Photo by Alexander Torrenegra

Photo by Alexander Torrenegra

Please welcome today’s guest, Karin Gillespie, a “Midwestern girl who is still trying to get the hang of being Southern.” Karin has an MFA in creative writing and is the author of five novels, including the Bottom Dollar series. Her latest novel, Girl Meet Class, will be released next year. She’s also a humor columnist for Augusta Magazine, and teaches composition at GRU. Her work as appeared in The Writer, Romantic Times and The Gray Lady.

You can learn more about Karin on her website and blog, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

How I Got Published in the New York Times On My First Try (And What Happened Next) 

One of my favorite movies is Julie and Julia. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the true story of a young woman named Julie Powell who cooks Julia Child’s recipes and blogs about her experiences. Powell is eventually featured in the New York Times and after the paper comes out, she’s deluged with calls from agents and editors. And later, of course, Amy Adams plays her in a Nora Ephron movie. What more could a writer ask for?

Ever since I saw Julie and Julia I wanted to be in the New York Times. “Wanted” is the key word here; I didn’t lift a finger to make it happen. Instead, I filed it away with other impossible dreams like wanting to be a supermodel (I’m five foot two, middle-aged and a size eight) or winning the lottery (even though I never buy tickets). Meanwhile I’d written my sixth novel, and my literary agent was submitting it to editors. I’m a multi-published author with respectable sales, and I thought this new novel was my best ever. I was cautiously hoping for an auction, and if not an auction definitely a pre-empt. If not a pre-empt, a six-figure deal. Okay. I’d take five figures but that’s as low as I’d go. I have my standards.

Days passed… nothing. Weeks passed… a few rejections trickled in. Months passed… nada. It was as if my manuscript had been sucked into a black hole of indifference.

Was it my lack of platform?

I’d taken a break from publishing and gone back to graduate school to improve my writing chops. Likely the publishing world considered me a has-been, which meant I probably needed to increase my profile. But where to start? I Googled “author platform” and found an interview with a literary agent. She said one of the best ways to get the attention of editors was to be published in the New York Times. There it was again. But which section? (If you’ve ever seen my wardrobe and hairstyle you’d know “Style” wasn’t an option.)

I kept an eye out for timely topics and noticed MFA programs were trending. Lucky me! I’d recently graduated from an MFA program. Unfortunately so had thousands of other writers; I needed a unique approach. My published novels were Southern chick lit. Maybe that was my angle: Bridget Jones Meets Breadloaf. I wrote the essay, crafted a pitch, and submitted it to the Op-Ed section. The guidelines say that if you don’t hear back from the editor for three days, you can assume they’ve passed on your work. Guess what? Three days went by and no news.

But on the fourth day, there it was: An acceptance from the New York Times.

At first I thought it had to be a hallucination. I’m used to experiencing extreme suffering before something positive happens to me, and my suffering for this piece had been minimal. (I’d gotten a small paper cut after reading through my final draft.) I immediately emailed my agent and said, “Can we leverage this publicity?” What I really meant was, “Let the auction begin!” Meanwhile I was trying to think about who might play me in the movie of my life. (Amy Adams was too young. Maybe Nicole Kidman?)

“Masters in Chick Lit” appeared in the Sunday Times, taking up an entire page. Sadly it did not immediately generate dozens of calls from editors and film producers. Instead it entered the world with the fanfare of a newly hatched mealworm. On Monday I couldn’t even find it on the web site, and I assumed it was such failure that the Times had buried it and kicked dirt over it, hoping that no one would ever mention it again. On Tuesday morning my fortunes changed; my husband woke me up and said, “They’re featuring your piece on the front page of the web site.”

That’s when things finally started to take off.

I got oodles of comments, including one from Writers Unboxed’s own Donald Maass. The book editor at the Washington Post asked me if I’d do a review for him. Then author Anne Rice tweeted about it. (Yes! Maybe there’d be a movie after all.) I became obsessed with my computer, following the tweets, comments, and email. At some point in the day, Elizabeth Gilbert tweeted, blogged and Facebooked my piece saying, “I think this is just freaking great. Made me want to stand up and cheer.” This is only the beginning, I thought. Elizabeth Gilbert today… tomorrow the world.

As it turned out, the Elizabeth Gilbert shout-out was not the beginning, but the end of my five minutes of fame. The next day my piece disappeared from the front page of the web site. The tweets, emails, comments and Facebook posts slowed and eventually stopped completely. That’s okay, I thought. I’d console myself with the super-duper book deal that was obviously in my future. A few days passed and no excited phone calls from my agent. A couple more rejections came in, and then it was black hole time again. Karin Gillespie who?

It took me a couple of days to put my experience in perspective. As I said, my initial motivation for writing the piece was to increase my platform and thus become cat nip for Big-Five editors. That didn’t happen. What did happen was I heard from dozens of readers who passionately connected with my words. And, of course, that’s ultimately why I write. Not just to get a platform, but to reach people and possibly make them laugh, recognize themselves or slightly change their world view, even if it’s only for a day or two. So I didn’t get a Big-Five publishing deal, (what do you people want from me, my own reality show?) but I connected with thousands of readers, and in that regard, my Times piece was a wild success.

p.s. A couple of weeks later I signed a book deal but it had nothing to do with my essay. I was at a book festival and hooked up with an editor of Henery Press, a small but up-and-coming publisher. She read my novel in two days and offered on it.

Have you ever taken a big chance? Reached for the moon and snagged a piece of it? Tell us about it in comments.