How I Published My First Novel Against All Odds


I started writing a novel in 2005 and continued working on it through graduate school. At first, its title was A Gaslit Desert of Barbarism. My professor Chuck Kinder hated the title and mocked me relentlessly about it. I changed it to Hot Metal Bridge. “Catchier, except there’s no other mention of that particular bridge in the novel,” he noted. When I told him the final title was Eighty Days of Sunlight, he replied, “Great. I love science fiction.”

For what it’s worth, it is not science fiction. It is a literary coming-of-age novel.

After I finished grad school in 2008, I returned to my parents’ farmhouse in Northeastern PA. They had a couple acres that needed tending to. Since I had student loans, I applied for a job at the grocery store down the road. Impressed by my master’s degree, they hired me as a cashier. So, for 8 hours a day, I scanned and bagged groceries. My uniform included a red vest two sizes too small. After work, I returned home and worked on revising my novel. Some other things that happened in 2008:

I worked a construction job filling a wheelbarrow with dirt, pushing it up a hill, then around a house, before dumping it in a large pile. My job description: Sisyphus.

I dug up a drainage field for a septic tank. It was as awful as it sounds.

My thesis chair Cathy Day emailed me and encouraged me to apply for a Pennsylvania artist’s grant.

Former classmates and ex-girlfriends shopped at the grocery store. They’d spot me and, once recovering from the shock, choose another line. I suppose the situation was too pathetic for anyone to gloat. My old hometown is basically 2,000 white people. There were exactly two Asian dudes living there when I was in high school, so I stuck out. Sometimes, people would confuse me with the other Asian guy, so the shame of being 28 with a master’s degree and bagging groceries was slightly diffused.

At some point, I got promoted to corralling the carts in the parking lot. I got to wear a reflective vest that did little to prevent me from being roadkilled.

Against staggering odds, I received the Pennsylvania artist’s grant. Since work around the farm was complete, I moved back to Pittsburgh to conduct more research for the novel.

Between 2006-2008, I made about $13,555 a year. In 2009, I worked as a tutor and made about $13,000. After figuring out my taxes (which were complicated because of the artist’s grant), the lady at H&R Block said, by way of farewell, “Sorry, hope things get better next year.” Except they didn’t.

I started sending Eighty Days to literary agents. My query letter looked like this.

I’m a professional, so I can deal with rejection. But when you spend six years on a novel, it’s harder. The worst is when agents reject you by not responding. And I understand: agents get hundreds of queries a day, so they don’t have time to email everyone. Readers quit or get fired. Things get lost.

If agents like your query letter, you get a request for a sample, followed by a request for the full manuscript. Your hope gets raised by tiny degrees, only to be scuttled by an email that reads: “I love this book but suspect I can’t sell this.” Or, “This would have sold in a heartbeat five years ago.” Or, “Sorry, we didn’t like this as much as we’d hoped.”

It felt like the scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Bane cripples Batman. Except my fight lasted for three years, with no end in sight.

I had two choices: I could either feel sorry for myself, or I could write another book. So, I felt sorry for myself. Then, I started writing a second novel. The actual writing process was easier; I knew I had what it took to finish a book, so I wasn’t weighed down by that fear any longer. At the same time, did I really want to put myself at the mercy of the publishing industry again?

Underage gymnasts allegedly excelled in the Beijing Olympics. You’d think that being a little older might give an advantage: improved technique, experience, wisdom. But no. Because once you’ve fallen off a balance beam and felt your bones shatter, you see things differently.

Around 2012, I read an article “10 Careers with High Rates of Depression.” I was working three jobs at the time and there they were all on the list–in a row: “Artists, entertainers, writers”; “teachers”; and “administrative support staff.” Around that time, I stopped sending Eighty Days out.

Writing is a lot of things. But, maybe above all else, it is an endurance contest to see how many different kinds of heartbreak you can withstand. I just couldn’t hear, “I can’t sell this” again.

Then, Mink Choi contacted me. She was an editorial assistant for a literary agent I’d queried in 2011 and is now Book Publisher at Thought Catalog. She asked about Eighty Days and the rest is history. I’m really excited for the novel, and I’m a little awed by the fact that a stranger didn’t give up on my novel even after I did.

Stephen King wrote four books before Carrie was published, and that’s not uncommon. I’m not sentimental enough to say that years of being brusquely dismissed or apologetically rejected somehow improved me, but I can honestly say it was worth it. You have to believe good work will find a home.
The Beijing Olympics were in full swing in 2008, when I graduated. And I’ll never forget this one sportscaster’s words: “I’ve talked to a number of medalists and asked what they’re thinking about on the podium when their national anthem’s playing. And they all say the same thing: they thought about all the times they wanted to give up, but didn’t.”

Eighty Days of Sunlight is available here.