As I opened the doors to check into my first writers’ conference, I held a print-out of my book draft in one arm and the parking-line-yellow purse that makes me feel more optimistic in the other. I pulled it closer to my side as I searched the crowd of faces.
I spotted her and let out the breath I’d been holding in, then sifted my way off to the quiet side of the chattering writers, editors, and publishers. Everyone seemed to be pulling out their schedules and looking over the first session options:
- Tessa Emily Hall – “Common Mistakes Newbie Writers Make in Their Manuscripts”
- Kim Peterson – “Is My Manuscript Ready for an Agent?”
- Jean Matthew Hall – “Children’s Book Categories”
- Lori Hatcher – “The Day I Wanted to Quit: Tackling the Mind Games That Discourage and Defeat Writers”
When I reached my friend, Leah and I hugged and caught up on life since we’d last seen each other at a birthday party over the summer. That’s when we’d discovered we were both working on our first books.
We looked at our schedules. It felt like trying to order ice cream: you know you can pick any one and be happy, but you kind of wish you could have all of them.
I took three pages of notes.
Later, Leah and I sat together again at our first keynote with Jenny Cote, award-winning author of the popular children’s fantasy series The Amazing Tales of Max and Liz and Epic Order of the Seven.
As she took the stage, I noticed her springy blonde hair that matched her personality inch for inch. She presented like the Energizer Bunny, clicking through slide after slide of quirky quotes and reviewing the pros and cons of each option in the publishing world in detail — in a talk she’d titled “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Deadlines.”
It’s the question every writer must grapple with: do you want to call the shots, or let someone else? I’d been grappling with that myself.
Instinctively, I began to reflect on the answer I’d reached. Originally, I’d considered co-publishing my book. Next, I’d staunchly decided on self-publishing. As Jenny went on, the realization sank in like a rock to the bottom of a lake: I’d defaulted to those options because, deep down, I didn’t believe a “real publisher” would ever publish my book.
The familiar fear remained as I drove off at the end of that first day, curving around the dark rural back roads to home.
But the next day, I couldn’t help feeling renewed hope as I walked into a session with my former classmate Daniel Blackaby, who had published eight books since I saw him last in Shakespearean Tragedies.
If he did it, why can’t I?
The chairs were filled, and we had to bring in more from next door to seat the group consisting of teenagers up to 60-somethings. Daniel encouraged us to write even when we didn’t feel inspired. He gave us silly prompts and the results were side-hurting laughs at soon-to-be stories by creative writers.
- You’re the coach of a basketball team that’s about to lose. Write the worst pep talk ever.
- You just woke up, looked in the mirror, and screamed. Write what you saw.
- Write a back-of-the-book description for this picture. (It was an old-timey ship, a long tentacle rising up out of the surrounding tempestuous waves.)
After the session, Daniel and I talked for a minute about our current projects. To my surprise, he even offered to read my book and provide feedback.
I’ll never forget the next session with Jenny.
She took us step by step through her writing process — from jotting down initial concepts on an idea page, outlining, and planning out chapters to finding a critique team, knowing when to stop editing, and even soliciting endorsements for your book cover.
She reminded us that we do everything first for God and the results are ultimately up to Him.
“My book will get rejected by publishers. But if I give God 100 percent of the steps, then when my book gets rejected, they’ve rejected God’s plan,” I scribbled down in big letters.
The words entered my soul as if they’d been meant only for me.
I rehearsed those words as I waited at the large conference table, pulling out my binder and re-reading the title on the front.
Then he came in, the quiet man with the blue eyes and a tie. I stood, and we introduced ourselves.
“Hey, I’m Celeste,” I said, sure to give what one of our family friends used to call “the famous Hawkins handshake” — the one I’d practiced as a girl when people greeted us at church doors. “Good to meet you, Dr. Lowry.”
“You can call me Sam,” he said in his brilliant Irish accent.
I asked him why he first became interested in books, figuring that’s the only reason anyone becomes a publisher. He recounted how his father had built him a wooden shelf by hand. After that, he felt a sense of responsibility to fill it up with books. He couldn’t stop reading.
The conversation turned to me. I told him about my background as a writer, gave him the elevator pitch for my book, and slid over the three-ring binder containing my manuscript. My heart quickened as I felt powerless to keep it safe and un-rejected any longer.
“It’s short,” he said about the word count, listed on the cover page.
“Yeah,” I said, then gulped.
I studied his every reaction, as he began to thumb through the pages, flipping forward then backward.
“Oh, I’m glad you have questions. You need that,” he added, pointing to the end of a chapter.
“Hmm,” he continued.
Was that the good kind of “hmm” or the bad kind of “hmm”? I stretched my shoulders back, willing every muscle to stay calm.
We sat in a silence that felt like eternity.
Finally, he spoke.
“Well, it’s definitely a good book.” He looked up with a smile.
My heart exploded like fireworks and surprise birthday parties. It was one of the best strings of words I’ve ever heard, lined up together like that.
“Send me the manuscript,” he continued.
Did he really just say that? What is happening? My mind raced. Should I say something now?
“Okay. Of course,” I managed to answer, gathering my things and probably saying “thank you” a dozen times as his next appointment walked in and I left, bounding up the stairs to find someone to tell.
Even now, I hardly believe it. I shared my book with a publisher. Then, he actually read it. Then, he wrote back saying that they’d be pleased to publish it. Now I’ve signed a book contract with Ambassador International. And maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll be on the other side of the Write2Ignite Conference table at North Greenville University autographing my first book.
[This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of 1892, the alumni magazine of North Greenville University.]
Celeste Hawkins lived in the same red-shuttered house in North Carolina until she was 22. After studying English education, Celeste started her career in writing and editing. Her work has appeared online at USA Today 10Best.com, as well as in print in edible UPCOUNTRY and 1892 Magazine, among others. She also created the popular travel website Travelers Rest Here. Set to release within this decade (hopefully), Always Been Loved is her first book, a deeply personal discovery of God’s out-of-this-world love for us. Celeste also enjoys sharing amazing stories of what happens when we pray, listen for God’s voice, and then obey at StillGodSpeaks.com.