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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Didn't You Sign Me!

In the spring of 2006 I went to my first writing conference to pitch my first novel, ROOMS. Four editors asked for my manuscript and by July I’d talked to three well-known agents who were interested in representing me.

I was elated. Three agents? Even though water still gushed from behind my ears I knew enough to realize having three agents interested was unusual. I figured I’d made it and one of them would offer to sign me soon.

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Didn't happen.

In August of that year I went to a mentoring clinic led by Cec Murphey, bestselling author of more than 120 books. Before the three-day clinic the eight of us were to send Cec five pages of our manuscript. Cec would critique the pages, then send them back ahead of time so we could hit the ground sprinting when the clinic arrived.

I sent in the first five pages of ROOMS and waited for Cec’s response. I imagined he’d write back and say, “Wow, this is excellent. Send me five more pages!” I mean, c’mon, I had THREE agents interested and FOUR editors.

Not what he wrote. “You have talent, Jim, but you have a long ways to go.”

Insert knife, twist twice, pull out and clean blade. Repeat.

Yeah, it hurt. But I needed the truth. I went to the clinic and was fortunate. Cec turned out to be even more brutal than I expected on my writing, but more compassionate and caring as a person than I could have imagined. He was the perfect combination to propel my writing to the level it needed to be at to warrant serious consideration from a publisher.

I reworked the entire manuscript and sent it to a fourth agent I’d developed a relationship over the summer with, and wanted to work with. He signed me ten days later.

Two years later I had lunch with one of the first three agents, Beth Jusino, who worked at Alive Communications during the time we were talking. I asked her, “Why didn’t you sign me?” She smiled and said, “You were so close, but you weren’t quite there.” Beth was right.

I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I was ready. Yes, I was close, but 90 percent of the way there isn’t enough. Steve Laube says when he looks at a manuscript the writing and story can’t be 90, or 92, or 94 percent of the way there. It has to be 95 percent or above.

(This is one reason I am not (in general) a fan of self-publishing. I believe most novelists think they’re at the 95 percent mark when they’re closer to 85 percent. I certainly was.)

See, your competition isn’t other unpublished writers. It’s me. It’s my fellow Novel Rocketers. It’s the other authors on the bookshelves.

Even though you’ve heard it again and again and again, ad nauseam, it is worth saying one more time:

The best thing you can do get published (and sell books whether traditionally published or not) is to work on your craft. Find (a qualified) editor that will be brutal on your writing and listen to them.

Because here’s the good news: Most aspiring writers stop at 90 percent. It gets hard. It’s daunting. The knife doesn’t feel good when it slides between your emotional ribs.

But if you’re one of the few who are determined to refine that last 6 percent, your odds of getting published go up exponentially.

James L. Rubart writes best-selling, award winning novels, but you knew that, right? His latest, SOUL’S GATE hits shelves in early November. His past tomes are, ROOMS, BOOK OF DAYS, and THE CHAIR. During the day he runs Barefoot Marketing which helps businesses and authors make more coin of the realm. (Yes, he can help you.) In his free time he dirt bikes, hikes, golfs, takes photos, and occasionally does sleight of hand. No, he doesn’t sleep much. He lives with his amazing wife and teenage sons in the Pacific Northwest and still thinks he’s young enough to water ski like a madman. More at


  1. I'm so glad you kept at it, Jim!!!

  2. Sound advice, Jim. No doubt.

    However, if more novels checked in at that 95% level after publishing, I'd put more faith in the powers that be. JMO.

  3. Thanks Jim. :) Always. Received my first rejections from publishers a few weeks ago, and although they had some positive things to say, they still decided to "pass." Definitely deflated my confidence, but a firm reminder that I have not arrived. And even when I do get the green light, I hope I always keep the perspective my dad taught me, to keep learning and keep working on it!! Will your lovely wife be in Dally this year? :) -Raj

    1. Not this year unfortunately! Wish she was.

  4. The advice from a professional is like gold. IF we listen and apply. Great article. Nice to hear what you went through before finding the success you've been having. There's hope on the horizon if we just keep learning.

  5. This is SO good. It's so easy to think the really hard part is being a beginning writer with so much to learn...but really, I think it might be even harder when you've learned and learned and learned and you've studied the craft like crazy and you've had enough bites to feel like you're on the edge of making it--but you're out of breath, worn out and not sure you've got what it takes to go from 90% to 95%. But choosing to listen and learn from the brutal editors, working even harder when you're 90% there than what you did when you were at 60%, that might be what separates the could've-beens from the will-bes. Such good stuff!

    1. Thanks, Melissa, don't stop believing! (Hmmm, I get an image of a bunch of people in St Louis with microphones in their hands.)

  6. This post is golden! It has been suggested to me that I should self-publish and the temptation is real but I almost feel that "for me" - I might be settling if I take that road. My dream is to be traditionally published and if I have to work harder and wait ... then that is what I will do.

    I sometimes feel like Marty McFly stuck at 88 and going "Back" to the Future. I've even sensed that I've accelerated to 93 but then let up on the gas and slipped back. I'm determined to be a professional and with that, I have to invest. I've recently decided I need a freelance editor's eyes to push me past that 93. That will require a financial sacrifice but it is necessary. I'm too close to the asphalt to see where I'm going. :-)

    Your experiences encourage me! Thank you Jim!

    david w. fry

  7. So good to see you at ICRS. You were so fortunate to hook up with Cec. He is a wonderful friend for writers to have. You were smart to listen to him, too. He sure helped me. Glad you kept at it. I'll still be learning more about this craft until the Lord calls me home and silences my "pen" on this earth.

    I like the use of the per cent numbers and David's analogy to stepping on the gas and letting up when you're almost there. Keep the foot to pedal all of you who haven't hit the top speed yet.


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