Debut Author Shaun Harris Describes His Journey to Publication: Query Angry

I’m very pleased to host ITW Debut Author, Shaun Harris as a guest blogger this week. Shaun Harris grew up the son of a homicide detective in Southern New England. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with degrees in both American Studies and Film and Television. 

As such he has a crippling obsession with Fighting Irish Football. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife, two kids, and a dog. Jim Rockford is his spirit guide. The Hemingway Thief is his first novel.

Query Angry

Last week Stephen Hunter posted an article on Buzzfeed and I can’t believe I just started this by referencing Buzzfeed. Regardless, stay with me. Mr. Hunter posited that in order to get published you have to write every day and if you don’t write every day then you should quit. There may have also been something in there about dedication to craft, effort, and stick-to-itiveness, but I can’t be certain because I only skimmed it. I’m sure there will be many think pieces in response to his article and I’m sure I will, at best, skim those as well. This article isn’t about that. It’s about filling a thousand words because I promised Elena I would and because, much like poor Desmond pressing the button in Lost, if I don’t write every day the world will end.
Also it’s about Luck.
My first novel, The Hemingway Thief,came out last year. I wrote it in 2010. It took me four months to write and five years to sell. Most of the interim was spent looking for an agent. One of the unfortunate, yet unavoidable, parts of the publishing industry is the querying process. The tracking down and landing an agent part of the game is a completely different skill set than the one needed to write a novel. It’s like a baseball player trying to move on to cricket. I suppose, I don’t really know anything about cricket except for what Peter O’Toole explained in King Ralph. I recommend anyone trying to hone these skills, querying not cricket, to head on over to Janet Reid’s blog QueryShark. That’s where I learned how to write a query letter and everything else about agent hunting.
Now The Hemingway Thief is my first novel to be published, but it is not the first one that I wrote. That honor belongs to a bloated 100,000 plus word manuscript that I buried in the backyard and had a Voodoo priest say a couple of nice words over to make sure that it never came back. As terrible as it was, however, it gained the notice of an agent, who liked it and worked with me on it for a month, promising the whole time that when it was ready he would sign me. It was an exciting time to be alive in the Harris household. Then the agent’s boss died, which was not great, and the agent decided to leave the business, which was tragic. His parting words to me were to quit the business as books were dying as a medium. He suggested I go into the finance industry as he was doing. This was June of 2008, by the way. Yes, God loves me. 
Instead of despairing, I mean, after I despaired for several weeks, I decided to write another book while still querying on the old one. I added it up a while ago and I think I sent out over seventy queries on that first book. I took a shotgun approach and by that I mean a sawed-off shotgun wielded by a blind man on cocaine approach. Eventually, I finished the Hemingway Thief, put the first manuscript aside (the Voodoo priest was called in at this point), and moved on to a new query letter. I sent it to some of the same people and some new ones. Learning my lesson from the last time I started a new novel almost immediately. My first child was also born around this time, but who keeps track of such distractions.
I got a couple of bites and a few requests for the full manuscript for The Hemingway Thief, but once I finished the new book, a semi-sequel to Thief, I decided to move on once again. I started querying for the new book. At this point it had been about six years since I first started writing for realsies (realsies is an industry term meaning you open a Word file for the first time since college). It was looking more and more like I was going to be a professional stay-at-home Dad, which is awesome work if you can get it, and maybe I would write another book some day, but probably not. Then it happened. An agent called me, yes, called me, with an actual phone and everything. He loved the new book and wanted to sign me, but first he wanted to do a little editing.
Editing. If at some time in the Spring of 2014 you felt a gust of uncommonly bitter wind carrying along the faint whisper of a thousand curses, that was the sigh I let out at that moment.
But I went along and did the edits, and to be honest the book was better for them. The back and forth lasted about a month and at the end of the month this agent told me to wait by the phone. And he called just as he said he would. And he said he was no no longer interested.
It occurs to me, just now, that my hunt for an agent was eerily similar to my dating life in high school.

So, frustrated, some would use the phrase “massively pissed off”, I did the thing that I always do when I get a rejection; I send out a bunch of queries. Ordinarily I would not suggest sending queries while angry. Mistakes can be made. In fact, mistakes were made and I sent the query for the new book along with the first five pages of The Hemingway Thief. I did not realize this until a couple of days later when I got a full request, but the agent couldn’t decide which book she wanted. Don’t try this at home kids. I’m a professional. 

She signed me, but that’s not the punchline. I’m not sure there really is a punchline in this story. It’s more like a death slog of rejection and frustration, but hey, that’s what I signed up for. The coda then, we’ll call it a coda, is that this agent was not the agent that sold my book although she made a great effort until she too left the business. She was great and a wonderful guide for me. In the end she helped set me up with my current agent who is a bulldog and a good friend (though I have never actually met him, he may very well be a sentient telephone for all I know).

The point, if you’ve stayed with me this long, is that after eight years between typing the first line of a book and selling one there was a lot of ups and downs. I didn’t write every day. In fact, I didn’t write every week. I did stick with it though. The important thing is that I didn’t give up. I kept going. So there’s your bit of wisdom which I guess could have been summed up with a poster of a kitten hanging from a branch. Hang in there, kids.

Thanks for joining me this week, Shaun, and sharing your story! Looking forward to seeing you at ThrillerFest and celebrating your debut novel with the rest of the ITW Debut Authors!

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jenny Milchman

    I felt that wind in 2014!! It blew me over. That was when my second novel came out, was on the octagon in Barnes & Noble, ie, primo prime placement…and still didn't sell as well as my first. I believe this is known as the debut effect. IOW, the sticking with it just keeps getting us…stuck.

    Then finally one day we unstick our fingers and toes and realize we have something of a career. And one day after that, maybe even more.

    Thanks for sharing your journey with so many LOL lines, and welcome to the next phase of the game.

  2. SapphireSavvy

    Wow! This is not only so much like my own journey, but also like an article I recently wrote for publication in a magazine. It is titled "Don't get even–get mad" to encourage writers to KEEP QUERYING no matter what happens. No matter what! The odds are stacked against you and you just have to keep going. The publishing world is shrinking even as it opens at the same time.

  3. Rich Zahradnik

    Shaun, congratulations on debuting at ITW. It was an honor to be part of the class three years ago. Your tale resonated, as it's a parallel universe version of my long, suddenly short journey toward publication. I had a manuscript that needed an exorcist rather than a Voodoo priest. An agent who quit to get an MBA to become a VC (the dot-com boom was on, dontcha know). And then there were the ways our universes Venn diagrammed. The unending slog through Query-Land, with all its rules, laws and hierarchies. Most importantly… your conclusion. And mine. Don't give up. When asked, I tell people I got published because of all the people who gave up over those many years, clearing the field. Best of luck with "The Hemingway Thief" and enjoy ThrillerFest.

Comments are closed.