Kate Flora: Crime writers sometimes engage in a competition that could be titled: Who has suffered most? This usually begins by comparing how many years each competitor spent in the unpublished writers corner. This is followed by stories of horrible book events, editors who leave while the book is in process, savage reviews, and other tales of woe, like sitting in Barnes & Noble at Christmas, wearing a ridiculous Santa hat and repeatedly being asked the way to the bathroom. It may sound strange, but we find comfort in knowing that our journey isn’t Job-like, or Sisyphean, even though it can often feel that way, but one that many share.
Usually, we keep these stories to ourselves, within the writing community. For readers, we like to present optimism, a bright smile, and project the image that our writing careers are all rainbows and unicorns and pots of gold at the end of those rainbows. We may tell the truth if asked, but usually those thoughts of giving up and moving on are not something we share.
Are you bracing yourself for bad things ahead?
Relax. I am not feeling dark, nor am I about to confess to an overwhelming desire to give up writing and go rain skipping instead. But it can be helpful to aspiring writers to know that “Yet she persisted,” is the mantra for many writers.
So, how did it begin? As I remember it, I was practicing law, had a child in daycare and another on the way, and I was sitting at a stop light, on my way to court to have a fight about blistered paint on a tennis court, when I had an epiphany: two reasonable adults should be able to work this out between themselves. I decided to leave work for a while and stay home with my boys. Then I immediately panicked. I had always had a job. What would I do? And I hit upon the naïve idea that since I’d always wanted to write, I might be able to fit it in around the times when the boys napped.
Foolish me. I bought a computer and set it up. I began to cook up a plot in my head, a semi-autobiographical mystery involving law students and trusts and estates, and realized my children rarely napped. Undeterred, I wrote in little bits of time, and nine months later I typed “The End” on a book that I put in a drawer.
That was the beginning of ten years of writing, four books in the drawer, and a whole box of rejection letters before I sold a book. But I am a stubborn Yankee. I said I wouldn’t stop submitting until I had enough letters to paper the bathroom. It was a small room, and I was eyeing the dining room when I found an ad in a magazine—either The Writer or Writer’s Digest—from a literary agent seeking manuscripts. Ha! I thought. There is no literary agent in the world who needs to look for clients. Having nothing to lose, though, I sent her the cover letter, synopsis, and first chapters of Chosen for Death.
A few weeks later, I got a message on the answering machine: “I’m very interested. If you haven’t signed up with someone else, can we talk?”
We talked. Later, when we met at a conference, she told me that she had had 2000 responses to the ad. She’d assembled a group of friends, ordered a lot of takeout, and they’d had a reading party. Out of that 2000, she’d found two she was interested in agenting, and I was one of those two.
Getting an agent was only the beginning. She moved to New York to be closer to publishers. And one slushy winter night, I was on the phone with a neighbor when the operator interrupted, said she had an emergency call for me, would my neighbor yield the line? She yielded. It was my agent. She had an offer on the book, but wanted to see if she could get a better one, was that all right with me? She ended up getting me a three-book, hard-soft deal. I was finally going to leave that unpublished writers corner behind.
The journey that followed was like an erratic EKG, but that beginning was lovely. I have stuck to writing despite those ups and downs, while I’ve seen many writers I started with back then (the early 1990’s) give up. I love the craft, and the emergence of stories far too much to quit. I long ago decided that however negative the world of publishing was—poor pay, unsupportive publishers, cruel reviews or no reviews at all—only I got to decide whether I was a writer. That stubborn decision has carried me through many dark moments, and it is one I pass on to my students.
I had three books published before I stopped writing “lawyer” on forms as my profession, rather than “writer.” Getting to call myself a writer seemed far too important to claim until I’d earned it. At this point, there are, I believe, six books in the drawer. Some of them may yet emerge. And I still have the beautiful painted Perrier-Jouet champagne bottle, now empty, that my husband trudged through slushy Boston to find when I told him I’d sold my first book.