Sunday, December 5, 2010

Persistence: A Blogshop with Bestselling Author of Clown Girl, Monica Drake

Why do you want to publish? Be honest. Publishing is hard work! Months and years of real time could be spent on just one book from inception to glossy bound cover with attention grabbing blurbs. You'll spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on extra copies of your book, website, book promotion and events. You've heard it before, getting your book published and being "the author" is a full time job with no guarantees and it's true.

Most new authors don't truly realize how much of themselves they'll give to their publishing career. Somewhere in the middle of their first book's journey, maybe it's when they're wrapping up edits or when they're synching publicity efforts between their publicist and publisher's PR team, they realize two things: I can't believe how much work this is!; and, I can't believe this is all finally happening!! As a former lit agent, I fielded plenty of calls from my authors for both these occasions. I was thrilled right along with them, after all, I loved their book, too, and worked hard at selling it. As a consultant and coach, I prepare writers for this reality before they find themselves in it.

Writers ask me all the time what the secret is to getting a book deal. Who do you gotta know? "What's that writer doing that I'm not?" they'll ask. The difference between those writers who finally published their book and sell actual copies to unknown book buyers is they did not quit. They didn't quit sending out query letters to agents, they didn't quit reshaping their novel or nonfiction proposal until it was just right, they didn't lose hope when their agent forwarded them scads of rejection letters from publishers. And when their agent lost hope and let them off the rope, they didn't quit putting their work in front of other agents or in bestselling author Monica Drake's case, on publishers' desks.

I asked Monica to share her path to publication story for her debut novel, Clown Girl, with us because I'm always intrigued by unique storytelling and how that brand of storytelling, if you will, finds its way to the shelf among countless more "commercial" titles. Her story is one of Persistence, our virtue focus this month.

Monica: I finished writing my first novel, Clown Girl, after working on it every day for three years. I had just turned thirty-three. Thirty-three, the “Jesus year,” seemed the perfect time to sell a novel: I could still be considered a young author. For some reason, age matters in the publishing industry. I’m not sure why, but we all feel it. There’s a rush to get out a first novel, then a second. Prizes are geared toward age ranges, as in “Thirty Under Thirty,” and “Ten Authors Under Ten Years Old.”

A kind of quiet panic can set in. If you let it, the rush to publish can overshadow the process of writing.

My manuscript was a beautiful stack of 250 pages, and I slid it into an envelope, dropped copies in the mail. I sent it to agents the same month that I signed up for “call waiting” on my home phone. Both the writing and call waiting paid off: a day came when three agents called, at very the same time.

It was unbelievable. My heart pounded in my chest; I juggled agents on my new call waiting system. I felt lucky and smart and ready for success. My writing career had started to take root. I chose an agent, and soon she circulated my manuscript with publishers.
In my mind I sang just sell, just sell. I was ready to go.

But the time frame of my ambitions and the pace of the creative process were not one and the same.

“There’s no reason to publish such a sad story,” the first publisher’s rejection note read. My agent passed the note along to me. I tossed that one off. “This book is tragedy upon tragedy,” the second rejection said. Tragedy? I was baffled. I write comedy. So I had a clear audience problem; I had to rethink the manuscript. After a few more rejections, I asked the agent to pull the manuscript, bring it back for revision. It was a hard decision to make. I told myself I’d find the problem, fix it quickly, tap it all into place, and get back in the game.

It was three years later when I finished a revised version of Clown Girl. This one was better than the first. The book had a new shape, a clearer story arc, an increased sense of focus. It rocked. I was thirty-six. I’d moved from call waiting to a cell phone. I found a new agent. Again, the manuscript went out.

“Beautiful prose,” the editors wrote, “but why doesn’t the narrator have more of a job?” A job? She had a job. She was a clown, but I’d erred on the side of subtlety. Again, I realized I hadn’t made my point clear. After a few more rejections, I pulled the manuscript out of circulation. It felt like giving up, but it wasn’t. The book wasn’t ready. My plan? I’d take the book back, quickly tap it into place…

Three years later, as I turned thirty-nine, I had what turned out to be the final, and eventually saleable, version of Clown Girl. Dreams of publishing in my thirties morphed into dreams of publishing by forty. This time, instead of working with an agent I placed the novel on my own.
Clown Girl found a home with Hawthorne Books; the first print run sold out immediately. Now it was the book I’d set out to write all along. I’d taken the time necessary.

For me, writing a first novel was a decade-long learning experience. What I learned is that while ambition and eagerness can be motivating, it can also get in the way. These days I hear other writers with that same combination of drive, ambition and anxiety. “I’ll write a quick Y.A. novel,” they say. Or, “I have a manuscript I could fix it up. It’s almost done.” I know the feeling.

Maybe their work is almost done. Or, it could be another decade. Writing projects find their own time frame. Good writing, from what I’ve seen, takes dedication, mental muscle and most of all, time.

Your Action: Think about Monica's story then think about your own motivations for writing and wanting to publish. Do you love your work so much that you will absolutely see that it gets published one way or another? More importantly, do you respect the craft of writing enough to know when your work needs more than a few quick taps to get it truly ready? Persistence is more than never giving up, it's also a bottomless desire to improve as an artist.

Keep moving forward, my dears.

Have a fruitful week!


About the Contributor:

Monica Drake has an MFA from the University of Arizona and teaches at the Pacific NW College of Art. She is a contributor of reviews and articles to The Oregonian, The Stranger, and The Portland Mercury. Her fiction has appeared in the Beloit Review, Threepenny Review, The Insomniac Reader, and others. She has been the recipient of an Arizona Commission on The Arts Award, The Alligator Juniper Prize in Fiction, and a Millay Colony Fellowship, and was a Tennessee Williams scholar at Sewanee Writers Workshop.

Her bestselling debut novel, Clown Girl, is published by Hawthorne Books and has been optioned by SNL's Kristin Wiig. Click here to see an interview with Monica from Portland's Wordstock, from Boise Weekly. Click here, to also see a trailer for a short film by Andy Mingo , based off Monica's short story, Georgie's Big Break, filmed at Portland's literary festival, Wordstock.


  1. I'm starting to realize I'm probably not going to be in my 30's anymore when I finally have a MS ready for publication. So, this post helps me a lot. There should be no rush, when what's really needed is a truly ready, polished story. It takes as long as it takes.

    Shakespeare's plays wouldn't be so phenomenal without all the constant years and years of revising, altering his plays just to keep ahead of the bootleggers always copying his masterpieces. That's decades of revising, and we, posterity, got the polished products. No wonder his plays are brighter than gold!

  2. I'm so glad you found it helpful, Cathy! Monica gives us such great perspective...and hope!

  3. This was a truly motivational post. Thank you! There are often times that I feel that it's just not meant to be, but then I end up reading something as inspirational as this and I'm set back on track. Thanks again for setting me back.

  4. Keep moving forward, LJ. It's worth it!!!


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