Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year, New Ramble

Happy New Year, y'all! (I'm Southern. Deal.)  How were your holidays? Mine were super--thanks for asking!

If you listen well, I'll give you a butterscotch.
A Werther's, if you're really good.
Every year about this time, lots of people hit the ground running with their resolutions. I'm not much of a resolutionary, myself. Still, this time of year always brings to mind the one time I made a resolution and stuck with it. This is the story of how I became a novelist. Gather 'round the fire, children, and listen to my tale...

Books have amazed me from my earliest memories. They introduced me to fascinating people. Characters became my friends, or role models I looked up to, or villains I reviled. I went to new, marvelous places--Narnia, Middle Earth, Prince Edward Island, secret gardens, beyond the tollbooth, Wonderland. I traveled through time to see life as it was once lived, or how it may be lived someday. When I wasn't reading books, I played out their stories with my toys, or in my backyard with my sister and friends roped into carrying out my adaptations. Books captured me like nothing else.

l-r: Beverly Cleary, Louisa May Alcott, Roald Dahl
And the people who wrote them? Wizards. Gods. Idols. Untouchables. To be able to do this thing that words on a page could do... it was wonderful and totally mystifying. I had no idea how a person went about creating a novel, how to become a name on the cover of a book. I longed to join my authorial heroes on the shelf, but it seemed so out of reach, something that happened to other people, important people--not little Elizabeth from a small Southern town.

Through the years, I wrote lots of short stories, poems, and narrative essays, but the novel eluded me. It was too big. Too hard. I didn't know how to approach it.

Finally, in 2004, I made a New Year's resolution: This would be the year in which I wrote a novel. I still didn't know how, but I was determined to figure it out. I went to the repository of all knowledge, Barnes and Noble, seeking enlightenment and came away with this book, which promised to teach me how to write AND sell my first novel. Perfect! I figured this writing career thing was pretty much in the bag, since I am great at following instructions.

I hatched a far too autobiographical idea and built my first novel outline, then plunged into my first first draft. I dutifully kept track of how many pages I wrote each day. Mr. Boyce was so supportive. He took our young boys out of the house to give me quiet time to write.

After not too many months (Four? Five? I can't quite recall now.), I had a completed manuscript in hand and was ready to move on to the selling portion of my guidebook's program. I drafted a query letter and proceeded to carpet bomb the New York literary world with it. When my first rejection letter came, I was ecstatic. I'd been blooded. I was legitimate. Each rejection just brought me one step closer to acceptance, I reminded myself.

Then another rejection letter came. And another. And another. And fifty more after that. As it happened, no one wanted a coming of age novel about a plucky young woman in a small Southern town--at least, not one riddled with a contrived plot and rookie writing errors. Every rejection I received was well deserved. My manuscript was nowhere near close to publication-worthy. I know that now. Looking back, I cringe at the thought of that thing ever seeing the light of day.

Still, I'd gotten a taste of the process. I'd finished a novel manuscript and gone through the motions of submitting. I had a better idea of what this whole novel thing was about, and I was hooked.

I just have to keep spinning my... You know
what? Never mind. That's painfully lame,
even for me.
My first attempt wasn't published (Thank goodness!), but I wouldn't call it a failure, either. I learned so much from that first, terrible novel. It gave me the courage to explore and learn more about the craft of novel writing. It taught me to develop patience, to wait until my work is the very best it can be before submitting. I also learned to put a little distance between myself and my work. A rejection from an agent or editor isn't a judgment about me personally; it's a business decision.

I'm still plugging away, still taking baby steps toward finding a home for my novels. And I'll keep at it until I do find that home, and then I'll keep at it and build my career. There's nothing else I would rather do. In many ways, my resolution from 2004 holds strong, which is why I've stopped making new ones. It's the same resolution every year: This year, I will write and submit. That desire, that need, has never waned. It's the one resolution that stuck and changed my life.

How about you, readers? Tell me a story about how you became a whatever it is you became. Or tell me about your resolutions or why you never make them. It's a new year and it's cold outside. Sit by the fire and chat with us for a little while.