I started writing my first novel about twenty years ago. It took more than half a decade to complete. Back then, I used to spend my lunch break in a tiny bookstore near my job (I worked as an administrative assistant for a busy medical practice). I’d buy the latest issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine the minute it came out. Each issue felt like a secret only I knew about. The magazine was filled with advice from authors I loved, authors who (I was convinced) had the potential to help me fulfill my dream of being a novelist–authors like Stephen King (my then-favorite writer) and Terry Brooks (my second favorite) were featured beside headlines like, “The Ten Rules Successful Writers Always Follow!”
I was about twenty-two at the time and I held on to every single copy for more than a decade. In the mid nineties, I began working as a marketing writer for a web development shop. At first, I mostly answered the phone, but occasionally I got to write actual copy. The job kept shifting until I eventually found myself in the role of Director of Internet Marketing. That was the decade I got married, the decade I learned what stock options and an IRA were, the decade I was invited to participate in meetings instead of plan lunches for them. I felt like a grown up for the first time in my life.
By then, my novel was done. A friend and fellow writer edited it for me. I incorporated her changes and submitted it to one publisher, Tor (with no agent – I’m not sure I even knew what an agent was at the time). I’d chosen Tor because my newest favorite writer, Tad Williams, had just released a book called Otherland which blended fantasy and reality together in a way I’d never seen before. So, I thought an editor at Tor would like my book which was a fantasy about Eros, the Greek God of Love screwing up at work and being forced to live among mortals until he could relearn the meaning of love.
This was written before books like Twilight and The Lightening Thief bent the rules, bringing fantastical and/or mythical characters into the present world alongside ordinary people. Tor Books publishes fantasy. They’d published Otherland. That pretty much encompassed my entire decision-making process when choosing them. I printed out my 500 page book, put it in a cardboard box with an SASE enclosed (remember those?) and hoped for the best.
Three months later I received the manuscript back with a form rejection letter. I put it in a drawer where it remains to this day. I was tired of that novel and tired of working towards my dream of being a novelist, or so I thought. Looking back, I took that rejection as proof that I wasn’t worthy of the likes of Stephen King, Terry Brooks or Tad Williams. I didn’t have a thick skin. I let one rejection beat me. I threw out all my old issues of Writer’s Digest.
I buried the dream beneath many things including a new baby and my surprise career which now involved directing a department of 4 or 5 people and traveling to various companies to pitch new business.
I wore the role of middle manager uncomfortably. I missed my baby while I was at work, plus I’d never wanted to climb any kind of corporate ladder. In fact, I hated corporate life so much that my first book was devoted to making fun of it (I’d imagined Mt. Olympus as a corporation with Zeus as a sociopathic CEO). My daughter was 4 months old on September 11th, 2001 and I watched the buildings come down on a television set in the break room of my office, then I drove home to be with her, crying all the way. I got laid off a year later after the Internet bubble imploded, and I’ve been freelancing ever since (about 14 years).
I never stopped wanting to be a novelist. I was just distracted–by becoming surprisingly successful at a job I never really wanted in the first place, by having children and, again, by finding surprising success at my own home business. I continued to write through the years, but not fiction. I blogged and wrote articles for web sites (either my own or other people’s) about a variety of topics but mostly work and parenting.
I found happiness in self-employment. I told myself writing blog posts and occasional poems was fulfilling enough for me. But, really, it wasn’t.
In 2012, my 11-year-old daughter got cancer. That became my unyielding focus and I wrote about it in a way I’d never written about anything before. Many people read that blog (it’s now offline) and followed her journey. People told me my writing was beautiful. They were riveted to every blog post and with each update, they got to know me better, they got to know my daughter. I asked for help the only way I knew how, by writing about it.
After six harrowing months of treatment and heartache, my daughter had a liver transplant. She was in remission. I saw my life clearly for the first time in years, realized I wasn’t happy with blog posts and occasional poems. I wanted to write novels, but I was afraid. That fear–crystallized by that rejection letter from Tor–that had been there all along. I’d been lying to myself. The cancer was behind us (briefly) and suddenly I realized how much damn time I’d been wasting, afraid to write because I didn’t want to fail at the one thing I’ve always wanted to do. So, I wrote my second book.
Twenty years had passed since the days when I’d eagerly bought each new issue of Writer’s Digest and dreamed of seeing my books in Barnes and Noble. I was 41 and had no connections to the literary or publishing world. All I had was the Internet, like every other aspiring writer.
And things are sure different. Border Books is gone. Tiny bookstores are also mostly gone. Amazon reigns and somehow Barnes and Noble remains. E-book readers–something I used to dream about–are now ubiquitous (I love mine) which theoretically makes reading more accessible, but the sheer volume of books published each year combined with the fact that people read less, poses a huge problem for writers. How can people find us amid the clutter of new books?
Having an agent is now mandatory to get a book in front of a traditional publisher, but the Internet makes it super easy to query agents. Agents are, therefore, inundated with queries (hundreds each week). The glut of new books being published both independently and through “The Big Five” publishers is also an obstacle, as is the disappearance (or absorption) of small publishers. Querying has itself become an art form, one that I’ve had to learn from scratch.
This is the what I came back to after that lone rejection letter drove me away. But, even so, I wrote a book–a middle grade fantasy that was 120,000 words which I soon learned was FAR too long for the age group. I split it into two books and queried, queried, queried about 30 agents. Only half responded, all with rejections (though a few had encouraging things to say about my writing). I started out determined not to let the rejections get me down, but…
It was too much for me. I took to my bed and sobbed. By then, my daughter’s cancer had returned and I wasn’t sure I would ever have the strength to pick myself up and reignite my dream. I couldn’t bear the thought of receiving one more rejection letter. So I ended up self-publishing both books (parts 1 and 2) in 2014. I didn’t sell many books, but I did learn a lot. I learned I gave up too soon. I learned I don’t have a thick skin and probably never will.
I learned that I still love writing–I still have the dream. I learned there’s nothing more important than doing what you love most in the world because time is not limitless. I learned to love my business again, because 1) I’m good at it and 2) it pays for stuff–my house, my food, my car–and because it allows me the time to write.
So where am I now? I’m working on the third revision of my fourth novel (if you include that first book I wrote twenty years ago, which I do). I’m writing it because I love to write, but I’m not going to lie–I want to make a living as a novelist. I’m not sure that’s possible, but there’s no shame in dreaming.
Every day I ask myself, “why do I write?” What is the point? Agents are over worked and cynical. Reading material is easily accessible and often free. Attention spans are shorter (thank you, Internet). My dream of writing novels in a room filled with books–hunched over my computer, my window half-open and overlooking a lake surrounded by willow trees…well, it’s as real as Hogwarts, as the Raggedy Man, as Narnia and Oompa Loompas. That is, it feels like fiction.
Often…it feels hopeless, but it also feels worthwhile. It keeps me connected to a younger version of myself, before heartache bent the shape of my life into something unrecognizable. When I die, I’ll leave a trail of words behind me and I think that means I realized a tiny bit of my dream. In the end, that’s what matters.