F*ck the entire film and television industry.
I’m going to try writing a novel.
This was the expletive-laden headspace I found myself in at the end of 2020. After a series of highs and lows that rivaled the French Alps seen through an acid trip, I’d hit the end of my rope with film and television, a business that I’d moved cross-country to pursue with great idealism seven years prior.
I was the textbook definition of burned out—run ragged from constant disappointment, false starts, and even falser promises from the industry powers-that-be. I felt like an old, grizzled side character from a 1940s noir film—the type of guy you’d find sitting at the bar a couple of stools over from the story’s protagonist, chain-smoking as he glugged down whiskey, neat, and talked about how everything was going to hell to anyone who would listen (and, simultaneously, to no one in particular).
On paper, I’d had some success, sure—I won a major screenwriting competition, signed with representation, did the extensive “water bottle tour” of general meetings (it’s soul-suckingly monotonous, in case you’re wondering), had scripts packaged by A-List producers, and even wrote and co-produced an ultra-low budget thriller (a film that eventually got released across the world in late 2021)—but it was the hard-to-quantify-exactly type of success.
I was above the level of a “screenwriter looking to break in,” but below the type of success where you’re more than just a faceless name on the 402nd submission email an executive has gotten that day. Putting it bluntly, screenwriters at my level are little more than interchangeable cogs, afterthoughts for that executive as they close their email and head off to their three hour “business lunch” at Spago.
It’s not a fun head space to be in.
So, after a phone call from my literary manager, where he told me that, for the third time in six months, a project of mine being packaged by a “can’t miss” producer had fallen through, I decided that I needed to—nay, had to—change gears and work a different creative muscle. For my sanity.
And with that, in January 2021, I sat down to write my debut novel.
One catch: I really had no idea what the hell I was doing.
Granted, I wasn’t coming into the publishing sphere completely uneducated. I grew up with a mother who is a New York Times bestselling historical fiction novelist, and my day job at Book Pipeline had exposed me to the nuanced realities of the publishing industry landscape through my constant dealings with authors, lit agents, and publishers of all stripes. So, even though I had never crafted a novel of my own, I knew what not to do. But, even armed with that information and knowhow (and my propensity for quickly developing plot due to my screenwriting background), I still could feel that cursed imposter syndrome setting up camp in my gut, a disruptive, loud-as-shit tenant, if there ever was one.
But I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
So, after handing Mr. Imposter a strongly worded eviction notice, I changed the locks on him, took a deep breath, and got to work.
What came out after a year of one-step-forward-two-steps-backward labor was Blue Ridge—a crime/murder mystery novel told through the dueling first person POVs of polar-opposite twin brothers in contemporary rural Virginia. I did draft after draft, workshopping it to an inch of its life with some of my most trusted readers, ensuring that character arcs were fully realized and plot points were earned with conviction. I got brutally honest notes—each set more incisive than the next. I spent hours upon hours revising my query letter, perfecting each line to trumpet every ounce of its commercial appeal. All told, the entire process was the most difficult creative undertaking of my life.
But was it the most rewarding? You bet your ass.
For the first time in … a long time, I felt confident in my work. In myself. And in February 2022, I carved out my place in the querying trenches, convinced that my time in them would be short-lived.
*Insert a loudly sarcastic, emphatic Larry David-style laugh here.*
Over the course of eight months, I queried just over 100 literary agents. Some I had personal relationships with, others were “cold calls” (not actual phone calls, mind you—please do NOT EVER do that, reader). Out of those 100-and-change agent queries, I received 10 full manuscript requests. Which is certainly a respectable ratio, but the process exposed me to every single type of “no” imaginable: the “it’s just not right for my list” no. The “I love the writing, but …” no. Even the dreaded “I’m ghosting you and no response means no” no. Looking at my submissions tracking spreadsheet became more and more demoralizing by the day.
No matter how thick your skin, it’s very difficult to look at that many rejections in one group and have a decent opinion of yourself, and my self-worth was plummeting faster than the Dow Jones on Black Monday of 1929.
The urge to slip back into that 1940s noir burnout alter ego was growing by the hour.
Had I just wasted more than a year of my life?
Was I just a nebbish, foolish writer who had bitten off more than he could chew in delusions of grandeur?
I was just about to put Blue Ridge in a drawer and start on something else, when the impulse that got me into all of this in the first place struck again:
One of the (many) advantages for writers that the publishing industry has is you’re able to directly submit to some small to mid-size indie presses, no agent required. This opportunity does not exist in the film and television world. And these aren’t no-name, podunk presses either—they’re top-shelf, award-winning publishers with clout. I had been so single-mindedly focused on achieving the Mt. Everest of authordom—publishing with a Big 5 house (a feat only accomplishable through literary representation)—that I had completely bypassed this step.
So, I rolled the dice on Blue Ridge one last time, sending out 14 submissions to indie presses with good reputations in the mystery/thriller/suspense space.
It couldn’t hurt, right?
And lo and behold—I got two offers of publication within two weeks of one another.
And after a frenzied period of negotiating contract terms, royalty rates, and subsidiary rates on my own behalf, I opted to sign with Level Best Books, a critically acclaimed and widely respected small press. Blue Ridge will be released worldwide in January 2024. All because I heeded the stubborn insistence of that f*ck it impulse.
So, next time you’re a crossroads in your creative journey?
Don’t be afraid to say f*ck it.
Because it might just be the catalyst for a career defining moment.
*Feature image by Fran_kie (Adobe)
Unpublished contest is exclusively for unpublished manuscripts across eight categories of fiction and nonfiction.