The Breakthrough

“I tightened up the rhyme on my picture book and wrote a query.”

There is a long pause in the conversation signaling Ben is not giving me his full attention.  He is looking not at me, but at his phone.  His fingers fly across the small keypad sending a text to his coworkers in hopes of making it through dinner without another interruption.  He finishes the message and puts the phone on the counter.  His eyes meet mine.  I finally have his attention.

“Sounds like a productive day.”

He doesn’t get it.

“What book is this?”

“The one I wrote a long time ago.  I put it aside because I couldn’t get a query together.  When I gave it to people to read, everyone said the rhyming was off, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work.”

“So this is a big deal?  Alright!”

He understood. This was not a ho-hum productive day.

It was dinner time.  We filled our plates with tamales and beans, and walked with them out to our patio.  We continued the conversation as we ate.

“So what brought about the breakthrough?”

I pondered this question as I chewed an under-cooked tamale.  Finally struck by inspiration, I had been engrossed with writing my query letter.  My attention to cooking suffered and I allowed the water to boil dry in the tamale pot.  The masa never fully steamed and had a faint hint of burned flavor.  Who cares?  I had written a query!

“I guess it came from an article I read in Writer’s Digest.”

The magazine had an article about how to break into the short story market, including a list of literary magazines to submit to.  I was surprised to see a number of children’s magazines on the list.  I don’t know why, but I had never thought of submitting my story to a magazine.  I just equated children’s stories with picture books.

Submitting to a magazine seemed less daunting.  I’ve had articles published.  I could do this!  The payout for a magazine article is considerably less than a book deal.  But that could actually work to my favor.  A magazine might be more willing to take a chance on a new author.

I hadn’t read the manuscript in over a year.  I opened the file and scanned it to see if the tale had any worth.  Letting the story sit had worked to my benefit.

My most recent paid assignment involved interviewing local triathlon groups to get advice for first time competitors.  One of the people I talked to explained the tendency for new triathletes to over train since they don’t understand how the disciplines can overlap.  For example, while running and biking are different activities, they both provide aerobic benefits.  I hadn’t been writing picture books, I had been writing consistently.  The practice made me a stronger writer and editor.

Time off from the manuscript had allowed me to loosen my grip on it.  In the past when I gave it to people to read, most advised that the lines did not match up rhythmically- some lines had five syllables, others six.  At the time, this notation annoyed me.  I could list example after example of published books that were far worse than mine.

Now, I was ready to hear the suggestion.   How could I tighten up the rhyme?  When I edited a year ago, there were specific items I was not willing to let go of.  One line in particular used the words “octopus’s lair.”  Five syllables.  My target was to get each line to six syllables- not a lot of room to play.  But a year ago, I was unwilling to budge- it HAD to be octopus.  A fresh mind thought “why does it have to be an octopus?  Why can’t it be an eel or a shark or any other creature with less syllables?”  Such a no brainer, but for whatever silly reason, it took me a year to come to that conclusion.

This thought freed me to play with the rest of the manuscript.  I began to think in a new way, almost like a puzzle.  If a particular line couldn’t be changed, what about the one before it, or the one after?  How could I adjust to make all the pieces fit?

Having conquered the manuscript, I moved on to the query.  A query is a sales pitch for a story.  In the past, I felt like a failure because I couldn’t pen a decent query letter.  If I couldn’t sell my book, why should I expect anyone to buy it?

Maybe all that practice writing had helped me find myself as a writer.  All of a sudden, I knew what the story did and who it was for.  Is it the best query ever written? No.  Will I sell my story because of it?  Who knows.  But at least I wrote a document I wasn’t ashamed to sign my name on.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a writer’s mission statement.

I read the statement yesterday and patted myself on the back for how far I’ve come.  When I wrote it, I couldn’t fathom that anyone would ever pay me good money to write.  Shortly after, I all but gave up on writing a query letter.

Yesterday, I also happened upon an article inquiring if agents actually read query letters.  The writer responded that agents do read them, but they also serve the purpose of minimizing the slush pile- amateur writers can get intimidated with writing a query and just give up on submitting.

I used to be one of those very people.  But today, I sent off submission packages.  I’m anxiously awaiting my first rejection letter.


Some of the best moments are the ones when you get to surprise yourself.  Keep your fingers crossed for me!

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