If you’re a writer or an avid reader, you may know of the classic hero’s journey as outlined by literary academic, Joseph Campbell. In Campbell’s prescribed arc, the hero must leave a life of comfort (Act 1), experience unfamiliar territory and tests (Act 2), then return ultimately changed (Act 3). As a writer, I’m well-acquainted with Campbell’s structure. I’ve met my fictional heroes in their homes, their classrooms, their treehouses, out by a stream. We walk and chat together, huddling close as the adventure calls. We muck about in every wrong decision, trying with all our might to reach a goal that seems painfully simple, yet somehow unattainable. I’ve mapped my characters’ journeys from A to Z with pit stops and scenic byways.
But it wasn’t until recently that I realized I was on this same map, undergoing my own hero’s journey in the unfamiliar and arduous world of traditional publishing.
World of Common Day/ Call to Adventure
My journey begins, of course, with the call to write. I sent my first query out at eight years old. At the time, I committed the ultimate query sin and begged agencies to represent me for a story I had not yet finished. It was about a mother and her two children who learn they are trapped in the same dream, but soon realize they are not in an ordinary dream… Unfortunately, that’s about as far as I got with plotting, and that project predictably went nowhere.
I didn’t pick up writing seriously until I was nineteen. During that winter, I visited a kaleidoscope shop with my mother. I had never been inside such a magical place before, and immediately story ideas rose from the kaleidoscopes like spirits over tombstones. I had ideas for stories all the time, but usually I let those play out in little daydreams walking between classes or while gazing out a window. This time, however, I knew I wanted to see an idea through. I wanted to write a completed novel.
But double majoring in psychology and theatre, directing and acting in productions, and working on campus all had to take priority before my writerly dreams, and thus I wrote at the speed of a turtle. Words never came sprinting out, but they did emerge slowly and steadily. Every other night before bed I hovered over my notebook and added words for half an hour. The next night, I transcribed and edited the words onto my computer. After two years, my kaleidoscope story was finished, and I suddenly had a 67,000-word middle grade adventure sitting in front of me and asking: “What next?”
Supernatural Aid/ Crossing the 1st Threshold
I was always too timid to enroll in writing classes at school. The students in the creative writing programs at college had no problem gallivanting all over campus proclaiming their brilliance and, well, since I was fairly certain I was not inherently brilliant, I hid my writing away in my own corner. Luckily, I found a handful of other students who shared the same secret passion. Over my last year of college and the summer after, I managed to rewrite my book from scratch. This time I was reading craft books and studying structure as I wrote, and the narrative felt like one whole adventure, not mini episodes stitched together.
Shortly before my graduate program in children’s literature began, the program director sent a notice to the incoming students. There was a manuscript contest sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers, and the winner would get a full manuscript critique and consideration from one of the head editors. I had enrolled in the MA program, not the MFA program, and still didn’t consider myself a writer in public. But the director insisted the contest was open to anyone who had a completed manuscript, so I shyly sent my story in.
I was sitting at my receptionist desk at an accountant firm when my personal email tab suddenly read: Inbox (1). As I opened the email, I had the same feeling one gets from standing up too fast, or losing their breath. Congratulations! the email began. I don’t know how many attempts it took before I could read the whole thing. Here it was. My big break. Confirmation that I, the woman with her notebook and pencil hid behind her back, could now step into the light and shout “Hey! I’m a real writer!” I sent my manuscript to the editor immediately. My girlfriend at the time took me out for drinks after work. We toasted to what seemed like my imminent success.
Road of Trials- Book #1
What a boring story that would have been, yes? To write in quiet and comfort, then give myself one little push in applying to a contest and have fame and glory sweep me up. I desperately wanted that fate, in part because I wasn’t ready for my mettle to be tested. I secretly wanted to be inherently brilliant like the gallivanting writers in the English programs. But the truth is, innate talent and inherent brilliance do not bode well for interesting stories. I was not, as it turned out, inherently brilliant. (Thank goodness for that.)
I never got an offer from HMH. I received thoughtful feedback, spent nearly a year rewriting the book again, and sent in my revision to the editor as per her request. The final rejection arrived a few months later.
Well, I thought, I need an agent first anyway. I began researching the market and studying various agents and who they represented. Every time I checked out a new book from the library, I would flip to the end pages, where the acknowledgments were, and write down the name of the agent who was thanked. I curated a small list of agents and sent my manuscript off, so certain that I was still on the brink of success, that I could cover up the HMH rejection as a blip on my record.
All the while, I read a growing number of articles on writing that discussed moving on after the first book. Though I consumed all of these articles, I stubbornly clung tight to my kaleidoscope story. With every full request, I convinced myself this book was my debut. With each subsequent rejection, I embarked on yet another rewrite, hoping this time to hit the notes I kept missing. I would get requests within minutes of sending the query. But the rejection would always come. All said and done, I wrote seven completely different versions my kaleidoscope manuscript. I submitted the sixth version to Pitch Wars, a writing mentorship contest, in 2015 and was not accepted.
I began Book 1 in 2009 and finally let it go in 2016, when I moved on to my next book, and my next set of trials and tribulations.
More Trials- Book #2
In the spring of 2016, when I was twenty-seven, I finally set my first book aside and wrote something new. I was inspired by different things this time around. An eerie memory of mistaken identity from my childhood. The Rorschach ink blots I studied in college. The patches on my skin I used to draw pictures on. Writing that book was like tumbling down a well. I couldn’t get the words down fast enough. They felt different than any of the seven versions of my kaleidoscope book. My critique partners echoed a similar enthusiasm, and I entered Pitch Wars that same year with newfound confidence.
This time, I got into Pitch Wars, and was fortunate enough to work with more than one mentor. I had to rewrite the book from scratch, but thanks to my experience with Book 1, rewriting was no sweat. I re-outlined plot points and altered characters. My enthusiasm for the concept never waned, but during the Pitch Wars process, I started to realize that my concept wasn’t quite working in the second half of the book. Because we were already in a race to complete revisions on time, many moments in the text became “good enough” instead of “just right,” and by the time the agent round came, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I wanted what I’ve always wanted, to have this book be the book, to get published and become an author. But I wasn’t as proud of the manuscript as I wanted. If someone asked me to explain a plot hole in the second half, I would turn a very deep shade of red and try to slink away into the corner I occupied before people knew I wanted to be a writer.
The concept for Book 2 was strong, however, and I was incredibly fortunate to receive many requests from agents during the agent round, and later a humbling number of offers of representation. I tried to push my disappointment in the book away. I told myself that if so many agents wanted to work with me, the book must be fine. But my distrust in the book’s arc turned out to be a foreboding omen for later events to come.
When the excitement from the Pitch Wars contest had cleared and the dust was settled, I signed with an agent. The need to revise my book was a hard stone that sat in my stomach. Eventually I parted ways with my first agent and took on my own revision of the book. I spent months plotting the book out. I reimagined the characters. I tried to wipe away expectations of where the book should go and instead surprised myself at every turn. Finally, just after a year had passed since I first embarked on Book 2, I decided to query again. There was an agent who had been my very first offer in Pitch Wars who I had not gone with, and I was eager to see what she thought of the revision.
In narrative, good things for heroes never come easy, and this endeavor was no exception. I had to replot my book again from scratch, but eventually I was offered representation by Lauren Spieller of TriadaUS, who I have been happily working with ever since.
As much as Lauren and I wanted to team up, we knew that something was amiss in Book 2. I realized I was heading toward the same trap I had been caught in with Book 1. I rewrote the book for Lauren again, but by the time I turned it in, neither of us were very enthusiastic about the direction the narrative had taken. I was heartbroken. It felt like I had crafted such a special and promising idea, then managed to break it. After a few months of toiling over yet another revision, I asked Lauren if we could set the book aside and work on something new.
The Ultimate Boon- Book #3
The moment I felt resolution, or like I had finally “made it” the way I envisioned as an eight-year-old writer, was when I embarked on the book that would later become my debut. Though the book is now known as the first in THE DERBY DAREDEVILS series, it did not originate that way.
Originally, I set out to write a chapter book series that dealt with queer themes. I knew I wanted a female protagonist who was working through a crush on another girl. I also knew I wanted to explore a close friendship under strain. Finally, because my sister was in the midst of transitioning, I knew I wanted a diverse cast that included a trans character. My first draft poured out of me, but that had been the case for Book 2, so I tried not to get too excited. I sent off the manuscript to Lauren and waited for a week or two, missing the characters all the while.
When Lauren got back to me a couple weeks later, it was clear that both of us thought we were working with something special. We embarked on revisions, this time with a clear direction before us, and readied ourselves to go out on submission. I had never been on submission. So many writers had told me that submission would be even worse than querying, but my experience was different. While I queried Book 1 and later Book 2, I felt horribly alone. But with this book, I knew my agent believed in it and loved it as much as I did.
It wasn’t too long before we received interest from publishers. Several wanted to age the characters up. Several wanted more roller derby in the narrative (originally it was only in the final scene). But I was thrilled with every bit of feedback we got. These were real editors! Saying kind things about my book and hoping to consider revised pages. I sent Lauren a letter shortly after we went on submission thanking her for making my dreams come true. At long last I felt like a real, professional writer.
Several months after we first went on submission, my phone rang in the afternoon while I was working on a new project. I wasn’t expecting any calls, and I approached my phone cautiously. Lauren’s name flashed over the screen. I answered the phone, ready to discuss our next move in the submission process. But when she asked if it was a good time to chat and I said yes, she said the words that changed my life forever:
“You’re going to be a published author.”
According to Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by the story’s end, the hero must return with “the power to restore boons on his fellow man.” I don’t think the writer’s journey ever really ends. There will always be new hurdles to face, new mountains to climb or holes to slip down. But I do believe in passing out as many boons as I can along the way. Throughout the early stages of my journey, I relished reading the “How I Got my Agent” and “How I Got my Book Deal” posts, and always knew I wanted to add to that canon someday. But the truth, unknown to me at the time, was that the stories I really loved reading, the “How I—s” I cheered most for, were the underdog writers who met countless obstacles along the way, who didn’t give up, who persevered.
My best “boon” for other writers is this suggestion: Don’t be afraid to be a complex and interesting hero in your own narrative. Overnight success stories make flashy headlines, but aren’t always what they seem. And even when they are, these aren’t stories about better writers, just fortunate ones. Every setback or challenge you face in your path to publication is a chance to strengthen your resolve. Each rejection adds to your backstory. Every “no” hardens your knight’s armor.
Be the hero you want your readers to root for.
And above all else, don’t give up. Your journey isn’t over.