©2019 by AJ Vanderhorst.

  • AJ Vanderhorst

A Little Backstory On My Heroic Writing Journey

Updated: Aug 19, 2019


CASEY GRIMES may or may not involve kids climbing enormous trees with sophisticated equipment.

You'd think someone who writes books could come up with better blog titles, but apparently not. Pretty sure this one is 100% cliche, totally unlike my upcoming novel. But let's backtrack.


I wrote my first middle grade book in 2013. A naive burst of creativity, inspired by the stories I told my kids at bedtime. Like many aspiring authors, I'd written truly awful tales as a preteen and later burned them, but this was my first time seriously trying to write fiction. It was awkward. I tried not to bring it up in conversations.


But I wanted to create a story my wife and kids would identify with. A story for us. We were in the middle of some very big, very bad life changes, and we needed a new narrative. Pronto. So I set out to write a fantastic one, where we won, and things went well, and we could also fly.


I pounded out DARK SKY'S ASHES, read it to my delighted family, and sent it out into the world of agents and book deals, sure it would receive a warm response. Little did I know the industry is 80% icy netherworld...a place where queries flutter in an eternal dark vortex...a place where no one hears you scream.


But ASHES had a few things going for it. A sentient house with questionable intentions. An alternate American history with dragons. A murderer awakened from cryo-sleep by spilled root beer. Nasty neighbors who get their comeuppance; who doesn't love that?


With beginner's luck, I won spots in a few competitions (Hey PitchWars), attracted some interest in chaotic Twitter pitch contests, and ultimately earned over a dozen manuscript requests that went nowhere.


Allusions to The Incredibles aside, my writing wasn't super yet. And a story featuring a family with two not-absent parents and four boys—yep, that was us—was a tough pill for agents to swallow. End of round one.


Life happened for awhile.

I labored, persevered, drank espresso, got insomnia, etc.

My kids gave me another book idea—a forest society connected by towering tree paths and fortresses, where you could visit your neighbors without ever touching the ground.


So I tried again in 2017. CASEY GRIMES AND THE SENTRY OAK hit the ground much more polished than its predecessor. Taking my time, I found some good critique partners, consulted an editor, and did lots of polishing. When I was sure the manuscript was ready to send to agents...I forced myself to do another round of revisions.


Lots of querying and contest-ing (Hey, WriteMentor) eventually earned me some interest. Not as much as with ASHES, which was weird, because the new manuscript was better, tighter, easier on the eye. But the industry had changed. Even so, I got enough bites to think, Hey, maybe this is going somewhere.


Fast forward to 2019, and I was still waiting on agents. In fact, my butt was full of splinters from sitting on the bench so long, waiting to see if I was going to get in the game. That was when INtense Publications got in touch, after finding my entry on a contest site. (Thanks again, WriteMentor.)


INtense is a small, independent press, founded by educators, with the stated goal of printing books kids will want to read. You may not believe me when I tell how weird and rare it is stumble across this agenda in the kidlit industry. Like a unicorn, but that would be cliche.


It was sure refreshing.


So I stood up, brushed the dust off my shoulders, grabbed a pair of tweezers, and said, "Heck, let's do this."


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