Coming Out as a Novelist
Written by
Caryn Riswold
August 2015
Written by
Caryn Riswold
August 2015

I've been lurking around SheWrites for a long time ... almost since its inception, I think? I've never been quite sure how to best use this community, though I have routinely found others' posts about writing, editing, publishing, and all of the craziness of the process helpful. 

Now, I'm at the beginning of a year-long sabbatical from teaching (religion and gender & women's studies, Illinois College) for  which a major goal is moving my next book toward publication. It's not my first book, or even my third book, so in many ways I've done this before.

But I've never done THIS before: It's a novel.

It's first draft poured out of me five years ago, I remember it so vividly. The first idea, the connections, the excitement, the flow of writing. I know when and where it happened, and I'm only vaguely sure of why.

Since then, I've revised, researched, improved, edited, had my partner read it, changed key bits and pieces, and generally improved the thing significantly.

And now it's time ... time to find a publishing home for it.

I'm in the process of querying. I've queried agents and publishers for the past few months, still researching and strategizing how to make this happen. I've emailed editors and other authors for advice, and gotten great wisdom in reply.

My main problems seem to be these: I probably won't end up a full-time novelist (though who's to say! I'm only 43!), since I am a college professor. Thus, agents aren't likely to pick me up. I get it. I'm still querying anyway. Additionally, I'm a scholar of gender and religion, and the book is about women and religion. I've figured out over the years how to get the academese out of my writing. But finding a home for a book that is feminist, is about religion, is provocative, and engages the Mormon tradition specifically is an interesting challenge.

Many religion publishers don't do fiction.

Many feminist presses stay away from religion.

Agents probably don't want academics who think they can write fiction.

And so I seek for some cool publisher or press sitting at a cool intersection, an editor who wants to hear a great story. 

This is the first time I've talked about this "in public" like this ... so be kind, dear SheWriters. Wisdom and reality-checks welcome.

I'll keep you updated.

Let's be friends

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  • Caryn Riswold

    Thanks so much, Rachel! Best of luck during the submission process.

  • Your story sounds like my own! I'm a college professor in a field that's got nothing to do with creative writing (costuming for stage/film/TV), and i've published academically in my discipline. I'm also a novelist, and my first novel has similar challenges in terms of what one might perceive to be "a hard sell," in that it involves strong female characters with nontraditional lifestyles, genderqueer characters, subcultural contexts, etc.

    However, I began my querying process in May of 2014 using QueryTracker and a spreadsheet and a much-highlighted copy of the 2014 Guide to Literary Agents. I did my homework bigtime and only queried agents who specifically stated an interest in acquiring literary fiction with SOME element that pertained to my novel--descriptors like quirky/edgy, LGBTQ, counterculture/subculture/pop culture, etc. They are fairly specific in their entries, so i found it fairly straightforward to make up a likely list. Long story short, i signed with my agent (Jonathan Lyons of Curtis Brown, Ltd.) and my novel's now out on submission.

    Don't hold yourself back by speculating on what agents do and don't want. Is your age a drawback? I don't think so (because it wasn't for me). Look at someone like Ursula K. LeGuin or Margaret Atwood--they have published numerous books well past midlife. Is it a problem that you have a "day job"? Frankly, no--many traditionally-published writers have other means of support, and they aren't all journalists or writing professors.

    Also, agents want anyone who can write fiction. Doctors who think they can write fiction, lawyers who think they can write fiction, booksellers who think they can write fiction. Because, CAN you write fiction if you don't THINK you can? You clearly can write fiction because you have. Now you just have to approach the querying process with the same care that you approached your academic writing--do the legwork to find the most likely agents to query! I guarantee you that in the current guide to literary agents and in the QueryTracker profiles, there will be agents/agencies who cite some applicable descriptors. And read the success stories and sample query interviews to see how to format and structure the letter.

    If you want to go the route of self-publishing, that's a very different realm, and I don't want to come off like i disparage it in the least. Lots of folks are finding great success that way, especially in genres like romance and sci-fi. For me, it wasn't an option i wanted to pursue for my fiction, because i have no desire to do (or find the funding to hire someone to do) all the OTHER stuff outside of writing/revising like marketing, publicity, graphic design, editing, etc.

    Most of all, GOOD LUCK. I think your book sounds awesome and i look forward to reading it some day.

  • Caryn Riswold

    Great voices, suggestions, and encouragements all!

  • Peggy Creighton

    I think you need to make a list of reasons why you should be published. Is there a gap that only you can fill? If publishers have shied away from your subject matter, perhaps it's time to publish it. Academics are savvy and dedicated, perfectly positioned to become published. The current issue of Writer's Digest is based on the theme, "It's Never Too Late!"

  • Meredith Bailey

    Hi Caryn, 

    Thanks for sharing. Among other things, I'm a writer working on a collection of short stories. I can identify with both the lurking on She Writes and the feeling of running the "gauntlet" of the publishing world. I recently came across this resource in Poets and Writers magazine that might interest you. It's called Catapult ( and their goal is to offer an "ecosystem" of sorts for writers where they can learn craft, connect with other writers and readers, and publish. It's a small press--they only publish about 12 titles a year, but they seem more interested in unique voices and stories, rather than a book that fits neatly within a genre. And best of all, they open up their submission system twice a year for unagented manuscripts. Best of luck!

  • E. A. Hennessy

    I'm currently working on getting my first novel published as well, so I don't have very in-depth knowledge or a wealth of experience here. However, all the issues you listed above led me to this gut instinct: try to self-publish. I personally am going to pursue self-publishing my book and for similar reasons: I work full-time as an engineer and don't see that changing, plus some creative decision-making I want control over. There are self-publishing sites such as CreateSpace (run by Amazon) and IngramSpark that are pretty intuitive to use. I'm going to hire a professional editor and cover designer so my book is up to snuff. The downside, of course, is that those costs are on me. But, I don't have to worry about fitting neatly into any single genre, I'm my own boss, etc. Just another option to consider!

  • AR Neal

    Hi, Caryn and all!

    As a fellow lurker in this community who has recently bitten the bullet and started her agent search and who is also in higher ed, I feel your angst! Like Maggie, I don't think not being a full-time writer is a 'thing' to agents. The larger question for them relates to the market in which your novel fits. Have you joined QueryTracker and are you looking at agents on sites like LinkedIn and Twitter? There's also Publisher's Marketplace, where you can gather information on what certain houses and agents are seeking. The great thing about QueryTracker that I have found is that it allows you to search for quality agents. For example, I found an agent from another source and noticed the agent and the agency she worked for was not listed. I put in a request and within the day, received a personal response, indicating that the particular agency did not have a list of sales and the agents were not members of the primary associations, like AAR.

    Know that it is a process. One of my colleagues whose children's book was recently sold, mentioned that it is typical to expect around 50 agent rejections. Don't give up. Be tenacious and thorough as you query. Keep honing your letter. You'll get there.

    Anyway, I look forward to what others are thinking on this great topic -- help us newbies out, hey? :)

  • Maggie Smith

    I was interested in your remark about how agents/publishers wouldn't want someone who has a full-time job and perhaps doesn't intend to be therefore a full-time writer.  Who can be a full-time writer nowadays, with advances not very much and the competition growing by the day.  At 43 you've probably got many more books in you, maybe not all fiction, but I would think if your writing is strong enough, that wouldn't make a difference.  How about it, fellow women writers?  do you think this is a legitimate concern?