Breakthrough: A Writer’s Success Story

by Donny Bailey Seagraves


Conference Feedback and an Authentic Voice Led the way to Publication


You’ll never sell a novel with a Southern setting and a rural Georgia voice to a Big New York publishing house,” a published author I admired told me many years ago, when I first began writing.

Even though I was a native Georgian and really didn’t know any other place or accent, I did attempt to filter out the colloquialisms while writing the next several manuscripts. Twenty years and many rejection slips later, I sat down to write book number 10, expecting it to meet the same fate as my nine other unpublished manuscripts. What did I have to lose? Ignoring the advice of well-meaning others, I began to write a story set in my small-town world of rural North Georgia. Southern-accented words flowed onto the pages of this coming-of-age novel about an 11-year-old boy who accidentally shoots his beloved uncle in the woods while hunting rabbits.

A couple of years later, I held a finished draft in my hands. Rather than submitting to multiple slush piles, I registered for a regional conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators in Atlanta and mailed in the first chapter of my new manuscript for an editor’s in-person critique. I also sent a submission for the conference’s First Pages session, where editors would read and comment on anonymous first pages.

After hearing my first page read aloud, Michelle Poploff, vice president and executive editor of children’s books at Random House, said, “This first page reminds me of a Gary Paulsen novel.” She also compared my writing to Phylllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh and complimented my authentic Southern voice.

Michelle’s comments gave me the courage afterwards to send her the first three chapters, a synopsis, and a cover letter. This resulted in the Random House publication of my first children’s middle-grade novel, Gone From These Woods (a Delacorte Press hardback in 2009 and a Yearling paperback in 2011).

What I learned

All aspiring authors dream of “the editor’s phone call.” My call from Michelle had come the morning of a Friday the 13th. But, as she pointed out during our 45-minute conversation, it was a very lucky day for me. While listening to Michelle talk about how she is a native New Yorker who loves a good Southern voice, I gained a new appreciation for authenticity.

Another thing I realized while talking to my new editor: It is possible to beat the odds and get published by a major New York publishing house without an agent, by going to conferences and listening to what an editor says.

The most important thing I learned from my first book sale, and especially during the eight-month editing process that followed, is to believe in myself and never give up. Every word we write is a step toward publication. Every writers group meeting, writing workshop and conference that we attend moves us closer to our goal of becoming a published author.


Write the best manuscript you can, using your authentic voice and honing your craft by reading books like The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein, and Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise by Darcy Pattison.

Then, rather than only sending your manuscripts out to publishing houses, where they’ll usually land in gigantic slush piles (or in electronic never-never land these days), send your work in for a conference critique by an editor, agent or published author, so that you can receive personal feedback and perhaps even make a crucial contact. The feedback I got from Michelle at the First Pages session was the encouragement I needed to send my manuscript to her. And attending that conference gave me the opportunity I needed to reach my lifelong goal of book publication.

gftwyearling62920112Believe that you can beat the odds and get published. At at recent SCBWI conference in Maryland, I heard Michelle say she almost ever buys a manuscript as a result of a conference. Indeed, your odds of getting published by a major New York publisher like Random House without an agent are virtually nonexistent. But persistent writers do get published. I’m proof of that. If publication is your dream, speak loudly in your authentic voice and never give up.

This article, written by author Donny Bailey Seagraves, appeared in the October 2011 issue of The Writer.

Below is the very first review that came in after the publication of my debut children’s middle grade novel, Gone From These Woods, published as a Delacorte Press hardback in 2009.

“There is a lot of complexity in this coming-of-age novel. Sensitive younger readers will be drawn in by Daniel’s story, which can be likened to a more emotional twin of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet.””

— Booklist

To read learn more about Gone From These Woods, go here.

For more articles by Donny Bailey Seagraves, head to the Writing page.

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