Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pub Story: Steve Brezenoff

Author guest blogs + publication paths = Pub Stories. It's a Tuesday thing. Click here for more info (esp. if you're an author wanting to participate). Click here for a list of all participants.

About Steve: Steve Brezenoff has written several chapter books for young readers, and The Absolute Value of -1 is his first novel for teens. Though Steve grew up in a suburb on Long Island, he now lives with his wife, their son, and their terrier in St. Paul, Minnesota.

You can have a look at some of Steve’s work for younger readers, including the popular Field Trip Mysteries series, here.

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I didn’t go about this the normal way. In fact, I probably shouldn’t spread some of this around. I broke a lot of rules, and had lots of lucky help. I’d say trying to follow my path would probably put most people in the woods, clutching their manuscript, hiding from an angry mountain lion. Still, here it is.

I’ve been writing for a long time—I wrote my first “novel” when I was fifteen. It was a terrible Arthurian thing, with a sprinkling of Tolkien. I recall fondly when my creative writing adviser asked me what expertise I have in Arthurian legend. Had I done much research? The only answer I had was that I’d watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail . . . several times! She wasn’t happy with that answer. Still, I finished the colossal waste of paper. It is happily lost forever, much like the travelers who walked its pages.

My original major in college was creative writing. I gave it up, though, when I realized I had to write, often poetry, on someone else’s schedule. The nerve of those graduate students, asking us to create art on command. This is particularly ironic when you consider that most of the writing I do today is very much on command. It is even more ironic when you consider that I took a creative writing course my last year of college, and in that class wrote a short story called “Looking Down on Havoc.” I got an A, and worked on and reshaped that story for many, many years. It eventually became a novella of sorts, and one that several people whose opinions I respected found compelling. But still, I was not as serious as I should have been about polishing it, maybe growing it into a full novel, or submitting it for publication anywhere.


Here’s some luck: I got married. That’s lucky in a million ways, obviously. But the main thing is that my wife worked for a children’s publisher here in Minnesota, and when she and her boss needed a short book written very quickly, they came to me. So I wrote it. They liked it. Before too long, I was writing frequently for that publisher. These were “work-for-hire” jobs, mind you, so I wasn’t keeping rights on any of this stuff. I’ll never collect royalties, and I rarely came up with the concepts for these books myself. The point is, though, I was published now, so I joined SCBWI: the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Of course, I could have joined SCBWI already; it’s an organization that happily accepts both published and pre-published writers. In fact, I’d guess the majority of members are pre-published. But I didn’t know that. By the time my first local conference rolled around, I had several work-for-hire jobs under my belt, and our son had just been born. If anything was the real impetus to get my butt in gear and work toward publishing my novel, it was my new son. Amazing how this little ball of child will give one a shot of ambition.

So, how to go about it? My wife and I did some thinking before I headed to the local conference, and we decided the best thing to do was . . .

(Here’s where pre-published writers need to go get the salt and take it very heavily with what I am about to say.)

. . . create a resume, sort of. On one side of the resume was a nice list of my work-for-hire projects that were out already or would soon be out. On the other side was essentially three query letters, one for each of my works-in-progress.

Let me repeat that: works-in-progress. Unfinished works. Things I was writing that were not done.

I made several copies of this resume. I approached all three speakers whose seminars I attended. I gave them a copy of this thing. They took it graciously. If not for one very understanding and open-minded editor, that would very likely be the end of my tale.

But, lo, that one editor contacted me as soon as the work week started up a couple of days after the conference. He wanted to see everything I had—which, if you’re paying attention, you’ll realize was nothing.

Again I say: works-in-progress. Unfinished work.

I thanked the editor in question for his interested, explained I wanted to polish up a thing or two in the young adult novel I’d described, and would send it along post-haste. In other words, I had to finish it, and fast.

I am mortified to no end as I tell this story, not for the first time.

So, I finished it—I finished that novella, the one based on a short story I’d written twelve years before. I sent it to him. He loved it. But, he told me, it wasn’t finished.

Over the next several months I added to the 35,000 or so existent words another 35,000 or so words. Then it was finished. And the editor still loved it, probably loved it more.

From there, the path was clear and much easier. With an incoming offer, I knew finding an agent wouldn’t be too difficult, and after speaking to Edward Necarsulmer IV from McIntosh & Otis, and discovering we shared a love of J. D. Salinger and the Grateful Dead, I decided to team up with him.

The short version is that I did everything backward. I married into published status. For my novel, I got an editor, then finished the novel, then found an agent. Do not try this at home.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love the title...I think I'll give this one a shot. It's fantastic to see posts by people not published by the BIIIIIIIIG publishing houses. May you have success, Steve.

M. Gray said...

Oh, man. What a story. I'm so glad it worked for you!!

the epic rat said...

Wow, what a backwards pub story! That's amazing -and I'm glad that a finished novel (which sounds absolutely fantastic) came to life in the end!

Liviania said...

That's what I love about Pub Stories - hearing about the people who did it all wrong and managed anyway.

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Hey! For some reason, this embedded comment form makes most people click twice before the comment is processed and published. It's not you - it's just that it's a new Blogger feature with kinks and all that. (But I adore it and don't wanna get rid of it!) I removed Captcha to make the process easier. You don't have to rewrite the comments twice; just click on SUBMIT twice and it should work. If not, email me. Thanks! -Steph