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.
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 Everything I read, even unpublished, amateur work, seemed better than mine.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 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.