I wrote a novel.
It has been months now since I signed my first publishing contract, and I’m still struggling to process the meaning of those four words.
The book will be published in a few short days, and while I’m optimistic, I’m also an unknown and first-time author, so my expectations for commercial success are modest. Sales will likely fall somewhere between Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird and Donald Trump’s rumored Working Your Way Up From the Penthouse to…the Other Penthouse.
Writing this book has taken a personal toll. Hundreds of midnight oil-burning nights in a frigid basement office shared with a space heater and a nest of restive centipedes. The consumption of enough Diet Coke to fill Lake Michigan. And, of course, the 2,358 missed hours of mindless television programming that for years had provided me with the most wondrous and utterly useless information about pop culture and celebrity America. After some 26 months of solitary confinement in my writing gulag, I emerged in a haze, greeted with the incomprehensible news that George Clooney had somehow married.
Still, I am certain all of that personal sacrifice was worth it. I am proud of this book, a captivating story featuring an ensemble of compelling characters that embody the depth and diversity of the human spirit. It will appeal to readers of all literary genres, who are drawn to tales of tragedy and triumph, and characters with virtue and strength. It is a story that will have great resonance, and connect with readers both emotionally and spiritually.
Said every writer in the history of literature.
When I first publically announced that I had a book coming out, I was surprised by the wave of questions I received about the process I went through for both writing the manuscript and finding a publisher. It seems I may not have been the first person to hit mid-life and find himself debating whether to train for a marathon or write a book. Since my knee ached just hearing the word marathon, I had opted for the book.
I wasn’t alone. Numerous friends and colleagues have now confided that they have either begun a manuscript or are considering one. For the most part, they have been held back by their fears of the long road ahead and what chance they might have for success. I could not be more empathetic, having had to fight through my own anxieties when I made the decision nearly three years ago to pen a novel.
The myriad challenges were daunting, beginning with the complexity of developing a fictional story from scratch. According to the latest figures from Amazon, there have been 7.4 gazillion novels published since the first quill was dipped in ink. How does one conceive a plot that is truly unique and doesn’t easily become mired in clichés and predictability?
Perhaps even more unnerving was having to invent characters from whole cloth; human beings with varying degrees of ambition, intelligence, compassion, humor and integrity. Each struggling with their own personal demons or sense of righteousness. Not to mention the need to describe their physical appearances, their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms, and their speech patterns and dialects. It’s truly weird. I know my characters intimately, as if we have been lifelong friends. I know what makes each of them tick, and yet I have to constantly remind myself that they are not actually ticking.
Time management is another hurdle. Most hopeful writers, myself included, have day jobs that consume most of our days. I also have two small children, and I was determined not to let my writing detract from family time. Easier said than done, as that left me writing late at night, mostly in that cold basement, but occasionally at my daughter’s softball practices, or on long flights, or any other opportunity where I had a few private moments with my spiral notebook.
And then there was the Moby Dick odyssey of finding a willing publisher. A tortuous, often dispiriting process that would sap the energy and enthusiasm out of Richard Simmons. It begins with identifying those publishing houses and literary agencies that specialize in your genre, sending a query following their submission guidelines, and waiting for a response. That may take weeks, months, or centuries, as hundreds of such queries are typically received from first-time authors each week. Every letter I sent was like tossing a needle onto a stack of needles. I had been forewarned about the constant rejection and lack of responsiveness from these folks, and I certainly endured my share of it. It was my high school dating life all over again.
Finally, there was my greatest fear, the risk of allowing myself to get emotionally invested in this book, fully aware of the microscopic odds for actual publication. It was a risk to be sure, but I knew that my only hope for success was to push my chips to the middle of the table and go “all in” on this book. There could be no holding back.
Duh, you say. Why is that so difficult? Because of those stacked odds. Because draft manuscripts have become as ubiquitous in our culture as Kardashian selfies. Because even with great writing, and even if you have the incredible fortune to find a publisher, there is no guarantee of commercial success. So you have to go “all in” knowing the experience could result in bitter disappointment.
Which brings us to a writer’s Lloyd Dobler moment. Lloyd, of course, was John Cusack’s character in the film Say Anything. The sensitive and hopelessly smitten Lloyd lost his girl, and, determined to win her back, holds a boom box over his head while blasting the notes to a Peter Gabriel song from her driveway. Writers will write, and put every ounce of emotion they can into their work, because they know that if Lloyd Dobler isn’t willing to lay bare his innermost passions and sentiments, he doesn’t deserve the girl.
It is a first-time author’s only course of action – to be relentless. To understand that it’s not a panel of Pulitzer winners rejecting your creation, it’s a 21 year-old intern who has the thankless task of sorting through the hundreds of queries and manuscripts flowing into their mailboxes every week. To keep moving forward and never lose faith in what you have created.
How did I break through? Dozens and dozens of doors were (politely) slammed in my face before one finally opened. A few months into my search, I was contacted by a small publisher in Miami, who had read my manuscript and found her own attachment to my story. She fully embraced my underlying themes and the characters I had created, and offered me the opportunity of a lifetime. I had interest from other independent publishers, but it was too late. I had found a publisher who believed in my book as much as I did, and I was hopelessly smitten.
My takeaway from this entire experience is that I now have the utmost respect and admiration for any writer who makes a determined effort to tell their own story. I never before appreciated the extraordinary amount of time and effort that goes into those imaginative and engrossing novels I love so much. Nor the emotional risk that factors into their creation. I have been asked often recently, will I do it again? To be continued.