Last night I attended the inaugural Writers Coffeehouse in Asheville. It’s a great idea (originated by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Maberry and now popping up all over the country) in which writers help other writers with information about publishing, promoting, networking, etc. It’s all about the business of writing and not at all about the craft.
The meetup began with host Jake Bible and his guests, Beth Revis and Nathan Ballingrud, both talked about their paths to becoming published authors. And while I enjoyed the whole event, I felt like the biggest takeaways for me came from those introductions because two of the writers admitted to writer-path experiences that I identify with — and have long been embarrassed by.
From Nathan, that he’s 45 but, with only one published book to his name, feels like he’s just at the beginning of his career. And from Beth, that she wrote and submitted 11 manuscripts to agents before selling a novel.
So maybe my own path isn’t so singular or so strange as I’ve long suspected. I thought it would make an interesting exercise (and perhaps lead to connections with fellow writers) to share my literary backstory. Here it is:
As a kid I was always interested in art. I wrote my first book when I was 7. It was called Memory is Mine, a story about a boy named James and his horse who, in the end (spoiler alert), turned out to be imaginary. I was also into drawing, painting, fashion design, fashion illustration, archaeology, ballet, and horseback riding. As teenager, I once wrote a poem with the verse, “You’ll never be the same as the night before / when you asked her in what were you looking for? / Was loving her what you had in mind / or a one-night stand you could leave behind?” My best friend at the time accused me of plagiarizing White Snake, so it’s possible I missed my calling as a hairband songwriter.
In high school, my friend Ann Marie introduced me to keeping a journal, which I do to this day. For years my journals were large and intense, full of poems and insights and drawings. These days they’re more like quick to-do lists and complaints that no one else wants to hear. Still. I journaled all the way through college, especially on my semester abroad. In fact, I was terrible at pretty much everything that wasn’t journaling. But even after my teacher commented a number of times, “You write like a wiz!” I didn’t think about becoming a writer.
After graduating with a BA in Human Studies (I know, I know) and no idea of what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to get an MFA in creative writing because it was that or work in a group home forever. Because I had to pick a concentration, I chose poetry thinking poems are shorter than stories and therefore easier. When I was 26, I always chose the easy way out of every situation.
But approximately five minutes after completing my MFA in poetry (which was not easy, by the way), I got an idea for a novel. I started writing it while on vacation at the beach and continued, obsessively, at my job as an administrative assistant. I finished the novel in five weeks. It was terrible, but I didn’t know that. I spell checked it and sent it out to maybe 10 agents, all of whom (huge surprise) rejected it.
The next year I wrote another novel (Dashboard Deity, about a woman traveling through India and striking up a tenuous friendship with her Indian chauffeur), and then another and another. I didn’t necessarily complete one per year but, over time, I’d written seven. One about a dating show (I was trying my hand at chick-lit), one about gay teenagers, one about a world-music radio-show host, one about a travel adventure in Sri Lanka. But, while I tried different genres and various storylines, I never really edited my work. I wrote a fast draft and was ready to be done with it. Agents aren’t impressed by that. Tom Robbins claims he never rewrites, but there can only be one Tom Robbins. So in 10 years, despite writing lot of words, I didn’t sell a manuscript.
I am an arts writer. I’ve written and edited for the alt-weekly Mountain Xpress since 2003. That means my work is published regularly and I get frequent feedback from my readership. That helps. Journalism keeps me writing every day. It’s taught me about craft and it’s put me in touch with the authors and artists who inspire both my professional and creative work.
In 2011, during a trip to Concord, Mass., my husband suggested I write what I cared about and stop trying to write what I thought might sell. That fall, I started How to Talk to Rockstars. I loved the book and spent many months and many drafts editing it. I sent it to agents, got an offer, and signed a contract — finally!
And then it didn’t sell. After six months of pitching to publishers, my agent gave up and we went our separate ways. I’m not sure if that’s typical. I was devastated to lose my agent, but after a couple of months of soul searching, I decided to try to sell my book to a small press. In the summer of 2014, I signed a contract with Logosophia Books and, in May 2015, How to Talk to Rockstars was released.
I’ve since rewritten a young adult novel and the Sri Lankan travel adventure from my backlog of manuscripts. I’ve also completed drafts of two new novels, one that I’m madly in love with.
I still don’t have an agent. And I feel like, this many years and pages, this many hard lessons and tears and thrilling accomplishments later, I’m just at the beginning of my writing career. But I’m OK with that. It’s a hopeful and exciting place to be.