CHAD ZUNKER studied journalism at The University of Texas, where he was also on the football team. He’s worked for some of the most powerful law firms in the country and invented baby products that are now sold all over the world. He has wanted to write full time since he took his first practice hit as a skinny freshman walk-on from a 6’5, 240 pound senior All-American safety — which crushed both him and his feeble NFL dreams. He lives in Austin with his wife, Katie, and their three daughters, where he is hard at work on his next Sam Callahan novel.
Mine is a story of incredible perseverance. Or complete insanity. When chasing your dreams, sometimes it’s hard to discern the line between those two places.
10 unpublished novels.
Over 1,000 rejection letters.
For me, it first started with two keys events that happened around the same time.
The first involved a six-foot-five, two-hundred-forty-pound All-American safety at The University of Texas named Lance Gunn—a hulk of a man who could run like Superman and hit like an eighteen wheeler, and who played several years in the NFL. I was a skinny eighteen-year-old freshman walk-on wide receiver for the Longhorns, barely 165 pounds soaking wet, and our first practice in full pads had me lined up in a one-on-one drill against the All-American. The coach blew the whistle, and before I could even take a full step forward, Lance had both massive hands on my shoulder pads, lifted me up off the ground, flipped me upside down, and dropped me on my head. I saw stars. Coach blew the whistle again. Game over. And though I grinded through a few more years as a walk-on football scrub, that was basically the end of my life-long adolescent NFL dream.
The second event involved a novel called The Pelican Brief by a relatively new author named John Grisham who was skyrocketing up the popularity list. For some reason, I had picked up my mom’s Reader’s Digest version of Grisham’s book the summer after my senior year in high school and started flipping through it. As someone who grew up reading books written only by my sports heroes (Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett, Michael Jordan), popular fiction had never made it into my backpack. However, as I started skimming the pages of The Pelican Brief, I got lost in the story. It was the first time that I realized a novel could actually be fun and exciting, cause me to lose my breath, and keep me up at night clamoring for more. It forever changed my view of fiction and planted a seed.
I’d always had a knack for writing. If a high school class required an essay rather than a multiple choice test, it was easy for me—I could wing it with no problem. But I’d never explored developing this writing talent further. Not until the end of my college years within some of my journalism classes. When it was time for me to step out into the real world, rather than become a perpetually broke journalist, I decided to do whatever necessary to stay in Austin and become a novelist. So I began clerking at a big corporate law firm, and I started writing my first novel. It took me over a year and it was absolutely horrible, in hindsight, but I finished it. Then I studied all the books about how to get an agent, sure I would strike gold right out of the gate, and I started to collect my first pile of publishing rejection letters. This soon became a two-year spin cycle for me—I’d spend a year completing a new manuscript, work through a list of over 100 agents in the following six-month period, collect my growing pile of rejection letters, sulk for a day or two, then start all over again—sure that my next manuscript would be the next bestselling publishing hit.
In one form or another, I completed five full novels in my twenties that went unpublished. When I turned thirty, I already had a huge shoe box stuffed with over 500 rejection letters. I was killing a forest of trees all by myself (thankfully the industry would eventually transition with the utilization of email queries).
Life would change some in my thirties. I got married, my beautiful wife started popping out beautiful babies (three girls in four years!), and we got busy developing baby products and working in the church world helping start new churches. But the dream of writing never died. It always hovered somewhere in the back of my heart and mind. However, my productivity level definitely dipped, as my time was being constantly squeezed by work and family, and I only produced three new novels and collected a few hundred new rejection letters over the next eight years. What a slacker!
As I neared the end of my thirties, I definitely felt at a crossroads. How long should I keep going after this? Trying to become a published writer? It felt crazy even to me. At some point, I felt like I needed to set new sails, get a real “career”, and stop messing around. After all, there was a devoted wife and three incredible girls at home looking to me for stability and security. So I spent a week by myself praying about whether or not to finally quit this pursuit and kill this dream. It was a real emotional wrestling match with God. I’d invested so much, had spent basically my whole adult life chasing this dream, so it was very hard to simply walk away from it. But the mountain of rejection was so real and damn near impossible to grin and bear anymore. At that point, self publishing had not yet become a real thing with any legitimate financial opportunity. It was the first time I was truly open and willing to walk away from this dream. But at the end of that week, through a lot of prayers and tears, I felt like God was telling me to not give up. To keep writing and to keep fighting for the dream.
So I did. I kept writing. Mostly at 5am. Before work and family consumed my world. It was very hard. And it led to maybe the four most difficult years of my chasing the publishing dream. Right away, I started getting noticed by important people in publishing. Agents who represented big names were taking me more seriously, encouraging me about my writing style, my pacing, and I finally signed on with a real agent at one of the big NYC agencies. It was an incredible moment after nearly two decades of crippling rejection. I had finally made it. Or so I thought.
We spent a few months in revisions, and then we headed to submission, where I was sure I would finally get the long-dreamed-about phone call that someone had actually purchased the book. That phone call never came. It was brutal. A lot of editors showed interest, but no one bought it. Not long after that, my agent switched literary agencies, and I somehow got lost in the shuffle of it all. I was once again without an agent, without a book deal, without hope, and I had to start all over again. To say the least, it was devastating. I again thought of quitting. I wondered if I had missed something during that week I spent on my knees in prayer. I again wondered if I was crazy to keep going, to invest even one more second of my life in this far-fetched pursuit.
Somehow, I found the will and perseverance to spend yet another year of my life working on yet another novel, in the early morning and weekend hours. I was excited about the manuscript. So I started sending it out to agents. I got a lot of interest, a lot of reads and reviews, but at the end of six months, no one agreed to sign me back up. I couldn’t even get in front of publishers with the new book. I hit a new low point emotionally.
After almost twenty years, I had ten unpublished manuscripts on the shelf and over 1,000 rejection letters. If there was someone out there in the publishing world who had faced more rejection than me and had still somehow found success, I had not yet heard of them or read their story. I worried that I’d invested my whole life in a lie that I’d told myself over and over again—that I could somehow “make it” if I only worked hard enough, prayed hard enough, and showed enough grit and perseverance.
I really wanted to quit. Again. It was too damn hard. But I couldn’t. I had another idea that had been brewing around in the back of my heart. I thought it was a really great idea. A strong character named Sam Callahan. When it wouldn’t go away, I told myself (and promised my wife) that I would only get back on the horse one more time, and see how far we could ride.
I started writing The Tracker. It felt different from the very start. I fell in love with Sam Callahan. Upon finishing the manuscript, I was immediately snapped up by another good agent. I was thrilled. When it was time to show the manuscript to a small group of publishers, I was sky high with optimism. Surely this would finally be my moment. But, alas, it was not. Yet again no publisher optioned it. I was crushed; however, I refused stay there. I knew deep in my gut that I had something special with this book and character, even after my agent all but gave up on me and stopped trying to sell The Tracker. At that point, I decided to self publish the book, so that I could at least get in the game and see what might happen with real readers. The book was released and the readers that I found on my own absolutely loved the story and loved Sam Callahan.
In the next few months, The Tracker quickly became one of the highest-rated thrillers on Amazon. I went back to literary agents, hoping someone might see the same potential, basically begging for them to help me find a publisher, to help me get an even better opportunity to reach readers, only to be turned down by them all. I felt stuck and depressed.
Then I read a story one day about Thomas & Mercer, a new and exciting publishing house I was familiar with that had quickly become a majorplayer in my genre. In the story, a senior editor from T&M had directly approached a self-published author about acquiring and re-launching this author’s new book series. A light bulb went off in my head—this meant that Thomas & Mercer had a more flexible and open submission process, that I didn’t necessarily have to have a literary agent to get inside theirs doors. I figured if I could just somehow get The Tracker in front of the right editor at T&M, I at least had a chance. But I knew that would be no small task.
I did my research and found at least a dozen different Thomas & Mercer publishing contacts, and I began cold contacting them. For some, I just took guesses on their email addresses, unsure if my message would ever even reach their Inbox. For others, I used Facebook. I knew it was a real long shot, a final hail mary of sorts, but I figured I had nothing to lose. When you believe in something as deeply as I did, you just can’t sleep at night if you feel that there is still a stone left unturned. I wasn’t sleeping much. A week went by, and I received zero replies from any of the dozen cold contacts. I shrugged it off and tried to think of my next course of action. Then a week later, I got a Facebook message. A former editor at T&M had actually replied to my random message to him. This guy will always and forever be Saint Alan to me. He even gave me the direct contact info for Gracie Doyle, the Editorial Director at Thomas & Mercer.
I contacted Gracie immediately. Again, I felt it was a 50-50 shot that I’d even hear back from her. But I did hear back, almost immediately. She was not only interested in taking a look at The Tracker, she also wanted sample chapters for the sequel, so she could consider both for acquisition. I couldn’t believe it. I sent her the material right away. And then I prayed incessantly for five torturous weeks. Gracie finally got back to me, said she thought the series showed a lot of promise, and she told me that she’d handed off the materials to Liz Pearsons, a T&M senior acquisitions editor. Fortunately, Liz moved on the book quickly. She told me that she absolutely loved it, thought the series and the character were very strong, and on a Wednesday morning, she pitched The Tracker and the sequel to the T&M team for acquisition. I swear that I held my breath all day long.
Late on that Wednesday afternoon, I got the life-changing email from Liz—the email that I’d dreamed about receiving for my entire adult life. The T&M team loved the series and wanted to offer me a 2-book deal. Thomas & Mercer would reissue The Tracker to a global audience and then publish the sequel with much fanfare the following summer.
I can’t even begin to explain the flood of emotions that washed over me in that moment. When I finally told my wife a few minutes later, we just held each other, tears in our eyes.
10 unpublished novels.
Over 1,000 rejection letters.
A 2-book deal from Thomas & Mercer.
The culmination of a life-long dream.
* A year later the book would become a bestseller. Shortly thereafter, I would sign another 2-book deal with Thomas & Mercer. And life would never be the same!
I honestly don’t know how I kept going after it for two decades. I know now that it was equally about who I was becoming in the process more than the final result. Either way, I’m still stunned to this day. But excited to see where God takes this adventure next.
A lot of friends have asked me what kept me going through so much rejection and heartache for over twenty years? I think, to me, it’s rather simple, yet so incredibly hard to actually pull off in the day to day. I just believe if God has planted a dream in your heart, you should never give up. No matter what.