How I got a book deal in three weeks (plus nine years)
I can’t remember the moment I decided to take writing seriously.
It was sometime before I realized doing a Master’s degree in creative writing was as good an excuse as any to move to London, and sometime after I wrote a moderately popular Twilight fan fiction. So, around 2010.
In September 2011, I brought three over-packed suitcases to Minneapolis airport and hauled my life to London. A one-year Master of Arts turned into a two-year Master of Fine Arts. In October 2013, I graduated with a well-graded 50,000 word manuscript that had changed genres three times, about US$60,000 in student loan debt, and the kind of fresh-faced confidence I would soon be published that one can only have when they have ignored everything the published authors in their degree have been telling them for two years.
I was going to be different. I was going to beat the odds. I was going to have a book deal within the year.
Reader, I did not.
Four part-time jobs, two cross-country moves, one wedding, two years, and one revise-and-resubmit stood between me and signing with my incredible literary agent, Sharon.
After that, another four years and two shelved manuscripts went by. In those years, I had become one of the millions of people obsessed with true crime podcasts after hungrily bouncing from recommendation to recommendation after inhaling Serial. It made sense, then, to turn my passion for criminal justice reform and my love of true crime podcasts into a book. That’s how LIKE CLOCKWORK was born. I’d like to say this manuscript flowed out of me differently than the others, or that I turned it into Sharon as a flawless draft that needed no edits. Neither is true, though.
I started from scratch on the first chapter at least four separate times. I wrote all the way to the end, got notes from a few critique partners, and even hired a freelance editor to review the manuscript—and then ultimately rewrote the whole thing all over again after getting notes from my agent.
Finally, in August this year, we were ready to send it out to editors. The first time I went on sub, back in 2015, I was sure I was going to get a book deal. I hadn’t even considered the possibility it wouldn’t sell, because I hadn’t been exposed to enough publishing stories at that time to know that books not selling happened all the time. This time, after shelving two manuscripts that had spent a year on submission each, I was still optimistic—but cautious.
I knew there was something different about this manuscript compared to the others. It was less experimental, while still being fresh and unique—at least I hoped so. It had a solid hook and a clear place on the shelves, something that had been trickier with the genre-bending aspects of my previous two. Still, I didn’t want to be heartbroken. If this one didn’t work, I knew I was going to have a hard time not wanting to give up.
So, a week before we went on sub with LIKE CLOCKWORK, I took a drastic accountability step: I got a writer tattoo. I had wanted it for a while, but this would serve as a permanent reminder. I couldn’t back out of this now. Regardless of whether I was published, I was a writer.
Turns out, accountability would come in another even more exciting form. Two weeks after we sent it out—the blink of an eye in publishing time—we had two editors interested in my manuscript. A couple days later, I woke up to an email from Sharon that I had been dreaming about for four years: an editor wanted to set up a phone call with me.
I think I gasped and choked at the same time, and my husband thought I was under attack because I yelled his name so loud while he was in the other room. Juggling the time zones (it was the end of the day for the editor and 6am for me when I got the email), we set up a call for the midnight that night, 10am in New York. Staying up that late is normally impossible for me, but as soon as I got on the phone with Jaime, I woke right up.
She just got my book, and she was so excited about it. I think we spent the first twenty minutes just talking about it, while I was pacing around my study with a big dumb grin on my face. It was such an incredible feeling to hear an editor not only say she liked my book, but pull out specific moments and scenes that she loved. She also had some great ideas for ways to improve the manuscript, and once she heard more about what I was trying to accomplish with it, she had suggestions for how to bring out those themes and moments to make them stronger.
After more than an hour of talking with her, I was a little delirious from exhaustion and adrenaline so I’m not really sure what I said except “thank you, thank you” about a thousand times. We hung up after she promised to be in touch after their acquisitions meeting the next week.
Of course, I had to scream in the DMs of a couple close friends, tell my husband and family, but mostly I couldn’t say anything. I’d been working towards this moment for years, but I also knew that it wasn’t official yet. Acquisitions meetings don’t always go to plan, and there was every possibility she’d have to come back with bad news. I kept my phone on Monday night, knowing that most of the business day in New York would pass while I was sleeping, and hoped for a call to wake me up.
When I woke up and there was still no news, I started to panic a little. It was 4pm on Monday in New York and still no update! What if the news was bad? But then, just before close of business in New York, I got an update from my agent saying that not only did the acquisitions meeting go well and they were just waiting on some details, but another house was now interested and wanted to set up a call for a couple days later!
That night, I couldn’t help myself—I slept restlessly and kept waking up to check my phone, having let my agent know she could call in the middle of the night if she needed to. I woke up to another email from her answering some questions I’d asked the previous day, which I responded to right away. A few minutes after I sent my response, she called to let me know I had gotten an official offer from Jaime!
I sat on the phone listening and trying to process through a caffeine-free, sleep-deprived, joy-stunned fog as she walked me through all the elements of the offer and what her strategy would be considering we had two other editors who had expressed interest. My husband walked into the room, getting ready for work, and when he saw I was on the phone, he left and came back with the bottle of champagne he’d bought to celebrate if I got the offer. It was 6:30 in the morning, but we had to pop it and share a glass anyway 🥂
The next day, I woke up to several emails from my agent. She had updates about the first offer and a few passes from other editors. But then a third editor had gotten back to her to say she was loving the manuscript and was trying to get second reads too! By the time I woke up for my call with the second editor the following morning (I saw the early side of 5am every day that week!), my agent had scheduled a call with the third editor for right after the second.
The calls went great, and I got along with both of the other editors. They each had wonderful things to say about the book, and ideas for how to make the manuscript as strong as it could be. I finished the calls feeling exhilarated but exhausted, and incredibly grateful I had taken the day off. After a few excited phone calls with my husband, best friend, and parents, I crashed on the couch and watched about ten episodes of Parks and Recreation.
The next morning—one week after my late-night phone call with the first editor and three weeks after we first sent out the manuscript—I had two offers to choose from. I knew I couldn’t really make a wrong decision, but in my gut, I felt that I got along with the editor from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt the best—and her vision for the manuscript resonated with me the most. I told Sharon I wanted to accept Jaime’s offer.
In another beautiful moment of serendipity, I went through my emails and realized that it was four years to the day since I signed my agency agreement with Sharon and Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. What a way to celebrate.
So there you have it! That’s how I got my book deal in three weeks—plus about nine years before that.