is a comfortable way to travel. I'm on the upper deck of an Amtrak train, reclining in a nice roomy seat with my feet up. And what a relaxing motion, gently bouncing and swaying, not being jostled by so-called turbulance, which is more likely the plane malfunctioning.
I sure needed this ride. Life's been filled with so much busy-ness lately, it feels good to sit and watch the world go by for a day. I'm on my way to Rhode Island to visit my parents. They still live in the town where I grew up and left as soon as possible. But now I appreciate the place and enjoy hanging out on the docks, listening to the gulls call and the thingamajigs clank against the boat masts. When I'm in R.I., I soak in the ocean air, eat seafood every chance I get, and bask in the luxury of being a kid again, of rolling out of bed in that familiar raised ranch, trudging up the shag-carpeted steps, and plunking myself down at the kitchen table to eat lox and stuffed quahogs. My parents' house will always be home to me.
Oh, hey, we're coming into Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. I haven't been here since I hiked in on the Appalachian Trail three years ago. Things sure look different from a train; they go by a lot
faster. But I digress.
Stick to the point, Deb!
Okay, I'll try.
Journal-writing is tougher for me than fiction. It's different when I can make things up and attempt to turn even the mundane into art. Like the sound of flip-flops slapping against someone's heels, or the warm, wheaty smell of baking bread, or ... whatever. But this is just my life I'm supposed to write about, which has taken a turn for the literary. And that's what I thought I'd share in this journal: my journey from a newly published, unknown author to, I hope
, creator of bestselling books. I'm aware of the obstacles and the odds against me, but I like to think big, to occasionally set lofty goals. Pipe dreams, some people call them, but I think it makes life an adventure. Might as well try, right? A novel worthy of a bestseller is my new Mt. Katahdin. (That's the northern terminus of the A.T., 2,167 miles from where I started my hike.)
I don't know why I turned from writing marathon letters to long works of fiction, but I do remember when and where. October, 1997. I was sitting at the counter in the Villager Cafe in Kent, Connecticut. Cindy the waitress was standing there on her side of the counter, eating my fries, which didn't go over all that well with me. But Cindy was telling an interesting story, so I let her french fry infraction slide. She was telling me how, when she was a kid, she'd charge other kids a nickel apiece to see the dead bodies in her father's barn. Dad was an undertaker, you see. A very small-town undertaker. So Cindy was telling me about this early business venture of hers, and how Dad caught her in the act, and the venture ended abruptly and permanently, and I was thinking, hey, that'd make a great beginning for a story about ... something
So Steve and I went home after lunch, and I fired up the dinosaur of a word processor my mother-in-law had handed down to us. And I began to type. Typed over 300 pages. (Not all in one day, though. Took me, oh, six weeks maybe.) I typed the thing all way through, from beginning to end in a straight shot. No outline, no prior knowledge of where I was going with it. (Want to read the first chapter of that first attempt? Well, okay, click here
Somehow, this story about an undertaker's daughter ended up being somewhat autobiographical; although I've never even been to a funeral and have seen only one dead body that wasn't on a TV or movie screen. (I was at day camp, eight years old. Something clunked the little sailboat I was pathetically trying to manuever around the lake, and I looked over the side to see a guy floating face-down. I later found out he'd had a heart attack, which had caused him to fall and clunk his head on the side of his fishing boat, knocking himself out and into the water. He'd died by drowning.)
But where was I?
Oh, okay, so I wrote this novel about a young girl searching for contentment and a meaningful life while growing up confronted with death (her not me), and I actually thought it was pretty darn good. At least, for a while. I edited the story several times, read the whole thing into a tape recorder, listened to it, edited again, then began querying New York City literary agents -- the big guns. Maybe half a dozen. One actually wrote on the form rejection letter that the writing was "good" but the story wasn't strong enough. I thought, fshhh, what does she
know? Not strong enough! I'd heard of bestselling authors who'd been rejected a hundred times before getting an agent, let alone a publishing contract. Even J.K. Rowling had received her share of form letters, so I was told. So I figured I'd just keep on querying, and my day would come. Somebody
would see the potential in what I'd written. They'd take on this complete unknown, and it would be the best decision they'd ever made.
Well, it's a good thing I didn't waste my time and instead moved on to my second novel. Now and then, I take that first manuscript out of the closet (literally), read a few pages and cringe. And cringe and cringe. All the "ly" adverbs! The cliches! And the mundane really was
mundane. But, hey, I learned a lot from writing and re-writing that novel. I learned I could tell a story from the first word to the last and in a fairly logical way. There were even a few gems in there that might show up in future novels that will
be squished between book covers, darn it! But most important of all, I learned from that experience that I love to write. I love to create lives and events from nothing at all.
My second novel also had its share of weaknesses, although I no longer slipped so obviously into the autobiographical. Where the story touched on my own experiences, I do believe the main character stayed
in character, albeit not a very believeable one, two of my family members said. Took me a while to see that they were right, as I read and re-read. But the lightbulb had begun to flicker and even stayed lit for periods of time. I was getting better.
And then I went on that long Appalachian Trail hike, during which I conjured up Dr. Kellerman and Constance Fairhart and the rest of that cast. I hiked with them for many miles and months, getting to know them better, thinking about their individual and collective stories. Thinking about the words I'd use to tell that collective story. By the time I reached the end of the trail and went home to my husband and job in Pennsylvania, I was ready to start typing. And I did, beginning to end in a straight shot, pausing now and then to do some research. Then I edited, re-read again, did a lot more research and edited again. Then I shared the manuscript with a respected critic: my mother. When she responded, I told her why she was wrong about this and that. Then I mulled over her comments and edited for the umpteenth time, realizing that Mom was right, after all; it was
totally out of character for Dr. Kellerman to do what I had him doing in chapter fourteen; and Orla and Bernie were
two-dimensional, just plain old gross. And so on and so forth.
Then it was time to expose I. Joseph Kellerman
to the literary world. I could re-read and nip-and-tuck forever, but it was time to find out if the writing was anywhere even close to good enough. So I wrote a terrible query letter and sent it and the first three chapters to a few agents. I waited, checking the mailbox daily. A month later: rejection, rejection, rejection. Form letters, of course. Then I wrote a darn good query and repeated the process. Five agents this time. And I waited again. Then, all in the same week, rejection times five. "We work only with previously published authors," said three of five in one way or another. Two simply said that my novel didn't meet their current needs. Okay, well ... try and try again. I queried three more agents.
This time, though, while I was waiting for my next batch of rejections, I heard through the aspiring writer grapevine about a small publisher that would accept manuscripts directly from unpublished authors. What? A bonafide publishing house that would actually read my novel and send me an evaluation of my work? Yep, it was true. Three editors at Gardenia Press read my manuscript, and I received a seven-page evaluation. Gardenia didn't accept my manuscript for publication at that time, but the editors did make suggestions to improve the work, then invited me to resubmit. The story, they said, was "very strong."
So I went directly to my laptop. Up most all night, night after night, I agonized over every word. "Very strong," I kept repeating to myself. Three people I'd never met had validated my work. I was thrilled. A month later, after making further changes and finding and patching up a couple of holes in my story that even the three editors and Mom had missed, I resubmitted the manuscript to Gardenia Press. Then I registered for the 2002 FirstNovelFest in Orlando.
On the first morning of the conference, I waited for my afternoon appointment with the editor who'd read my revised novel, anxious to hear what she had to say. As I was milling around, talking with other eager newbies, I spotted a tall woman with a name tag. It was Kathy, the editor I was to meet with later that day. I introduced myself, searching her face for any sign of her opinion. Nothing. But she asked if I wanted to meet then and there. I almost shouted, "Yes! Now!"
So Kathy and I sat down on a couch in the hotel lobby. She relaxed back, while I perched on the edge of my cushion. She didn't smile. I didn't breathe. And then she said she loved it!
"Nuh-uh," I said. "Really?
I mean, you aren't just saying that? You don't think it's too ... too ...?"
Nope, she really enjoyed it, she said and commented on many specifics. She said I was good enough! And so, to make a long story a bit shorter, I was offered a publishing contract at the end of the conference. That was in October, 2002. Now it's February, 2003, and I'm waiting for the final editorial suggestions, working on my website, and trying to figure out how to promote my book, while Steve and I get ready to move to Arizona in mid-April.
So that brings you up-to-date on the writing thing. I could certainly fill in more detail, but that's the gist of it. Whenever something noteworthy happens -- good or not, exciting, frustrating or discouraging -- or I learn something worth mentioning about the literary world or the life of an ambitious novel-writer, I'll share it here, just in case anyone might want to read about it. And even if no one does, it's good for a writer to keep writing, right? No matter what the subject. Keeps the brain cells in shape and the fingers limber. So what's a little carpel tunnel? (Not that I have it. Yet.)
Okay, time for me and my laptop to take a nap. The motion of the train is making me verrry sleeeepy. I'll write again when I have something to say. That could be two hours, two days or two weeks from now. But probably not as long as two months. Too much happening these days not to have something about writing to write about.