How Not To Be A Catholic Writer


By Carolyn Shields

Ever since I was little, I've been a storyteller. When I was nine, my mom gave me my first journal (I now have over twenty filled volumes) and I began archiving my day. When I was about twelve, I wrote my first 70,000 word novel (on a topic near and dear to my preteen heart: a sword fighting princess!). From that age, I learned to craft a story and sometimes this would carry over into my journals where I would write entire scripts of conversations I had that day.

By the age of nineteen, I had four completed (albeit, still rough) novels, all topping 70,000 words each. I would write on stacks of looseleaf, type them up on the computer, print it out, edit, repeat...

It wasn't until my first non-fiction book that I completed when I was fifteen that I realized that I had a story I truly wanted to share. (The plot of that one? It's under wraps right now!)

So it was there, as a freshmen in high school, where I started the publishing route. We know that sex sells. We know authors can't live on that income alone. We know the image of the struggling artist. But writing has always been, and will be, powerful. But there's been three moments in my writing career that truly revealed how this writing world is cut throat...and as a Catholic, we have to fight for beauty, truth, and goodness to appear on paper. 

In search of an agent

To begin, when I realized my non-fiction book could be something others wanted to read, I began the dirty work. I also had a hunch that my age was another selling point. I knew a literary agent was needed if I wanted to publish this book "the real way." I went to the library on how to find a literary agent, wrote a query letter and chapter outlines, etc, bought a massive seven hundred page book, filled it with sticky notes, and came up with the master plan of applying to each applicable agent alphabetically. 

It took Meg Cabot three years to find a literary agent. A few years ago, leading agency Donald Maass rejected .003% of all queries. It took J.K Rowling around five years to convince someone to pick up Sorcerer's Stone. And overall, literary agents reject 96% of the queries that end up on their desk.

On my second submission, I landed one. I'm not boasting, and the story of that phone call is hysterical (picture middle child in chaotic house of six talking to a literary agent in Manhattan), if not miraculous. And I was right: it wasn't just the story, but she was fascinated by my age. (And if I recall correctly, I was torn at the time between thinking if people would take me seriously or want to take that I fibbed on my queries saying I was a year older).

But the thing is, after a year, she terminated my contract. I did two revisions that year and changed the entire verb tense of the 85k words while trying to survive biology, but I had absolutely no idea how to handle conference calls and stand up for my self and my writing. I also learned later they published soft porn, which, you know, wasn't something for me to boast about.

A Move Into Articles

A few years later, I was picked up by my small town paper and asked to write a monthly column. I wrote on various topics and got paid for it, but four years later I was fired...through an email...for being too Catholic. To quote my boss, "I handed this to some of my own Catholic friends and they couldn't get through it." I was twenty and tempted to spit in his coffee when he came to my cafe while I was a barista there. But maturity prevailed. 


So without going into it, a year later I launched theYCW. You can read about why here, but I truly believe that writing those columns helped me condense my writing...several tens of thousands of words less. In fact, though I still long for the time I had as a kid to write novels, I wonder if I could still do it. And to say this site hasn't offered me multiple opportunities wouldn't be true, because I began to be approached by a few third parties.

Red Flags

One of which was a little fishy. I was approached by a Catholic publisher this time when he came across my writing on theYCW and asked to write about my life, part-autobiography style. I was turned off by this idea and proposed something like writing a more objective book with the occasional example from my life. This agent also seemed a little off, writing some dark stuff of his own and requesting me on social media sites, and it wasn't until recently where I read he was accused of sexual harassment. I'm certain God has looked out for me and my pen all along. (By the way, a few months after putting a sample together of my proposal, the agent pitched it to a conference room...and it flopped. They wanted more of me, but this time, thanks to my experience with my first literary agent, I knew what it took to say no. And I did).

Never Give Up

So, I've made some pretty stupid mistakes along the way of trying to get published. I passed up on opportunities like when a publisher reached out to work with me as a mentor out of the kindness of his heart, or when I let my age and inexperience get the best of me when I had that agent in Manhattan. I've turned down a ton of podcasts and other opportunities because I couldn't find the time between full time work and part time grad school. I can justify all I want, but the truth is it's tough. Trying to crack it as a writer.

So, when all else fails, I think you have to realize sometimes a new path has to be carved out. Do things your way, you know? So welcome to theYoungCatholicWoman, a place where it's not about me but all of us.