The Path to Publication, Part Eight: Diving Back In

(Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons)

Thank you for tuning in to the eighth installment of my running series, “The Path to Publication.” When we last left off, I had just turned down a literary contract from my dream agent (Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates) because I wanted to finish my new project ESSENCE instead of submitting my first project THE MERMAID GENE. This is one of the scariest decisions I had ever made in my entire life, but deep in my gut, I knew it was the right decision.

THE MERMAID GENE was my first book, and although I loved it, I could now see that it had its share of rookie mistakes. The beginning dragged, the tense was wrong, the main characters were too perfect... I had followed a trend and written THE MERMAID GENE for a very specific audience, and that self-consciousness shined through on almost every page.

ESSENCE wasn't like that. ESSENCE was grittier, and it was also more intense. It dealt with serious issues like cult brainwashing and peer pressure, and it starred characters who weren't always right. They made mistakes, and they bumbled through their journeys the way people who have been controlled their whole lives often do. They trusted the wrong people, they made questionable choices, and they sometimes hurt each other.

ESSENCE's main characters scared me, because they weren't like me.

At the end of the day, however, I was proud of myself for having the courage to write them, and I ended up loving them more than many of THE MERMAID GENE's characters, because they were real. And they were flawed. And they wanted nothing more than to rise above their circumstances and succeed despite all the odds stacked up against them.

So... I turned down that literary contract from Hannah Bowman, and then I proceeded to hyperventilate for about a month. I panicked and second-guessed myself, and my creativity died entirely.

And then one day... I just got over it. 

I wanted to write ESSENCE because I loved it. I wanted Hannah to love it, too, but I knew I couldn't write it for Hannah, or for my friends and family, or for anyone else. I had to write it for me, and I had to believe in it. Even if no one ever wanted to buy it or read it, I could still look back at that manuscript and say I had given it my all.

So I did. I spent the next few months telling my story, and I abandoned my usual plotting approach in favor of a breathless sort of free-writing I still don't completely understand. And at the end of it--right in the middle of June 2012--I had a book.

I can't express to you how nervous I was when I finally hit "send" on this email:

Hi Hannah, I hope you are doing well. I have just completed my ESSENCE revisions, and I have attached my manuscript for your review. Here is a more fleshed-out version of the novel's pitch:

Neutrality is the key to longevity.

This is the only truth sixteen year-old Autumn [Grace] has ever known. She lives under the control of San Francisco’s cult-like Centrist Movement—a new spirituality that claims emotional experiences lead to Essence drain and early death.

Autumn has learned to suppress her feelings, but her younger brother’s death brings her faith into question. While illegally sprinting through a condemned park, she encounters Ryder [Stone]—a free-spirited Outsider who claims Essence drain is nothing more than a Centrist scare tactic. From his headquarters in the abandoned remains of Yosemite National Park, he says he can prove it.

Joining Ryder’s community means abandoning her family, giving up her identity and forsaking everything she has ever believed in, but Autumn is determined to find the truth—even if she risks losing herself in the process.

The novel is 82,000 words now--about 8,000 less than my first draft. (I know there are some quasi-dystopian elements to the plot, but I have tried hard to distinguish it as a "cult book" instead of a dystopian novel. ESSENCE reminds me more of an adventure novel like Alex Garland's THE BEACH, with a free-spirited clan and the illusion of paradise.)

Thanks again for how supportive and approachable you have been during this whole process. Please let me know if you have any questions, and like I said, if you want ESSENCE, it's yours. I won't even write a query letter.

Have a great morning.


And then... The waiting began.

Tune in next time for the FINAL installment of "The Path to Publication" to see what happened next!

The Path to Publication, Part Seven: Believing in Yourself

(Photo Courtesy of Jennifer)

Thank you for tuning in to the seventh installment of my running series, “The Path to Publication.” (Did you miss my first six posts? Scroll to the bottom for links to check them out!

In my earlier "Path to Publication" posts, I discussed writing my first novel THE MERMAID GENE, querying that novel, signing with the wrong literary agent and getting dropped as her client within the first four and a half months of our contract. Last week, I recounted my decision to eat a big ol' piece of humble pie and tell the other literary agent whose offer of representation I had declined (in favor of the agent who dropped me) what a huge mistake I had made by going elsewhere.

I don't think I expected to hear back from Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates. She had graduated into a powerhouse agent in just a few short months, and she already had five clients and two six-figure deals under her belt. She was currently taking the literary world by storm, and I figured I had already ruined any chance I had of ever speaking to her again.

But I emailed her anyway, and I told her she had been the right choice all along. I also told her I was working on a new project, and I would be honored if she would accept another query from me when I finished.

But Hannah surprised me. Not only did she respond to my email, but she asked me what happened to THE MERMAID GENE. We set up a phone call, and after a few conversations back and forth, she told me she still believed in me--and THE MERMAID GENE--enough to send over a contract and try to submit it again. (!!!)

She was realistic about our chances, however. THE MERMAID GENE had already been rejected several times, so she felt like only five or six remaining editors would be willing to look at it. Also, the manuscript would require some work. A lot of work, actually, so I would need to be willing to pour my guts into it and understand that all my work may end up being for nothing.

Or, she said, I could work on my new project ESSENCE. That story seemed to already have a grip on me, and its chances in the marketplace were probably much better, It was brand-new, and its bridges hadn't already been burned like THE MERMAID GENE's had. Also, the cult book market wasn't nearly as crowded as the paranormal market, so if we ended up selling ESSENCE, it would probably have the potential for a much stronger, more impactful debut.

However, Hannah cautioned, the market was shifting away from YA paranormals, so if I wanted to catch the paranormal boat, I needed to do it now. That meant I couldn't choose ESSENCE and then return to THE MERMAID GENE later. I needed to either choose THE MERMAID GENE now or say goodbye to it--probably forever.

Also, she was willing to send me a literary contract for THE MERMAID GENE that day, but she couldn't very well sign me for an unfinished manuscript, so if I chose ESSENCE, I would need to go it alone. And when I finished ESSENCE, she would agree to take a look at it, but she wouldn't promise anything more than that. She may end up hating it, and I may end up without an agent and without the possibility of ever finding a home for THE MERMAID GENE.

So... I took a deep breath and weighed my options, and then I made one of the scariest decisions I have ever made in my entire life:

I told her I believed ESSENCE would be a better book, and I wanted to focus my attention on finishing it. 

If she wanted it when I was done, it was hers. If not, I completely understood her decision to pass.

She respected my answer--admired my bravery, I think--and she told me she looked forward to hearing from me in a few months. I thanked for her time and consideration, and I told her I REALLY hoped we could work together someday.

And then you know what I did? I hung up the phone and proceeded to hyperventilate. And then I went home and stared at my computer screen, and then writer's block seized me and I didn't write another word of ESSENCE for almost a month.

I HAD JUST TURNED DOWN A LITERARY CONTRACT. I had just turned down an honest-to-goodness, real-life literary contract (from my dream agent)--and I had no idea if I was even capable of completing ESSENCE, much less making it into something Hannah (or anyone) would ever want to read. I had just killed THE MERMAID GENE, and I had absolutely no idea if I would ever have anything to show for it.

I was terrified, but I remember being proud of myself, too. I knew the decision to pursue ESSENCE was the right decision, even if it wasn't the easy one. ESSENCE was a better book than THE MERMAID GENE, and it had the potential to be a so-much-stronger debut (if I could pull it off).

At the end of the day, I knew I would respect myself a million times more for having the courage to believe in ESSENCE--instead of just jumping to sign a contract for a project that wasn't quite right.

But... That didn't stop the anxiety nor the crippling panic that made my creativity die on my page. ESSENCE had been progressing beautifully, but now it felt dead in the water. I hadn't anticipated THAT.

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

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 Three: Putting Yourself Out There

(Photo Courtesy of Pedro Simoes)

Writing a query letter is one of the hardest feats you will ever undertake as an aspiring writer. You have just spent the last several months or years of your life writing a complex, complicated and beautiful masterpiece, and now you are expected to distill it down into 250 words? And you are supposed to send it out to perfect strangers to let them JUDGE you?? What sort of sadomasochist came up with THIS idea??

Unfortunately, this is the reality of the game. If you ever want to become a published author, you must be willing to pour your soul and your guts into a query letter. And you must be willing to send this query letter out into the world. This means you must be willing to be ignored, forgotten and rejected by people who don't even know you. How scary is this??

I don't think I fully appreciated the gravity of this until I sent out my first query letter. I had been working on an urban fantasy called THE MERMAID GENE for about a year and a half, and I had been calling myself a writer for most of my life. I had built my entire identity around the fact that "someday, I was going to get a book published," and I had based so many of my personality traits on this promise that I didn't even know what would be left if you took it away from me.

So... I distilled my book into a query letter, and I sent this query letter out to an agent who happened to live in my hometown. Her name was Sara Megibow, and her agency, Nelson Literary Agency, was randomly based in Denver, not New York City. Despite its geographic abnormality, Nelson had amazing reviews, and Sara was known for being a young upstart with a penchant for moving mountains and making huge deals. She sounded awesome.

I polished up my pitch and hit send, and then I sat back and daydreamed about how fun it would be to someday meet her at coffee shops and bookstores downtown. We could talk shop and sip lattes, read the paper and discuss how well my book was selling internationally.

It sounded perfect.

Of course, things didn't work out that way. Instead of receiving a glowing offer of representation--or even a request for pages--from Sara, I received a generic "Dear Author" rejection letter. To make matters worse, Sara is a super quick responder, so I received this rejection within 24 hours.

Whoa. Talk about a mind-blow.

I expected to be disappointed by this rejection, but I wasn't. I was DEVASTATED, because I allowed myself to take it personally. I wondered if I had been pipe-dreaming my talent all these years, and I felt stupid for even thinking I was capable of something so monumental as getting a book picked up by a publisher. I cursed myself for wasting a year and a half of my life on this stupid piece of garbage I had been calling THE MERMAID GENE, and I felt so embarrassed about all the parties and gatherings and get-togethers I'd missed in favor of "working on this book" that I had to bite my tongue to keep from apologizing to everyone who had hosted them. I told my husband I was sorry for prioritizing the book over 'normal' pursuits like hiking or cooking or camping with him, and I retreated to my couch, where I'm almost positive I must have cried at least two or three times.

I also realized this is the point where most people give up.

No, scratch that. I realized most people give up before they ever get to this point, because it's a lot easier to squirrel your book away in a desk somewhere and hide it from the prying eyes of others. It's also easier to never finish your book, because you fear the reality will never live up to your expectations. Finally, it's easiest of all to never start your book, because it's a lot more fun to judge others and talk about what you WOULD do than it is to actually do something yourself.

So... I thought about these things, and I realized I had two choices. I could retreat back to my corner and admire my beautiful, untested manuscript in a closet somewhere, or I could dust myself off and try again.

I tried again.

Only this time, I spent another whole month working on my query letter, and I distilled it down even further before I sent it out to anyone. I followed all the rules I'd heard about writing a strong hook, leading into the body, and ending with an author bio, and I read that baby out loud so many times I'm surprised I didn't start reciting it in my sleep.

Most importantly, I decided I wasn't going to take my next rejection so personally. I was going to wear it like a badge of honor--the way Stephen King always did--and I was going to save every letter to remind myself I DID SOMETHING. I risked something, and I put myself out there despite the potential setbacks. I was strong and brave and courageous, and I was already lapping all those armchair writers who never actually did anything at all except judge everyone around them.

I was a writer. And I wasn't going to let a stupid rejection letter tell me otherwise.

Please tune in next week to learn more about the evolution of my query letter, and please share your query horror stories here. How did you feel when you got your first rejection letter? Did you take it as personally as I did? How did you overcome it?

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.