Turning Whine Into Gold
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?