Word by Word

From 47 Rejection Letters to the Nancy Pearl Award

By Ashley E. Sweeney


Think marathoners, mountain climbers, and triathletes. Lewis and Clark. Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton or space pioneer Scott Kelly.

History is full of momentous stories of endurance.

And then there’s me, sitting day after day at my writing desk researching, writing, questioning the validity of my work; receiving crumbs of encouragement and heaps of disappointments.

Like so many authors, I’ve received my share of rejection letters. No room on my current client list. Didn’t move me as I had hoped. I’ll pass.

So, after eight years laboring on my first manuscript—followed by 47 rejection letters—I approached She Writes Press, a feminist hybrid publisher, to publish Eliza Waite. It was a long pregnancy for my first book baby, which was published in 2016.

And the accolades streamed in.

“Sweeney’s debut novel is a beautifully written work of historical fiction;” “Eliza Waite is a compelling narrative;” “Eliza Waite is a stunning debut.”

And then came award season: five finalist awards, including the Sarton Women’s Book Award and the WILLA Literary Award. To cap off an impressive season, in July Eliza Waite won the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award, named for the iconic librarian, author, and frequent NPR commentator.

Was the wait worth it? A resounding “yes!”

So what’s my advice for budding authors? Or for those of you who sit day after day pumping out your best work wondering if it will ever see the light of day?

1. Show up to your desk every day.

2. Lose yourself in your story; think about it while you’re walking, driving, doing dishes.

3. Pump out a minimum of three pages per day: good, bad, and ugly. Just get it down. You can always go back later and tweak or erase.

4. Find three beta readers willing to read your work. Offer them presents.

5. Write a rough draft, a refined draft, a polished draft, and a final draft.

6. Pay for professional editing (even English teachers and journalists need professional editing).

7. Write the best query letter you can. Submit to your top agent and give him/her the time and space to answer. If turned down, go down your agent list, one by one. Remember there are other publishing options: hybrid, self-publishing. With enough tenacity, you can see your work published.

8. Have other hobbies: quilting, running, painting, sailing, gardening, cooking. You’ll need them. Even if you’re thinking of your characters, plot arcs, and dialogue 24/7, you cannot sit at your desk all day without getting up and clearing your mind. Or at least getting a cup of tea.

9. Vent to your spouse/partner/closest friends. It’s only natural.

10. Read voraciously. Frequent the library. Join a book club.

Above all, do the work required of you in this crazy calling. There are no shortcuts. Not for explorers, not for athletes . . . and, speaking from experience, not for writers.

January 2018

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December 2018


©2016 Ashley E. Sweeney, all rights reserved.