THE BLOG

Building Your Own Castle

04/14/2015 03:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

Writing, like any profession, is a road forked with unexpected turns and sudden drops and stops. On occasion, when you reach what you expect is the successful end, you discover abruptly that the princess is in another castle. Rising author Emmie Mears experienced this firsthand when, shortly after celebrating the release of her debut superhero novel The Masked Songbird last year, not only did the princess vanish on her, but the castle itself crumbled into a moat of lava.

There's always lava.

One year ago, unpublished writers gazing at Mears from afar might have seethed with envy: fabulous literary agent, new book debut, contracts for three more dripping with fresh ink, all achieved on the cusp of turning 30. Mears herself might have paused to survey the scenery and feted herself with well-deserved congratulations after over a decade of hard work. However, in short order, it pretty much all collapsed. Her imprint was bought out, orphaning The Masked Songbird and her other books in utero. Her agent decided to leave the business. If that was not enough, her marriage fell apart, work dried up and the bank was threatening to tow away her car. At her lowest point, late last fall, Mears was coming close to having to choose between feeding her cats or feeding herself.

There is a saying that in order to succeed in life, you need some combination of two of the following factors: luck, talent and perseverance. While anyone reading Mears' work can attest to her obvious talent, it's the latter factor where she truly shines, and what enabled her to dig herself out of the morass and kick the iron doors to the publishing world open wide again.

Emmie Mears does not give up.

Mears prefers to state the equation as hard work plus time, multiplied by the x factor: "that weird concoction of the market, industry biases, reader readiness, word of mouth, cultural coincidence, and whatever else makes a book sell." She is sanguine about hard lessons learned from her first go-around. "There's this common joke in publishing circles of the ten year overnight success," she says. "No one thing will make you a success. There's no One Book. There's no One Deal. There's no One Agent. I could go with a metaphor about eggs in baskets, but I'd rather just say this: publishing is a rapidly-changing landscape. You have to be adaptable. You have to roll with rejections, and you have to get back up when the business doesn't pull its punches. I'd also challenge that those 'overnight' success stories are probably not really overnight at all. If you want to do words as a career, it takes time. It takes that and a lot of effort. It's a long con, and there are setbacks and obstacles at every stage. Getting published doesn't even guarantee your books will be on shelves a year later." Indeed, she recalls spending the inconsolable day The Masked Songbird was plucked unceremoniously from those shelves curled up with a pile of pizza and well-worn DVD's of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But just that one day.

On Day Two she dragged herself from her bed and began figuring out how to salvage the shattered pieces of her writing career. With three homeless unreleased urban fantasy novels under her belt and a mainstream urban fantasy market teetering on the edge of oversaturation, Mears chose to gamble on releasing them independently. The first, Storm in a Teacup, chronicles the journey of a heroic and often smart-mouthed "mediator" named Ayala Storme carving her way through the streets of a demon-infested Nashville, discovering as she unravels a missing persons case that there may be more to the monsters she's devoted her life to cutting down - that they may in fact have souls. Storm in a Teacup sold five hundred copies in its first month, over a thousand in the next, and nestled itself into the top ten overall in Amazon's dark fantasy category.

Not too shabby for the start of a second act.

In talking with Emmie Mears, it's easy to get a sense of the origin of the aforementioned perseverance that distinguishes those who have been able to make writing into a career from the comparatively directionless never-weres. She has a keen sense of social justice, and a refreshing candor with her opinions, whether on the question of Scottish independence - the background against which The Masked Songbird was set - or diversity in publishing. Indeed, her desire to write finds its spark in a long-held dream to see heroes of all backgrounds have their chance at the spotlight. "Representation matters," she says. "Seeing yourself excluded from media has an impact. In any given adventure movie, you'll have usually white, able-bodied and straight men playing a number of roles. They are allowed a diversity of experience." For the most pertinent example, look no further than the movie about to explode across the world on May 1st: "Tony Stark is the wealthy genius playboy; Bruce Banner is a gentle - if explosive - also genius. Steve Rogers is the underdog-turned-hero. Clint Barton is the pensive, deliberate, competent dude. Thor is the Adonis-like, justice-wielding golden boy. And Natasha Romanoff is a femme fatale. She's not without nuance, but where guys have five people to find themselves in, women have one.... well, unless the Marvel cinematic universe decides to go the way of the comics and give us the new Thor. Though I'm not holding my breath on that."

Essentially, diverse audiences wind up having to learn to relate to people who are not like them. So why, wonders Mears, can't it work the other way? "A desire for diversity is a desire to see many facets of experience. Being a straight, white, able-bodied man is not a homogeneous experience, and in all corners of media, they are allowed that diversity. Being a queer woman, or a woman of color with a disability, or a queer man of color? If you see yourself at all, you are conditioned to scramble to pick up the scraps. This discussion is about having empathy for experiences outside our own and being willing to learn to see ourselves in people who go through the world in different skin. Representation tells you that you're not alone, that you deserve to be here. It tells you that your story matters, and that you can be a hero too."

It is this kind of inclusionary vision, offered with honesty, verve, and the occasional dose of screwball wit, that has helped build Emmie Mears a loyal community of fans and supporters, whom she is quick to credit for helping set her back on the path by rocketing Storm in a Teacup up the charts (it does not hurt, of course, that the book is terrific). In February, armed with Stonebreaker, a new epic fantasy she'd completed in a whirlwind, 10,000-words-a-day writing sprint, a cautious but determined Mears waded into the query trenches again, contacting agents and bracing for the usual prospect of a hard slog through months of copious rejections. Instead, she received what she termed a "surprisingly cacophonous response." 20 requests to read the full manuscript, followed by 7 - yes, you read that right, S-E-V-E-N - offers of representation for it. Mears signed with Sara Megibow of the prestigious Denver-based KT Literary, forging a new creative partnership to help bring her stories to an even wider readership. And this month her debut superhero tale received a second chance to spread its wings as the retitled Shrike: The Masked Songbird returned to virtual shelves with a new cover (designed by Mears' former agent, who remains a close friend) and a sequel, Shrike: Songbird Rampant slated for September.

What's the secret? She's happy to pass along some sage advice: "Write a fantastic book. Be a professional. Follow directions. If trade publishing is what you want, buckle yourself in for the long haul and start putting in the work. It's not a fair business. It has systematic and structural issues with diversity, so if you are a diverse author and/or have a diverse story, it could very well be harder even with so many agents and editors asking for just that right now. Just keep swimming. And remember that there are many paths to readers these days."

Ultimately, Emmie Mears proves that succeeding as a writer isn't about finding the princess in the castle, but about braving the elements to build a castle of your own. Hard work lays the foundation and time erects the walls. If you've done that, if you have represented yourself honestly and garnered enough good will, you may just find yourself with an army of devoted readers and friends helping to push the lava back for you.

Storm in a Teacup and Shrike: The Masked Songbird are both available through Amazon. Emmie Mears can be found on Twitter at @EmmieMears or her website, www.emmiemears.com.