My Path into the Publishing Jungle

With the economy tumbling, I blissfully gave up my job to re-invent myself in my 40s and write a book. Here’s how that worked out.

(Originally published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 2012. Illustration by Mark Hoffer.)

By Julia Heaberlin

Path into Publishing

When people ask me about the process of writing a book, I think they are expecting the romantic version about the magical place where ideas come from. So I generally don’t tell them about the bitterly cold Wednesday morning that I sat crying in the middle of my empty street with dog poop all over my gloves.

I’d already cried once that morning, as soon as I woke up. I muffled it into my pillow as my son and husband got ready for school and work. I was vaguely wondering whether I needed a therapist. Mostly, I was wondering whether, after 31/2 years of writing and trying to get a book published, I should just admit that the dream wasn’t going to happen. Whether I should go back and get a real job, if there was one to be had.

Not so long ago, I had been a newspaper editor with a successful career and a decent ego, not this sniveling mess.

My 90-pound dog, Ollie, was in a mood that morning, too. He had yanked me out the door and skittered us across the icy patches on the street until I landed hard on my tailbone. While he twirled around me like a mad Olympic skater, I sat there stinking of dog poop and thought about yesterday’s rejection letter. And the one before. And the many before that.

This book is too small for us.

It’s hard to categorize—not quite a mystery and not quite a thriller.

While Julia is obviously (fill-in-the-blank with something positive here), I’m afraid I do not feel strongly enough about this manuscript to publish it.

My son would classify this self-involved moment in the middle of the street in a nice suburban neighborhood as a “First World pain,” referring to that Twitter hashtag where people whine about things like how their walls are too close to their pool tables.

But for me, it was a tipping point. I was going to give up on this dream, or I wasn’t.

Ollie dragged me home. We entered a house that hadn’t been cleaned in two weeks. A pile of my son’s dirty laundry covered a good portion of the kitchen floor. There were dishes in the sink. There was no plan for supper for the two people counting on me to make it.

I tossed my gloves in the trash and washed my hands. I gave Ollie a treat. And then I did what I’d done almost every day for the past 3 1/2 years.

I sat down at my computer and began to write.

At a jumping-off point

I am one of the lucky ones. It was my choice to reinvent myself this late in life, at age 45, more than thirty years after I curled up with Rebecca on the window seat my father built for me and dreamed of writing a book.

I wanted out of the frenetic, chasing-my-tail lifestyle of working for a corporation. My husband and I had set aside a nest egg for this little experiment. We sat at the kitchen table and drew up a budget. For the first time in our lives, we would operate on one income. I quit my job as an assistant managing editor at the Star-Telegram in the Features department and blindly stepped into the abyss.

It’s good that we didn’t know what was coming. For the next five years, the economy tanked and stocks flailed. We incurred credit card debt and stopped contributing to our retirement account. We eliminated vacations and worried about whether we could send our son to the “reach” college on his list.

All around me I see talented career professionals and loyal workers in their 40s and 50s whose futures were decided one day by someone else. They are being kicked out of longtime jobs and forced to reinvent themselves at a time in their lives when they thought they would be coasting (literally, on sailboats and cruises). Some have struggled financially to get their kids through college, only to have them back at home four years later, sending out résumés and working at Target and the Cheesecake Factory.

Almost as soon as I left the paper, our air conditioner and washing machine died, nipping into our nest egg, the first hint that we were not prepared. Furloughs and pay cuts and the fear of layoffs loomed ahead for my husband, also an editor at the Star-Telegram.

Meanwhile, the book-publishing industry had entered its own tailspin. Major publishers such as Random House and Simon & Schuster laid off a significant number of employees. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of Philip Roth, for heaven’s sake, ordered an unprecedented freeze on accepting manuscripts. Chains like Borders, not to mention multitudes of independent bookstores across North America, were fighting for their lives as the rise of e-books and Amazon threatened to destroy traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.

Toughest of all, editors at major publishing houses were looking for a sure thing. The decision to buy a book was mostly being made by committee, so your book had to please everyone around the table.

But I was blindly optimistic and a little foolish, kind of like a pregnant woman who hasn’t yet done battle with her incorrigible, screaming baby in the middle of the night. I didn’t examine the statistical improbabilities that my book would ever be published. Instead, I spent a year writing Playing Dead, a twisty little mystery, not the Great American novel. Then I held my breath and sent out a batch of query letters to reputable agents, who are slammed with hundreds of inquiries a week.

Agent of change

Pam Ahearn, the agent who said yes, would wind up changing my life. She was also tough as hell and didn’t mince words. My book wasn’t ready. She put it through her editorial wringer before she would even consider laying it out there for the publishing wolves to munch on.

My agent began sending out Playing Dead in June 2008. The rejections flew back over e-mail. Pam forwarded them on to me, usually without comment. She told me to start my next book.

In the beginning, the rejections were OK. I held fast to the knowledge that, at the time, one of Pam’s clients was Steve Berry, the author of New York Times bestselling historical thrillers like The Amber Room and The Jefferson Key. He famously got 85 rejections and wrote eight manuscripts during 12 years before his first book exploded as soon as it hit the market. Pam had been in the eye of the storm before.

But it got old, getting the rejections. Sometimes it was clear that the editor hadn’t even read the book. So I clung to the rejection letters that were nice, particularly one from a top editor at Random House who sent back a more personal note with encouraging words.

I clung to my husband, too, who never once asked: “What have you done all day?” He had some kind of blind faith in me that every dreamer needs.

“You can do it,” he’d say at night in bed. “You’re good. You’re close.”

I pushed on.

It took eight months to write my second thriller, Lie Still, about a New Yorker plunged into a bizarre circle of rich women in a small Texas town.

The cycle of rejection began again. I sat in the middle of my icy street and cried. And then something unusual happened in the world of busy New York editors who say they don’t have time to invest in “maybes.”

An assistant editor at St. Martin’s wrote a short, intelligent critique of the second manuscript, and said she’d look at it again after I worked on it. This was my shot, I was sure.

She rejected it again.

But I didn’t know then how very grateful I would be. Because my agent also sent the revised version back to the encouraging editor at Random House, who had rejected the book only a few months before and my first one a year before that.

Surely, surely a hopeless cause.

Then I got the call.

Finding your ‘hard core’

The worst part about reinventing yourself in this godforsaken economy is not about the money, although that is certainly part of it.

It is the effect on your confidence. It’s like your ego is being constantly whipped around on a pinball table by a capricious boy.

People are alternately wondering: “Do I have value?” and “Why is the world run by selfish idiots?”

I told a friend of mine at lunch recently that if I’d known how hard it would be to start over, I wonder if I would have done it. I followed that with, “But I’ve never been happier. More free. Or had less money.”

Kate Miciak, vice president/editorial director at Random House, bought my second book and also changed her mind about the first one, Playing Dead, which is launching Tuesday. After I lived through a brief period of pure joy, she proceeded to vigorously mark up my manuscript in red pen and give me a master’s class in thriller writing. But I was tough by now. Every word wasn’t precious. This was the prize.

Every now and then I look back and wonder what made me persist. I guess it comes down to a little hard core inside of us, and the people, sometimes strangers, who make sure we can always find it.

Because when you’re being batted about, it’s the little things.

One of my writer friends regularly made fun of my snottier rejection letters. A baseball mom introduced me as her “author friend” long before I ever got a contract. Lisa Scottoline, a New York Times bestselling novelist who rode in an elevator with me at a thriller writers’ convention, read my nametag and asked me about my writing.

Every moment like that was a little push forward.

Of course, my 17-year-old son will tell you there can be a down side for those destined to fly too close to a dreamer.

“What did you observe about my journey to writing a book?” I asked him the other night.

“Well,” he said, “you’re more volatile. The food isn’t as good as it used to be.”

“Did you ever doubt that I could do this?”

“No,” he said sincerely. “You were working really hard at it. I figured it would happen.”

Like father, like son.

“Did you learn anything about not giving up?”

“Not really.”

I persisted. I was a writer looking for material.

“Did you learn anything at all?”

He gave me a familiar grin.

“Don’t try to write a book.”

Meet the grateful realist

So there you go: My dream was realized, but not at all in the way I expected. The advance was extremely decent for a first-time author, but it is portioned out in seven payments over two years. If you add up all the hours and years and money I spent getting to this point, I’m still working at a poverty-level wage. But I’m thankful. Realistic. Calloused from all that rejection, which is not such a bad thing.

There are still dirty clothes piled on the kitchen floor, dishes in the sink, people who are frustrated that I burned the chicken on the grill because I buried my head in a manuscript.

But I see a different endgame now. While the fame-seekers on TV and in social media race to “brand” themselves, I believe there are plenty of us rebranding our values instead. The economy forced us to seek shelter inside our heads. That’s where we figured out a few things.

Do I hope the royalties roll in like the tide of a shimmering blue sea? Will I be OK if they don’t?

Yes and yes. Money should never rule.

It worries me when I hear my friends talk about their kids’ dreams, as if this economy is a reason for them not to pursue them. I struck up a conversation the other day with a mother walking at the park while her home-schooled daughters took part in a field trip. We talked about the usual things. How many miles it was around the loop. What our kids are into.

She shared that her oldest daughter, who is about to go to college, wants to be a dancer. It’s not that this mother was disapproving; in fact, she was very proud. But she was also doubtful, and dreamers can pick up that scent like a dog.

I handed her one of my crisp new business cards with my book cover on it.

“She should go for it,” I told her impulsively. “It took me 35 years to realize my dream. But that isn’t the way it has to be.”

I was a stranger in the park offering advice that sounded straight out of a Lifetime movie.

Still, I hope it meant something.

What would the world be without dancers?