A short story spanning twenty-one years
by Ash Bishop
This isn’t really a short story, per se. I’ll try to keep the details to a minimum whenever possible, assuming you have the same short attention span that I do.
I earned my Masters of Fine Arts in 2001. The thesis requirement was ninety pages of a novel. I reached that, but graduated without having finished the actual book.
Around that time, I began teaching at a local community college and for a while writing took a backseat to trying to build a teaching career — though I did continue to declare to my family that I was a “writer”.
My family hosts an Easter picnic every year. In 2002, a good friend of mine, Sarah, brought her boyfriend, Jeff, to the picnic. My dad pulled me to the side, “Sarah’s boyfriend is trying to become an actor. You should talk to him. Maybe you could write something, and he could act in it.”
I told my dad that’s not quite how it works. To make matters worse, Sarah’s boyfriend didn’t seem too impressive. He was dressed far too stylishly for my liking, and he was old, AT LEAST in his mid 30s. I didn’t like his chances.
Looking back, the problem wasn’t Jeff at all. I was simply too proud and too shy to do the networking that I needed to do to succeed. I kept hiding behind the ultimate writer’s fallacy, that talent (assuming I actually had it) would eventually rise to the top.
It was a bit of a surprise when Jeff landed a guest spot on a fairly popular show a few months later, called The Practice. We huddled around the TV and watched him do his thing. Sarah called later, saying that the Executive Producer had contacted Jeff and told him he was “the best part of the episode.” They broke up a few months later and I didn’t think twice about it.
I finally finished my novel later that year, hurried by the fact that my wife had become pregnant. I heard rumors that kids took up some of your time—turned out to be true. But with a baby in my arms, I started stuffing physical query letters with SASE’s and dropping them in the mail. It was pretty exciting to come home and check the mailbox each day, hoping for a message that might change my life. A lot of polite rejects came back instead. The better rejections did provide some advice, most notably, “this is a great book but it’s not commercial enough.”
They weren’t kidding. The elevator pitch went up more than a few floors. My first novel was about a man who is murdered and then wakes back to life in utero, reincarnated into a random family with all his memories fully intact. He has a lot to do after that, be born, grown up, go through puberty, and eventually, try to solve his own murder. It’s the book of a maniac, and someone who’d clearly rather follow his own flights of fancy than write a commercial novel.
Eventually, I gave up, stuffing my rejection letters into a box in the garage, same as everybody else.
I took a job as a high school teacher in 2003 and was tasked with leading sophomore creative writing classes. When those sophomores graduated in 2005, two of them (Russ and Cornelia – look for their names under the ‘thank yous’ in my novel) approached me to join their creative writing circle. We would each write a book and share chapters, enthusiasm and accountability.
Being a big fan of the mystery genre, I borrowed a bunch of troupes and then made the mistake of once more getting way too far outside the box. I wrote about a bodyguard, tasked with protecting a young woman on an arc eerily similar to Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet. A bodyguard protecting the body of someone in a Shakespearian tragedy? Seems like things aren’t going to work out.
They didn’t work out. For the book anyway. I managed to find my rejection box and added a handful of letters. Most of the rejections were coming via a new source now, called “email.”
The writing circle disbanded after a few years. Cornelia went on to become a successful lawyer. Russ stuck closer to the dream, co-founding an educational App (Tappity), making a movie (Bear with Us) and an amazing short on YouTube (The Speed of Time). He’s now in Sweden writing narrative content for Arrowhead Games.
My second child was born and once again my writing slowed to a near stop. Teaching is an interesting job. Done right, it’s emotionally exhausting. When you come home to chores and the expectations of a young family there isn’t much energy left at the end of the night to put into a novel.
But around 2011 the dream resurfaced. A little energy returned when I no longer had to change diapers, tie shoes, and deal with the worst (necessary) evil ever invented: baby car seats. I started a third book. This would be another mystery, about a newspaper reporter investigating a murder while trying to keep his newspaper alive in the middle of the transition to “new media”.
My queries were now entirely digital. Following Russ’s advice, I used the website Agentquery.com endlessly, submitting the novel to over one hundred agents.
If you’re reading this hoping for a publishing roadmap here’s the first major piece of advice: individually craft every agent query. Read about the agent’s other books, learn their tastes, follow their twitter ramblings, and then specifically target folks who you will get along with. Everybody says this, but it’s true. Try and do only one query every weeknight for a month. The form letter query doesn’t save time. It takes away time, because odds are very strong that those form letters aren’t taking you anywhere.
With this novel something more important happened. I realized I really liked writing. I liked it more than watching movies, more than playing video games, or reading. It was a world of imagination crafted entirely to my own tastes, kind of like playing Dungeons and Dragons with yourself. What could be better than that? It occurred to me that I would do the job for free, and I had been, on and off for ten years.
Between writing and querying, I was investing about twenty precious hours a week in the dream.
Nearly eighty queries into the process, I got two important bites. An agent from International Creative Management (ICM) asked for the entire manuscript, as did agent from D4EO Literary. A few weeks later the agent from D4E0 called and offered me representation. I was excited and happy, but she didn’t have any sales, being generally new to the business.
I did something I came to regret. I asked her if I could “think about it”, buying time to hear from the more successful agent at the mega-conglomerate, ICM. The ICM agent eventually passed, but it took three weeks to get her to confirm, and by then it felt like I was slinking back to D4EO with my tail between my legs. The D4EO agent graciously signed me anyway, but she only submitted the manuscript to five publishers before moving on. I’m not sure my stalling hurt me, or if this was par for the course, but it was tough taking three steps forward and then three steps immediately back.
On the other hand, the rejections from those publishers were encouraging. Most passed only because the market wasn’t hot enough, with one editor asking for my other books, saying she’d “read anything Ash Bishop wrote.”
Incidentally, the ICM agent quit the whole business a few short months later.
Here’s where that bit about Jeff at the Easter picnic comes back around. One day my cousin asked me for a movie recommendation, and I randomly suggested the Chris Evan’s picture “The Losers.” My cousin told me he’d seen it, and how crazy was it that the main star was Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, Jeff.
Jeff? Jeff was Jeffrey Dean Morgan? That was the old dude in the ripped jeans at our Easter picnic in 2002?!
Shoot. I should have written something that he could have acted in.
The lesson wasn’t lost on me. I would have to get over my shyness and pride and actually network with people who might be able to help me.
A few months later my wife came back from work and said one of her friends heard I was a writer. The work friend knew a writer too, Jesse Kellerman. Would I like to get together with him and talk about how to get published?
The name sounded familiar. That weekend, we happened to be on the road to visit my wife’s parents in Ventura County and we pulled into a bookstore on the way. This was 2012. There were still bookstores. This one happened to have an entire wall full of books emblazoned with the name Kellerman.
“Sure,” I told my wife, “I’d like to meet up with him.”
Jesse Kellerman turned out to be one of the best people I’ve ever met. I joined his reoccurring poker night, as a barely competitive sponsor. We became genuine friends. He recommended my mystery novel to his agent, and she read it carefully before eventually passing, explaining that the market was too cold.
I didn’t quit writing. By then it was an escape. The goal was publication, but writing was a fun trip into a lucid, waking dream. I spent many hours jumping through these perfect worlds where I was both voyeur and God! Of course I wasn’t all-powerful, and I finally decided to capitulate to the market. At the time Hunger Games had been hitting its stride, and Divergent was being groomed as its eventual replacement.
I jumped from the “cold” mystery market directly into the fire and wrote a YA science fiction coming-of-age novel.
I took my time. It didn’t make sense to hurry up and wait. On my third mystery novel I had taken on a system of writing from 11-2 a.m. most nights before waking up six hours later for work. Like I said, I was investing almost twenty hours a week, on top of raising a family and having a fulltime job. But the lack of decent sleep had begun to effect my mood and my memory. I scraped that system in favor of writing a few hours here and there. The new approach took time and I finished my YA sci-fi masterpiece in 2015. For those who have lost count, this was novel number four.
With this novel, I was willing (and courageous enough) to ask for help. Two good friends, Binney and Jen, read the book and gave me notes. I criminally underpaid my wife’s best friend, Marisa, to line edit it (you’ll find all three of them in the novel’s thank yous as well).
Despite slowing and deepening my writing process, I was beginning to feel my own mortality. Now I was the old guy, wearing clothes not even as fashionable as old Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s. I started going to writing conventions and glad-handing agents, elevator-pitching like crazy. A number of agents asked for the entire book, but then went mostly silent. Part of the problem was the YA genre was slowly slipping into the tank. Divergent’ s third movie barely sniffed the theater. I began to wake up, worried.
A few years had passed, so Jesse suggested we try his agent again, this time with the (still somewhat) “hotter” book. I did. As gracious as ever, she agreed to take a look, but this time she reported she had little interest in the genre. Instead of passing entirely, she handed the novel on to someone else in her agency.
Around that same time I queried the actual agent for the Divergent series. She asked for the whole manuscript and I began to get excited, but she passed on it a few weeks later. I sent a follow up, hoping for some advice on how to improve the book, or at least make it more attractive to agents. She told me something along the lines of “If I were you, I would start over completely.’
That didn’t feel good.
Writing is subjective. Everyone has individual tastes, or…maybe…I just wasn’t very good at it? Was I wasting everybody’s time chasing this dream? It is, as they say, darkest just before the light.
While still processing that rejection, I got a call from Jesse’s agent. She said her fellow agent, Caitlin, had “loved” the book, a word Jesse’s agent hadn’t heard her use in a while. Caitlin would be in contact soon with an offer to represent me.
Thankfully I was alone in my classroom because I celebrated so much – a beautiful mix of dance moves and karate chops — that I actually tweaked a hamstring. I’m not kidding.
I went out and bought luggage. If I was going to be cruising around reading chapters at bookstores, I would need a new set. It was 2016. Note: My debut novel is still six years away.
We spent an entire year revising the novel before submitting it to the first publisher. Really good agents don’t want to put their name on anything unless it’s in tiptop shape, and the process of reading, making notes, revising, it takes time, a lot of which is just spent waiting. In 2017 we began to submit, but publishers also make you wait…and wait…
I started on the sequel (book five) as we slowly received rejections. Caitlin was stumped, because the rejections didn’t indicate any specific problem with the manuscript. Many of the comments were positive, “we love this…no thank you.” If there was nothing they didn’t like, why were they rejecting it? We kept at it, querying and revising for two more full years.
This is why you’ve got to find an agent that loves your work. Working with an agent is more than a little bit like a marriage. You have to trust each other, and have confidence in each other, and not quit on each other when things don’t work quite like you both expected. An agent who is not excited by your writing simply won’t be around to help carry you through the process. To this day, I’m incredibly indebted to Caitlin for not dumping me after investing three full years in the project and not earning a single penny.
We decided that the problem was the market itself. YA had gotten so hot, and publishers had signed so many books, that both the publishers and the market was now saturated. I was, once again, too late to the party. Caitlin suggested I write a version of the story for adults. Still only halfway through the YA sequel, I put it aside and studiously began book number six, tentatively titled Intergalactic Exterminators, Inc.
It was now 2019, and my new luggage was still in the garage. This time I really slowed down my process. I knew revision with my agent would take a year, and then I’d be waiting for the publishers again.
I finished the book in 2020, and my agent began to submit it in early 2021. In June 2021, it was purchased by Camcat books. Elana, my editor, requested her own changes. She had a soft touch, but she’d guided the book upwards to an even higher level of quality. In January of 2022, I finished her requested revisions, and the book was finally…done?
So, here’s my last major piece of advice: it sure helps to have great people around you to fill in your blind spots, and to pick you up when you start to lag. Russ and Cornelia got me writing again. Jen, Binney and Marisa helped polish the manuscript which landed me a top flight agent. Jesse helped me get her attention. Caitlin helped me improve the book even further, and muscle through the early rejections. Elana made the book even better.
Of course, by now, it’s necessary to market myself via a hundred different forms of social media. A few months into the process, my wife is wondering why I haven’t done more.
“I started all this in 2001,” I tell her. “Lemmie rest.”
“No resting!” she says.
But then in an act of mercy, she takes over all the marketing. She makes my Bookbub page, and my Goodreads, and creates my Facebook author site.
“Get that blog written about how you got published. People will be interested in it!” she lovingly insisted earlier this week.
I can’t say if she’s right or not, but I know I wouldn’t have gotten this far without so much help.