"Path to Publication" Recap

(Photo Courtesy of mendhak)

Wow, I can't believe my debut novel ESSENCE is out in the world! I also can't believe I have successfully completed my nine-part "Path to Publication" series. I hope you have enjoyed it; it has certainly been a (cathartic) pleasure to write.

In case you missed any of my posts, here is the full list of links and topics. Hopefully they will help convince you to likewise never give up on your dreams.

As Anais Nin once said, "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."

Have a wonderful day!

The Path to Publication, Part Six: Eating Some Humble Pie

(Photo Courtesy of Jonathan McIntosh)

Thanks so much for tuning in to the sixth installment of my running series, “The Path to Publication.” When we last left off, I had just poured my heart into my first novel THE MERMAID GENE only to sign with the wrong literary agent and find myself dropped as a client within the first four and a half months of our contract.

To say I was devastated would be an understatement. In between tears of frustration and grief, I questioned why I'd ever wanted to do this in the first place.

In that moment, I also realized I had two choices. I could retreat back into my corner and let this setback define me, or I could make the decision to rise above it.

The only problem was, I didn’t have anything to rise above it with.

THE MERMAID GENE was basically dead in the water. More than 20 YA publishers had already theoretically rejected it, and that meant only a handful of potential publishers remained. (I say theoretically because… Well, forget it. That part of the story is beside-the-point.) Suffice it to say, THE MERMAID GENE’s chances did not look good.

I had also started a new project a few months prior, but I was only about two-thirds of the way through with it, so it looked like I was back to Square One again. And needless to say, Square One was a very sad and hopeless-looking place.

But there was this niggling sense of wrongdoing I couldn’t shake. And after much thought, I finally pinpointed it: I had chosen the wrong literary agent. And even if the first agent who offered me a contract for THE MERMAID GENE never responded to my apology, she needed to hear it.

So I sat down and stared at my computer for awhile. And then I finally wrote this email:

Dear Hannah Bowman c/o Liza Dawson Associates:

Hi Hannah, it's Lisa [Ann O’Kane] from last fall. I am writing you today to let you know that I definitely made the wrong choice when I accepted representation for THE MERMAID GENE from the other agency instead of from you. (Turns out that sometimes when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.)

Things did not work out with the other agency the way I had planned, and I will soon be looking for representation again. I am in the process of writing my next novel (a YA coming-of-age set in Yosemite that hopefully combines Alex Garland's THE BEACH with Maurice Sendak's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE), and I would be honored if you would consider another query from me when I am finished.

(This is me with my tail between my legs.)

I hope all is well with you, and I hope to be ready to submit again by mid-summer. Thanks again for your enthusiasm about THE MERMAID GENE; I can appreciate now more than ever what an amazing agent you would have been if I had made the correct choice the first time around. Have a great afternoon.


I don’t know what I expected to happen next. I think I thought I would never hear from Hannah again, but she surprised me by responding two days later with this email:

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for getting in touch. I'm sorry to hear the other agency didn't work out for you.

I would definitely love to see your next project whenever it's finished. Is this [references an idea I mentioned to her in the fall], or is it a new project?

Out of curiosity, are you still looking for new representation for THE MERMAID GENE, or has it already been submitted to too many editors?



This is the moment when I wanted to crawl up inside of myself and die. Even after I’d walked away and signed with another agency, Hannah still remembered the dumbass ideas I’d referenced during our first conversation. She also still believed in my damn mermaid book enough to want to consider giving it another chance.

So what happened next?? Please tune in next time to find out!

The Path to Publication, Part One: Writing That First Book

(Photo Courtesy of Steve Dunleavy)

The seeds of my debut novel ESSENCE were planted during the summer of 2004 while I lived in a tent and worked in Yosemite National Park. However, it would take YEARS for those seeds to sprout. I wouldn't even realize the seeds were planted until the summer of 2009, and it would take me two more years to formalize what that meant.

So what did I do in the meantime? I moved to Big Bear, CA, and I taught kids how to rock climb, how to use a telescope and how to read a compass. I worked for a wilderness society in Big Sur, CA, and I took kids kayaking, whale watching, kayaking and camping. I rescued seals and sea lions in Monterey, CA, and I ran the Education Department at a marine park in Panama City Beach, FL. I got married and moved to Anchorage, AK, and I got a job as a zookeeper and painfully learned how to snowboard on some of the steepest, scariest hills I'd ever seen.

I was almost perfectly happy with this life, but the writerly part of me--the one that had been dormant since middle school--felt a little edgy about this. After all, I'd promised her we would write a book and get it published before we turned 25, and here we were, screwing around at age 27 with no legitimate book in sight.

So, that little writerly part of me started speaking up and demanding I follow through on my promises. But how do you process that? And what do you write about when you're terrified you have nothing to say?

Well... After much thought, I decided to push back my deadline to age 30. And then I decided to do what any meticulous, analytical, and sometimes left-brained person would do. I bought every how-to writing book I could find, and I started analyzing the market for trends. I determined I was going to write the Next Big Thing, and I daydreamed about the riches that would undoubtedly roll in once the masses discovered me.

I looked at successful books like HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, and I realized what they had in common was the modern-day reinvention of a childhood icon.

Everyone knew what wizards and vampires were, after all, but no one expected those wizards and vampires to go to school or hang out outside girls' windows in the Pacific Northwest.

So... I wracked my brain for another cultural icon I could reinvent, and... BAM! I settled on the idea of mermaids. Everyone likes mermaids, right? And they are sexy and mysterious and basically a slam dunk, so WHY WOULDN'T I WRITE A BOOK ABOUT MERMAIDS??

Photo Courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I do want to give myself a tiny bit of credit here: I came up with a pretty sweet concept for a mermaid book. I set my story in Alaska, and I tied in some super cool behind-the-scenes marine mammal research stuff I was confident most people didn't know anything about. I also poured over those how-to books, and I ended up writing a story I really did dig. It was called THE MERMAID GENE, and it combined science and research, belugas and poaching, alternate pathways of evolution and a super sweet romance that still makes me emotional.

Most importantly, it made me realize I LIKED DOING THIS. My stand-alone book suddenly became an idea for a series of books, and I started planning sequels and spin-offs and marketing and all kinds of good stuff.

I also started researching literary agents. I decided I wanted to go the traditional publishing route, and I knew the only way to do this was to find myself a literary agent who believed in the book as much as I did.

That shouldn't be too hard, right? I mean, I had WRITTEN A BOOK. And this was pretty rare. Most people don't write books, so it's only logical that the ones who have the fortitude to get to THE END should be rewarded with an enthusiastic literary agent and an arsenal of publishers fighting over who gets to give them the most money. Right??

This seemed logical, but I was wrong. Oh, so, so, so, so wrong.

Were you wrong, too? How did you feel the first time you typed THE END on one of your manuscripts? Did you daydream about your appearances on Oprah, too? About all the attractive young Hollywood stars who would be competing to get a role in your movie?

I know I did, but things ended up shaking out for me much, much differently. Stay tuned for a post that explains what happened instead. It's a DOOZY!

  • Want to learn more about THE MERMAID GENE? Click HERE to visit my Pinterest Inspiration Board.

Lessons from GUTGAA + My Secret Identity!

Thanks so much to everyone who participated in the first-round of Deana Barnhart's "Gearing Up to Get an Agent" blogfest this week! I was honored to serve as one of the GUTGAA first-round judges, and I was blown away by the level of talent in this contest.

I feel like I learned so much from this process. In particular, I learned this:


Seriously. I was given the task of whittling queries down from 40 to 10, and I nearly had a nervous breakdown from the stress. There were SO many good entries that I can't even fathom how agents sometimes sift through hundreds of queries a day. Not to mention all their other ridiculous duties, like revisions, pitch lists, contracts, negotiations... The list goes on and on.

I also learned this:


As one of the judges reading your queries, I can definitively say that you should NOT take it personally if your GUTGAA entry didn't get a vote. I loved SO many entries I wasn't able to vote for, and I think MANY of them will fare wonderfully during querying.

In addition to solid query-writing and a great concept, my top ten votes honestly came down to personal preferences, life experiences and other factors that are so subjective they aren't even measurable.

I think the other judges would agree. Thespians tend to gravitate toward drama stories, musicians tend to gravitate toward music stories... One query struck a chord with my six year-old self so perfectly that I had to vote for it, while others that were great just didn't "connect" with me quite so viscerally.

If anything, this process just confirms to me that we shouldn't take agent rejections so personally. I know everyone says that--and writing is so personal it's easy to blow it off--but I'm now a firm believer in it.

As aspiring authors, I think we tend to judge agents as "good vs. bad" computers. If they request pages, it's because our writing is good. If they reject us, it's because our writing is bad. But if we take a step back and view agents as unique, flawed and complex PEOPLE, we start to understand that they bring all their personal interests, experiences and baggage to the table as well.

Also, I really think it's true that agents have to LOVE our books in order to sign us. It's not enough for them to simply think they are well-written. (My agent has already read my novel ESSENCE four times, and we just signed our contract in June. I can't imagine having to be that dedicated to a book I liked, but didn't love.)

Being on the "other side of the curtain" was certainly an experience, and I can't thank Deana enough for allowing me to be part of this. I also can't thank the other first-round judges for their hard volunteer work and dedication. And lastly, I want to thank all the participants for being brave enough to put yourselves out there like you did. You guys are so creative and passionate and encouraging; I can't even tell you how inspired I am by you.

P.S.- For those of you who are wondering, I will go ahead and spill the beans. I was one of the judges assigned to Deana's Picture Book / Chapter Book / Middle Grade / New Adult blog, and my secret code name was... Sugar Magnolia! 

I hope you guys thought my comments were helpful, and I'm so excited that 9 of my 10 votes made it to the agent round. I can't WAIT to buy these books some day!

Interview with my Literary Agent!

Photo Courtesy of Liza Dawson Associates
My literary agent, Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates, is lovely and perfect. (And for some reason, she digs the stories I write.) We are in the midst of revisions right now, and she is truly inspiring me to be a better writer.

Are you looking for a literary agent? I would HIGHLY suggest strolling over to Stacey O'Neale's blog and reading this: Interview with Literary Agent, Hannah Bowman.

If you are looking for a hands-on, editorial and super approachable agent, this is the agent for you!