From Short Story to Trilogy to …?

Yesterday I wrote about two wonderful rejection letters that led to my becoming a published novelist. I promised in that blog to explain today exactly how that came about.

First, I took those letters very seriously. The fact that the editors had taken the time to write a detailed critique meant that they really had liked my writing, and the story was close but not there. When you get a rejection that tells you nothing about why a story was rejected, your only option is to send it elsewhere and hope for a better reception. But when you get a rejection that tells you how the story failed, you’d better pay attention.

I considered carefully the questions those two editors had raised, planning to rewrite the story in a way that answered the questions. But the more I thought about how to do that the more impossible it seemed to get the necessary background information into a short story. It seemed to require a work of greater length.

In the meantime, I had learned of the Andre Norton Gryphon Award. At present the Andre Norton Gryphon Award is an award for a published YA fantasy novel and honors Andre Norton’s memory. But at that time Andre designed and offered the award to encourage women fantasy writers, and the award was for an unpublished manuscript by a woman trying to break into the field. I’d been working on a novel that I thought might have a chance, so I hurried to finish it and send it in to the 1991 Gryphon Award competition. It didn’t win; it didn’t even make the final cut. But Andre Norton, who at that time lived in Florida and whom I’d met at conventions and conferences, wrote a very encouraging letter, urging me to try again the following year as she felt I had talent. She didn’t have to do that. She did it because she was a gracious lady who genuinely wanted to encourage new writers. And I made up my mind to take her advice and enter a new novel in the 1992 competition.

But what to write? I thought of my story “The Last Gift” and the questions by Polly Vedder and Suzanne Sturgis. I also thought of the advice so often given budding authors: “Write what you know.” That’s hard to do when you write fantasy. You are writing about things outside the realm of possibility, things that exist only in the imagination of writers and readers. But those “things,” be they magical talents, elves and orcs, dragons and unicorns, or excursions into other realms, have to be grounded in some kind of reality or the reader will not be able to suspend disbelief. So–what did I know that I could write about? I was a teacher of Spanish and English in middle school. I knew schools, I knew students, and I knew classroom teaching. I would write about a school for young people with magical talents who needed training in those talents and the ethics of using them.

I went to work and produced a novel that I titled A School for Sorcery. I wrote, edited, rewrote, revised some more.  My story “The Last Gift” became the book’s final chapter, with all the questions Polly Vedder and Suzanne Sturgis had asked being answered throughout the book, so the final chapter now made sense.

Because, as I said, I had met and talked with Andre Norton and had read many of her books, I had some idea of the kind of novel she liked. I aimed that novel at Andre. When I got it completed to my satisfaction, I submitted it to the 1992 Gryphon Award Competition.

It won.

I was ecstatic! There was a monetary award and a beautiful trophy, but the big prize for me was the promise that the novel manuscript would be read by an editor from a major publishing house. I was sure I was on my way to publication.

Actually three editors from three different major publishers were willing to look at the manuscript. They each read it. And every one of them turned it down.

Why?? They explained. The novel was well written, but it was Young Adult, and it was too long for Young Adult (defined, depending on the publisher, as for ages 10 or 12 up). At that time the length for Young Adult novels was given as 40,000 to 60,000 words. The length of A School for Sorcery was 90,000 words. One editor told me I had two choices: cut the novel down to 60,000 words or less, or add adult viewpoints to make it adult.

I hadn’t known when I sent it out that A School for Sorcery was a Young Adult novel. I had written what I knew, what I thought Andre Norton would like, and what I could fit “The Last Gift” into. I had no particular age group in mind.

Although terribly discouraged, I didn’t give up.   I queried agents and other publishers on A School for Sorcery, all to no avail. Until two things happened.

The first Harry Potter book was published, it was long, and kids loved it! The next book in that series was even longer. And kids were reading them. Kids who weren’t much into reading were devouring those books. And publishers, seeing the trend, started opening new YA fantasy lines to accomodate these suddenly avid readers.

About that time I connected with Jack Byrne, who was Andre Norton’s agent and because I had won her Gryphon Award was willing to look at my work. He looked, he liked it, and took me on as as client. And in a very short time he had secured a contract with Tor for A School for Sorcery to be published in Tor’s new Starscape line of YA fantasy and science fiction novels.

A School for Sorcery appeared in hardcover in 2001 under the Tor imprint and in trade paperback as a Starscape book in 2002. The hardcover editions were shelved with the adult books, and adults read and enjoyed them. The paperbacks had cover art that appealed to kids, and the books were shelved in the teen or children’s section, and kids enjoyed them. I got wonderful fan letters from teen and adult readers. It had taken 14 years, but I had become a published novelist! And all because two editors took the time to write thoughtful and comprehensive rejection letters, and I took their critiques seriously and learned from them.

But the story doesn’t end there, because the characters I had created for the novel wouldn’t let go. And also because while I had answered the questions asked in those 1988 rejection letters, the novel had raised other questions. To answer those questions I wrote a prequel, A Perilous Power, published by Tor in 2004, and a sequel, When the Beast Ravens, published by Tor in 2005. And I still wasn’t finished. The short story had become a trilogy, but I wanted more. A series.

But about that I’ll speak later. For now let me give you a link to a video of a student’s book review of A School for Sorcery:

About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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