How to get your book published (in seven years)
I almost cried when I saw my name written in solid black script on the cover of my debut novel. It was the culmination of seven years of relentless work, boundless joy, unexpected friendships and numerous disappointments.
After all the waiting, finally I could read – MAYRA CUEVAS – written under a gorgeous illustration of a girl of color wearing a chef’s coat, her wild locks adorned with a crown of flowers. Next to it stood the catchy title crafted by my editorial team at Blink/HarperColllins, Salty, Bitter, Sweet — the perfect name for the book, and for the long journey that brought it to existence.
I began writing as a young girl to deal with the pain of my parent’s divorce and a crippling depression in my teen years. Novels like Gabriel García Marquez’s Cien Años de Soledad and Isabel Allende’s Casa de Los Espíritus and Cuentos de Eva Luna became a desperate refuge.
In middle school, I devoured the poetry of Puerto Rican authors Julia de Burgos and Lola Rodriguez de Tió, along with Island-centric works like La Canción Verde by Doris Troutman Plenn, El Gíbaro by Manuel Alonso, La Charca by Manuel Zeno Gandía and the Venezuelan classic Doña Barbara by Romulo Gallegos. This was my early education. And with it came the knowledge that to live, I needed to write.
Following in the steps of García Marquez and Allende, I became a journalist. I landed a job at CNN in 2003 where I honed my skills telling other people’s stories. In early 2012, I began researching the process of writing a novel and took a stab at a few chapters. They proved a total disaster — probably the worst thing ever written.
Undeterred, I took an online writing course with the University of Georgia, then parked my butt in front of the “writing books” shelf at Barnes and Noble. Over the years, I picked up books including Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, Wired for Story and Story Genius by Lisa Cron, and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
I also attended meetings, workshops and conferences organized by the Georgia Romance Writers, the Atlanta Writers Club and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
I quickly understood the importance of a writing community and the need to find a writing and critique partner – someone I could meet with on a regular basis for chapter critiques, encouragement, and to be each other’s wing-people at writing events. Becky Levine explains the ins and outs of writing critique partners and groups in her book The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide.
Around the same time, my manuscript – a YA fantasy – was ready to go out on submission to agents. Excited, and armed with a fancy spreadsheet chock-full of agent names, I set off to cold query.
It was a soul-crushing process. And after 200 rejections, it became clear my fantasy was a bust.
I set the fantasy manuscript aside, and spent the next year working on a YA contemporary romance. After a few drafts, I sent it to beta readers, then hired a freelance editor to help me polish it to a shine.
This time, it took only a couple dozen cold queries to land an agent – the amazing fairy-madrina Saritza Hernandez with Corvisiero Agency.
But despite Saritza’s best efforts, the book did not sell — another soul-crushing moment. Author friends had warned me this could happen, but I didn’t think it would happen to me.
By late 2018, my luck shifted. Becky Albertalli, the author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, selected my short story Resilient, for the New Voices category in the YA short-story magazine Foreshadow.
A few months later, in early 2019, seven years after I began working on my first manuscript, I landed a book publishing contract with Blink/HarperCollins. SALTY, BITTER, SWEET is scheduled for release on March 3, 2020 and available for pre-order now on Amazon. In the meantime, I get to work with an amazing team, including editor extraordinaire Hannah VanVels.
Looking back, I am incredibly grateful for the dozens of people who helped me along the way. I got enough help, encouragement and support to last me a lifetime.
Along the way, I was asked several times why I kept writing books in the face of so much rejection. The answer was always simple. Because I can’t do life without words. To me, writing is an exercise in meditation—a way to bring order to chaos. I simply need to write.
Happy writing, friends.
And may all your publishing dreams come true.