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“What!? You finished a novel?”

“I did. And what’d you do during Covid?”

“Well, I did read more.”

No surprise there. Stuck at home, Americans not only discovered a lot of great series streaming on TV but upped their reading time by twenty-one percent. And apparently, I wasn’t the only one to hunker down and put pen to paper during the Covid quarantine. A literary agent told me the flood of queries afterward made her email box look like Niagara Falls.

That I’d written a novel surprised people because I have a Ph.D. in American Culture Studies and for many years taught college courses and wrote nonfiction books about film and media. My day job kept me busy enough. (Maybe that’s why I lost sleep over whether to kill off my erudite professor character.) But I have this story I’ve always wanted to tell, and started carving out time to do some research, make notes, and organize material until I could finally commit to writing. Free at last!

Having a little fun at my own expense, I stick my pinky out as if drinking a cup of tea, while revealing my cool non de plume. People always ask what the book’s about, and so I give them my elevator pitch. Now if mine really is a book they’d “love to read,” they’ll want to know more, and then ask when it’s going to be published. I reply with a whiny, long-drawn-out, “Well,” making them laugh. And then, to be encouraging I suppose, they invariably tell a tale or two about renowned authors who struggled – for centuries it would seem – before getting their big break. Perhaps none more legendary than J. K. Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book was famously rejected by a dozen publishers.

Maybe a film adaptation. But a theme park?

Seeing my incredulous look, a friend said, “You never know. Hope springs eternal, right?”

It’s the stuff (literally) that American dreams are made of: A down-and-out, unknown writer overcomes obstacles on the way to getting a first novel published and rises from rags to riches – ka-ching! – and the New York Times bestseller list.

It happened often enough that I started noticing a curious reaction. Not all, but many people surprised me by asking about the process itself. How does someone manage to write a novel and get it published? Of course, that’s what I was about to learn, while entertaining the million-dollar question: Can I do it? Trade footnotes for fiction (my new motto). I am, after all, familiar with the quip, “Everybody does have a book inside them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.” (I started to wonder if maybe that wasn’t the subconscious source of people’s curiosity about getting published.)

I retired from teaching right into the pandemic, which I have to say, I was made for. I settled nicely into spending long hours with my imaginary friends, a daily practice some of my real-life friends still find rather amusing, my idiosyncrasies and obsessive work habits on full display. And while I write, my wife (and fierce critic), also retired, reads voraciously for pleasure, ongoing learning, and a book club.

When it comes to reading people are all over the place, from zero to over two hundred books a year, skewing statistical averages. A better indicator is the median. That puts the number of books the average American reads at four. Four!? Traditional publishers release somewhere between 500,000 to 1 million new titles annually, and though difficult to track, at least 1.7 million books are self-published each year. That’s a lot of books vying for a little attention. And here’s one for you. In another measure, tied at 17, Canada and France outpace the U.S. in books read per capita. Vive la France, eh?

When I completed my manuscript, I gathered feedback from a baker’s dozen beta readers, all unsolicited, thirty-to-sixty-something, all avid readers, most in book clubs, and mostly women (they read more fiction than men and account for a whopping 80 percent of sales in the United States, Canada, and the UK). Then I turned to my editor on a previous book for some advice.

“Fiction is a completely different universe from nonfiction,” he wrote in an email. “You are likely going to have to query a LOT of agents before you find one. Good luck!”


Based on what I’ve read, over ninety-five percent of submissions don’t meet the required standards. They’re littered with spelling and grammatical errors, lack originality, or have a premise that is downright weird: John Calvin Meets the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Most of the remaining top-drawer manuscripts (we’re at less than five percent now) are still rejected, usually because they’re just not a good fit for one reason or another. That means only one or two percent get published; at least that’s the unwritten assumption within the publishing business. (That loud thud you might have heard was my six-foot frame hitting the floor.) I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but…

The saga begins with a query letter, or what I prefer, a live virtual “pitch” to an agent at a writer’s conference. An interested agent will request “pages,” anywhere from twenty to fifty, or a couple of chapters. The next step is a request for a “full,” meaning full manuscript, which might lead to an “offer of representation.” Woo-hoo! Then, on your behalf, the agent pitches your project to publishers.

They may not all be this way, but my impression is agents are passionate about writing and treat their vocation as if it was a religious calling. But they are busy people, who I’m convinced read queries over the weekend, since 99.9 percent of the time email replies come on Mondays. It was weeks, months after I pitched to some agents, when finally, an email arrived with “Query” in the subject line, and in the preview text, “Thanks … unfortunately.” Opening the message, the typical rejection goes something like this: After much consideration, I’m going to have to (in order of popularity):

  1. step aside
  2. pass
  3. bow out (or simply)
  4. isn’t for me.

For some reason, that last one reminded me of a movie patron who said the only reason he went to Titanic was to see a ship sink.

Some agents include a couple of lines indicating why they are passing. Many will end with a caveat, in so many words, this is such a subjective business, other agents may well feel differently.


Two different agents found my concept “compelling,” but one did not like the plot and the other my writing. One agent found my main protagonist “hard not to like!” while another could not get “invested” in my characters. My writing “just didn’t get its hooks in” one agent wrote, while another was reminded of Mark Twain! And an agent did tell me I look like Paul Newman. So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice. 

One day, after having received several negative responses, I looked at myself in the mirror. How ironic. Your newfound passion has turned you into a walking cliché, a debut writer wandering around in the dreamscape of wannabe novelists.

I’ve gotten close a few times. One agent passed, “despite the unique premise and the solid, engaging writing,” only because she was representing two clients whose novels were something like mine. Another didn’t connect with the writing, “though that is not to say anything is wrong with the writing, you did a good job. It’s just not the right fit for me.”

It’s not only what’s on the page that counts. More than that, it’s about connecting. And not just in terms of story, characters, and writing style, but there must be a fit with an agent’s current list and “strategy for where I’d pitch and place it in the market.” One agent called it a “winning combination,” the right story, style, agent, market, and publishing trends. That’s a lot of stars aligning!

After a while I started doing crazy things. Sorting pills for the week to the rhythm of “she loves me, she loves me not.” One day the five-letter Wordle answer was AGENT. A good omen.

I eventually concluded, based on agent comments, that I have a compelling premise, engaging characters, and a polished narrative voice. What I needed to do was keep honing my craft, taking my manuscript to the next level. I decided to live on the edge and do a major revision, midstream. How hard can that be?

Six months later…

Once I got going, changes led to other changes, and then even more changes (wait ‘til you read the chapter, “The Grim Reaper”), the word count teeter-tottering up and down. I looked critically at my own writing from different angles – character, conflict, dialogue, focus, momentum, pacing – and rewrote that first paragraph a hundred times before my wife finally said it made her want to keep reading. Hallelujah! In the end, I even impressed myself with how much better the delivery was.

In Paul Auster’s novel, Baumgartner, having finished a draft of another book, the protagonist enters what he calls the collapse. After writing for so long, day in and day out, you become too close and “can no longer judge what you have done.” And so, you have to get some distance from it until the time comes when “you dare to pick it up again, you will feel that you are encountering it for the first time.” I could relate. Unfortunately, polishing off that revision probably cost me with a couple of agents along the way. The rule is you’re only supposed to pitch a completed manuscript. Lesson learned.

“Oh, you’re wondering what my novel’s about?” he said, unabashed and making light of his indirect “hint, hint” suggestion. “How nice of you to ask. Why I’d love to tell you about my novel.”

It’s historical fiction, a disaster book, a dramedy with a dash of adolescent romance, and a coming-of-age story (we’re always coming-of-age, no matter how old) all wrapped into one. Someone suggested I should’ve started with something a little less “aspiring.” Perhaps. On its website, one of the Big Five publishers suggests that authors “frame your novel around certain tropes, or types of stories, that are always popular). Hmm. Well, yeah, okay, my original concept was a little too ambitious – part of the reason for my redraft. But be that as it may, this is the story I have to tell.

Which brings me back to my earlier question: Can I do it? Become a successful writer of fiction (also known as published)? I had a story, the desire and determination to tell it. And not just tell it. I wanted my faith to inform my writing in important ways while taking a jab at the metaphorical heart of American mythology, which I’ve been Christianly critical of, the notions of bootstraps and rags to riches, innate human goodness, and godlike self-sufficiency. And so, one challenge was to breathe creative life into ideas I developed in some of my nonfiction books.

I set out to tell a different kind of story, not a formulaic one centering on a self-reliant individual (maybe a down-and-out writer?) who overcomes obstacles enroute to achieving a goal (is that the Rocky theme song I hear playing?). In these stories, the main characters have only to truly believe in themselves by realizing they already have within themselves everything they need to accomplish their goal and secure their destiny.

In contrast, my story features individuals within a community coming together unexpectedly in tragedy and persevering through extraordinary circumstances beyond their control – whether a natural disaster or overcoming poverty. I tried to cast my characters as whole people – heart, mind, body, and soul – God’s ambiguous image bearers capable of both virtuous and sinful behavior. All are haunted, reconciling not only with their past, but a place, a historically rich river valley they call home. And I came up with the idea of a dual timeline – one set in the past, the other during the pandemic – which I thought was an inventive way to complete the main protagonist’s character arc by ending with a twist, an aha! disclosure that casts the whole narrative in a new light, putting everything into perspective.

Redemption does not come easy for my characters. The possibility of renewal and a new life comes by way of experiences that make them aware of their brokenness, their limitations, and not least, the precariousness of life. Sifting through anger, regret, and loss while searching for love, spiritual growth, and meaning, what they find out about themselves and one another changes their lives forever, while hinting at the mysterious entanglement of God’s will and human initiative.

Now, hitting the pause button, that may be what I am trying to achieve, but the question is, did I do it? We’ll see.

Hey, how’s this for a tagline? An earthshattering event! A summons…to life!


What’s more, I’m hanging my higher-purpose hat on two maxims, if you will. The first, in Ephesians, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,” is tempered by a second off a Bruce Springsteen album, “you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above.”

Of course, I want to believe my novel is one of those “good works.” Then again, I am spending long hours in conversation with imaginary friends.

While doing research for my novel (actually, I call it intel gathering given my subject), I stumbled on an essay, “Why I Write,” by George Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame (and himself an obsessive rewriter). He identified four grand motives, and like taking an enneagram test, I situated myself within historical impulse (a desire to find the truth) with an aesthetic enthusiasm wing. What I have come to realize is that fiction or nonfiction, I always write to learn, and I learn enough to write, and then some. And it is commonplace, but I believe it’s true that how you tell your story is as important as the content of the story itself.

Now truth is, composing this essay was a bit of respite, like taking a deep breath. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a blend of my earlier and new writing. I needed a moment to reflect on what I’m learning in all this, take stock of where I am, and laugh to myself at my foibles. There are things I wish I’d known earlier. I might have avoided a few mistakes. But I find some encouragement in the words of author and poet Maya Angelou: “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.”

Is it dispiriting? Plodding along, hoping the next pitch might be the one that turns the key? Sometimes. But when I enter this fictional realm of my own creation, it’s like the world stops, but I keep going. I’ve always known writing to be hard and demanding, but to borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, I have to say, “You complete me.” That simple. And I do not take for granted, not for one minute, how fortunate I am, able to do something I’m enjoying so much.

Now, at one point someone said, you’re having so much fun at it, isn’t that good enough?

Are you kidding? No way! Get thee behind me Satan!

An agent who was stepping aside, left with this parting remark: “Rest assured, we feel your writing is stellar and you have a fascinating story. I believe you’ll find the right representative and publisher for the book.” Well, that makes it sound like I’m in the ballpark, at least I think so, and that came before my midstream revision.

Meantime, over email, I’ve gotten to know one of the co-coordinators of the Writing Day Workshops – big Cincinnati Bengals fan – and I’m signed up to pitch to agents at an upcoming virtual event.

Hope springs eternal, right?

William D. Romanowski

William D. Romanowski is Professor Emeritus, Communication, Calvin University. He is the author of Reforming Hollywood: How Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies, an Oxford University Press book that was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and won the Religious Communication Book of the Year Award.  


  • Great stuff, Bill. Very cool to learn about this new journey In your case, I’ll read the book and not wait for the movie👍

  • Kathy says:

    If I had checked to see how long your post was, I would never have started reading it this morning. Busy day ahead. But you hooked me in right away and I kept reading, and kept reading, and kept reading. You are an engaging writer! And I’m not remotely interested in writing a novel. So there is that. Looking forward to the afterward of this story. (I’m 73 and have yet to read JK Rowling!)

  • Henry Baron says:

    As Kathy observed, you write most engagingly – I was interrupted a few times after I started reading your nonfiction about the adventure of writing fiction, but eager to return each time.
    Looking forward to a sequel of the publication of a must-read novel.