Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 29, 2019

Where an Author's Story Begins

Turning Whine Into Gold

by Kathryn Craft

It was 2001 and as a dance critic, I’d been getting paid for my published writing for eighteen years. I had this writing thing in the bag! I just needed an agent to get my recently drafted novel out into the world.

(Experienced authors: I hear you. Quit laughing.)

In search of that holy grail I went to my first meeting of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, nearby in southeastern PA, to learn from other seekers.

I got there early. The preceding board meeting hadn’t broken up yet, and the agent/editor chair for the upcoming conference was talking about which agents she’d contacted and whom she might yet approach, tossing names around like she knew these people.

A swirl of emotions ran through me.

1. Jitters: Would any of those agents think my manuscript was good?

2. Overwhelm: I had so much to learn about the industry.

3. Desperation: I wanted that knowledge.

4. But…I had no idea how to get it.

That agent chair knew, though, so before that meeting had let out, I had joined the organization and, knowing my way around the newspaper biz, volunteered to play a small public relations role in putting on the conference. Working side-by-side with other writers—some much more experienced, others pressing first tentative words to the page—I started to get a sense where I fit in on the road to publication.

The realization came like a slap: I wasn’t nearly as far along as I had originally thought.

That kind of early ego pummeling created fertile ground for my first true step in the right direction: setting aside hopes of overnight stardom and creating a base of knowledge on which to build a career.

In a few more years I would hear an agent say, “Give me a so-so story that is beautifully written and I won’t be able to do a thing with it. Give me a great story that is written so-so and I can make a best-seller out of it.” The all-important feedback I received in my early years of critique groups, workshops, conferences, and even agent rejection told me I was weighing in on the wrong side of that equation.

I had thought that my 18 years of arts journalism would give me a leg up. It did not. While I was indeed a wordsmith, I did not yet wield the storytelling craft that could make me a published novelist.

From then on, while deepening my commitment to both organizational and personal goals, I created programs that brought me the teachers I needed, all the while learning the ins and outs of the ever-changing publishing industry. I ate up everything I could learn about the power of story, improving my novels while unknowingly laying the groundwork for what would become my developmental editing specialty.

During this time I made a promise to my husband: if I couldn’t get a novel published before my youngest left school in five years, I’d give up my fantasy and get a full-time job.

All too soon, my time was up. But I couldn’t possibly quit now! I felt like I was standing with my toes at the very edge of a diving platform, weight tipped forward in anticipation of the signal to dive in. I revised the promise to my husband: I’d really meant that I’d give up “when they left college.”

I stretched that as far as I could. Eventually my youngest son finished a five-year engineering program; after a gap year, my eldest finished a two-year master’s degree. But look what I’m holding in his graduation picture from 2012: a newly minted advance reader copy of my debut novel.

The photo was taken one year after I’d gotten an agent (on query 113). By then I’d heard it takes ten years to make a novelist, and apparently, I would add my name to those who would prove that saying right.

So what had changed during those years?

I was no longer operating from my emotions, but from knowledge.

1. Due to my intense study of storytelling, I no longer wondered if an agent would think my manuscript was good—I knew it was well-crafted. I just needed to find its perfect advocate.

2. Due to all of the tips I picked up while attending conferences and networking events, I was no longer overwhelmed by the submission process.

3. Due to leadership roles I’d taken on for various conferences, I could toss around the names of agents and editors as if I know these people—because many of them I’d met, hired, corresponded with, picked up from the bus station, moderated on panels, or pitched to in person.

4. Due to those relationships, I saw agents and editors as like-minded spirits: entrepreneurs who want to see great stories put it into print.

Comparing the two lists in this post, you’ll see that once my feet were planted on a firm foundation of knowledge, I was ready to contribute as a team player.

Because the first step toward an author’s life isn’t getting an agent.

It’s gathering all the knowledge you need to produce a great story, and then learning how to step up as an equal partner in its publication.

If you are on the road to publication, tell us about an action you took that netted a huge boost, or about someone whose support you feel you could not have done without. Those of you self-publishing: how does this post relate to your journey from writer to author?

14 comments on “Where an Author's Story Begins”

  1. Kathryn, your article touched me in all kinds of places. While I sit here at my desk waiting for a call or maybe an email to see if I'm a finalist or not I'm reading another craft book. I tell myself I've read enough about the craft but then I always find some gem among all the repetitiveness. This gem pushes my journey a little closer to the end product. Also, my two main critique partners (pushy little witches) are my best cheerleaders. Although published, they still see my potential as a writer and encourage me to grab the brass ring. God bless them.

    1. "Pushy little witches"—haha! Love that, M. Lee. And oh, the waiting—our capacity to hurry up and wait is sorely tested when writing for publication. And I completely agree about craft books. I have read Nancy Kress's DYNAMIC CHARACTERS three times and gotten different things out of it, because I had different sets of characters in my mind. Reading a variety of craft books stokes an author's 1) zeal for lifelong learning, 2) need to consider new perspectives, and 3) ability to solve problems—all in addition to your worthy example of filling in torturous waiting periods. For me, it's always worth it!

  2. So many people reached a hand back when I was tired and struggling - too many to name.

    Now I feel it's my job, to extend a hand to help the next. I haven't arrived at that illusive pinnacle yet, but I always feel my lessons along the way were too hard won to only benefit me.

    Write on, people!

    1. And you're doing a wonderful job of it, Laura, in ways too numerous for ME to count! And there is a hidden boon to doing so, right? It's a way to feel good about ourselves while deflecting the sting of rejection and all of the other harsh judgements that come with this author gig.

  3. It's so hard to explain to others what a long road this can be. Yes, there are some who succeed much more quickly, and some who take much longer, but that 10-year goal seems about right from what I've seen too. Thanks, Kathryn, for telling your inspiring story!

    1. Right? Three months after I told my healthy parents I was writing a novel they wanted to know when they could buy it in the stores, lol! Over the next ten years, my dad died and my mom was in advanced dementia, unable to recall what I was doing. Neither of my parents ever read one of my novels. So you can believe me when I say if I could have hurried the process, I would have! (Results may vary, of course, pending variables like luck, genre, and natural storytelling ability.)

      1. It's terribly hard to have those who have loved and inspired you be unable to read your books. I'm sorry you had that experience Kathryn. You just have to know that they're reading over your shoulders now that they're gone.

  4. Goodness an agent and getting an agent. Several times I have tried. Once to the extent of trying every single one who might be the right fit for me. Always found out, I wasn't the author I thought I was. But a small on line publisher publisher my first two books years and years ago. Recently, since the publisher folded and I got my rights back, I brought one of them up to date and self published it. I have plans to do the same with other one. So where does the author's story begin. In the heart and whether successful or not, published or not, you keep on trucking.

    1. Good for you, Evelyn! Getting an agent isn't always easy, that's for sure. But whether publishing traditionally or by becoming a publisher as well as an author, your decision to try to reach a wife readership must be fed by a steady diet of craft and industry knowledge.

  5. This is great, Kathryn! Every author needs to learn the constructs of story. It's just extremely difficult to be patient enough to do so. At least for me! Thanks for this reminder of its importance.

    1. I adore learning new craft, but that's me. The patience becomes necessary when trying to apply that knowledge to your own writing! Critiquing tons of manuscripts for friends helps.

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