Thursday, August 09, 2007

Elizabeth Joy Arnold on Luck, Perseverence, and Talent

Elizabeth Joy Arnold
Pieces of My Sister’s Life
Publisher: Bantam
Pub date: July 2007
Agent: Kim Lionetti

(Click to Buy)

Author Web site:

My debut novel tells the story of identical twin sisters, Kerry and Eve, whose childhood is upended when they learn that what they both want is a future only one of them can have. After an estrangement of thirteen years, Kerry returns to her childhood home to be with her ill sister and to confront Justin, the husband she thought would be hers, and Gillian, the niece who looks just like her—hoping to finally bring closure to the dark secrets and cruel betrayals that tore the sisters apart.

My publication story started like almost every writer’s, in that I suffered for years from not even being able to get agents to ask for material after I sent queries. Now somehow here I am, with a really nice deal from a big publisher, my book sitting on the lead spot in that publisher’s catalogue, a first print run number that absolutely blows my mind, newspaper interviews and print and radio ads coming up—absolutely a dream come true; I literally have to pinch myself every day, because it still doesn’t seem real to me.

So how did I get from there to here? I wish I had an easy answer to give you, but that would be acting like the herbal-supplement people who tell you they’ve got the secret to losing weight. Anyone who says they have a surefire way of getting you published is either trying to scam you or they’re a vanity publisher. I’d have to say it’s about 80% perseverance, 10% luck, and 10% “talent.” (I put quotes around talent, by the way, because although I guess there are some people who are innately talented, almost anyone can learn to write better. Talent comes primarily from hard work, I think.) So that means 90% of it is up to you.

Just a quick note on each of these:

People will tell you it’s nearly impossible to publish a first novel without prior publishing credits, but that’s obviously not true. In my case, I never stopped believing this was what I was meant to do, and so I kept papering my walls with rejection slips, writing new manuscripts and sending them out, and then filling another wall with rejections. I kept trying because I loved to write, not because I ever expected to get published; publication was just the cherry on top. I was happiest when I was immersed in the worlds I’d created, and so I never gave up. And eventually, people started getting interested. A few years ago, I actually had an editor at Soho Press send me an encouraging letter, along with my manuscript (he actually paid for postage) with editing marks all over it, which meant he’d read the whole thing. That little pat on the back was enough to keep me going for another few years worth of rejections.

I think part of the success of this novel is that I found the right story, one that my agent and publisher believe people will connect to. I learned how to write by writing daily, sometimes from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., to the point where my husband was starting to feel like a widower. And I learned by reading—I still read every spare minute, sometimes three books at a time, everything from Chekhov to Vampire novels, and I pay attention to what I like and don’t like, think of different choices I would’ve made in the writing, and what works and doesn’t work for me. (By the way, there’s very little in Chekhov that doesn’t work. . . .) For most people, this is where “talent” comes from. Not copying or emulating, of course, but learning with every book you read.

Well, this is the tricky one, because luck is mostly outside your control. But to some extent, you do make your own luck. Write the best book you can possibly write—Do rewrite after rewrite until you feel like the book is as good as it’s ever going to get. (I’ve probably written twenty versions of my second novel, and it hasn’t even gone through the editing process yet.) Do a lot of research before you decide who to query, and write a kick-ass query letter that’ll get their attention. I owe a ton to Kim, my agent, who showed so much enthusiasm for the book when she called to take me on, and I know that enthusiasm must’ve carried through to the editors she met with. So I was incredibly lucky to find the right agent, one who truly believed in my story, and just as lucky to find Caitlin, my editor, who also had so much excitement about the book that she got me excited all over again, and really pushed it to her publisher. But the luck wouldn’t have come without the hard work and perseverance.

It’s been a year and a half since I first got my acceptance from Bantam, and finally the book’s out there in the world. The book’s only just been published, and I’ve already gotten seven pieces of “fan mail,” from people who’ve bought the book. Getting those e-mails was the first time the whole thing actually began to feel real for me. The realization that people are now reading the story and meeting the characters that were alone in my head for months and months just blows me away. And that’s what made all the pain of rejection and the hard work (not to mention the carpal tunnel syndrome) worth it.

Best of luck in your own publishing adventures!

Feel free to ask Elizabeth questions in the comments. She'll drop in during the day to read and answer them.


Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I love stories such as yours. Thanks for sharing and best of luck with your novel. I'll certainly look for it on my next trip to my local independent bookstore.

Shelley Tougas said...

Congratulations, and thanks for sharing these inspiring words. Question: Are you investing in your own publicist? Why or why not?

Kim Lionetti said...

This news just in...

PIECES OF MY SISTER'S LIFE is now a USA Today bestseller!

Congratulations Elizabeth! Everyone at BookEnds is so proud of you!

Writer4762 said...

Fantastic news Elizabeth! Even though I don't know you personally, I think of writers that are pursuing and reaching their dreams as family.

And, you're right about the subject of your book. So few families have a "Leave it to Beaver" type of atmosphere and people relate to "what it was really like."

I am gathering publicity for my latest with my co-author as well. Check out the blog and I'd be interested to see what you think.

My Best,
Taryn Simpson

Anonymous said...

Great post! So I was wondering--what happened to those other manuscripts you wrote? Safely under the bed? ;-) About to be published later?


Anonymous said...

Elizabeth - Congratulations! And your words here about the triad of things a writer needs are awesome. Especially the never-giving-up part. I'm excited to go grab your book.

Writer, Rejected said...

Fabulous, Elizabeth! You make a writer's life seem worth living.

Would you share a rejection or two at for some anonymous posting? You can send to writerrejected at if you're up for it.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Ooh, congrats on hitting the USA Today list, Elizabeth. That's fabulous!

Liz Wolfe said...

Elizabeth, congratulations on the best seller list! And thanks for your post. Writing can be such a solitary activity that it begins to feel like a vacuum. It's important for aspiring authors to know that it's probably going to take time and perseverance, and luck, and talent.

Elizabeth Joy Arnold said...

Thanks so much to all of you've written with congratulations! It’s been a whirlwind week, and I’m only just now catching my breath.

So I'll answer your questions in order...

Shelley: Luckily, I didn't have to hire my own publicist, because Bantam gave me one. Would I hire one myself if they hadn’t? Well I'm setting up most of my signing/reading engagements myself, although the publicist does call the stores several times to make sure they have enough copies of the book, and to double-confirm and send out posters. The main thing the publicist has done for me, that I wouldn't be able to do for myself, is to send out my press kit to reviewers. I suppose I could do this myself, but I wouldn't have the faintest idea who to send it to (wouldn’t even know how to put together a press kit), and wouldn't have the "clout" a publicist does. We'll see if this pays off, in the long run, but for now it's at least nice to have someone else putting in the time to contact people, so that I don't have to.

Taryn:It's quite a nice blog, and hopefully you're getting some traffic. If you want to send me your e-mail address (click the "Contact" link on my website) I can give you a couple of suggestions, for whatever they're worth.

Selene: The other manuscripts (including multiple drafts) are thrown into cabinets throughout the house--Open my hutch, my entertainment center, any closet, and you'll see stacks of paper. It's embarrassing, really. When people come over, I have to hope they won’t open any closed doors…

But I'm definitely hoping to resurrect them someday, because I think at least 3-4 of them are publishable after some rework. Unfortunately, the first 2 were written on an old Mac, which has since been tossed, and I'm sure the floppies I saved them on aren't readable, and I don’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to withstand the tedium of retyping the pages into a computer. So those stories are gone forever...

Writer Rejected: Unfortunately, I threw all the letters away right after I heard the book was being published. It was kind of a ceremonial throwing away celebration. Every single one of those letters caused me pain, like little dreams being stomped on, even though the vast majority of the agents had never even read the material and so had no idea whether it was publishable--I’m sure anyone who’s gone through this knows the feeling. But I think I did save the few letters from agents and the Soho editor who did read some of the manuscripts and had encouraging things to say, so I’ll hunt around and see if I can find them and post them to your site.

I’ll stop back later to see if there are more questions, but till then, thanks again for your congrats!

Alli said...

Elizabeth, thank you for such an inspiring post. And congratulations on the USA Today bestseller list! I'm just wondering what number manuscript this was for you. And also, what was the one thing that kept you going through all the rejections and "close calls" - apart from your love of writing, of course.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to what exactly was your path to publishing. Cold query? Writers' conference? Referral from other writer?
I'm just starting the process of mailing off queries for my third novel. Fourth is already 20,000 words underway.
I love stick-to-it stories. They keep me going.

Kate Douglas said...

Loved your post, Elizabeth, and want to congratulate you on making USA Today! Fantastic, and, from reading your blog post, well deserved. Congratulations!

Merry Jelinek said...


Congratulations!!!! This was such an inspiring entry, I had to post about it at my blog so any of my writer friends who happened by wouldn't miss it. Thanks so much for your insights, it was a great morale booster.

I think the book looks fantastic, too. I've just added it to my must read list.

Elizabeth Joy Arnold said...

I’ll answer the couple of questions that showed up since I last wrote…

Alli: I’d say Pieces of My Sister’s Life was book number 6, although I started it, then put it down while writing another, then picked it up again. As for what kept me going, I tended to get sad and restless whenever I stopped writing, so it was in the best interests of my mental health to keep at it! (There’s actually a clinical term for writing addiction, “hypergraphia,” and I’d say I probably have it bad…) That doesn't mean it was easy--I'd say though, that people who give up after their first few rejections probably aren't meant to be writers. People should really only write if they enjoy it, because the only reward you can count on is the reward you actually get from the process of writing.

”Anonymous”: I found BookEnds completely by “cold query,” but I was very careful in the agents I queried, making sure they liked the kind of books I was writing. I also found a few bloggers who had really nice things to say about the agency, so when Kim called to say she was interested, I knew I’d be in good hands. Is it easier to find agents when you’re referred by a published writer? It probably is, because agents will assume the writer can tell the wheat from the chaff. Writer’s conferences? That’s something the agents would have to answer—I’ve never been to a conference, but I’d assume if you meet an agent who asks you to submit your query, you’ll be more likely to make it past the “first reviewer’s” desk if you mention that you were asked to submit…But I guess I'm proof that it's possible for new authors to find agents through cold queries. So good luck to you!!

I’ll check back again tomorrow morning, in case anyone else writes. And thanks again for all your good wishes!

Terri Hodgson said...

Elizabeth Joy! Thank God I'm not crazy! Do you have my DNA? Everything you have felt I am feeling right now. Except if my husband doesn't stop asking me when I'm coming to bed I will personally make him a widower. Thank you for giving me hope.
Terri Hodgson

Anonymous said...

Thanks Elizabeth! As to the "lost" manuscripts, you can probably buy a good text scanner and scan them back into electronic format.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations Elizabeth on your success! Very encouraging post! At what point in the process of your writing career did you decide to set up your web site?


Elizabeth Joy Arnold said...

Zee: Since having a website hosted costs money (and setting it up takes time), I actually waited until the last possible minute, since I knew nobody would log on before the book was published other than my friends and family. But Bantam was planning to start posting my website on their site, and on some publicity they sent out, so I realized I needed to get moving on it. (Also trying to save money, I designed the thing myself and learned HTML, which was a complete pain in the toosh--I wouldn't recommend it unless you're really tech-savvy, or were born after 1990...)


Rattlesnake Princess said...

Congrats on your successes, Elizabeth! I ordered a copy of the book off Amazon today and can't wait to read it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Elizabeth. You did a good job--your site is great!


Parlez Entertainment said...

That was an awesome post and so on target. You definitely provide encouragement and motivation. Congrats on your book and good luck in everything that you do.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Pieces Of My Sister's Life. This book is so different from most other books I've read. It truly was very difficult to put down. Very interesting subject matters, and very well written.
I am looking forward to reading your next book, and I hope the next won't be the last. Congratulations for a job well done. Mona