Monday, August 5, 2013

My First Time: Kristen Tsetsi

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Kristen Tsetsi is a journalist, a former adjunct English professor, and a former cab driver.  Her novel about the Iraq War, Pretty Much True..., was published by the Missouri Breaks Press last year.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Penetration of
the Seemingly Impenetrable

Before my Iraq war novel Pretty Much True... was picked up by a small press, it was self-published.  Its title at the time was Homefront, and before deciding to release it myself, I'd submitted queries to a very, very, very high number of agents, many of whom expressed early interest.  Of those who asked for the full manuscript, the response was either, "It doesn't move fast enough," or, "Absolutely love it, but hard to sell in this tough market--especially coming from an unknown."

I had two things--wait, four--going against me: I was a female author writing about war, it was war without guns and explosions in the immediate vicinity, I was an "unknown," and the work was literary fiction.

Trying to sell to agents and editors is one thing; trying to convince reputable publications to review a self-published title by a woman about war on the home front is another.  Even after gathering endorsements from authors trusted in the industry, Homefront (aka Pretty Much True...) was still "self-published," and therefore automatically turned away by the newspapers or magazines that could really make a book (I would say "or break," but when something is already unknown to the public, how much more broken could it get?).

Because I believed in Pretty Much True..., not just as a decent story but as a valuable one offering new, and incredibly raw, insight into the experience of waiting through a war (something about which most Americans know too little, even if they do watch Army Wives), I tenaciously pursued one publication in particular, because I believed their attention would give the novel the kind of credibility that would make others pay attention: the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

As a youth growing up in Germany, "my" newspaper was the Stars and Stripes.  (It was the first place to publish me, too--while a teenager working as a grocery bagger at the Post Exchange commissary, I wrote a scathing editorial reply to a woman who didn't believe she should have to tip her baggers.)

I contacted a section editor about Homefront, and he asked what was so different about my novel that it would merit a feature.  I explained that it was realistic and honest rather than sentimental and inspirational, and he verbally shrugged.  He’d seen war novels by women before.  (They’re as much “the same” as the shelves upon shelves of war novels by men, but that’s neither here nor there.)

A few weeks later, after Homefront had been endorsed by a NYT best-selling author, I copied part of the endorsement in an email and sent it to the Stars and Stripes editor with a quick note that went something like, “See?  This is how it’s different.”  No reply.

Another month or two later, after being interviewed about the book on a Kentucky NPR station, I sent another note to the Stars and Stripes section editor to tell him, politely, "See?  See here what (Front Page producer and radio host) Mark Welch is talking about?  This is why it’s appropriate--perfect, even--for the Stars and Stripes," and shared some of the points discussed on the program.

No real reply.

Over the course of a year, I sent periodic--but tactful and polite, and always sharing something new--emails explaining why the Stars and Stripes should feature or review Homefront/Pretty Much True...

Finally, the summer following the summer I’d sent my first email, I received a reply with an email address for a different editor and a request to send him a copy of my book.  Less than a month after that, Homefront was featured in the newspaper I considered "home."

There are many firsts for a self-published-turned-press-published author, but gaining access to an international publication that would ordinarily, like many others, never consider a self-published title, and having done it without a publicist, publishing industry clout, or the right logo on the spine of my book, was my first true feeling of accomplishment after the release of Homefront.  It was the first time I thought, "I did it!"  I was--seriously--singing My Fair Lady's “You Did It” in my head:
You did it!  You did it!  You said that you would do it,
And indeed you did.  I thought that you would rue it;
I doubted you'd do it.  But now I must admit it
That succeed you did.  You should get a medal
Or be even made a knight.
It was that good.

It was a powerful lesson in self-promotion, which can too often be deflating.  Yeah, okay, the New York Times may never review me (or many of you), but that doesn’t mean I/you should automatically bypass all publications that seem out of reach.  They aren’t.  If there’s an email address, they’re within reach.  Ask everyone.  Ask again--politely.  Whatever you do, always, always ask.  You just never know who will say yes (even after a year of polite, professional pestering).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kristen,

    Congrats on being featured on David Abrams blog! You know I'm a big fan, but I had no idea the hurdles you jumped over to get mentioned in Stars and Stripes. Way to go!!!

    Just to prove how much I love "Pretty Much True," I'm sharing my Amazon/Goodreads review right here:


    I got so caught up in this story I forgot myself. Kristen J. Tsetsi's writing is hypnotic.

    Her characters sing off the page. They pulled me out of the present and dropped me into the driver's seat of Mia's cab as she taxis others around town while her boyfriend is at war.

    Unlike military wives and mothers, Mia is not privy to the inside news and must rely on others for any scrap of news.


    "Pretty Much True" will stay with me for a long time...I am breathless still.

    Kathleen M. Rodgers
    author of "The Final Salute"