Unmarked: My Strides and Stumbles towards the Publishing World

There I am in younger days, star gazing,
Painting picture perfect maps of how my life and love would be
Not counting the unmarked paths of misdirection
My compass, faith in love’s perfection
I missed ten million miles of road I should have seen
– Indigo Girls

“You can’t expect someone to sit down next to you on the subway, ask to see your manuscript and offer you a deal,” my husband, Tom, said soon after I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and began the rejection-laden attempt to find an agent for my book. Tom is a constant cheerleader and yet keeps me grounded when necessary.

Although I knew he was right, I had the post-MFA delusion that because so many of my professors and peers had championed my writing, finding an agent and a book deal shouldn’t be too difficult.

And then, something happened that temporarily convinced me it wasn’t going to be that hard. I landed a reading spot at Bluestockings—an activist bookstore in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After the reading, a young woman approached me. She told me she was an assistant editor at a large publishing house; she had really liked my piece and asked if I had more. If she thought it had promise, she’d pass it on to her boss. She gave me her email address and told me she looked forward to hearing from me.

I was, of course, thrilled. I sent in my manuscript and waited for a response. A lot of time passed. The editorial assistant and I emailed back and forth. Finally, I got a meeting with her boss—a rather big name in the publishing world.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen during the meeting. I assumed that since she agreed to meet with me that it wasn’t for rejection. And it wasn’t—but it wasn’t a welcome-on-board meeting either. She asked me how finished I felt it was—which cued me into not insisting that I thought it was finished. Because it was a collection of short stories at that point, she asked me if I had a novel in the works, since short story collections are less marketable. I had an idea about a novel, but nothing more. She told me to send the manuscript to her again when I felt it was ready, and to get to work on the novel. Her assistant walked me to the door.

Rather depressed, I walked to a nearby shoe store and bought a pair of shoes. Not necessarily a good decision, since Tom and I were living nearly paycheck to paycheck. At least they were vegan shoes, I told myself when I came to my senses on the subway ride home. I emailed a writing mentor about the encounter—and the shoe shopping. She wasn’t surprised at either. The publishing world is like that, she wrote back. They don’t say yes but they don’t say no, either. They like to keep their options open.

A year went by. I moved to Virginia and workshopped the hell out of my book, which eventually morphed into a series of interlinked short stories with a novella threaded throughout. I began to query agents. As the rejection letters piled up, I decided to email the editor and offer my new manuscript. Sure, she wrote back, send it over. I sent it. Waited a month. Nothing. Waited another month before emailing her. No response. I decided not to bother her and continued querying agents.

Around New Year’s, I decided to email her again. She wrote back that she’d broken her leg around the time I’d mailed my manuscript, and it had been buried under a lot of things by the time she returned to the office. She asked me to send it again. I did. Waited two months. Did an email check-in. No response. Sent one more email. Nothing.

During this time, I lost my job and Tom and I had to move to a garage-turned-apartment, my twin nieces were born premature and I went to help my brother and sister-in-law feed them on a three-hour schedule, I found another job and we moved to a better apartment. All the while, I continued to query agents. There were a few bites in the form of full manuscript requests, but nothing more. I started thinking about shelving the manuscript and concentrating on other writing projects.

And then, my writing mentor emailed me: Have you found a place for your manuscript yet? I have a friend who is starting a small press, and he’s looking for submissions.

That’s when I entered a whole other stratum: the confusing and frustrating world of the Published Author.

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Jessica Penner’s novel, Shaken in the Water, is available at www.foxheadbooks.com and other online booksellers.