How It Happened – Chris Holm

by Chris Holm

I’m afraid I’ve lured you here under false pretenses. This isn’t the story of how I wound up publishing my first novel. This is the story of what happened afterward.

I signed my first book deal in 2011. It was a two-book deal with Angry Robot, a young but award-winning independent publisher. My debut novel, DEAD HARVEST, came out in February 2012, and while it didn’t light the world on fire, it garnered some very nice reviews. The second book in my Collector series, THE WRONG GOODBYE, followed that September—as did an offer on a third.

By all appearances, I was living any writer’s dream. But in early 2013, I got something of a rude awakening. Two, in fact. (Wait; can you have two rude awakenings? Technically, I suppose, if we assume I dozed back off in between—but I think we can agree this metaphor is starting to groan under the strain.)

The first was that Angry Robot decided they weren’t interested in publishing a fourth Collector novel. I can’t blame them—publishing is a business, not a charity, and my readership was small, if enthusiastic—but on a personal level, it was heartbreaking.

The second was that, after seven months of waiting, my agent finally got back to me about the manuscript I’d sent her—a mainstream thriller about a hitman who only killed other hitmen—and her response was tepid at best. She hated everything about the antagonist, and thought the protagonist required serious retooling. I disagreed. So, after a great deal of soul-searching, I decided it was time we part ways.

It had taken me almost two years to land an agent. Another four to find a publisher. Although I believed this manuscript had the potential to be my breakout novel, I was forced to wonder: What if I was wrong? Had I just blown up my writing career?

I did the only thing I could—I gave the manuscript a polish, and got querying. Since it was a mainstream thriller, I targeted the top dealmakers for thrillers according to Publishers Marketplace. And then I waited.

The response was astonishing. About half the agents I queried requested the full manuscript, including my crazy, pie-in-the-sky top choice, David Gernert. David read the book in ten days, and told me it was good, but needed work. To my surprise, he sent along a detailed editorial letter. I’ll admit, I read it trepidatiously, worried his notes would rankle like my prior agent’s had. I needn’t have. His notes were brilliant and, unlike my prior agent, he really seemed to get the characters. I took another whack at it and resubmitted.

David dug the changes I made, and offered to represent me. After that, things moved quickly. The book was on submission for less than a week when David told me that the Editorial Director of Mulholland Books, Josh Kendall, wanted to talk to me—a terrifying prospect since I’m a giant fan of Mulholland.

Somehow, I managed to get through the phone call without fainting or throwing up, although our conversation is still a bit of a blur. I must’ve kept my geeking out to sub-stalker levels, though, because Josh made an offer on the book, which I happily accepted. That book, THE KILLING KIND, came out September 15th to rave reviews—including the first starred review of my career, from Kirkus.

In the first installment of How It Happened, Owen Laukkanen described his path to publication as “long periods of agonizing self-doubt, punctuated by brief, glorious moments of affirmation.” Truer words were never written—and the fact is, that pattern continues well past your first contract. But if you learn to trust your gut, and surround yourself with people who push you to be the best version of yourself, eventually you’ll tip the scales toward the latter. That might take longer than you think; lord knows it did for me. But looking back, there’s not a moment of my journey that I’d change.

Chris Holm is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. His Collector trilogy, which blends fantasy with old-fashioned crime pulp, wound up on over forty Year’s Best lists. David Baldacci called his latest, the hitman thriller THE KILLING KIND, “a story of rare, compelling brilliance.” For links to Chris on Twitter and Facebook, visit