“Ilona Andrews” is the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team. Ilona is a native-born Russian and Gordon is a former communications sergeant in the U.S. Army. Contrary to popular belief, Gordon was never an intelligence officer with a license to kill, and Ilona was never the mysterious Russian spy who seduced him. They met in college, in English Composition 101, where Ilona got a better grade. (Gordon is still sore about that.)
Gordon and Ilona currently reside in Texas with their two children and many dogs and cats.
They have co-authored four NYT and USAT bestselling series, the #1 NYT bestselling urban fantasy of Kate Daniels, rustic fantasy of the Edge, paranormal romance of Hidden Legacy, and Innkeeper Chronicles, which they post as a free weekly serial. For complete list of their books, fun extras, and Innkeeper installments, please visit their website at Ilona-andrews.com.
Climbing Uphill Both Ways
March 17, 2007
Our story to publication is long and cringe-worthy. Very cringe-worthy.
First of all, I never wanted to be a writer. Never. I wanted to be a scientist*. Writing was a nice hobby, something I did for fun, on the side. It was certainly not serious work. More of an extension of reading.
When I had to drop out of college and found myself at home with first one child and then the second child and a computer, it seemed natural that I would steal an hour or two a day and type out the weird stuff in my head for the heck of it. But still, I didn’t want to be a writer. I was just suffering a minor setback on my way to becoming a SCIENTIST.
I had two novels written when I decided to query an agent. I’ve done no research. I wasn’t sure what an agent did. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. So I took my freshly completed novel #2 (novel #1 was a part of a trilogy and I didn’t want to query until I had everything written out) and sent it to this nice person I saw soliciting submissions on one of the message boards.
I was sure she would sign me up. Positive. One hundred percent. I had this super cool story about a girl and werewolves and vampires. It was awesome.
For two weeks I kept checking my mailbox. One fine morning the package came. I tore it open and rejection. Boom. Pow. Crash and Burn.
At this point most people would do some research. I am not normal people. My attitude was, “To hell with the agents! I’m going to go straight to the publisher!”
So I sent the manuscript to one of the New York Sci-fi/Fantasy publishers. It came back, stamped, “We don’t accept unsolicited submissions.” Not sure what unsolicited submission was, I still deciphered that as a no.
So I tried an electronic publisher, Hardshell. Six months later I had my first legible feedback and I remember it very well, “Your novel is filled with grammatical and punctuation mistakes. These mistakes can be fixed, however, it’s just like Laurel Hamilton’s story and we don’t need another heroine just like Anita Blake.”
Who the hell is Laurel Hamilton?
Having inhaled the first couple of Laurel Hamilton’s books, I started to suspect that my novel and her novel were not similar enough to warrant the feedback. Yes, they were in the same genre; yes, they both had a female heroine; but my Vera Voron wasn’t really similar to Anita Blake. (Still, just like there is no such thing as a harmless one night stand, there is no such thing as a harmless editorial feedback. I’ve thought about that crit for weeks.)
At this point, I felt like beating my head on the wall. Nobody wanted my stuff. Suddenly this hobby became a source of a lot of stress. I wanted to know why nobody wanted it. What the hell was so wrong with it?
I had been making circles around OWW, trying to decide if it was a scam. I’ve been in a small email critiquing group for awhile, and it was sort of falling apart. Having decided that OWW probably wasn’t a scam and if it was, I’d be out $40 – no big deal, I joined OWW. And got my very first crit, “Your characters are like cartoon characters, like Homer Simpson, or something. Your writing is like cartoon writing. It just terrible.”**
Okay. I was about to drop OWW like a bad habit, when my husband, who by that point started writing with me, suggested we wait for more feedback. So I did, and the next crit was from Jeff Stanley, who liked it. He liked it a lot. The next crit was from Larry Payne, who promptly took a grammatical rake to it and rubbed my nose in all the smelly spots. I went and got a grammar book. And read it cover to cover.
Okay, so I didn’t totally suck. I started posting chunks of the new thing I was writing, titled “The Dog and the Wheel” and one day Charlie Finlay found it and recommended it for an Editor’s Choice. The EC crit was harsh, but by that point I was used to harsh.*** The Dog and the Wheel made it into the Gallery Competition, the winner of which would be published as an e-book by… I don’t remember. Baen? Daw? I didn’t win. I didn’t even get the second place prize, which was an armful of books. I got feedback however, and it was priceless. The feedback amounted to “this is excellent, but you rely on standard staples of the genre too much.”
I kept poking at the Dog and the Wheel for awhile. I still couldn’t sell a short story. I was generally pretty miserable about the whole thing. One day I sat down and wrote an opening. It was like nothing I had written before, but it was also a lot like the doomed #2 novel. Gordon was walking by and stopped. Read over my shoulder. “What is this?” “Ahh, just stuff.” He read more. He read the whole thing. “You should post this.” I posted the opening and got a weird reaction: more. More now. I remember Nora said, “I didn’t know you could write like this.”*****
Okay. I could do more.
I ripped up the plot from the novel #2, taking only the basic ideas, and Gordon and I wrote a new draft, titled “Lost Dog”. Boom, another EC. From Nalo Hopkinson. The EC basically said, “You’re a good writer, but your story is mostly doing things wrong.”**** I read that feedback. I read it very carefully. And I decided to ignore it. I had my ideas, I knew what the book was about, and I was sorry it didn’t click with her, but I wasn’t going to change it.
I polished and cleaned my thing and then, prompted by an announcement from TOR, who were looking for new contemporary fantasies, I submitted it.
Fast forward a year and a half, filled with rejection slips for various short stories, and a lot of failed starts on different projects. Finally one of the stories took off and turned into In the Name of the Realm. And I got another EC from Jenni. And that EC was awesome. I understood the criticism and I felt I had earned the praise. It picked me up and carried me through the next three months. Still, by New Year I was ready to be done. I had sunk what felt like years into this hobby with no payoff. It was causing me no end of stress.
I was on the computer, deleting my writing files and picking out stray school papers that had accidentally gotten saved in there, when Pen Hardy Imed me to chat. Let it be said that Pen Hardy is the sole reason I didn’t delete the entirety of my writing folder. Because I was ready. Done. Kaput. Basta.
Unless you’ve been there for a couple of years, it’s hard to describe the exact feeling of submitting story after story and getting rejected. The only thing I can compare it to is looking for a job. Picture yourself looking for a job and not being hired. You keep getting envelopes in the mail, but you know they are rejections. At first you apply to your dream job, then to your second-choice job, then to any job that would pay you. But nobody hires. You come to anticipate the words of the rejection letter, because you’ve seen so many. And you do this month after month after month. You do it for years, again and again, hoping one day somebody will hire you. Eventually you start wondering if there is something fundamentally wrong with you or with your brain, because no sane person would be subjecting themselves to this silliness. I was done. But Pen somehow talked me out of it. I still wanted to delete it all, but I promised her I would wait a month or two.
Next week Gordon was checking the email and said, “You have an email from TOR.”
The email was from Liz Gorinsky. It said that she read the novel and loved it and would fight for it. I felt like I was walking on a cloud. For about ten minutes. And then the brakes kicked in. I knew how this dance went: everything is great and then I don’t win. So I emailed her back and thanked her and settled into waiting.
Three months passed. I emailed to Liz asking if there was any progress. She said that unfortunately there wasn’t. She suggested that I give her a reason to bring it up again: sell a story to Big Three, get an agent, do something to make myself visible.
Sell a story to Big Three, hahahahahaha!
Oh fine. I’ll go try for an agent. I remembered reading SFF Crow’s Nest that had an interview with agents in it. I googled it, found the interview, read it again, and decided to try for Jack Byrne and another agent. Jack Byrne was experienced. The other agent just started out but one of the OWW people had signed up with him, and he seemed okay.
I sent off my electronic query and prepared to wait. Two requests for partial within two hours. Jack beat out the other agent by 45 minutes. I apologized to agent #2 and sent my partial to Jack. Three days pass, request for full. I printed the full out, drove to the post office, sent it out. A week later, a phone call, “Would you like to shake on it?”
Gordon and I had an agent.
Jack went to work. A month later he called. Despite the fact that Liz loved the novel, TOR didn’t seem interested. Instead of keep trying there, Jack wanted to withdraw and go someplace else. I shrugged. Story of my life, yes? Do whatever you want with it.
My life was falling apart by that point. Savings were running out. Gordon spent months trying to find a job – and unlike people who say they are trying, my husband actually worked at it. Finding a job for him became full time employment. These problems were causing stress on our marriage. On top of everything we really hated Oklahoma. As soon as I finished my semester******, we would take what was left of the money and get the hell out of Lawton.
In my free time, I didn’t write. The Realm was finished and starting a new project seemed pointless. I sunk into an WOW instead. I can level a priest from 0 to 60 in less than three weeks. Escapism R Us.
I was in Strat Undead, healing people, when Jack called. Gordon put the phone to my ear. I was casting spells left and right, trying to keep this idiot group alive. He said, “Anne Sowards at Ace would like to buy ‘Lost Dog’. Congratulations.”
I said, “That’s wonderful, Jack,” and typed “Get out of the fog! Get AWAY from the fog!” into the WOW window. We didn’t wipe, for which I take sole credit.
Then there was a phone call from Anne, and the editorial suggestions*#, and eventually the contract signing, and a little bit of money, of which we needed every cent. I will always be grateful to Liz Gorinsky. She is a wonderful person, who believed into the book when nobody else did. And I will always be grateful to Pen Hardy – that goes without saying. And to everyone who reviewed and critted and commiserated: my acknowledgments list in the book is a mile long.
I’m working on the sequel now. Believe me, you don’t even want me to go into problems I’m encountering there.
Magic Bites (Lost Dog title had to be changed since the dog was cut) will be out March 27. Will Gordon and I win or will we lose? It remains to be seen. If we lose, I don’t think I’ll become a scientist. I think we’ll change the pseudonym and try again.
July 04, 2009
We’re now represented by Nancy Yost of Nancy Yost Literary Agency. Magic Bites was released in March 2007 to good reviews and decent sales. On April 20, 2008, its sequel, Magic Burns, placed #32 on NYT Extended Bestseller List. In March 2009, Magic Strikes, the third book in the series, hit NYT Times printed list at #16 and USA Today Bestseller List at #109.
March 16, 2013
Since the last update we’ve published seven additional novels and won several awards, including Romantic Times’ Reader Choice for Best Urban Fantasy. Kate Daniels series has been translated into 10 languages and is an international bestseller. At home, eight of our novels have cracked New York Times Bestseller list. We have half a million books in print.
August 21, 2013
Were a #1 New York Times bestseller.
* And I also thought I’d leave marriage and children to other, more patient, women. See how that turned out. O_o
** Yes, I remember that one pretty much word for word, too.
*** Six months on OWW, and you’ll smile in the face of most criticism and thank them for their opinion
***** I’m sure by now you have figured out that I have memory like a stone tablet: it’s hard to get things in there, but once they are chiseled, they stay. Except for the names. I can’t recall people’s names for the life of me.
****** I had gone back to school to become a SCIENTIST.
*# Please cut this by one third.