Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pub Story: Michelle Zink

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.

Michelle Zink Michelle Zink lives in New York and has always been fascinated with ancient myths and legends. Never satisfied with simply reading them, she usually ends up asking, "What if?" Sometimes asking only leads to more questions, but every now and then, when everything falls into place just right, a story is born. Prophecy of the Sisters is one of those stories. It comes out in August. You can read the first two chapters here. Find out more at http://myspace.com/prophecypress or follow her on Twitter.

Also? This story is quite a fairy tale one. (With lots of blood, sweat and tears involved in its making, alas.)

The Story
In 2000, I was a sales and marketing executive with a computer consulting firm. I had risen pretty quickly through the ranks, and was making an enviable income at the age of 30. I had a nice house a mile from the beach in an affluent community on Southern California, a full time nanny, and plenty of money.

But I was so unhappy. In fact, I was more than unhappy, I was miserable.

The truth is, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew it was nothing related to what I’d been doing. The biggest obstacle to a more creative career and a simpler life was the cost of living in Southern California, and I decided that if geography was the only thing standing between me and happiness, I would move.

On a whim, I took a trip to NY, staying in B&Bs along the Hudson and looking into the schools and real estate market in the rural towns north of New York City. Along the way, I connected with a few realtors in my favorite towns and left with promises of house hunting on my behalf. Over the next few week, I received emails about various houses, but there was one area in particular that had a lot I was interested in exploring, so I took a trip back with my son in January, 2001, fell in love with an old converted barn on four quiet acres, and made an offer. I tried not to panic on the plane ride home, but it was hard. Reality was setting in, and I knew I’d have to quit my job, sell my home, and brace my kids for a 3,000 mile move. Scariest of all? I hadn’t a clue what I would do for a living and had only enough savings to survive for about nine months.

Even with all of that, though, I was (and still am) a big believer in the universe, fate, destiny, whatever you want to call it. I just felt like something was propelling me forward, and I decided that I would go home and put my house on the market and see if everything fell into place. If the doors kept opening in front of me, I’d take the plunge, but if things got sketchy, if I couldn’t sell my house or the contract on the NY house fell through, well, then I’d reconsider.

None of that happened, though. The CA house sold quickly, leaving me with a little more equity than I’d expected. The kids were sad to leave their friends, but excited for the adventure ahead and happy I was going to be home more. The house in NY went into contract with only minor difficulty (a triumph in NY!). On June 25th, six months after I put in the offer on the NY house, we drove away from California and began the nine-day journey by car to our new home.

The next three or four years were sketchy. I *still* didn’t know what I wanted to do. I helped pay the bills by selling antique furniture, and while I really loved going to auction and flea markets, it wasn’t satisfying in the soulful way I wanted and it wasn’t really paying the bills. I still felt like something was missing, but I had a lot more time with my children, we were living a quieter, simpler life, and I’d even found time to read again, something I’d always loved to do but had lost in the crazy-business of my CA lifestyle.

And it turns out, that was the key. One day while I was reading, it came to me. It wasn’t a new realization. Instead, it was like I was remembering my writing. I stopped in the middle of my book and thought, “I think I can do this.” I remembered being a teenager and wanting to write. I remembered being asked what I wanted to do when I grew up and always saying, “I want to be a writer.” What had happened to that? How had I lost it?

I decided then and there to write a book from start to finish, no matter what. I’d had an idea kicking around in my head, so I started with that, and from the moment I started, I was in love. Not with that book, but with the process. I dreamt about my book. I thought about it while I was driving, while I was cooking… pretty much all the time. And the funny thing was; I felt alive in a way I had never felt before. It was like breathing again after holding my breath for a very long time, and I knew I would never be able to live without it again.

That book became my trunk novel. It was okay. It even garnered a little interest from a couple of agents, but that wasn’t the important part. The important part was that I’d learned I could start and finish a whole book. So I did it again. And this time, I had a feeling it was actually good.

I sent Book Two to a few agents, and immediately got two quick responses. One was from Steven Malk, a well respected agent at Writer’s House. The other was from a lesser known but enthusiastic agent at another house. Steven told me it was “a good first draft”. That it needed work but he thought it could be really great. The other agent loved it as is and wanted to send it out immediately. Okay…. Hear it coming? Wait for it… Big Mistake. I went with the enthusiastic agent and my book went out right away. It was well-received. It even almost sold once. But in the end it didn’t, and it took six months of waiting to get to that point. During that time, I’d kept up my regular schedule of writing 6-8 hours every day, because I was always determined that I would just keep writing until something sold. That turned out to be a good thing, because I’d finished three more books in the six months that one was on submission. When I was done, my new favorite was Book Five, a Gothic fantasy, and I really had a feeling it might be special. After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to break off with my existing agent and look for another one. I just wasn’t sure I could turn out a submission ready draft my first book out, and I didn’t want to take the chance of losing the book because it was sent out prematurely. It was scary to throw myself back out there again, but I did, canceling my contract with my current agent and querying only four top agents with my new book.

I received requests from all four immediately. One of them was Steven Malk. Again. Guess what he said? Yep; “It’s a good first draft.” He told me it needed a lot of work but he believed it could be “big”. I couldn’t help feeling that the universe was trying to tell me something.

I was supposed to work with this agent. I had something to learn.

So I agreed to work on the book with Steven. Other writers told to be careful. I didn’t have a contract. There was no guarantee that he would even represent me when it was all said and done. I could make all the suggested changes and get nothing in return. But I don’t know… I knew that no matter what, I’d have a better book in the end. I’d be learning something about the craft. I just had a feeling that I was supposed to be right where I was, and so we began.

Over the next eight months, Steven sent me detailed editorial letters, starting with one that was 12 pages long. There were big things – pacing, structure, and character development. But there were a lot of little things, too. Why does she think this? Why would they go there? This doesn’t sound like something she’d say… Sometimes I wanted to go out into one of our fields and scream with frustration. I wanted to scream, “It doesn’t matter!!” But every time I made the changes I realized something. It did matter. And it taught me something so important. It taught me that the reader will have questions. It taught me that they deserve answers. I remember that even now, and I answer those questions, however small.

Finally, after eight months of revising, Steven told me the book was ready for submission. He told me “it could be awhile”, especially since it was a debut novel, before we heard back from any of the editors. So I settled in to wait.

The book was submitted on a Monday. On Wednesday, Steven called to say that five editors were interested. He thought we might have to set up an auction on Friday and he would call me back then. I was pretty excited.

Wow. An auction. The word every writer wants to hear. Steve told me he’d call the next day to give me an update. I was excited but still cautious. This is a business of disappointment. There are no guarantees.

When Steve called me Thursday afternoon he told me that Nancy Conescu from Little Brown had been reading the book into the night and had had a problem with her computer. Instead of waiting, she went out and had a copy printed. Then she stayed up to finish it. Steve had a call by 5am (he’s on the West Coast) with a pre-emptive offer. Before he gave me the offer, he said, “I think you might want to lay down for this one.”

He was right.

It was enough that I could write my usual 6-8 hours a day without having to keep my part-time business going. Enough that I could do the one thing I wanted to do more than any other; write for a living. For real.

One of the catches (if you can call anything a catch in a deal like this) was that LB wanted World Rights. Steve felt we should ask for more if we were going to sell World Rights as part of the package. I am a writer. Steve is my agent. He knows what he’s doing. With my heart in my throat, I told him to do what he felt was best.

The next day, we had a higher offer from LB to include World Rights. We gratefully accepted. Emphasis (for me) on the word “gratefully.” I spoke to my new editor, Nancy, that same day. I was a little, ahem, nervous. Nancy asked me what had prompted me to write the book. I’m not sure what I said, but I don’t think I was very coherent just then. Shortly after our phone conversation I received an email from Nancy welcoming me to Little Brown. She included a brief summary of what she loved about my book. It was lovely, and I thought, “Um, yeah! That was what I meant to say!” I liked her immediately, and although we haven’t started working together in earnest, I have a feeling we’re going to have a lot of fun and get along famously.

How did it feel? Surreal. How does it feel now? Even more surreal.

There are a couple of particularly magic moments that stand out for me about this experience. They include;

Jumping up and down in the living room with my thirteen-year-old daughter, screaming, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

Telling my mom, who has loaned me money, plotted financial tactics to keep us going, and generally seen me through more panic attacks then you can imagine.

Telling my children, and being able to say (and mean it), “This is a team victory, guys. We all sacrificed for this. We all did this.”

Hearing Steve say, “I’ve put together some big deals in my career, Michelle. But I will never forget this one. This is the fairy tale.”

Oh, and for some reason, especially this; Nancy told me that the Subsidiary Rights department was really excited about my book. That they really wanted World Rights. That they were full of ideas for marketing and publicity and were worried we might not sell World Rights outright. She said when she went into the SR department on Friday and told them we’d accepted their offer for World Rights, everybody stood up and cheered.

Why does that stay with me? Why does that still make me ridiculously sappy?

What can I say? I am a writer. I have stories to tell. What could be better than knowing there are people who want to hear them?


Adele said...

Thanks a great story. It's really brave to start from scratch to follow a feeling.

A big congrats Michelle, to you and your family!

Steph Su said...

Wow. Michelle's story is definitely heartwarming and makes me all the more excited to read Prophecy of the Sisters. Congrats, Michelle! :)

Alea said...

Wow wow wow! That is so awesome!

Anonymous said...

This is a great story and I'm so glad it worked out for Michelle. That is a lot of pressure to be under and it sounds like it's definitely paid off.

Not everyone that works with Steven Malk has this kind of ending. He is famous for making writers do endless amounts of revisions, for months and months, and then, very often, not signing them. It's happened to several writers I know. It wasn't pretty. Heads up to other writers: Look before you take the agent leap.

Amber said...

Wow now that is a road to publication! I think it's awesome to just start over like that and find out what you really want in life. I have to read this book ASAP now!

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's really awesome. I think it's great that you include pub stories in your blog. They're really interesting. :D

Fantastic Book Review said...

Great story! Congrats Michelle on Prophecy Sisters, I can't wait to read it.

Shelly B said...

What a story!!! Michelle is a great person and truly deserves this!

Deborah Kerbel said...

What a great story, Michelle! Thanks for sharing and huge congrats on your publishing success!

Reverie said...

ahh Michelle, you truly are a great example for young readers. I wish you all the luck and keep listening to what your heart says.

As always, I love hearing your journey and hope many learn that getting to your dreams is not easy but worth it in the end.

RR said...

That's a great pub story! It really is ike a fairytale!

Summer said...

Wow that's a totally crazy story. Don't know if I could do that! Money isn't everything, I guess

Rhonda Helms said...

This was so heartwarming. It made me tear up. You deserve it--I am so happy for you!!

Charlotte said...

Oh my gosh, what a story!

Michelle Zink said...

Thank you so much for all of your good wishes. One of the best surprises through this journey has been all of the amazing friends I've made along the way - from writers, to readers, to bloggers. You guys are the BEST, and none of this would be the same if I couldn't share it with you!

And thank YOU, Steph, for featuring my publication story. You are the bomb.

Kelsey said...

Awesome Pub Story Michelle! It's really inspiring.

It is inspiring me to go write right now . . . :)

SPITsisters said...

Thank you for including this pub story - it was so inspiring to read!

Anonymous said...

What an awesome story. Definitely something aspiring writers should read.

I <3 this feature, Steph.

kalea_kane said...

I am just absolutely touched by this. What a wonderful joy! It is so nice to see someone's dreamed not only fulfilled but surpass even that dream. The hard work shows and I hope the rewards will be immense!

Kate at Read This Book! said...

What a interesting story. Thanks for sharing with us Michelle! =) I enjoyed reading it.

Rebecca Herman said...

Great story! I really enjoyed reading it.

Iryna said...

*Sniff* I loved that. That was just . . . magical.

Kristina Springer said...

What a WONDERFUL story Michelle! Wow-- you are so brave taking so many chances and I love that they all worked out!

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