Monday, April 10, 2017

Purple Manuscripts, Genre Ignorance, and Other Pieces of Stephanie Morrill's Journey Of Getting Published



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.



Like Shannon mentioned on Friday in her "In 10 years, I'll be writing..." exercise, this week all three of us are sharing our individual publication stories.



I knew I wanted to be a writer from first grade on, and as I grew up, I was always writing bits of stories. Usually they involved horses or band members from New Kids On The Block. But it wasn't until high school that I began to get really serious about writing:

High School: Trying to Get My First Novel Published

My junior year, I wrote a story from beginning to end. It was probably about 30,000 words, but I didn't know that word count mattered. Or that there was a genre for young adult fiction. (I was so ignorant, I was pretty sure I had just invented a new genre.)

What I knew was that my book had chapters, I had edited it to the best of my abilities, and I was really proud of myself. I was sure it was time for me to be published.

This was in 2000, well before ebooks and the indie publishing revolution. For which I'm thankful, because I know I was impatient enough to design a cover in Word and slap it up on Amazon.

There weren’t even blogs that told you how to get published, but there were websites. So I got on publishers' websites, found their addresses, and then I printed out my manuscript and sent it to them.

I even printed it out on purple paper so that it would stand out. (Here's a video on how a manuscript should be formatted.)

When I never heard back, I started to do more than just dig up addresses. I started to actually read instructions, and I learned all these new vocab words. Like how to correctly query. And that big publishers didn't accept unsolicited manuscripts. Unless my manuscript was submitted through a literary agent, it would go to a slush pile, and the chances of it being read were slim.

I started looking for publishers who accepted unsolicited manuscripts and found there were a few, none of whom I had never heard of. I figured that publishers were more or less equal. (Um, no...)

I sent out another batch of purple manuscripts, and this time somebody wrote me back. Not only that, but they had actually read the book. The longer I’m in this industry, the more I’m convinced that this was the grace of God breaking through. Honestly, they should have taken one look at the purple paper and recycled it.

The feedback they offered was that my book was good for my age, and that it lacked a satisfying ending.

I knew that both of those were true. I stopped sending the book out—I didn’t care enough to fix the ending—and I started working on other manuscripts.

After high school: Wandering

Once I had graduated and had a bit more time on my hands, I started researching the idea of getting a literary agent. I read that you should make a list of the agents you were interested in, and then send letters out five at a time. That's what I did, and I actually had 3 out of 5 agents request the first few chapters and a synopsis. (Insert frantic scrambling to figure out what in the heck a synopsis was.)

The agents all rejected me after reading the chapters, and I lost my confidence in the story and walked away from it. Which was a good choice, honestly. I still believe there's a lot of value in quitting manuscripts.

I was learning that publication was harder than I thought it was. That I wasn't really sure what genre I wrote. My stories were all about teens, but I thought I might outgrow that. I wanted to write serious novels, like the kind you would study in English class. I didn't have any ideas for those, though. Maybe I should go to college...? Maybe I should try to write for TV...? Maybe I should become a literary agent...?

When I wasn't at my full time job, I spent a lot of time writing. I wrote fan fiction, screenplays, stories I wanted to write, and stories I thought I should want to write.

Early Twenties: "I Write YA Fiction."


I drove a stake into the ground and decided that YA fiction was my genre, The online world had become more social. I found writer specific email loops, forums, and writing organizations (like American Christian Fiction Writers or Romance Writers of America) that I could join.

And I married a really supportive man, which is critical to my publication story. My desk took up about half the living room of our first apartment. It was there that I started writing what was going to become my first published novel, Me, Just Different.

When Ben got his first job out of college and it was enough to support us, we decided that I wasn’t going to look for a job. Ben suggested that instead I could treat writing like it was my full time work, so I was fortunate enough to write 40+ hours a week for two years before we had kids. The combination of his belief in me and the time and space to write consistently made a huge difference in my growth.

Age 24: I stumble into my first contract

I was really pregnant when I went to my first big writers conference, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). (I actually met Roseanna White at this conference, because not only was she pregnant too, but we had identical leather briefcases.)
I had gone to several smaller, regional conferences, but this was my first one with multiple hundreds of writers. One of the biggest perks to going to the conference was that I had two fifteen-minute appointments, one with an editor and one with an agent. You go into a room, sit across from them at a table, and tell them about your story. It's one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.

I had been granted an appointment with the editor I had hoped for. I prayed and prayed and prayed, and I practiced my pitch for Me, Just Different about a thousand times.

And it went awful. These poor editors are trapped in the rooms all day, and they hear writer after writer, so I don’t want to be too hard on her. But I went in there, shook her hand, and told her I wrote young adult fiction. She asked me, “Do you have an agent?” and when I said no, I basically watched her tune out.

I did a lot of crying, because I was pretty sure that I had just screwed up my opportunity for getting published.

But we were in the middle of moving back to Kansas City, and I was due with McKenna in less than two months. I decided that I was just going to focus on having a baby, and that I would getting back to writing and pursuing publication at a later, undetermined date.

Several months later, I was holding my one-week-old daughter when I had an email from a literary agent who I had met at the conference. I had accidentally sat at her table at lunch one day because I was chatting with a friend and didn't realize the whole room had filled up. Because this agent had already rejected Me, Just Different once before, I gave her a half-hearted pitch. And I told her that I had made a few changes to the book thanks to her suggestions. When she asked all the others to hand in their pitch sheets, I turned mine in and never thought about the meeting again. (A pitch sheet is like a flier that you make about your books. I don't know if this still happens at conferences.)

She emailed me and said she’d been going through the pitch sheets, remembered she liked me, and that I had made changes based on her feedback. She wondered if I could send her the first couple of chapters. I sent it to her without feeling much hope that it would turn into anything. (I had a one-week-old, so really all I cared about at that time was stringing together a few hours of sleep.)

But by the time McKenna was 6 months old, the agent had read the manuscript, loved the story, and used her enthusiasm to sell it to Revell Books. Who wanted not just this book, but for it to be the first in a three-book series. I hadn't even planned on Me, Just Different being a series.

I couldn’t believe the turn in events. That somehow I had gone from deciding to indefinitely set aside publishing to signing a multi-book contract.

Age 25: I realize that I have a job.

All the choices I had made about treating writing like my job really paid off, because for the first time ever I had writing deadlines. Trying to meet those deadlines during my first year of motherhood led to a lot of stress.

On paper, I had achieved my goal. I had an agent. I was published, or at least contracted.



But holding my first book didn't feel like I had accomplished my dream. Rather, it felt like false summit. I thought I had reached the top of a mountain ... only to realize how much more of a climb was ahead of me. 

Not just writing more books, but developing a presence, a platform. I didn't have a website. I didn't even have a Facebook account, y'all. 

I had spent all these years learning how to get published, but I didn't know a thing about how to be an author. That has been a journey of its own. One of learning time management, setting boundaries, pursuing the elusive balance of creative writing and marketing, navigating disappointing sales, genre changes, and more.

Some closing thoughts on pursuing publication:

While I had many advantages along the way—encouraging parents, a supportive husband who understood the idea of investing, the luxury of taking two years off from working to write—I hope you can also see that I was clueless and bumbling for a lot of my journey. 

There was nobody in my life who wrote or knew anything about getting published, not until I was older. I researched what I could, learned from mistakes, and dedicated myself to growing as a writer.

You can't worry about pursuing publication perfectly, or you won't pursue it at all.

The reason GoTeenWriters.com exists is because of the loneliness I encountered early in my journey. That's why Jill, Shannon, and I care so much about honesty and shepherding you guys on your own unique writing journeys. That's why you bless my socks off every time you speak words of encouragement to each other in the comments or on the Facebook group.

I hope you're able to learn from my journey, and I hope you'll continue to let us partner with you on yours.

Read Jill's Story of Getting Published
Read Shannon's Story of Getting Published

32 comments:

  1. I can relate so much to the bumbling! My first query for a magazine article, I addressed it to the wrong editor, didn't include all the info they asked for, and pitched a word count they couldn't use. The editor wrote a nice reply back though, and I was able to do a different article with them.

    Being a perfectionist, that experience helped me realize that making mistakes doesn't mean the end of the world. Do your best, then be patient and humble enough to keep learning and growing.

    Thanks for sharing your encouraging story! Maybe there's hope for me yet. :)

    -Ann

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    1. Ah, perfectionism. Is it a blessing or a disease? Either way, I've had to learn to accept my weaknesses in order to progress, just like you. Congrats on that magazine article! It takes a brave heart to mail off a first pitch (something I have yet to do).

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    2. I love hearing stories of editors doing helpful things like that!

      I'm a recovering perfectionist. I'm learning there's a difference between healthy striving/doing my best and feeling shame over when my best isn't good enough.

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    3. Thank you, Olivia! If I can do it, I'm sure you can send your work out there too, when you feel the time is right. :)

      -Ann


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    4. Balance is key with almost anything--especially perfectionism.

      -Ann

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Stephanie! Sometimes it seems like there is so much to learn about the publishing industry and pitching and writing that I get discouraged because there is no way I can learn everything! When you said, "You can't worry about pursuing publication perfectly, or you won't pursue it all." I found that really encouraging. Sometimes learning comes by doing, and if I only worry about it, I won't do it and won't be able to learn even more!

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    1. There is SO much to learn. Even now, Megan, I'm learning things I didn't know about this industry.

      And, yes! Pursuing publication is a lot like learning how to write well. There's only so much you can learn in the classroom, and the rest you have to figure out by doing it yourself.

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  3. Thank you for creating this website. Before I read your posts I didn't know anything about synopsis or query letters. All I knew is that I wanted to write.
    -Emily D

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    1. I was the same way, Emily! I know all the other stuff can feel overwhelming, but hopefully by hearing our stories this week you'll see that getting published really can be done if that's what you want and you work hard.

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  4. Well, thank you so much for starting this website, Mrs. Morrill, or I would be completely lost. I don't know what I'd do without Go Teen Writers. And purple paper? What an interesting marketing technique... ;)
    I have a question about publication. I've read a lot of posts on here as well as the Go Teen Writers book, but I'm still not sure of just how important an agent is in the publication process (traditional, anyway). Does it depend on what size of company I want to publish through? How strongly would you recommend seeking out an agent prior to finding a publisher? I know you've talked about this a million times on this blog, but I confess I'm still confused.

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    1. That's because it's a very confusing topic, Olivia :)

      If you want to be traditionally published with a good house that pays an advance, you really need an agent to make that happen. Are there exceptions? Yes. But most (maybe all, though I resist using that word!) editors at mid to large size publishing houses won't look at a submission without agents.

      Sometimes at a writers conference, you might meet an editor and they might request something from you even though you don't have an agent. That's happened to friends of mine. Like you saw in my story, sometimes even in that situation, they really only want to talk to you if you have an agent.

      Why is that? I'm not an editor, but my understanding is that to an extent, editors rely on agents for quality control. Agents will only represent writers who they think they can sell, because good agents only get paid when writers get paid. So if you have an agent, an editor knows that your writing is at least good enough for an agent to have taken you on as a client.

      Many indie authors have agents as well. I'm not entirely sure how that works, but there are a lot of businessy things that come along with being a writer, whether you're traditionally or independently published.

      Does that help clear things up at all, Olivia?

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    2. Yes it does, thank you. :)

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  5. Wonderful story Stephanie! Thank you for sharing. I put off my dreams of publishing to homeschool my children, (moving 25 times didn't help either). But I did start writing professionally and it's been a joyful journey. Now that I have an empty nest and I don't have to work as much as I did in the past, I hope to pick back up where I left off in my early 20's and pursue my dreams of publishing novels. This site is such an encouragement, even to us "older" folks.

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    1. We moved a lot when I was a kid, but I can't imagine moving 25 times! I bet you have loads of stories to tell now :) So glad you hang out with us, Cindy!

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  6. This website was the first one I stumbled across when I was first looking into writing about a couple years ago going, "What in the world do I do? I've never even *finished* a story before!" Thanks to you guys here I have actually finished several stories and have found my God given calling in writing. And thank you for saying you were nervous about the whole thing. I tend to think I'm the only one at times even though I know I'm not, and shows me that I did the right thing in seeking advice on the first five pages of my novel from another person. Now with her advice and my own nick picking I'll have a better story than before, worthy of being published one day. Thank you so much for sharing! This was truly inspiring. :)
    *Sarah

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    1. Sarah, I'm so glad you found Go Teen Writers!

      When I story ends nicely (happily married or getting published or whatever it is) I think it's easy to forget that you felt nervous and unsure. Or that it seemed a little crazy at the time. It's definitely normal!

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  7. This site has improved my writing so much--it's given me advice I've never thought about before. I'm so glad you didn't give up!

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  8. I'm so you're doing this series! I've been following this blog for awhile (almost since it first began), and it has really, really improved my writing.

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    1. I'm so touched that you've hung around all these years, Meaghan! What a huge impact that makes on our community.

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  9. Thanks so much for sharing! I often wish I could hear 'success' stories from established authors, just the truth of how they did it, in their own words. It's encouraging that even you guys started out where we did. Gives me hope! ;-)

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  10. I feel like my work will never be good enough to be published. :\

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    1. :( Well, that's depressing. I feel that way sometimes, LHE, but I think if you go back to why you started a particular story or how exiting it was to finally write that one special scene, I think you'll see hope. Memory is a good tool. :) Keep writing, LHE! I'll root for you.

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    2. Thank you, Olivia! You made my day. :)
      Maybe if I see how special it is to me, I'll keep on working and giving it my all. You really encourage me. :D

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    3. I'm glad. :) Thank you.

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  11. I love hearing about different writers' journeys! This was so encouraging to read--a reminder that everyone starts somewhere, that everyone's path looks a little different, and that I'm so blessed to have a treasure trove of advice on blogs like this one. :)

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  12. This blog post hit home for me. I started my first novel when I was 12, queried when I was 14, and was POSITIVE that it would be published. I had agents say it was great for my age, and to keep writing. One agent sent me three emails full of tips and resources, and that agent has since read my second novel, requested an R&R, ultimately tutned it down, but requested my third book, which is currently in the works. I got incredibly discouraged after my first book was unsuccessful, and didn't write for almost two years in high school. Then in my senior year, I started my second book, finished a year later, researched how to query the right way, and sent out over 50 pitches for WHAT LIES ABOVE. Aside from the R&R, another agent has the full now, but no offers.

    Long story short, my journey as a young teen writer shaped the writer I am today. Your journey is so inspiring, and it is another reminder to me to keep persevering. Thank you!

    -Caitlin @ Quills & Coffee
    www.caitlinlambert.com/blog

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    1. Just realized I spelled the word "turned" wrong *smacks forehead* 😅

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  13. What a fantastic story, Steph! I don't think I realized how far behind you guys I really am.

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  14. "I had spent all these years learning how to get published, but I didn't know a thing about how to be an author." Is something I can relate to :) Maybe not the purple manuscript, but something similar to the statement here. Any advice on how to be an author?

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    1. Melanie, I absolutely love this question! I had planned to kinda, sorta talk about that on Monday, but I had been struggling with my post. You asking this helped me clarify what I was trying to talk about. Thank you! I'll answer in detail on Monday.

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