Friday, May 10, 2013

The Road Can Be (Very) Long

I was asked recently how long had it taken me to get published. When I gave my answer, the person who’d asked me fell over in shock and cracked their egg open.

I started writing fiction back in 2002, after writing screenplays for about seven years (Maybe eight. Can’t remember. Too many wine bottles ago now). So if you start from 2002, then it took me over ten years to get here.

Ten. Years.

You know how many rejections that adds up to? How many failed novels?

Let me talk about "just" the road to publication first. To do that, we have to go back four years, to May 2009 when I finally landed an agent. Before that happy moment, I’d been writing, and writing, and then writing some more for about seven years. Six days a week, averaging forty-eight weeks a year.

You know, whenever I think back to that summer of 2009, I laugh. I was so naïve. I really thought that I’d be published immediately. Or six months, tops.

Um…. Not quite.

It’s a special time for me now. My debut novel, UNTOLD DAMAGE, has finally arrived on bookshelves. Almost exactly sixteen months from the day that my agent emailed me: “Um, dude? Your cell isn’t working. Call me.”

Sixteen months. Woah, right? That’s a pretty unfathomable amount of time.

Let me just say here that I understand that everyone’s road will be different. Some shorter. Some longer. Back in 2002, I really had no idea of just how long that road could be. No idea of how much effort, sweat, and perseverance it would take to go from the road marker of learning the craft of fiction writing, to the road marker of getting an agent, to the road marker of getting published.

And to think that the book that eventually got published wasn’t close to the one that hooked me up with my agent! No, that book didn’t sell. Got close, but never made it over the hill.

The book that did get me over the hill, UNTOLD DAMAGE, was written out of pure desperation. Seriously. The earlier version of the book, as I said, hadn’t sold. I needed something else, something new. I eventually (after months and months of sweating) found that “something else”.  I sent this new version of the first Mark Mallen book off to my agent. And wasn’t I floored when she said she loved it! I mean, I’d hoped she would of course but by that point, about 2.5 years down the road after hooking up with her, I wasn’t sure at all whether she would dig it, or dig me a ditch to go die in.

But, she loved it.

And how did I hook up with my agent? The person who is not only my advocate in the industry, but is also a great listener when I’m freaking the F out over something?

Well, the “getting the agent” part of the journey started with a killer query, naturally. Back in the early spring of 2009, I queried the agent who would eventually sign me. And let me just reiterate here what you probably already know about query letters: they’re really SALES letters. A query tells the reader why they should look at your book. I sent the infamous "nudge" email about six or eight weeks later.
My future agent got back to me almost immediately, thanking me for the nudge and asking to see the rest of the manuscript. So I sent it.

And then I waited.

Waited a couple weeks. Sweated every day that went by. I know we shouldn’t sweat those moments, but I did. What can I say? 

 She got back to me at the end of those two weeks saying, “Let’s seal this deal, dude!”

And that was it!

But, it wasn’t.

This current version of the book had to get polished first, off notes that my agent sent me. Then it went out to publishers. We got responses back. No sale, but some very good feedback. And so after a pow-wow with my agent, I rewrote the book again. Then it got sent it out again, and…

… and then after more "close but no cigar" responses, it was over for that version of the book.

Then what happened? Well, that book got completely rewritten. I gutted it. Put in a new foundation. Added new plumbing. Changed where the windows were situated, and also how the light hit the upstairs deck, and…

… and well, you get it.

Then we went back out on submission. And that leads me to here: having UNTOLD DAMAGE out in the world on bookstore shelves. Over three and half years after getting an agent. Or, if you prefer, a bit over ten years later if you start from when I began writing that first novel.

It’s finally come to fruition. All that work.

And like I mentioned earlier, I realize that it won’t take this long for everyone. Hell, it might take even longer. What I’m trying to say here is that you have to be prepared to play THE LONG GAME. From beginning to end. And in order to get there, you never give up on your goal: for every query you get back that’s a pass, you send out another. Every manuscript that bombs, you write another. Every time you feel like you can’t do it one more time, you do it one more time. Every time you get hit in the face with it all, you get up and keep going. If you want to write to be published, then you have to prepare for the long haul. As I’ve said, it may not always be a long process. But nine times out of ten?

It will be.

Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. He is a contributor to Macmillan's crime fiction fansite, Criminal Element. Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers Association. Untold Damage is his first novel. The second novel in the Mark Mallen series, Critical Damage, will arrive April, 2014. Visit him online at and at


  1. Congratulations on your perseverance, Robert, and with the publication of UNTOLD DAMAGE. You offered great advice!

  2. Oh yeah, got you beat -- it took me 15 years. My first book, The Sweet Spot, hits the shelves May 28.

    People, everything above is dead-on. Not that it should discourage you...because, Robert, wasn't it all worth it?

  3. I often wonder if the long and painful road is an important predecessor to publication. Not only because, presumably, we do better work ten years in than we did in the beginning but because publishing is a tough industry (especially for debut authors) and it sure doesn't hurt to have had the experience of being kicked to the curb and getting back up again.

  4. Amen, brother. And UNTOLD DAMAGE is a fabulous novel--so glad you didn't give up on Mallen, (For the record, I want a Mallen fan club.)

  5. Thank you, everyone, for diggin' the post. Laura, it was TOTALLY worth it. I figure that everything happens for a reason, and so...

    And Soph, I TOTALLY agree with you. The experience of trying for so long makes our skin thicker, and it NEEDS to be thick to work with the industry.

    And lol, I'm working on a Mallen bowling team like I said: Mallen's Hypo Hounds.:-)

  6. This is a great story, and it speaks to the power of perseverance. Congratulations, and on to the next book! (Which won't take anywhere near 10 years to get published!)

  7. I still beat you. It took me 14 years. Not with the same book, thank goodness. I was writing in a genre not friendly to the kind of books I liked to write (historical fiction). Switching to medieval *mysteries* is what did the trick for me. I've still got my binders full of rejections, but even after six published books from one of the big New York publishers, I'm back again in the trenches looking for a new publisher. It never really stops. Good luck!

  8. I hate to admit it, but I've got you all beat--started in 1991 and first book was published 2007. That's what, 16 years. Damn! What a road we walk. I can't wait to meet Mallen--It's my next book! Thanks, this is Anne Barnhill :0

  9. Robert, thanks for sharing your story! You are right about 9 times out of 10 it takes a loooong time. I also thought I'd be published about six months after I finished my first book! Ha! 3 books and six years later I finally was. I just started UNTOLD DAMAGE and I also want to be in the Mallen fan club!

  10. Thanks all for giving this a read! Yeah... it's crazy, right? How long it can take? I'm so VERY happy to hear about so many of you sticking it out, and making it. :-)!!!!
    That's awesome! I love all your stories! Thank you for sharing them. :-)