Behind the Book – The Writer

The Writer

Unnecessary Preamble

May I just say, first of all, that it feels really weird to write about myself. I make stuff up; to me, that’s what writing is. I couldn’t write memoir if you gave me a six-figure advance. (Well, let me think about that for a bit.) But I offer this scintillating look back at a writer’s life with the hope that you may find yourself somewhere in here, too, and feel the frustrations and elations I’ve felt, and realize that you, too, are a writer, or an artist, or someone who must create—no matter where you currently are on the path.

Reading, ‘Riting, and, well, Reading

Like most people who write for a living, I began my writing life as a reader—a crazy all-consumed reader. Not someone who picked up a book every once in a while, but a little kid whose favorite place to be was the library, who zoomed through her own library books and then started in on her older sisters’. Then, once those were consumed, her mom’s. By nine or ten I’d read Pearl Buck, Mary Stewart, Philip Roth, Ira Levin.

I ran out of interesting books to read at my elementary school library, then fell in love with my junior high school library because there were names there I’d never seen before: Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Wolfe, Gore Vidal. I didn’t care for 19th century classics, the books they assigned in English classes. I preferred the edgier 20th century, the stuff about real life. Life as I knew it, or hoped I would come to know along the way.

I also wrote stories and poetry, from as early as I can remember. In the beginning, of course, that meant two or three sentences in crayon. At six or seven I wrote a suspiciously derivative little tale of an organ grinder and his monkey, and a year or so later a foray into mystery with “The Mystery of the Blue Sleeping Bag.” In the end, it wasn’t all that mysterious, but the accompanying illustration of a big lump of blue at the bottom of a pit in the woods was pretty awesome.

When I was in fifth grade my family moved from the race riots of Washington DC to the quiet blandness of Denver, Colorado. I wrote story after story about racial issues: poor single moms with kids hanging all over them in food lines, a mixed race couple waiting at the justice of the peace to get married, only to be turned away. My Peggy Lipton–lookalike teacher took me aside and told me she thought my stories were special, that they were important. That was when I knew I was a writer. My angsty pre-teen poetry took on a new life.

Had I been from a family that valued college education, the next twenty or so years might have been different. But, Dad advised me to find a vocation to support myself, so I asked my high school counselor for advice. She said to take typing. I don’t recall hearing the words “financial aid,” “student loan,” or “scholarship.” I took menial job after menial job during my late teens and twenties, but kept reading and writing, occasionally sending bad short stories to contests and being rejected. And, by the way, I became an excellent typist.

Selling the Soul as Career Enhancer (not recommended for sensitive souls)

As I moved into my late twenties and thirties, I stumbled into a successful career where I could use my writing skills for marketing and advertising. It was good writing practice and well, lucrative. Really lucrative. It went well for over a decade, and I climbed a ladder I’d never intended to until, boom, at 35, I burned out. I hated my working life. I spent my days convincing people to purchase things purely for the benefit of a man who already had too much money to know what to do with. Marketing had sucked my soul dry. I knew I was a person who had more to give the world than snappy slogans, clever campaigns, smarmy copy. My heart, my soul, were restless. With my husband’s urging and support, I quit my job and began to write.

At first, it seemed most important to me to make money from my writing, to pull my weight as an earner as my dad had taught me, rather than to explore and develop any kind of voice lying in wait inside me. I didn’t yet realize that making money was the last reason one should go into writing (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

Reading the newspaper one morning, I got angry at a columnist, as one does. I banged out a retort and submitted it to the paper, thinking it was just another thing I’d send out into the ether, and expected nothing back. Instead, I got a phone call three days later, and the editor at the other end of the line wanted to publish my piece. Better, she wanted to pay me $25 for it! Oh, yeah. The big time had arrived. Something new happened to me: utter joy. Elation. Tears of validation. That was it. The publishing bug had a hold of me.

That week, I signed up for a class at my local free university called “How to Get Published in Magazines.” I followed the teacher’s advice: I studied the markets I wanted to publish in (just little old pubs like The New Yorker, Redbook, Time). I thought of great ideas to query them with, I sent out tons and tons of letters to editors. Oddly, they were all rejected.

I realized that I may need to start with something slightly less ambitious, and went back to the magazine stands, where I picked up copies of local publications: city rags, homes and lifestyles magazines, arts and culture publications. Again, I came up with ideas and queried, and nothing. Undeterred, I notched down even further and focused on the smallest tiniest little blurbs each magazine had in their pages. I understood I was a risk for them, but if they would just let me write 300 words about a local artist…

It worked. I got a yes from Colorado Homes and Lifestyles, and then, after I’d completed that, they gave me an assignment. I parlayed some of the research I had to do into another article for different local magazine, which turned into another assignment. My clips began to amass, proving to editors who didn’t know me that, in the eyes of other professionals, I could write.

I began to query regional magazines and to write for them. And then, the Holy Grail of magazine writers was bestowed upon me: Mademoiselle published a personal essay I’d sent (unsolicited) months before, and then said yes to a query I followed up with, and then gave my name to an editor at Glamour. I was in the loop, starting to establish myself as a national magazine writer. For the next eight years, I worked my patootie off freelancing, writing for many magazines and newspapers regionally and nationally and, well… ended up as bored as a fence post.

In my heart—in that aforementioned soul—I really, really wanted to write fiction. I just hadn’t let myself admit it, although I had been using my early mornings to write stories before I started working on assignments. Yes, I sent them to literary magazines, and yes, they were all rejected. Divine intervention occurred when a small writers’ magazine finally said yes to a story—one fictionalized from the essay published in Mademoiselle, curiously—and published it the same month the essay was published.

I’d been continuing my education through attending workshops and conferences, joining writers organizations, doing all I could to become a part of the writing community. The summer those two pieces were published, I was selected for a post-grad publishing course at the University of Denver (yes, post-grad, in my late 30s, even though I’d never been to college. I talked my way into it, and remember, I had a lot of clips!) Through people I met there, the published short story got read at Graywolf Press, an esteemed literary nonprofit publisher, and an editor there asked if I was writing a novel based on that short story. If so, they’d love to see it when completed.

I lied. I said yes, of course I was writing a novel. And from the first page of my first attempt at it, I realized I was, indeed, a novelist. The long form was what my soul had been aching for, and I wrote far more naturally and easily when I had a little room to move.

A Novelist is Hatched

It took two years to write the book. I sent it to an agent I’d met at the publishing course, who didn’t get back to me for four months. I didn’t know then that was unacceptable business practice and that I should have emailed or wrote to ask what was going on. Fortunately, I’d already filed the story away and started a new one, and I knew immediately it was better. I’d learned a lot on the first one, and could put it into practice on the second.

After the publishing course, I’d started interning for the only literary agent in Denver at the time. I became the query/submission gateway for her office, reading submissions and sorting them into “reject” and “look at” piles for her. Then I started reading manuscripts for her, then editing her clients’ work, then sub-agenting for her. It was a pivotal part of my writing education, learning the business side of publishing.

When my second manuscript was complete, she asked to read it. Nervous and not quite sure what to expect, I handed it over. I hoped that perhaps she’d give me names of agents I could send it to, maybe even with her recommendation. Instead, the next time I saw her, she laid out a piece of white butcher paper, a table covering from Macaroni Grill where she’d had lunch, apparently, covered with scrawls in blue crayon. “Here’s what I think we need to do,” she began, then laughed. “Oh, by the way, I want to represent it!” It was a miracle moment for me, and I’ll always be grateful to her for taking a chance with me.

Even with an agent onboard, it took two more years of submissions to and rejection by editors, and many more rewrites, but the next miracle happened in 2002, after I’d moved to the Northwest, when one editor—and it’s true, it only takes one—said yes. But the way it happened was—as usual for me—not the standard way.

The book had been previously rejected by NAL/Penguin, but someone, we’ll never know who, took the manuscript and set it on the desk of Leona Nevler, a publishing maven who was semi-retired but working as an editor-at-large over many of the imprints at Penguin. She read it and called my agent. “What is this doing on my desk?” she asked, and my agent had to admit she did not know. “Well, I think I can do something with it,” Leona said, and that was that. She did. It came out in 2003. Leona passed away after my second book was published, but I cherished our working relationship, which was pleasantly matter-of-fact, friendly, and more educational than any writers workshop could be.

My Overnight-in-Seven-Years Dream Career

From the day I left corporate life to the day we sold my first novel took approximately seven years. I’ve since published four novels with the same publisher, NAL/Penguin, and I’m working on a fifth one now. Each book takes between 18 months and three years for me to complete. I write every weekday, as much as I can. It’s a long, slow process, one that others may not find gratifying, but each book to me is a child with a longer-than-average gestation.

Agents come in many varieties, but good agents, in my opinion, are also good editors. My first agent was just that, and now my second one is, too. (When my first agent moved on to do something different in the publishing world, I decided it was an opportunity for a new direction in my own career, and found a new agent that is just right for that journey.)

I love that my agent can read my manuscript and ask me questions or make suggestions that will improve the story before I ever send it to the publisher. While I also enjoy working with my editor, I don’t want her first read of my manuscript to be premature. As she always says, “I only get one fresh read,” so I try to wait until I have something worthy of that. Both women are personable, kind, and smart, and I value our relationships. I have many writer friends who can’t report that kind of connection with their agents or editors, so I know I am fortunate.

Being a publishing author has become far more than a full-time job, and one that does not pay nearly as well as my marketing job did. Much of my advance money for each book becomes a promotional budget, rather than a paycheck. It’s a tough time in publishing, and gets tougher by the moment, it seems. Just as with corporate jobs, there is always the underlying worry that my publisher will regroup, reorganize, cut my editor, or worse, cut me by not publishing my next book. Marketing budgets are drying up, and authors are expected to do even more for themselves. “Flat is the new growth,” my agent said when discussing my latest sales report. Just hanging on has become an accomplishment.

I am always working at several levels at once: promoting a book while writing the next one and planting the seeds for the one after that. And all that while staying active and relevant in the literary community by volunteering, making appearances for fundraisers, courting book groups and spending time with them on the phone or in person, teaching writers workshops, and now, leading a nonprofit collective of Northwest authors who do philanthropic works for literacy. I try to write every morning (in between bouts of frenetic social networking) and work at all the rest of it in the afternoons and sometimes evenings. I am often tired, and hopelessly behind in most things that don’t have “URGENT” stamped upon them. My family and close friends have become very patient while waiting to hear back from me.

And then, amid all that (which I do with love and appreciate, because it is my dream coming true), something really good will happen. A UK publisher will make an offer. A television show will ask me to come and talk about my latest book. Or a famous Hollywood producer will send me an email saying he loves my book so much he wants to do everything possible to get it made into a film. He will talk to me on the phone at length telling me all the good parts of this story that was born inside my own head and heart, and I will just about cry with the astonishing validation of that. I will dream about premieres and red carpets and being able to support my husband, after years of his support through this maddening career. At dinner, we will toast the possibilities and agree, ruefully, about the probabilities.

And the next morning, I will take my second cup of coffee into my home office, wake up my computer, and write.

 

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