Author Lands Six-Figure Book Deal After 13 Years Of Failed Attempts & Time Spent Paying It Forward

By Jessica Vitalis

Writing a book is hard. Getting an agent is harder. And landing a book deal — that’s about as easy as landing on the moon. Or so it felt to me during the six years in which I wrote three novels without capturing an agent’s attention. (To be honest, it still feels a little that way!)  

And I’m one of the lucky ones. Even though I had two young children at home when I started writing, I also had a supportive spouse who encouraged me to pursue my dreams of publication without any real expectation that there might be a financial return. He didn’t bat an eye when I hired a freelance editor to help improve my writing skills. He didn’t complain when I signed up to attend a children’s literary conference (and then another, and then another…). And he only occasionally grumbled when I slowly filled up our house with novels and craft books that I’d purchased in the name of “research.”  

Despite all the resources at my disposal (and all of the frantic writing sessions during naps and after bedtime), I was desperate for a mentor — someone who understood the industry, who had a solid understanding of craft, who believed in me and my stories. Someone to tell me what was working and, more importantly, where I could improve.

So when I discovered an online community offering the opportunity to be paired with an experienced (agented or published) author, I jumped at the chance to enter. Even though I was up against hundreds of other writers and the chances of being selected for Pitch Wars were slim, my manuscript was requested by a couple of different mentors, so I figured I had a shot. The night before mentees were announced, I had a hard time sleeping.

When the list finally posted, I scanned it for my name. But the program wasn’t in the cards for me. Instead, the universe had another surprise in mind; the very next day, I received an email from an agent who had requested my manuscript through WriteOnCon, an online writing conference I’d participated in a few weeks earlier. In this agent, I finally found the champion I’d been searching for. 

One of the first things I did to celebrate was contact the Pitch Wars community and offer to mentor. I also threw myself into other volunteering opportunities with the hope that I could use the expertise I’d gained over the past several years to cut some time off other writers’ journeys. Little did I know, volunteering would reward me in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

It turned out that reading hundreds of pitches and opening pages and various other contest submissions resulted in an immediate improvement in my own craft. And working hands-on with other writers to help improve their work forced me to hone my own skills in a way that not even writing several of my own manuscripts had done. My agent even commented at how quickly my writing skills had leveled up.

But that wasn’t the only benefit that volunteering with Pitch Wars and other literary organizations delivered. Through this work, I became a part of the kidlit community, got to know other writers, gained valuable beta readers and critique partners, and made several dear friends along the way. That’s not to say that my journey was without its bumps. 

Despite having an agent, my ever-improving craft skills, a supportive community, and an apparently never-endingly supportive husband, my third, fourth and fifth books didn’t sell. After more than seven years together, my agent and I ended up parting amicably, and I prepared myself to enter the querying trenches once again.

Around that same time, Newbery winner Erin Entrada Kelly posted a call on one of my mentor forums for stories to critique in a writing class she was teaching. Eager for feedback from a writer of her caliber, I sent off my manuscript, hoping she might give me some tips to help polish my opening. 

Instead, she sent my manuscript to her agent, who contacted me less than 24 hours later. We went out on submission shortly thereafter, and three weeks later (more than 13 years after beginning my publication journey), I sold my sixth manuscript in a six-figure, two-book deal to the editor of my dreams. (“The Wolf’s Curse” comes out Sept. 21, 2021 with Greenwillow/HarperCollins and a companion novel will follow in fall 2022.)

I fully recognize that many, if not most, writers don’t have the time or resources to volunteer in the literary community, and I can’t promise those of you who do that your efforts will result in a book deal. What I can share with certainty is that the universe works in mysterious ways, and quite often, paying goodwill forward comes full circle and ends up paying you back in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.

Jessica Vitalis is a Columbia MBA-wielding writer. After leaving home at 16, Vitalis explored several careers before turning her talents to middle grade literature. She brings her experience growing up in a nontraditional childhood to her stories, exploring themes such as death and grief, domestic violence, and socio-economic disparities. With a mission to write thought-provoking and entertaining literature, she often includes magic and fantastical settings. As an active volunteer in the kidlit community, she’s also passionate about using her privilege to lift up other voices. In addition to volunteering with We Need Diverse Books and Pitch Wars, she founded Magic in the Middle, a series of free monthly recorded book talks, to help educators introduce young readers to new stories. An American expat, she now lives in Canada with her husband and two precocious daughters. She loves traveling, sailing and scuba diving, but when she’s at home, she can usually be found reading a book or changing the batteries in her heated socks.

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