Several Delaware authors have achieved success in the literary world thanks to their talent and plenty of perseverance
It’s publication day for Wilmington author David Teague’s new children’s book, The Red Hat, and rather than popping champagne he’s spending this dreary December morning working and running a few errands.
Though it’s not a 90,000-word novel, the slim picture book represents nearly five years of Teague’s life—five years of working with his agent, his illustrator, and, especially, his editor, as he attempted to hit the required word count.
“I was on the phone with this dude every day to get 400 words down to 350,” Teague says of his editor.
Consider that trimming that much from his original manuscript is equivalent to a novelist cutting thousands of words —and that it took five years to get it right—and you have a glimpse into the challenge of perfecting a book it takes 10 minutes to read to your child at bedtime.
It’s one of those tasks that many aspiring authors don’t consider when dreaming of a writing career, but gut-wrenching edits—and all the hard work it takes to get to a completed manuscript—are the realities of the writing life.
And then, once the manuscript is completed, the real challenge begins: finding a publisher. Sure, an amateur writer can get his or her work into paper or electronic print thanks to a booming self- and indie-publishing landscape, but landing a contract from a traditional publishing house—typically New York-based and offering a paid advance and royalties on future earnings—seems to be more and more difficult for new writers.
Despite these challenges, Teague and several other Delaware authors have achieved a level of commercial success. Indeed, while Delaware might be small in square mileage, it seems to be big on literary talent. And the ways in which these writers came to realize their dreams are as varied as the writers themselves.
A Childhood Ambition
For some, the process of becoming a writer begins in childhood. Wilmington’s Rachel Simon, author of the bestselling memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, remembers telling people as far back as the age of 7 that she planned to be a writer when she grew up. From that moment on, every step she took led her along that career path.
Unlike many authors, however, Simon didn’t hold fast to a single genre. Her debut work was an anthology, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams. It received wide critical acclaim but disappointing sales. Her second book and first novel, The Magic Touch, was a magical realism written as a fictional biography.
Her third book, an examination of the psychological impact of being a writer, took a sharp turn away from the literary fiction that got her started.
But she still hadn’t achieved that big breakthrough she’d hope for. Surprisingly, at that point she had no intention of writing about her sister, Beth, who has an intellectual disability and spent her days riding public transportation. It was only on the suggestion of her editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, for whom she wrote Commentary page essays, that she tackled the subject at all.
The breakthrough came when she was introduced through a writer friend to former New York agent Anne Dubuisson, who encouraged her to write the book that would become Riding the Bus.
Abandoning the “Serious Novel”
For Teague, his earliest attempts at writing began in his 20s. But his literary sights weren’t set on children’s books or middle grade fiction.
“I grew up in Arkansas and read lots of William Faulkner and thought, ‘I’ve got to write some giant serious novel about man’s inhumanity to man.’ I was clearly taking myself way too seriously—writing some big novel about race and justice and so on.”
Teague cranked out 49 manuscripts with no success. It wasn’t until he had children of his own and began telling them bedtime stories that he was able to relax and speak in his own voice. “It occurred to me that these [stories] were a lot better,” he says.
And so began his drift away from the “giant serious novel” to middle-grade fiction and children’s picture books. It’s a change that’s served him well; he has co-authored two middle-grade novels with his wife, author Marisa de los Santos, written two children’s picture books, including The Red Hat (Disney-Hyperion), and authored his first solo work of middle-grade fiction, Henry Cicada’s Extraordinary Elktonium Escapade (HarperCollins, 2015).
Hockessin writer Sharon Roat’s journey to successful author of the young adult novel Between the Notes (HarperTeen, 2015) began when she sought a professional change, shifting from the public relations business to young adult fiction.
“I think what appeals broadly in young adult literature is you can relate to the characters,” she says. “We’ve all been teens, even if this teen is set in a fantastical or dystopian world. YA is written in a very immediate, relatable way.”
She began her transition by immersing herself in the YA segment, reading books that spanned nearly every genre within it.
She found it relatively easy to channel her inner teen. “I think we all remember what it’s like to be a teen—at least I do. So I didn’t find that it was that difficult to write from that perspective. You have to write in a way that feels current without being dated in a couple of years. And it helps when you have an editor who says this reference or that might feel dated.”
Also taking teen angst as the theme of her first published work is Newark writer Maggie Thrash, author of the illustrated memoir Honor Girl (Candlewick, 2015). Already favorably written up in the New York Times Book Review, Honor Girl tells an autobiographical story about a teen girl’s summer at Christian camp, during which she falls in love with a female counselor.
“I knew that this event this summer is the crux of so much of my life and I knew I needed to tell this and get it out of my system before I could do anything else,” she says. “I was barely even out to most of the people in my life and my family, and this was just clogging up the works of my heart. So now I can write fiction, which has always been my main goal.”
For Wilmington suspense and thriller author J. Gregory Smith, jumping into the deep end of the pool as a novice author was the first step to the publication of his debut novel Final Price (Thomas & Mercer, 2010).
“I’d always wanted to be a writer, and lots of people say they’ve got a good book in them but they never get around to writing it,” he says. “So finally I said, ‘OK, if you want to be a writer, then write a book.’ And I did and it was not good. But I did get to the end of a full manuscript and that told me, ‘OK, you can do this. Now let’s try and do it better.’”
Also a veteran of the public relations business, Smith found himself working as a car salesman during a lull in his PR career. But despite a love for cars, he found that he had far less love for the idea of selling them. “So after one really frustrating day, I came up with the idea of a serial-killing car salesman,” he says.
The completion of the novel happened to coincide with Amazon’s big push in 2010 to create its own publishing imprint for mysteries and thrillers, Thomas & Mercer. Final Price was one of its early acquisitions, and Thomas & Mercer has since published three subsequent Smith works.
A Foot in the Door
As mentioned, finding a publisher is in most cases an arduous task. Authors hand manuscripts off to beta readers or otherwise workshop them into better shape. Query letters are carefully crafted, then snail-mailed or emailed to agents and publishers in an attempt to get someone—anyone—to take note of a fresh literary offering.
Unlike many aspiring authors, Teague had one major advantage: he happened to be married to one. His wife, Marisa de los Santos, is an established name in literary fiction, thus giving Teague entre into the publishing world.
Just being able to talk to agents and other publishing industry types without navigating the gauntlet of the slush pile (the stack of unsolicited manuscripts sent to agents or publishers) is a huge help, and Teague appreciates his good luck in that regard. It was those early connections that allowed him to co-author two middle-grade novels with his wife, further laying the foundation for successful publication of Henry Cicada.
The novel comes out this month, but it had a difficult birth. The initial pitch 10 years ago led to a “maybe later” from his agent, followed by the question, “How about a picture book in the meantime?” That picture book ended up being The Red Hat.
For most other authors, having a friend or family member in the publishing business is about as probable as hitting the Powerball. Getting their feet in the door came from plenty of legwork chasing down potential agents and publishers, then putting in the hours to contact them and present their best work.
Rachel Simon’s long career is in part attributable to her doggedness in pursuing publishing professionals combined with good luck and the wisdom to take advantage of it. During her first big break—winning the short story competition that came with a free trip to the Writers at Work conference in Park City, Utah—she easily could have squandered the opportunity. Instead, she showed up at the conference with a polished version of her short story anthology for interested agents and editors to review.
Later, when she was at an artistic crossroads, she took the opportunity to meet with former agent Anne Dubuisson and vent about the difficulties of dealing with the publishing industry.
“Every single thing I would tell her that was discouraging, particularly the inexplicable ones, she would say, ‘Oh, I know why that happened,’” Simon says. “And she would decode for me unspoken rules in publishing that I had violated inadvertently, along with all of these things that I didn’t know, because as the lone-wolf author, you don’t really know the protocol. So it’s very easy to get in your own way.”
As their conversation wrapped up, Dubuisson suggested that Simon’s agent had lost faith in her and that she should find a new one, and Dubuisson offered to help Simon write a query letter for a new agent.
“And I said, ‘With what?’” Simon says. “And she said, ‘Well, you wrote an article that was out in today’s paper. That’s a very commercial idea. Trust me.’”
That Commentary article, assigned to Simon by her editor at the Inquirer, was about spending a day riding the bus with her developmentally disabled sister, and was the seed that grew into Riding the Bus with My Sister.
Had Simon not chosen to follow her new friend’s advice, her career could very well have stalled at book three. Instead, she’s an internationally known author and speaker with adaptations of her work across a variety of media.
Sharon Roat also attests to the power of persistence in getting that foot in the door for her debut novel, Between the Notes.
“The query that landed me my agent was my 30th, and I know people who got their agent on their 80th,” she says. “I’m aware that success in writing is 10 percent talent and 90 percent perseverance. It’s very subjective, so part of it is that you have to keep improving your work and part of it is you have to keep trying and showing it to different people.
“You want to find someone who feels as passionate about your work as you do, so making that match is the challenge.”
More Who’ve Made It
The number of successful writers in The First State—both native and imported—seems out of proportion to its small size. Here are a few other first-rate authors with First State connections.
Marisa de los Santos – She is a well-known and highly-regarded author of literary fiction (and the wife of David Teague). The paperback edition of her latest novel, The Precious One, debuted in December.
Charles Todd – The prolific mother-son team of Charles and Caroline Todd has over 10 years produced more than two dozen novels that serve as simultaneous period suspense thrillers and historical novels. The latest is 2015’s A Pattern of Lies.
Lara Zeises – Writing for young adults, with titles such as The Sweet Life of Stella Madison and Bringing Up the Bones, University of Delaware graduate Zeises aims for that spot between teen sweetness (and drama) and adult challenges.
Dianne Salerni – Though she calls Chester County, Pa., her home now, this young adult author is a Delaware girl through and through, with a St. Mark’s High School diploma to prove it. Her latest novel, The Morrigan’s Curse, is due for release this month.