By Shannon Kirk
I’m a member of the 2015 ITW Debut class for my psychological thriller, Method 15/33 (Oceanview Publishing). But the truth is, my first novel was written and self-published in 1984, when I was in Fifth Grade. Only one copy of Sentimental Sweetooth was created, handwritten by me. Fortunately, my parents saved this one precious copy:
It’s been a long time since my first “work” in 1984. A lot has happened in-between. I became a wife, a lawyer, a mom. I’ve failed at being a painter, a violinist, and especially at being a singer. All along, I’ve written on the side, when on business trips, when woken from a deep slumber by some lunatic dream I just have to jot down (a male cat giving birth to kittens in a hotel room shared with a seagull holding a baby bunny, for example—who knows—it’s too complicated to interpret). I’ve left scraps of papers with dribs and drabs of story ideas, poems, and whole chapters in hotel rooms, in trash bins around the world, in the margins of other books, on the backs of napkins, on train and plane tickets. It wasn’t until 2008 when I stopped wasting these words, scattering them everywhere. Not until 2008 did I put some discipline around writing.
In 2008, I moved from Chicago to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, having been offered a job at my current law firm. Manchester is incredibly beautiful; something about the salt air and orange-purple sunsets forced me, inspired me rather, to invest pretty much all of my free time to writing. After a couple of years of keeping my writing in one spot (on one computer) and collecting everything I wrote while traveling for work, and on nights and weekends, I set out to get an agent.
*Slam on brakes*
I thought I could send out just ONE QUERY to the ONE agent I thought I wanted (having done about five minutes of research) and that’d be that. Boy was I W.R.O.N.G.
Getting that first rejection was a slap in the face. I’d grown accustomed to following the rules and basically getting what expected. But the publishing industry is different. It’s not just about working hard at writing something someone wants to read; it’s also a game in perseverance and intense industry research. Over the course of the next three years, I continued to write (three different manuscripts) and continued to receive rejection after rejection after rejection. I haven’t counted how many. Several were addressed to “Dear Author.” Some agents didn’t even respond. Many were very kind in their rejection. But no matter how kind, every single rejection cut. Deep. But as I started to appreciate, the amount of queries, competition, I was up against meant rejections should be expected. They truly are the norm. You learn from them. You move on. You must persevere.
I attended conferences. I sat with agents and editors over samples of my work. Most were incredibly helpful and kind and gave invaluable advice. Only a couple were, well, let’s just say, being as nice as I can, forgettable, or rather, I’d like to forget them. The rejections and these meetings were not easy. They were often painful and I kept thinking, What’s the point in this pain? I have a career. I shouldn’t put myself through this second career, one that’s paying me nothing, actually, costing me lots, financially and emotionally. But the simple answer is the same as with any deep love: you can’t run from love. You can’t. Love haunts you, creeps in on you, whispers in your dreams. And I love writing.
I started researching rejection stories of published authors, often reminding myself of how J.K. Rowling was rejected oh, so many criminal times—how scary to think that we might never have had Harry Potter in our world if J.K. had given up. But she didn’t, and J.K. and other stories like hers were incredibly inspiring to me—they pushed me to persevere. They still do.
So I entered some contests. I had to find a way to get some street cred in writing. Didn’t matter that I have some non-fiction writing out there. And I didn’t have the time or fortitude to get an actual degree in writing or even a certificate. The William Faulkner William Wisdom writing competition was a great opportunity. For three years in a row I was a finalist in either the novella or the very wonderful novel-in-progress category. The novel-in-progress category is an especially helpful category as it gives new writers a chance to get some street cred to put in query letters while finishing a manuscript.
One day, a couple of weeks before heading down to New Orleans to go to the Faulkner event because I had placed as a finalist in the novella category for what was then 15/33 (now a full-length novel, Method 15/33, my debut), I got a life-changing email from my now agent Kimberley Cameron.
I called her. I hung up.
I started screaming from my office.
My husband and son thought someone had died.
After three solid years of rejections, Kimberley offered me representation. And what was more, she said my manuscript touched her, made her cry. It was NOT the manuscript for Method 15/33. She signed me for a wholly different novel (a literary fiction piece called Heavens, to be released next year). After I calmed down, I called her back and told her about 15/33. She said to send her that too.
She happened to sell 15/33 first. To Oceanview Publishing. And when I got that call, while on vacation in St. John, I screamed again, creating an unholy spectacle, something akin to an Andrew Pyper scene.
There’s been a lot of screaming since then. When I got the blurbs from Hank Philippi Ryan, F. Paul Wilson, Lisa Gardner, and Len Rosen (icons who I can’t THANK enough). When I got the two starred reviews, one from Booklist, one from Publisher’s Weekly. When my uncle hooked me up with a Fox News of Rochester interview. I screamed too when I got the 2015 National Indie Excellence Award for Best Suspense.
I met Lisa Gardner at the 2014 Thrillerfest after-party (the one after the awards dinner, exemplifying just how important of a networking event Thrillerfest is). I was so nervous walking up to her, but was shocked at how gracious and welcoming she and other famous authors were that night and the year to follow. Being in the network of ITW, I was able to meet the gracious Hank Philippi Ryan and email with F. Paul Wilson and Len Rosen. All of whom have encouraged encouraged encouraged me to go on. I am often taken aback at how welcome everyone, from new authors to famous authors to members running ITW, including Thrillerfest’s Executive Director, Kimberley Howe, make me feel. No one has to do this; I am a total unknown.
I am often struck by the camaraderie of ITW members. How included established authors make new and aspiring authors feel. I haven’t met one person who has forgotten how it is to start. When Steve Berry introduced me at the Debut Author breakfast this year, I wanted to cry. He did it with a tone of honor, as if he truly was welcoming me (and my fellow debuts) into the fold, our graduation day, and this too encourages me to keep going. I hear his words today, pushing me to finish my next thriller.
And yet, before publication day on May 5, 2015, there was more screaming. The loudest scream came when Mary Alice Kier and Anna Cottle of the Cine/Lit Representation agency emailed with this re: line: “Method 15/33 FILM RIGHTS OFFER.” I read it about a thousand times and pinched my arm to bruising, forcing myself to reenter reality and believe it. And now we’ve finalized a film option deal with Mary Jane Skalski and Damon Lane of Next Wednesday, a New York production company.
Currently producing WILSON for Fox Searchlight, Skalski’s credits include the award-winning THE STATION AGENT (she won both the John Cassavetes and Independent Spirit Producer Award), the Oscar nominated THE VISITOR, WIN WIN and MYSTERIOUS SKIN. Lane, who has been a manager at Zero Gravity Management, as well as head of Development and Acquisitions at Capitol Films, has worked in film sales, finance and production for over 15 years. He has produced LOCKED IN and ANOMALY with Noel Clarke. He is currently packaging CHURCHILL with Studio Canal and Sierra/Affinity.
There’s been more screaming too. Whitney Lee of the Fielding Agency has sent several emails announcing several foreign rights offers.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have fallen in with Kimberley Cameron, who literally plucked me from the maelstrom of the dreaded slush pile and sent the lifeline to extricate me from drowning in Rejection Sea. She’s set up a great network of agents, introduced me to Oceanview, and built a great team.
It’s been a long time since Sentimental Sweetooth, but I’m wholly still sentimental about writing. I am blessed to share this journey in the company of ITW.