Beth Cato: ACME Anvils and the Long Unicorn Ride to Publication
Hey! It’s Beth Cato! Beth Cato, one of the tacolytes at the Holy Taco Church! Beth Cato, the high priestess of churromancy who will give you a recipe for stuffed churro nuggets. (Confession: my nickname at pro wrestling camp was “Stuffed Churro Nuggets.”) Beth Cato, author of brand spanking new novel The Clockwork Dagger, which, oh yeah, just got profiled at Entertainment Weekly. Here she is, to talk about the long unicorn ride to publication.
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When you’re a writer, it’s all about trading up to a better set of problems. You start out just wanting the time and/or brain power to write. Then you want to be published–validated–in any kind of way. And published again. If you’re a novelist going the traditional route, acquiring an agent is the first big goal. And when you get that agent, it’s like you’ve been handed the reins to a sparkly unicorn who will take you to magical realms where chocolate has no calories and all your publication dreams will come true.
My own journey started at a timid crawl. I trunked several novels and then worked for years on an urban fantasy about a healer. I did several from-scratch rewrites. I LOVED that book. After all that labor, I had two agents offer me representation. I had a sparkling unicorn at last! I was off to the land of book contracts and purring fuzzy kittens.
No one talks about the ugly truth: that even with an agent, a lot of first novels don’t sell.
I’ve had my share of rejections on the small stuff. My skin is thicker these days, but nothing hurts like novel rejections. They were ACME anvils dropped on my hopes and dreams. I don’t have Wile E. Coyote’s resilience. I was squished flat.
I had another novel (#2) in revision with my critique group, and started on another project. I sent the polished book #2 along to my agent. She informed me that it was deeply flawed and would need to be completely reworked.
Ten ton anvil, right there. All the things she said that were wrong with the book… they all made sense. But I didn’t know how to fix it, and even more, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I didn’t love this book the way I’d loved my urban fantasy.
I still desperately wanted to sell a book, though. I considered self-publishing, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to see my book in major bookstores. I wanted to hold it. Cuddle. Take long walks on the beach together.
There was still my new project (#3). I’d finished the rough draft. Like my urban fantasy, it featured a healer as the heroine, but this book used an Edwardian steampunk backdrop. The title: THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER. It felt like a good book, but hey, who was I to judge?
After all, my urban fantasy didn’t sell. It wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough. My book #2 sucked. This book-writing thing, maybe I should just stop.
Maybe getting an agent was a total fluke.
Maybe I should stick with short stories, where if I wrote something unsellable, I least I wasn’t wasting a year of my life.
Why even do short stories? I revived my dream of being a writer so I could write NOVELS. That was the goal since I was four-years-old, playing God over my Breyer horses. If I couldn’t succeed with a novel, what was the point?
If I didn’t write, what was I going to do?
In case you couldn’t tell, it’s very depressing to be squished flat by a ten-ton anvil.
Here’s something else that a lot of writers don’t talk about in the open: agents do a heck of a lot more than contracts and submissions. Some wield a wicked red pen. Some are experts at long distance slaps across a writer’s face while screaming, “Pull yourself together, man/woman!” Some are willing to take a client’s screwed up novel–one they really see promise in–and spend six months going back and forth on edits.
I stuck with it. I slogged through draft after draft, determined to give book #3 everything I had. When THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER went out on submission to editors, all those doubts and fears squished me flat again.
If it didn’t sell, then what?
After a few weeks of dread and despair, I pulled out a trusty psychological coping mechanism. No, not alcohol (this time). DENIAL. For months I pretended my book was not on submission, effectively plugging my ears and going, ‘La la la’ as I wrote stories and distracted myself from the oncoming confirmation of my failure.
Then something really weird happened.
A publisher offered on my book.
Then another one.
The book that was my litmus test for whether I was worthy of this whole novel-writing jig is out as of September 16th. The publisher is Harper Voyager. My cover is pretty and shiny and awesome. It has my name in massive letters across the front. Sometimes I carry it around and pet it, because I can. Because it’s real. I have a two-book deal, so the next novel in the duology will be real, too.
Here’s the thing. I still have my sparkly unicorn, but I don’t get to camp in the happy land of publishing. I continue to trade up to different problems. Every book I write has the potential to suck in extraordinary new ways. I’ll need to go through the agony of the submissions process all over again for a new series. I’m painting that red bulls-eye on my head. If I look up, I’ll probably see anvils suspended from large cranes.
But you know what? If I’m squished flat, you’ll find me there with THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER clutched in my steely fist. No matter what happens from here on out, I stuck with it and published a book. I have proof.
Beth Cato is the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER, a steampunk fantasy novel from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat.