Rick Ollerman, his editor, to read the book.
A moment to describe Charlie Stella: he is a force of nature. I have never known anyone more loyal, or willing to put himself out for something, or someone, he believes in. An e-mail thread evolved where I agreed to send Rick the book and Rick agreed to read it, if Charlie promised to leave us alone about it.
Rick liked it. The publisher, Greg Shepherd, liked it. Grind Joint will be released by Stark House on November 21.
I hear you now. “What does this have to do with the book you released last week for Kindle, A Small Sacrifice?” Thanks for asking. A Small Sacrifice is the book the second agent almost sold. I used the Nick Forte PI character in Grind Joint, in a minor, but pivotal role. A Small Sacrifice and its three brothers are his backstory, and I can let them out in dribs and drabs as I feel like it. Like I said above, always have something ready, in case there might be a use for it.
Total time from the day I started serious work on the book the small, but highly respected, press rejected until Grind Joint will be available: fifteen years.
That’s how I became a published author. Your mileage with this method may vary.