It took me ten years to make my first short story sale, “The Haunting of Princess Elizabeth,” to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress Vol. 17. I’ve never counted how many rejections I collected before then — too scary. Part of the reason it took me ten years to sell a story is I started submitting them when I was 16, and I wasn’t a very good writer. Very few people are good writers at age 16. I took a long time just learning how to write, and am a poster child for persistence. I actually recommend starting young — I was naive and thought it would be easy. By the time I realized how hard selling a story was going to be, the motions — writing, sending out stories, collecting rejections — was habit and I just kept doing it.
I didn’t sell the first novel I wrote. Or the second, or the third. In retrospect, I think I could have if I had tried a little harder, but a funny thing happened: by the time I started getting rejections on the first novel, I’d written the second, and it was a lot better. So I stopped sending around the first one and started sending the second. Then it happened again — the third novel was much better than the second. I also wrote two novels that I didn’t bother sending out. But I was learning a ton about how to write novels.
Then I wrote Kitty and The Midnight Hour. I’d spent five years writing “practice” novels at that point, and the Kitty idea had been brewing for several years as well. This preparation converged with excellent timing in the market. (So yes, there was some luck involved in this whole process.) My previous novels were all traditional fantasy, the usual fighters and thieves and magicians in a pseudo-medieval world. But Kitty was urban fantasy, and it started making the rounds right at the moment that every publisher and their brother’s dog were looking for urban fantasy. I never could have predicted the boom in that particular genre when I started submitting Kitty in 2003.
Still, the road to that point wasn’t exactly smooth. I fired my first agent. That’s a long story that I’d rather not go into, even though this blog is supposed to be talking openly about such things. It was traumatic, because getting an agent is such a big deal, and when I realized it wasn’t working out I felt like I’d lost a year of my career. A year of my life. I went to the World Fantasy Convention that fall, met lots of magazine editors and such, and realized I didn’t have a single short story on any of their desks. I didn’t have anything in the mail at all. I hadn’t sold a short story in something like year. It was the lowest point in my career, and the closest I came to quitting. But I came home from the convention and put a bunch of stuff in the mail — queries, stories, everything. Then in December, I got a positive response to a couple of my agent queries: send the manuscript. Those are magic words. In February 2004, I signed with my current agency. In August, I got the offer from Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing) for the first two Kitty books.
From what I gather listening to other writers, my numbers — ten years to sell a short story, four tries to sell a novel — are about normal. In fact, this seems to fit right in with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice idea making the rounds.
I tell people I got published the old-fashioned way: I wrote a lot of stuff, I sent out a lot of stuff, and eventually I made a sale. And after the first sale, I just had to do it all over again.