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  • Writer's pictureLenore Stutznegger

How I Got My Publisher!

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

My journey began with sorrow, depression, and a feeling of helplessness. Uplifting, right? Don’t worry, it gets better, then worse, then better again 😊.

The more I interact with other writers, the more I realize that mine is a story so often seen in the publishing world.

Three years ago, my mom had a heart attack. She and my dad lived in Virginia and I lived in Northern California. I couldn’t be there to take care of her. I felt so helpless. Gratefully, my daddy was there, but I felt like there was so much I needed to do. I flew out to Virginia a week later, completely overwhelmed with emotion. I had to take my youngest with me, leaving my husband to take care of the other 3. I worked, cleaned, and made meals for my parents, but my young son had a lot of energy. Like, a lot. Really, really. A lot. My parents lived in this beautiful little neighborhood in Crozet, right in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. So, my dad, Rocky, and I would venture outdoors and walk the trails every day. We played in the streams and clovers, but all the while my heart continued to break and heal, then break again. My momma was ok. She had a long road ahead of her, but I knew she’d be ok.

While there, in the quiet of the night, I wanted to escape into a book—the way I had for years. “Please,” I begged, “take me away into a world of fantasy and adventure and other people’s crazy insanity so I could escape mine for a while.” But what I found was that these other books were garbage to me now. They’d skip ahead so fast that I couldn’t care less if the main character died or contracted some horrific disease. In the rush to get readers hooked, character development was non-existent. World-building was brushed over for stabbings and running breathless through some kingdom for who-cared-why. All these publishers wanted was a shiny cover and a quick sell. A book with no heart is no book at all.

As I continued my search, new characters and worlds flew through my mind like a welcoming breeze. I breathed them in as I’d walk along those old Virginia trails. After my week-long soul-excavation, I left my parent’s home and flew back to Cali. Through the tears of leaving, I wrote out my first chapter. I wrote my characters and motives. I sketched out their world and thoughts and memories. I threw myself into the creative process. I’d always needed the flow—the energy and lift that art gave me though creation. Getting lost in the process. I needed that high, but this time it was through story-telling.

This led me to my first challenge. Typing. As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I spent all of my typing/computer classes playing “Oregon Trail” and that one fishing game—what was it called? So, I actually wrote out my entire 130,000 word manuscript hacking like a fat-fingered five-year-old. Typing is hard for an old dog of almost 40yrs to pick up.

I am a huge fan of so many fantasy/sci-fi stories from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Walking Dead to shark, aliens, elves and everything in between. I love it all. But I’d yet to really see a “happy” post-apocalyptic story. Everything out there was a horrible dystopian of a possible future I never wanted to live in. Sure, every story needs conflict, but I didn’t want it to be in the community. I wanted a fantasy. A peaceful farming village. Safe. Beautiful, with good people… but I also wanted an “I Am Legend” vampire elf to be out there ready to rip into any beating human heart within a mile of where they stood. I’m complicated like that. I lived in my beautiful world, receiving inspiration all times of day and night—while I was dropping off the kids to school or in dreams. Moments of quiet. Conversations with my husband. Inspiration would strike and I had to write it down.

This story gave me purpose and passion that I dearly needed. Motherhood had been my only identity for so long. I must say—motherhood is my jam, my most important duty and true calling—but it doesn’t exactly give back. It takes a lot out of you. A lot. Though, it gives in sweet moments, hugs, and small conversations, I needed something only for me. My world. My people. My story that I could mold and create however I wanted to. Because we all know we can help shape our kids into who they are meant to be, but ain’t no way we can control anything they do!

This led to another challenge I’d created unawares. I’d just brain-dumped this 130,000 word manuscript in a month-long fever dream without any training, skill, or knowledge of the craft. Oops. (But also, awesome! Yay me!)

A friend I knew from growing up in Virginia, Cary Kreitzer, (author name: C. F. Kreitzer) saw that I was writing a book. She reached out and invited me to her critique group on Facebook. Wow. *Insert months of learning and butt-kicking here.* I learned about foreign things like “word count” and “editing” and “active voice vs. passive voice”. We’d send our chapters out in the beginning of the week, critique them, and then chat on the phone for hours every Thursday night. These were my people. Friends I could ask super obscure questions like, “But if Kaleo sees so-and-so at the cave then how would he not be at the ….?” They hung with me. They found plot holes and helped me fill them. They indulged my geeky-weirdness. I was giddy. Goofy. Excited. Myself. I found my people- who were also quirky and caught-up in their own worlds and we helped each other.

I discovered the writing community on twitter. #writingcommunity I entered contests like #pitmad, where you pitch your manuscript in 180 characters—literary agents can “like” your idea and put you at the top of their slush pile. I found an amazing group of fellow “query-ers” on twitter and we called ourselves the #llamasquad. These are some of the kindest, most supportive people I know. All with their hearts in their throats. All wth their fears and desires and major saltiness. I so needed them as I traversed the soul-sucking world of querying. I learned to write a query letter—a one page “this is what my book is about and what it is like. Please love it” type-thing that was harder to write than my entire manuscript.

I learned about which agents I wanted to submit to. I learned that literary agents are just other humans with feelings and experiences and lists they need to fill. But, they held all of the power to all-out reject my manuscript based on whatever mood they were in or what they thought the market looked like or if they saw a tiny glimmer of potential or if they were in a bad mood bc they just broke up with their boyfriend or the coffee-guy made their coffee with *gasp* soy milk instead of almond milk (the pain! The drama!) Or maybe I didn’t spell their name right—but they never took the time to type mine out. They’d just send out a “form” rejection-the same one they’d send to every other bottom-dwelling wanna-be writer. I was left at the mercy of their whims and my heart tore up every time I got that inevitable “just not the right fit” rejection.

I learned after many, many rejections to harden my heart. To take my ego and self-worth out of the entire querying process. It’s a business. The agents go with what will make them money. They pick out maybe 1-4 manuscripts a year to put their faith in while all of the other thousands of query-ers from that slush pile burn up in a dumpster fire of despair. It’s not because literary agents are heartless jerks (some might be but most are good, book-loving individuals who really want an author to succeed. They have to freaking love a manuscript to go through the years of hard-work and effort to make that happen. Agents also run a business and they need to eat. It was nothing personal. I was not a failure. But it still hurt. Looking back, I know I wasn’t really ready to query, but I needed all of those experiences just the same.

I took a break from querying. I took a break from social media. I took a break from all of the things that pushed and pulled at me and told me I wasn’t good enough. I got help for my depression and slowly emerged from my black pit of a cocoon stronger, smarter, and not quite so butt-hurt. Also, good to note here is that my husband, Dave, is the kindest, sweetest, and most loving human being in the world and he’s supported me every step, slip, and fall along the way.

I entered a competition called #writementor and was actually chosen to get my manuscript into shape by the lovely Bonnie Swanson. With her help and with my heart removed, we slashed through the manuscript. We took out the unnecessary stuff, all the while building on the heart and strengthening the story. I took my book from 130,000 words down to 96,000. NO agent will hardly even look at a Young Adult book over 100,000 words. Most will dismiss them out-right without even glancing at the summary. They figure, if you’ve done your homework, you should know the industry standards. YA books are generally 75-90,000 words.

For your info:

The Selection, by Keira Cass: 80,248 words

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer: 87,661 words

Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer: 118,975 words (a crazy fluke for an unknown author to write one that large)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: 168,923 words

But who was I? I was a nobody. I had to get real about my word count. I had to learn about how to make someone feel connected to the character without a billion backstories and conversations. I still have all of them. All of the sweet moments of conversation in the kitchen, the backstories, the thoughts. They sit happily in my writing folders. But they are no longer in the story. Somehow that made it stronger.

I queried again, this time emboldened by my new knowledge and friends. More rejections followed. More “tea” about literary agencies who didn’t pay their authors or were under fire for inequities, etc. So much drama in the literary world. I won’t even bring up the writer/or agent? who was cancelled because her astronaut husband tried to kill her, put her in a diaper, but then she defended him, wrote some crazy stuff and was “cancelled” because she was on parlor. Most of the time, the drama and accusations are swift with harsh consequences for the author/agency and the mob takes no responsibility for the damage they’ve caused. They’ll just move on to the next victim.

All this to say that finding an agent and agency is a tricky path. It’s the “traditional” path, but it’s changing. The entire publishing industry is changing to catch up to digital sales, marketing (that is no longer controlled by the big 5 publishers), and book shops/libraries closing down around the world—due to covid or otherwise. Ask any author published in the last ten years, five years, or one and they’ll tell you it’s all different.

I had this idea in my mind, this extremely naïve idea—that I would snatch up an agent, get a publishing deal, then let those experienced people take care of everything else while I moved on to writing my next book. But, the more I looked around, the more I realized that what I truly wanted was a small publisher. An indie. A company I knew took care of their authors. I found the company Immortal Works. My old friend from Virginia, C. F. Krietzer, had just published her book Blood Numbers through them and was very happy with her experience. My other friend and critique partner, Amy Michele Carpenter, author of Becoming Human, also had a book coming out with Immortal Works.

So, I took a leap of faith and sent in my manuscript. Three days later I received the letter I’d been waiting for! A “yes we love your book! We want to represent you!”

Immortal Works receives hundreds of manuscripts a year, but they chose mine to champion! After the contract was negotiated and signed (luckily my lawyer bro-in-law navigated that for me), I got to work on my self-edits. I really like Immortal Works so far.

They take the time with their authors, have very professional editors, and have answered any question I’ve had with a flood of knowledge. Right at this very moment, my editor has my manuscript and is doing her first pass. In a month it’ll be my turn to implement the edits and the work continues on!

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