Sparked by Words

More than ten years ago I began writing a book I’d intended to pen for decades. The premise of the book changed significantly so the one I finally wrote is less stodgy, more imaginative, and better researched. I finished it after four years, sent notices to friends and family, and kvelled at the sweet comments returned to me. Then I revised it again and again, trying to get closer to the heartbeat of my idea, making improvements at each iteration.

quill pen

Reviewers noted that the beginning was weak, slow and meandering. Over and over, I rewrote the beginning – first line, first paragraph, first chapter. I swapped a chapter for another, improved an earlier version, eliminated one “first chapter” attempt, and finally settled on what seemed to be perfect.

Slogging through the traditional agent querying process, getting no-thank-you’s or no response at all tainted my belief in my book. Everything I read, even unpublished, amateur work, seemed better than mine. Doubts about my ability kept me awake with worry about the path I’d chosen. Maybe I couldn’t write after all. I stopped talking about it with every stranger stuck in lines behind me at the bank and grocery store, and began work on my second book. Less flag waving for book two. I’d learned that telling the world I was writing a book elicited questions about what section they could find it at the bookstore. But I also kept at the first book, rewriting, evaluating, deleting, working through early morning hours to make it better.

The Amazon Breakthrough American Novel Award committee announced the rules for the 2012 contest. Every year ABNA accepted up to 5000 entries and gave each an opportunity for consideration for the single grand prize: traditional publication with a renowned publisher. (The contest no longer exists.) I took a chance, plowed through a rather user-unfriendly application process (if you couldn’t figure it out, maybe you shouldn’t be writing anything other than grocery lists) and submitted my story. The month-long wait for the first round of acceptances made everything I ate curdle in my gut. Anxiety was a persistent calendar marker. Every day checked off was another day my belly cramped as I opened my computer to check for news.

The day ABNA published the first round identifying the entries that made the one thousand submissions cut, I prepped myself for disappointment before opening the web page. Among five thousand submissions, what was the chance that mine would stand out for anything other than tried but failed? Accepted entries were listed in alphabetical order by first name. And there, down the list for adult historical fiction, my name was posted.

I’d made it. A miracle, beginner’s luck, true talent. I’d take any and all accolades. I held my breath for another month, expelling when my book made the quarter-finals round, one of 250 successes at that level. This was serious anticipation time. My story had a chance, and I was so apprehensive, I could barely function at the level of a mushroom.

That was it. My book didn’t make it to the next round of fifty titles selected. Don’t bother looking up who won the Grand Prize that year expecting to see my name because it wasn’t me. It was someone whose story was better than mine. I deflated, undone by my disappointment seeping all over the city.

The let down of being an also-ran made it hard to answer friends who called to ask, “Did you win?” Couldn’t they just look it up themselves? Of course not, so I had to tell people over and over that my book was no longer in the competition, swallowing the bile of defeat.

Bad as I felt, I didn’t rip up my book or excise it from my computer. I’d done all that dramatic hair ripping, brow beating, temper tantrum crap when I was a kid. Ten, twelve, seventeen-years-old, I’d screamed and yelled, even cursed at the injustices of life. Well into middle age, nothing of that self-indulgent anger was left. At this point in middle age, I needed to save all the dramatics for the events that really rip one to pieces: the death of one parent, the acknowledgement that the other has Alzheimer’s, the loss of job after job as the economy savaged the private schools where I’d taught art.

Here is where the true mark of delineation was drawn. I gathered the thin shreds of my two months of glory and tucked them into my journal, savoring the kind comments of my two Expert Reviewers. On my computer is a file labeled “ABNA,” and there rests the proof of my 15 minutes of fame. I stand on this wobbly also-ran fulcrum, balancing my passion to write, my longing to be published, my doggedness to take care of the things I must, and my ABNA failure. There’s no purpose to moping around in my undies, I haven’t enough disposable income to gamble it away, and I dislike alcohol too much to become a lush.

I write.

I revised my book again, pulling out thousands of unnecessary words, passages, even chapters. I read the entire new version out loud, with regional accents and dramatic inflections, and groaned at sections that sounded terrible. I slashed them, tiny bits of virtual ink floating into the computer trash bin. I looked at that first chapter again and fixed it again, though maybe not for the last time. I identified the weak and slow parts of the story, making them stronger, more crucial.

I continued to work on the second and third books as well. I’m considering self-publication as my most likely avenue but still holding out for traditional publication. I want people to read my stories, tell their friends about them, and demand, or at least consider requesting, more from me. I didn’t win the 2012 ABNA but I didn’t lose either. My writing is better, my insight more mature, and I’m determined to get my books out there, one way or another. Sometimes just traveling on the road is a measure of success even if you don’t arrive anywhere at all.

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Comments on: "Rounding the Bend, Hitting the Wall, Writing All the Way" (26)

  1. Phooey on those foolish publishers who didn’t deem The Inlaid Table worthy of worldwide publication, even in the original state I was honored to read. If you ever do go the route of self-publishing (didn’t I suggest that a long time ago?), I will continue to be your cheerleader. And you never know how things will evolve.

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    • Linda, I may hire you as chief publicist and head cheerleader and primary heart massager. It’s readers (and friends) like you who make a book successful because you’re the people we write for . Thank you, thank you, thank you.
      And yes, it was you who suggested self-pubbing, long time ago.

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  2. Self-pub is a great way to realize a dream. So many of us are hobby writers. Whether we have agents or self-pubbed, we will never make enough money from writing to pay the bills. Rarely does an agent change that. We do it to see our projects in print, finished, uneditable.

    Yours will be a little different, Shari, because you have three wonderful books. Your challenge will be marketing–letting people know the gem that they will miss if they don’t read it.

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    • Jacqui, thank you so much for your support. I really appreciate what you’ve written and am humbled by your kind words.
      I agree that marketing is a tough project no matter how a book is published, but I still think there’s a special kind of cachet with traditional publication. Not that I might be in the running for any kind of award, because that isn’t going to happen, but the knowledge that one has competed successfully within the protocols of established standards. However, I know I’ll probably self-pub because that’s likely to be the only option open to me. I don’t expect to make enough money either way to get the IRS to look at me. The publishing world is likely to continue to change over the decades, always a mile behind what writers need and the public wants. I’m looking forward to your successful publication pursuit of your books because they’re excellent.

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  3. Such a wonderful and heartfelt description of what the writing process is like: patience, revision, determination, rejection, revision, patience, more determination, etc. It’s certainly not an easy road, but we keep going because to not do so would be worse. And so it’s hands on the keyboard again.

    Good luck with your ongoing journey!

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  4. However you decide to publish The Inlaid Table, I can’t wait to read it! Same for your second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, …well, you get the idea. 🙂

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  5. Bravo for your efforts and persistence. Don’t ever give up. I like you prefer to go the traditional route. And I expect to spend 2016 doing just that, knocking on every door I can find. Best of luck on your publishing endeavors. Thanks for sharing your story.

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    • Thank you so much for writing that comment, Andrew. Most people ask why I don’t self-pub, not realizing that it’s a just as tedious an endeavor. I might run into you on Editor’s Row, a portfolio of manuscripts weighting down my arms. I’ll recognize you by the hair fringing your face, your longish arms, and the toothsome grin under those big eyes. You’ll be able to tell me by my turquoise complexion. We’ll stop for a snack at the Banana Lounge and Tea Bar. We’ll share stories about how hot the sidewalks are, and which are the most supportive agents. One day I’ll autograph a book for you, you’ll do the same for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Out of 5000 entries and your book made one of 250 successes . . . seems to me you were a winner.

    A personal aside – I think that we, in the western world in particular, define success as all or nothing at all. The very few people who have made significant marks in history, contributions to mankind, fame of any sort (or infamy) are ultimately forgotten or become unknown/inconsequential to new generations. HOW we live our lives in the present is ultimately more important than WHAT we produce for the future.

    Shari, you are a winner in MY book.

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    • You’re right, Judy. It’s more important how we treat the people around us than putting trophies on a shelf. I’m very proud of what I achieved in ABNA – but still hoping for publication.
      Because I didn’t write these books to collect dust in my computer. And thank you so much for thinking I’m a winner. That makes me feel very pleased, my friend.

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  7. First of all, getting anywhere in a writing competition is an achievement. Also, from what you’re saying, it seems you have stuck with your books, revising and improving them incrementally. That sounds like a very sensible and level-headed way to approach things to me. You’ll definitely end up with much better books — and hopefully published ones too! — through a process like that.

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  8. Kudos to you for dealing gracefully with the kind of failure that hurts.

    I think first novels tend to be rewritten a lot. Mine, which is part of a trilogy, has gone through seven (yes, count them, seven) beta swaps, and the highly-regarded trade editor I hired told me it sounded like it had been critiqued to the point that my voice had been worn away.

    And the second book, which I love, almost everybody quits on a third of the way through. I kid you not. It’s like a beta black hole. The second half and the start are fine. The second quarter I’m thinking about just ripping out and rewriting.

    Sigh.

    But in the meantime, like you, I had other novels to revise. The novel I’m first releasing is my eighth.

    There are many paths to trade publication. I’ve decided to self-pub my first eight novels. If I can build an audience, agents and/or publishers might come looking for me. It’s happened to other writers I know. And if they don’t, my books will still be read, and that is really the whole point.

    So if you don’t trade publish your first book, or any others soon, be of good cheer. Your story as a writer isn’t finished yet.

    *salutes fellow writer with dog-eared, much corrected manuscript* 🙂

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    • Thank you, Cathleen, for your thoughtful reply and encouragement.

      Revision is an enormous part of writing and I suspect this discourages a lot of writers. It didn’t me, however, and my voice is still in my books. I consider critiques carefully and discard many suggestions. Most of what I’ve revised is really my own persuasion, sometimes because of an idea someone else may have offered, but I know exactly what I intend to convey in my stories.

      I will probably self-pub but I want to give myself a chance for traditional publication. Both are honorable ways of getting a book into print and getting it read. You’re right about building an audience – that’s the ultimate goal. I salute you back for your stamina and your faith in yourself. See you one day at the writer’s table.

      “Raises ink quill to fellow writer.”

      Like

  9. I think you can be proud of yourself!

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