The Road to Mordor by Rachel Menard

Not long ago, Rachel Menard announced the sale of her debut novel, GAME OF STRENGTH AND STORM, in our Sub It Club submission support group. She also shared some quick stats on her journey, and they are amazing! Certain that we all needed to know more, I asked Rachel if she would tell us about her journey to publication. Lucky for us she said yes! So read on. You don’t want to miss Rachel’s inspiring story!

“The old bones I found on the way to Mordor” by Trey Ratcliff is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Road to Mordor is treacherous and long and so is the path to publication… for most of us. I started my trip nearly 12 years ago. I had always wanted to write, I just couldn’t decide on what to write. I’d dabbled in essays, a punk zine in college, songwriting, poetry, and none of it fit. Then I read a book called Twilight and thought, “This is it. This is what I want to create!”

Needless to say my first manuscript bordered on Twilight fan-fiction. After completing it in a month, and sending it to 0 beta readers, I sent my first query in the summer of 2009. I cringe to think about it now. 

After a slew of rejections, I decided to have some friends read it, one of whom is also a writer, and she said, “Do you know this isn’t formatted correctly?” No, no I did not. After her notes, I reformatted the manuscript, sent out some more queries and by some miracle, actually got some requests that then turned into rejections. 

I shelved that book and it will NEVER see the light of day again. 

I started on book number two, a YA dystopian. While I was querying that one, I decided to sign-up for a writer’s conference to improve my craft, and shortly after that conference, I got my first R&R. I made the changes immediately, sent it back to the agent, and she signed me. 

An editor at a major house was interested in the book, but she wanted me to make it younger YA. I did, and when it went to acquisitions, marketing said, “Mmm, we don’t know where to place this. It’s too old for MG and too young for YA.” I had gotten so close and then crashed and burned. That agent and I shelved the book, and I moved onto something else, a YA revenge fantasy. That went nowhere, and neither did book number four, a YA urban fantasy ala Harry Potter. 

Frustrated with so many failed projects, I wrote the most marketable thing I could think of, a YA paranormal romance with an obsessive relationship, and my agent didn’t like it. With good reason. We amicably parted ways because I could tell she was losing interest, and I knew I couldn’t grow as a writer if I didn’t change something. 

Enter book six, a YA thriller. This landed me agent number two. We worked on edits, and she sent it to a handful of editors who passed with notes. I spent six months working on a rewrite based on that feedback. I was so proud of the changes and excitedly sent them back to the agent. She didn’t like the changes and dumped me.  

I was crushed. This honestly had the same feels as a romantic break-up. I cried. I drank. I listened to sappy songs and I considered quitting. But then I turned it around to… “They’ll see! I’ll be really successful one day and then they’ll be sorry!” 

I re-queried the YA thriller with the rewrites and got several requests. While I was waiting to hear back on those, I kept writing and had another manuscript ready to send, book number seven, a YA post-apocalyptic story. I got requests on that right away and had two offers! One from a newer agent and one from a big deal established agent. 

I spoke to both in earnest, but barely heard a word they said because in my head, I was going with the big-deal agent, even though in my gut, I knew it was a mistake. The big deal agent never showed the same amount of passion that the newer agent had expressed, and now, that newer agent IS a big deal agent. So the lesson here, folks, is always, always follow your gut. If I had, that book might have been my debut. 

It was not. 

The big deal agent was in the process of changing agencies and only subbed my book to a handful of editors with no success. Then she dropped me with the excuse that she didn’t have the time to work on my novel because of the move. I was pretty upset. Mostly with myself for going with the agent I knew was wrong, and a little bit at the agent for offering on a manuscript she didn’t have time to work on, knowing that I had another offer on the table. 

By that time, I had learned a few things about the business. One, there are many agents who use the “see what sticks,” method. They sign a lot of clients and throw them all at the biggest houses hoping for a big deal. When that doesn’t happen, they drop that client or project and move on. I’m not judging the strategy. I’ve worked in sales for a long time. I get it. Agents need to make money, and as evidenced by my first agented novel, they work on a LOT of projects for nothing. 

But my one gripe with this method is that no agent will say that’s what they’re doing. They all promise a long-term relationship. I always thought the agent didn’t matter. If I could get my work in front of an editor, it would speak for itself. Well, it did, but not loudly enough. You really need to make sure that you and your agent are on the same page. If you want to go on multiple rounds of submissions, send to smaller houses, or if you are only interested in a large deal, then make that very, very clear in the beginning. Having the right match is vital. 

Unagented again, I hit the query pile with another manuscript, book eight, another YA fantasy. No agent bites despite workshopping it at multiple conferences. Always persistent, I started on something new, and this time, I went back to one of my older manuscripts for a rewrite with more experienced and evolved eyes. 

When I finished the manuscript, it felt different. I knew it was my best work to date, and so I decided I was going to take it to the end if I had to do it by myself. 

I had a lot of interest in this one from both agents and editors, my most requests to date, but no one wanted to take it that next step. So I decided to self-publish it, and that became my self-published title, Steel Hand, Cold Heart. By the urging of one of my friends, I entered it into the Writer’s Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards.

When I got the email I had won the Grand Prize, I read it three times, certain it was a mistake. Didn’t they know all of these agents and editors had said it wasn’t good enough? Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined I would win anything. Then I got my copy of Writer’s Digest with MY name on the cover, right next to Jenny Freaking Lawson! 

This gave me the strength to keep going. Right after I’d written Steel Hand, Cold Heart, I’d started on a YA Hercules re-telling, and after I finished that draft, I had an idea for a YA rom com, books 10 and 11. I queried both at the same time.

After only 12 queries on Game of Strength and Storm, I had an exuberant offer from Valerie Noble at Donaghy Literary. 

Immediately, I knew things were different. For one, she apologized for taking so long to read my manuscript. It had only been three months, and I wondered if she knew some agents take a year or more to get back to authors. However, doing my due diligence, I let the handful of other agents who had the manuscript make a counter-offer. Most decided to pass, and one asked for more time to read. I kindly said, “You know what, I don’t want to waste your time. I’m going to accept the first offer.”

This time I listened to my gut.

I enthusiastically gave representation of my novel to Valerie. We worked on a few rounds of edits, and she continually reassured me, “I’m here for you,” and “call me anytime,” the first time I had ever heard either of those sentiments, and even though I knew she would be a fabulous advocate for me, I decided this time, I was going to be actively involved in the process. 

I collected my own list of editors and sent them to her with the assurance, “if you know someone else at the house, please send to who you think is best.” She was excited to reach out to new houses and new editors. The submission process felt like a partnership this time.  

The first round, we had no offers but some useful feedback. I did another major edit, and then Valerie built a second list. She sent out more queries, and more passes came through. I was getting disheartened by this point, wondering if we should move on. Valerie said, “Don’t give up on Gen yet!” 

Then we got the email from Mari Kesselring at Flux. She had devoured my book in three days and was taking it to acquisitions. A few weeks later I was able to say the words, “I have a publishing contract.” They are words I thought I would be saying a decade ago, and then they became words I thought I would NEVER say. But here they are.

Rachel Menard earned her degree in marketing from ASU, during which time her work was printed in the university paper and in her own, self-published punk zine, Chelsea. Her short fiction has been featured in the New England Speculative Writers’ Anthology and on Cast of Wonders. Her story, Blame it on the Bees, was chosen as a “Best of 2019” by Diabolical Plots. Her self-published novel, Steel Hand, Cold Heart, won the Grand Prize in the 7th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards. Her debut novel, Game of Strength and Storm, is forthcoming from Flux in 2022. For more of her writings and ramblings, visit www.rachelmenard.com.

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