“With a female lawyer lead, perhaps she drinks a lot and has a dark past, something like that.”
A follower recently told me this after reading Keys to the Kingdom and I had to laugh at the irony of it (and share it with you all, of course). Here’s the thing: I already have. See!
I thought I would take a moment─when I have finally found time to take a breath after completing Keys, publishing her and the epic launch─to sit down and tell you all yet another story, about the beginnings of my writing career (I feel bold enough now to call it that) and my very first book. This may surprise you, but it was not Salt of a Sailor. So, where did all of this writing mess begin? Did I spend my elementary days scribbling little stories and tidbits and telling my teachers and peers I was going to be America’s next great novelist? No. I didn’t know what the word ‘novelist’ meant in elementary. But I did scribble! Often and in excessive, erratic bouts. Seriously, I did write an awesome little five-chapter Sweet Valley High Twins-type drama when I was ten (complete with cover art) and wrote to my favorite children’s book author, Jan Brett─author of The Mitten, best children’s book EVER!─telling her how I wanted to someday become a writer!
The point is I did have the desire, when I was a child, to make a living writing stories. I recently had a podcast interviewer (shout out to Jeffrey Wettig with Shooting the Breeze Podcast) ask me a question I had yet to be asked in an interview: “Did you always have the desire to write and travel and did it just lie dormant for some time or was it a desire that was only born recently?” Particularly with the writing, my answer had to be “Yes.” I had wanted to write as a child. There’s undeniable proof in my stack of tattered scrapbooks buried in the closet. But, why exactly this desire grew dormant was hard for me to answer. As I told Jeffrey, I believe it just seemed too whimsical and silly. Growing up in our little ranch house in New Mexico, we lived paycheck to paycheck so one of my primary goals was to go to college, get a degree so I could embark on a lucrative career, make good money and live a comfortable life. It just seemed that was what you were supposed to want to do and so I did it. You can read how well that turned out for me in Keys to the Kingdom.
While the decision to implode my life as I then knew it and start anew was easy to make, what exactly I wanted to do with my new-found freedom, however, was not. My only goal was to live a life that made me happy. Meaning, whatever I did to make money needed to be something I enjoyed doing. While writing always flitted on the outskirts of my brain as a distant possibility, thinking with my frontal lawyer lobe at the time, it seemed laughable, a fool’s goal, not something I could really be successful at. I pushed the thought aside and without any other serious, more respectable prospects on the horizon, I stayed with the practice a while longer, shuffling day to day in this wasteful purgatory, knowing I didn’t like what I was doing but not knowing what else I could feasibly do to … you know … not starve. What you may know from my Salt of a Sailor and Keys that it was around this time that I met Phillip (thank the ever-loving stars above) but what you may not know is it was his idea that I should write.
As I was living in Mobile, Alabama at the time and he in Pensacola, our relationship started out a bit long-distance as we began communicating daily via email. I would usually start my stress-racked lawyer day, around 6:00 a.m. at my desk, by writing him a quick email recounting what I felt were pretty mindless, meaningless happenings─a woman I watched in the grocery check-out line the night before, an interaction with a witness I had worked with yesterday, a boy I saw standing outside my apartment. Just little things that I would tell him about, adding my own observations and insights and, after several weeks of this, Phillip said something that really surprised me.
“You should write.”
I should write … It was as if the thought struck me for the first time. As if I hadn’t spent my childhood dreaming about that very prospect. As if I hadn’t boldly written my favorite author and told her I was going to do just that! Where had I gone? Where did I stow that desire? Surely it had been here all these years? Sitting somewhere, dusty on a shelf in my mind? Those types of deep-seated aspirations don’t just disappear. But it felt as if I was considering the premise for the first time. I guess in a way I was─as an adult. I should write, I finally let the thought marinate around a bit. Write what? That was the first question that sprung to mind. I didn’t yet see any real future in it but without any other income ideas and in desperate need of a creative outlet, my only hold-up was the “what” not the “why.”
The first idea that popped into my head? A legal fiction, with a female lead who perhaps drinks a lot and has a dark past, something like that. Now you see the irony! Whoever “they” are, they say it: You have to write what you know. This is true because a) it’s just easier, if you know it, it pours out of you; but also b) if you don’t know it, it shows. So, what did I know? I knew legal battles, courtroom drama, the day-to-day struggles of a female associate in a male-dominated firm. I was going to be the next John Grisham! No one had ever written a book with a female lawyer lead and a juicy love plot. EVER! I was delusional. But I was also motivated. I was inspired and invigorated by this new prospect. And, so I did it. I started writing, again in excessive, erratic doses and I felt so young again. It was the first time in my adult life that my creative side was finally, once again, truly awakened. Any spare time I had at work, I would shut my door and write. I wrote in the mornings, on my lunch break, sometimes over the course of the entire evening and two bottles of wine.
Phillip got me a book around that time that I devoured in one day and that I highly recommend to any budding author out there: No Plot, No Problem. It is the book that began the now widely-acclaimed annual publishing contest, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The premise of the book? Just write. Let it pour out. Let it be crap. Let it embarrass you how bad it is. That’s fine! Just get it out. That book unlocked me and I shocked both myself, Phillip and several of my closest friends by writing an entire novel over the course of about one month. Was it the best book I will ever write? Probably not. But, was it crap? Surprisingly no. Far from it. It was just grossly unedited. But, had I done it? Written a serious, 90,000 word novel with actual characters who went places and did and felt things and who interacted and created a plot with a legitimate beginning, middle and climactic end? Yeah, I had. I really had. I give you … (drumroll please) … A CIVIL AFFAIR.
I knew then and there, when I had completed her that Phillip was (well almost) right. It wasn’t that I should write. I must!
With this simple goal now in mind and an over-zealous confidence in my ability to write books that would actually sell, I finally made the decision to leave the practice and take the first big steps toward this new lofty writer/world-traveler goal. So, what happened with that earth-shattering masterpiece that was going to turn the literary world on its head? Surely A Civil Affair was picked up by an agent, published in fourteen countries, translated into two languages with movie rights in the works. Yeah, that’s what happened. Except that it didn’t. I simply must say, in my humble experience, which may differ greatly from that of the truly talented scribes out there, if you want to make it as a writer (and, I mean, really make it), there is one word you have to get extremely used to. That word is “NO.” Because you’re going to hear it. A lot. Especially in the beginning. I sent many queries off for my novel. If you’re not familiar with those, they’re basically a little three-paragraph preview (think a trailer for a movie) of your novel and why you think it’s the next great thing, and why you’re going to be the next great literary all-star. You email that little blurb to literary agents, and if they like your “book trailer,” they may ask to see a couple chapters of the book, and then perhaps the whole thing, and then perhaps they’ll sign you up and try to get you published.
After I completed the novel and felt like it was sufficiently edited, (which meant I read through it a couple of times but which I now know requires approximately 28 read-throughs, 2 backwards and THEN still a final read-through and thorough edit by a paid editor) I sent dozens of queries off. In batches of ten at first, then batches of twenty. As I sit here writing this blog post today, I believe I have sent over two hundred queries total for A Civil Affair. Which doesn’t mean I received two hundred no’s. One of the more excruciating aspects of the query regimen is that most agents don’t have time, even, to tell you no. If they’re not smitten with your eQuery, they simply delete it. No response. So, you, the nail-biting, budding author, have to simply make a chart of the queries you’ve sent out and after a certain period of silence, assume those that did not respond, aren’t interested. Sounds heartless, but it’s really not. As some of these agents’ websites advise, they often receive hundreds of queries a week, if not a day. It seems lots of people out there think they’re good at this writing thing and all eighty million of them are sending in queries just like you. The agencies simply don’t have the manpower to respond. So, I get that. And, that’s fine. I spent months and months, which eventually added up to two years’ time, sending in queries. And, while I had a few agents bite and three agents ask to read my complete manuscript, the final answer was, “You’re a strong writer with a unique voice, but it’s just not the right fit for me.” Pish tosh.
I had a lot of friends tell me then, “Well, they say the lady that wrote The Help was turned down like a hundred times before she got published.” And, that was encouraging, until my “turn-down” number approached one hundred and sailed right on by it. Each time, it was no, no, no. It definitely gave me a nice humble base to work from when I read another one of my favorite books about writing─Stephen King’s On Writing─an exceptionally motivating tool for any other budding authors out there. This is like writing advice in the form of your best friend telling you you’ve put on some unsightly pounds and you need to get your fat ass off the couch and go jogging. You know it already. You don’t want to hear it, but you know you need to heed the advice. And, once you get up and start jogging and looking better, you’re infinitely grateful for the kick in the ass. King’s premise: Writing is hard. There is no shortcut. It takes a ton of time and patience and a hundred rewrites. If you’re not up for that, sit back down on the couch.
But what Stephen King said about his experience with the no’s really grabbed me. He used to keep every rejection letter he received for short stories he submitted, mostly to sci-fi magazines and other similar publications, and punch them onto a nail in the wall next to the desk where he wrote. He received so many rejection letters, King finally had to upgrade to a railroad spike which he hammered into the wall where the nail once stood and started pressing the letters onto it. Now, if that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is. I kept picturing King hammering away on that spike, the sound of the hammer hitting the head, over and over, splintering through his attic, thinking Jesus! This man believed so completely in himself and his talents that he was practically building a shrine to the idiots out there who were telling him no. And, that worked for me. Screw those fools! Where’s my hammer?
Unfortunately, all of the no’s I received were via email, so they didn’t make quite the visual appearance as King’s physical letters jammed on the spike, but my own teetering eStack was at least a sign of my continued attempts and the agents’ continued idiocy (or their mere personal, and likely well-founded, dislike of my first attempt at a novel─po-tay-to, po-tah-to). I finally decided, whether I’m good enough to make a living out of writing is not what I needed to focus on. I knew I enjoyed doing it, good or not, so I was going to continue to do it, agent or not. I had been writing this blog for about six months at that time and felt I had finally found my voice. While fiction can be fun, I believe my talent is in telling my real-life stories in my natural voice, as if I were speaking to a friend over some rum drinks, with all of the necessary curse words and Annie-isms. Frankly, when I began writing initially, I just didn’t know you could do that. Write just like you talk. Apparently you can. Apparently you can write however the hell you want. Who knew? But if you want the book to actually sell, you have to be smart about the marketing. With the blog stroking my mojo, I decided to shelf A Civil Affair for a while so I could write a non-fiction humorous sailing book and─Voila!─Salt of a Sailor was born.
Rather than beat my head against the wall of two hundred no’s this time, with Phillip’s continued encouragement and creative business perspective, I decided to self-publish. Free from any restrictions, contractual obligations, complicated licensing grants or deadlines, I simply put my work out there, when I want to and in the manner I want to, for the masses to enjoy. If some folks buy it, read and enjoy it, great. If not, c’est la vie. It’s like throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. Highly liberating if you ask me. And, once I did it with Salt, I knew I wanted to dust off my first book─my initial writing warrior─edit her the right way and put her out there as well, whether she sold or not, simply because I was proud of her. You never forget your first, right? Who says that? Is it those annoying “they” people again? How do they know so much?
See! She goes with me to all the book signings!
I tell all of you this because I have so many followers reach out to me and say they, too, want to write a book and I always tell them─”Awesome. I can’t wait to read it.” Because I can’t. I think anyone who feels so inclined should write their own book. Everyone has a story to tell but not everyone wants to make a living out of story-telling. Why? Because the writing is easy. It’s the other 90%─the marketing─that’s the real bear. I often refer these budding authors to an article I wrote recently for a fellow blogger: Market First, Write Second. If my two-hundred no’s and lackluster launch of Salt of a Sailor have taught me anything, it’s that. The marketing is 90% of it. While I do not plan to ever put together a big marketing launch for A Civil Affair, I am always proud to talk about her, my first book, my first attempt and my first big lesson in writing.
The same is true about sailing. It’s all about trying. The only way to learn what works (and, more importantly, what does not) is to try your hand at it, make some mistakes and learn from them. I sure learned a lot from my first book. There she stands, high and mighty, right next to my two bestsellers, not nearly as well-read, but with her chest puffed out just the same.
Is she a good read? Absolutely. Is she comparable to a John Grisham thriller? I’ve been told so. Now, do I plan to write more fiction? Probably some day. Unless I’m untimely plucked from this grand earth, I’ve got decades of writing days ahead of me, so why not? Although it will be some time as I have already begun my third sailing book in the same voice and tone as Salt and Keys─more on that to come!! But, maybe I should ask that question of you. As is the case with any of my books, shoot me an email asking for a free copy and she’s yours. Feel free to give A Civil Affair a FREE READ and let me know if you agree:
Should I write fiction?
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