By Kerry Nietz
I get lots of questioning stares.
The first question people normally ask me when they find out I’m a writer is: “Oh, did you have any writing courses in school?”
To which I always answer: “A technical writing course in college. Does that count?”
That’s when the questioning stares begin. I like to theorize about what might be going on inside the mind of the asker at that moment. My guess is it is something like: This guy must be joking. What sort of person has only one technical writing course in college and can now write science fiction novels? Published science fiction novels?
From there, usually one of two follow-up questions gets asked, depending on the prurience of the asker. Either “So are you self-published then?” or “Can support yourself this way?” The answer to the first question, of course, is “No.” And the answer to the second question is really “None of your business…”
One thing is true, though, I did take an odd path to being published. I grew up on a farm in rural Ohio, went to college to be a computer programmer, and spent the first eleven years of my working life as a software engineer. (For a time, though, the title on my business cards did say “software author.”)
I always read, though, always dreamed of someday having my name on the cover of a book. That’s why it isn’t too surprising that, despite my background, I took copious notes of my initial experiences in the software industry. To me, you see, the experience wasn’t just about gainful employment; it was me as a character amidst an ever evolving story. And story is everything if you’re a wannabe author.
Of course, my personal saga is also one of perseverance. The span of time between the day I left the software industry to pursue my dream of being a writer and the day I actually had my name on a cover? Almost four years.
Four years of writing and studying the craft, and rewriting, and submitting and then more study. Building my collection of rejection letters. ( If you’re an aspiring author, you know the drill. From here on out, we’ll call this the “cycle of pain.”) If you think I get questioning stares now, imagine what it was like before I was published. Most people assumed that I was sitting around with my feet up all day, including many of those closest to me.
I never was, though.
I should mention that I was single when I decided to chase my dream. No one else was bound by my decision. Imprisoned by my recklessness.
Still, imagine trying to impress a prospective date with a stack of dreams and rejection slips. Not easy! I took a calculated risk with my wife when we were dating, though. I actually let her read my work. And even though what she read was profoundly green by the standards of what I write today, there must’ve been something in it. Some hidden spark of future name-on-a-cover brilliance. Because she stuck with me. Married me.
Then in 2003 she got to see my dream become a reality. That collection of notes I’d kept as a young programmer finally became what I always hoped it would be: a published book! The product I worked on, FoxPro, always had a strong cult-like following, and a publisher who served that niche took interest in my story and helped nurse it to completion.
Success! Joy! A genuine name-on-a-cover and an amusing story told. A piece of my history carved in stone. I even got positive reviews on Amazon! Life was good.
I’ve never been one to rest on my laurels, though. A goal achieved usually means the bar has to be set higher. Plus, there was only so much of my young life history I could tell. I had all these fun ideas floating around in my head, though. In fact, the story that wooed my wife was fiction. My ultimate goal was to have a novel published. I wanted to join the ranks of some of my childhood heroes—people with names like Burroughs and Bradbury. Crichton and Clarke!
So back to the cycle: writing and studying, submission and rejection. To this I added a thorough investigation and cataloging of the publishers in The Writers Market. I also added more manuscripts to my pile of work. I wrote a coming-of-age/mystery novel. I wrote a reasonably good thriller/mystery that I even let other people read. I attended my first writer’s conference and got solid advice on writing query letters. That resulted in me getting rejections from actual people, instead of the form letters I was accustomed to.
Years went by.
I persevered. By 2005 my procedure was fairly standard. I wrote a book, edited it, let a few people read it, and then attempted to shop it around. If after a period of time the rejections piled up, I wrote something new and started the process all over again. The objective, of course, was to find the right manuscript for the right publisher at the right time. Like trying to get lightning to strike jello.
The novel that originally wooed my wife was a fantasy/science fiction hybrid with a trace of Christian allegory. After years of being clueless as to what to do with it (Try to find listings for Christian fantasy/science fiction in the 2005 Writer’s Market. I dare you.) I made a connection with someone at Zondervan who told me about a new Christian speculative fiction imprint called Realms, and its founding editor, Jeff Gerke. Unlike most publishers out there, this Gerke fellow was available to contact via email. So I queried him in regards to my fantasy hybrid.
And believe it or not, he responded, agreeing to look at my manuscript for a possible publishing contract. So with renewed hope, I sent it. It was only the second time I’d sent a full manuscript to anyone in the industry. (The first being my published non-fiction work, FoxTales.) My second time making it past the query stage…
Then I waited. Months went by. Finally, I reached the point where I had to know something. I sent Jeff a follow up note.
He responded politely: “I sent your manuscript to my fiction consultant. He found it competently written and certainly in the genre we’re after. However, he felt it didn’t stand out as compelling and outstanding enough for Realms…”
Disaster. Rejected again.
Then my attention turned to selling my mystery/thriller manuscript. One of the publishers I’d found through my Writer’s Market research did their selection process in a unique way. It was a contest mechanism, really. First, you sent them a query letter, a synopsis and the first forty pages from your book. Those got read by two readers. If they both gave it the thumbs up, then you sent the full manuscript. Two different readers read that, and if they agreed that the book was good, you got matched up with an editor and were on your way to being published.
So I sent my query, synopsis and forty pages. And I waited.
Months went by. Finally, I got an email informing me that I had made it past the first round. I started to feel a little hope! I sent my full manuscript. For those keeping score, that’s three times being past the query stage.
More months went by. Then in March of 2006, I got the word back: rejected again! Truthfully, though it was a split decision. One reader liked what I wrote, the other found it marginal. Since both weren’t thrilled, my book didn’t make the cut.
I was bummed. However, I did ask for the reviewers’ notes, which the managing editor gladly provided. What I read actually lifted my spirits. Even the reviewer who disliked my book had positive things to say. He/she just didn’t like my main character. Fixable stuff.
So I entered the cycle of pain again. More query letters, more writing and rewriting. More rejections.
Fast-forward two more years. At this point I’ve done the cycle of pain more times than I care to recall. I’ve grown tired of sending query letters, researching the Writer’s Market, trying to make useful connections. The questioning stares! Plus, I felt I may have wasted a large chunk of my life pursuing something that—despite my prayerful consideration and years of drive—might be outside of God’s will for me.
I have children now. Do I really want them to see me doing this with nothing to show for it?
It was decision time.