My name is Derek Taylor Kent (AKA Derek the Ghost). I recently received a three-book deal for my YA series Scary School, which comes out June 21, 2011 (scaryschool.com). Sounds like a dream come true, right? Keep reading.
My story begins when I was 15 years old. It’s March 1994. For a creative writing class, I undertake writing an epic illustrated fantasy series. As I write it, I love it so much that I am 100% sure that I want to be a children’s book writer for the rest of my life.
For the next six years, I work relentlessly on this illustrated series. My mother (a well-known artist) creates sample illustrations but can’t finish an entire book.
The furthest I could ever get with it is in 2000 when I obtained a small agent based in Florida who was unable to sell it. I was confused. I was angry. I was petrified that what I believed was incredible was actually no good, or at the very least, unsellable.
Around this time, the Harry Potter series started blowing up. I was resistant to read it, as I must admit, I had an inner jealousy for her success as a children’s writer. However, I had to see what the fuss was about. As soon as I read the first book, I became JK’s biggest fan. Like her, I had been trying to create a dark, epic fantasy series, but I realized that I was misguided in trying to make them into short illustrated books. What I believed was “unique” was actually tonally confused. The illustrations suggested a six to eight year old audience, but the epic fantasy storyline suggested a nine to twelve year old audience; and worse, the themes and high language could only be appreciated by adults.
Despite pouring ten years into this series, I had to abandon it in 2004 (although my mother remains sure it will eventually be my biggest success). I realized I had to reinvent myself as a novelist if I was going to make this work, and I was so inspired by young Harry, that I just had to create my own world like JK did.
April 2005. I spend about a year writing my first novel: Scary School, Book 1: My Homework Ate my Dog. Here’s the logline from my query:
When an enchanted sheet of homework "eats" his pet beagle and disappears, a gutsy 11-year-old boy embarks on a terrifying quest to rescue his beloved pet from a greater evil than he could ever imagine.
Not bad, I think.
October 2006. After completing the first draft of My Homework Ate My Dog, I began sending out a light mailing to a few agents and publishers. All rejections.
Again confused, I started giving the manuscript to readers, and one especially helpful woman who used to work as an editor. She gave me detailed notes that would require a heavy rewrite, but also said I definitely had something that could sell. If I have one strength as I writer, it’s my willingness to not only to take, but implement notes from critique.
I spend months doing exhausting rewrites implementing all of her notes to the letter. I may not have agreed with all of her notes at first, but after incorporating them, I had to agree the book was greatly improved.
Early 2007. I felt the time was finally right to do a serious submission. But guess what? I had a day job and my spare time was filled with other projects (I was doing theater and also forming a production company).
My Homework Ate My Dog goes on the backburner as another year passes.
July 2008. There’s a brief window of time off from my day job. I decide that it’s time to go full-out toward finding an agent or a publisher. If it doesn’t happen, it will probably be the end of my YA writing aspirations.
The task before me is daunting. I have the Guide to Literary Agents and the Children’s Marketplace books. I scour all the online resources. I make a thorough list of every single agent and publisher possible who might be interested. I quickly realize it would probably take me a year to reach out to all of them, and I only have a couple weeks of free time. So, I hire an assistant. His job is to sit in my apartment for eight hours a day and do nothing but create and send out packages to every single YA lit agent in America. There are thousands. I spend my time focusing on the online querying campaign. I send out dozens of query emails per day.
The mailings and the assistant cost a lot of money – probably a couple thousand –but I ration that it’s a fraction of what I would get for a book advance, so it’s an investment. And tax deductible.
Responses start coming in. Email responses come in quickly. I’m getting bites. About one in every ten I send out is asking to read my manuscript or sample chapters. Most are rejections of course, but if you have a 10% positive response rate to your query, you know that you probably have something really good, at least in concept.
Weeks go by as the agents are reading my manuscript. Of the hundreds upon hundreds of queries and packages sent out, I continue receiving requests for the manuscript at a rate of about 10%.
Responses from agents who requested the book start coming in. I get some positive feedback but nobody “feels strongly enough” to take it on.
August 2008. Eric Myers from the Joe Spieler Agency requests sample chapters. A week later he requests the complete manuscript. On September 20, 2008, Eric Myers is my agent. He is very enthusiastic and has a great track record.
Based on Eric’s notes, I do another rewrite of the book before he sends it out. The book is improved.
December 2008. Every publisher my agent has submitted to has passed on Scary School: My Homework Ate My Dog.
There is one glimmer of hope. A junior editor at HarperCollins says that “she really likes my writing and the humor of the book, but what I was expecting from a book called Scary School: My Homework Ate My Dog was not what I got. I was hoping for a light, funny book about a Scary School for a young audience, but instead got a dark fantasy book for an older YA audience.”
She was exactly right. I had made the same mistake I had made with my illustrated series. My title was screaming: silly/funny book for the 8-9 year old audience. But I had given her an even darker Harry Potter. Had I learned nothing?
The editor concluded with: “I do feel there is a market for a Scary School book series for a younger audience should he feel inclined to write it.”
There it was. A bite from a publisher. I had a fan and she had told me exactly what she wanted. The only problem was my “bite” feels like an orca whale. I’d have to write a whole new book for her, and I’d have to write it fast so she didn’t forget about me or buy another book in the same genre. But, if there’s one thing I like it’s “challenge” writing. And I love working on it deadlines. It keeps me focused and productive.
I sequester myself over the Christmas holiday and complete the first draft of the new book series, simply titled Scary School. It’s a comedy. I laugh out loud while writing it. I’ve always been a comedy writer at heart. I should have done this before.
The first draft is done by January, 2009. I spend two months showing it to my trusted readers and editing it based on their notes. I send it to my agent in March 2009. He doesn’t like it as much as My Homework Ate My Dog. He says it reads more like a collection of short stories instead of a linear story with a main character. He thinks I should rewrite it.
I really don’t want to do this rewrite. I feel confident this is the proper format. We eventually agree to send it to HarperCollins as is.
A couple weeks later, the junior editor writes back: “This is exactly what I was hoping for. I love it! I think we really have something here!”
I dance around my apartment and weep with joy.
For the next several weeks, I work on a new draft of Scary School with the editor. She needs it to be as good as possible before showing it to the higher ups for approval. We add more of a linear storyline into it while keeping the integrity of the short story format.
It’s much better. Everyone at HarperCollins loves it.
May 2009. HarperCollins offers me a three-book deal for Scary School.
The advance is not enough to quit my day job, but it’s enough to put a down payment on a new car, create a website, hire a publicist, and print thousands of Scary School t-shirts.
As I write this, Scary School was released a couple months ago, on June 21, 2011. Yes, after all that, I had to wait another two years before it was scheduled for release.
Over that time I have self-published My Homework Ate My Dog, which is now called Rudy and the Beast: My Homework Ate My Dog! There’s still an issue with the title, but I won’t surrender it. I also self-published an illustrated book called Simon and the Solar System.
This year, I finished a new YA novel called Principal Mikey about a kid who becomes principal of his school. I think it’s the best novel I’ve written and is absolutely hilarious.
No bites yet. Fingers crossed!