Written by A Guest Author October 26th, 2023

Case Study: The Road Uphill to a Publishing Contract

By Sam Muller

This is part of our ongoing series on how authors published their first book. You can read our other stories in this series, herehere, here, here, here, here, and here.

I will Paint the Sky, my first novel, had three lives. It had its first incarnation as Life Begins with Murder. Its second incarnation was Is it tomorrow. In all three lives, it was a YA fantasy and a murder mystery. The main characters, the plot, and the world remained the same. Between the first and the second incarnations, the POV changed from third limited to first. All other changes were minor ones. Through its three lives I spent much time fine-tuning the prose. I worked on it so much I began to know whole paragraphs by heart.

I tried heaps of agents with all three versions, more than 150 each time. And I did it by the book. I researched the agencies and the agents, personalised the queries, kept a chart, the whole hog. There was some interest; two agents even provided useful feedback. But nothing clinched.

When you are a first-time writer, you tell yourself again and again to expect rejections, to accept them and keep moving. I queried the first version of my book in 2018, the second in 2019 and the third in 2020. By 2021, I could feel a great weariness setting in. I was beginning to lose hope. Publication, the traditional way, seemed a goal too far, a height beyond reach. I had wasted three precious years of my life chasing a mirage, a part of my mind kept on telling me.

The pandemic didn’t help. But the main reason for my growing dejection was the knowledge that each unsuccessful query, each agent name crossed out was bringing me closer and closer to a blank wall.

I will Paint the Night was as good as I could make it. Minor changes were still possible, but not major ones. I found two new beta readers and their feedback confirmed my sense of nowhere else to go with this story.

I had a stark choice: either give up on this project and write a new book or explore alternate paths to publication.

I considered the first option carefully before deciding against it. I had a couple of ideas for a new project (including a retelling of the Odyssey, which I hope to work on someday) but I knew that I didn’t have the mental and emotional energy to make them happen. If I gave up on this project, this would be it. I wouldn’t write another novel, not for a long time, perhaps not ever.

I write short stories as well and several have been published. Without that outlet and affirmation, I might have concluded that I was not good enough and given up on the novel and abandoned writing.

I also had a long-term critique partner who never failed to encourage me. Since he was unsparing in his criticisms, I could take him at his word when he said that I will Paint the Night was good enough to be published.

Had I been technologically savvy, I could have self-published. That was a path several of my literary friends took. But it seemed too daunting for someone who didn’t even own a mobile phone.

Had I more money, I could have found a hybrid publisher. There are some good ones out there. But I didn’t think it made sense to use my savings to pay for my book.

That left only one way out: try publishers directly.

By this time I had internalized the idea that an author must have an agent. I believed that dealing directly with a publisher was a task beyond an author, especially a first time one. None of my literary friends had taken that route, so there was no one to seek advice or guidance from.

Eventually I forced myself to get past that mental barrier and query publishers directly. There are many websites providing contact details of publishers who are open to querying by authors. Authors Publish Magazine, Published to Death blogspot, Reedsy and were the three I consulted. I made a list of indie publishers open to YA fantasies. On March 10, 2021, I wrote to the first ten on that list.

Within a month, three publishers responded expressing interest; mind-boggling to someone who had come to expect nothing but rejections.

Of the three, Fractured Mirror Publishing, an all-female press, stood out. They weren’t the first to respond, but they were enthusiastic from the beginning. Emily Kudeviz’s reply struck a chord: We enjoy the concept of your story, and find Allii to be a character with a lot of potential. That explained why they liked what they had read so far, and it kind of tallied with my own sense of the story. I had submitted only the first five pages as per their guidelines. The fact that they formed an idea about the story and MC from that limited exposure felt hopeful.

Emily’s initial response asking for the first fifty pages and a full synopsis came on April 1st. On September 23, she wrote to me offering the possibility of publication in 2023.

The world was still in the grip of Covid-19 and in September 2021, 2023 seemed light-years away. A lifetime too, for several people known to me had succumbed to the pandemic. Who knew whether I’d be around in 2023?

That was the mindset I was in when I had my virtual encounter with Emily and her two partners, Allison Chernutan, the art director and Alex Vicarel, an editor (the press has since expanded to include two associate directors). Setting up the chat took some doing because of my technological ignorance. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, I had to ask my sister to come and help me.

The meeting changed my mind completely. The connection I felt to the three of them was immediate. We all loved books, obviously, but we all loved dogs and cats too. All three of them had fur babies (like me) and I could see two of them while we chatted.

We had the meeting on October 21, 2021. The next day, Emily wrote with a firm offer. And I responded with an unhesitating acceptance.

I did study the contract with all due care; got it checked by a lawyer friend, and a writer friend. Sans an agent, taking care of myself was my responsibility. Still the personal chemistry was an equal factor in signing on the dotted line. I wanted to work with these three; I felt good about it.

I now know that my sense had been correct. Emily was a fantastic editor. She made my story better instead of changing it, as had happened to other writers (one had warned me that I wouldn’t recognise the story once an editor was done with it).

A professional reviewer would later say that the pacing of the book was ‘meticulously crafted’. A large chunk of the credit for that goes to Emily.

Moreover she and Allison were unfailingly patient, putting up with my insane demands and near-meltdowns as publication day neared.

I will Paint the Night came out on August 31. It still feels not quite real, after the five snake-and-ladder years.

While in query trenches I came very close to giving up, more than once. I might have but for my short stories and my marvellous critique partners/beta readers. Their positive feedback helped me when I was at the lowest ebb of writer self-confidence.

Another factor that kept me going was my own stubbornness. I would have despised myself had I given up.

Then there was Allii (Princess Albalia), the main character of my story. When you write and edit your characters and their world are as real as your family, friends, or home. Allii is engaged in a quest to find the killer of her beloved stepmother. A few times, when the odds seem insurmountable or choices heartbreaking, she thinks of quitting, but doesn’t. I wouldn’t let her. And in a strange way, when I was considering giving up, she wouldn’t let me. Quitting would have meant abandoning her. Letting her die.

As she almost did to her daemon-dog companion Spooky, when they got lost in a desert.

Almost but didn’t.

“I had only one litter-mate, a sister,” Spooky tells Allii later. “She was the feisty one, curious, bold, always adventuring. One day we were out and about when we heard the sound of a hunting party. I wanted to get back to safety. She wanted to stay a bit more, look. We argued. She wouldn’t listen to me. In the end, I left. She never came back.”

I didn’t know what to say. So I pulled Spooky to me, hugging him tight. And he let me.

After a while I said, “I too have a confession to make. In the desert, when you told me to leave you and go, I almost did.”

He looked at me, his eyes unreadable. “You almost left me, but didn’t. I almost went after my sister, but didn’t. Almost has no value. What matters is what you do, or don’t.”

I too almost gave up, but didn’t. Now I know that the years I spent trying to find an agent and then a publisher weren’t wasted. It gave me space and motivation to rework the novel again and again, bettering it.

Finishing a novel and bringing it out into the world are no different from the quests that form the heart of our stories. Just as we won’t allow our characters to give up, we mustn’t too. Our dreams must be realistic and our reality must be illuminated by our dreams. To live – and to write and publish our novels – we need both.

Once I even asked myself what Allii would have done! And knew the answer: she wouldn’t have given up, for I wouldn’t have let her.

Bio: Sam Muller loves dogs and books. Unlike her rambunctious rescues, the dogs in her stories never chew on books. Spooky, the daemon-dog in her first novel, helps his human partner Allii uncover the killer of her beloved stepmother. Spooky also gives the novel its tagline: How dangerous it is to live among humans, even for humans. I will Paint the Night is a YA fantasy/murder mystery.


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