On Writing: Tenacity

“It makes me nervous when I see the evidence of how many other people want to be writers.  I don’t talk to many strangers or get letters from many who don’t plan to write a book someday.  You don’t hear people in their 50s and 60s saying they want to do brain surgery when they retire or argue a case before the Supreme Court but a lot of them say they want to write a book- just as soon as they have time. Time, they feel, is all they need.”– Andy Rooney.

I used to not tell people I was a writer for this very reason.  Everyone in the world, practically, is writing a book or wants to write a book or has a portion of a book written somewhere.  If I told people, “I am a writer,” it prompted head-patting and a “Good for you!” I wrote; I’d written for a newspaper, I’d written for websites; I’d even written a couple of plays that got produced locally.  But could I really call myself a writer?  For me, no, not until I sold fiction, the type of writing I love and which scared me the most.

So I disguised myself under my other more than full time job: popping out kids.  A modest number, three; yet for me that number is more than enough.  Octo-Mom I am not.

About 7 years ago, I got laid off from my job while I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my second child, and ended up never going  back to a 9-to-5 job.  There was a recession (somehow my husband and I always get smacked with recessions and depressions and have yet to take advantage of an up cycle) and childcare eats up what I could make.  Instead, I decided, I would devote myself to writing.  I already had a book under my belt, BLUETOOTH FOR DUMMIES.

Unfortunately, the market for Bluetooth at the time was non-existent and the book got canceled.  Darn me.

I then got to work on a screenplay, a directionless love story,and a novel.  Upon taking my one chapter novel draft to the SDSU Writer’s Conference in San Diego one year, I signed up for a read and critique with a local “famous” author.  It could be anonymous, so I submitted my word and listened in horror as she read it.

“Cliche!” she pronounced on reading one line.  I slid under my desk, wanting to run out of the room, except that would reveal me as the author.   “Not bad,” she grudgingly admired on yet another as the group laughed, unassisted.

The laughter provided me with hope.  People liked my writing.

I worked on it some more to spite this witch and brought it to the conference the following year.  The screenplay love story had transmogrified into a humorous romantic novel about a pop star running away with an Army Ranger.  At a dinner, I pitched my story to an agent.  She lost interest and turned away from me in the middle of my sentence.  An editor told me that it was a terrible idea and would never ever sell.

Finally, I had a one on one with another agent.  She laughed aloud at my first sentence.  “Send me the first 30 pages,” she said.

Bob Mayer, author, former Green Beret, and teacher was at the conference, too.  “When they ask for part of it, send the whole thing,” he advised a big group of us.  “The worst that can happen is that they’ll read the whole thing.”

“Don’t do it,” a writer friend warned.  “Don’t do anything to piss of the agents.”

But I took Mayer’s advice anyway.  It worked.  I got signed.

Something else Mayer said niggled at me.  “You probably won’t sell your first.  You’ll figure out how to write and sell your second.”

This wouldn’t be me, I said to myself.  Not me.

My first agent helped me tremendously with the draft because she loved my style.  Yet after several drafts, she was still unsatisfied.  “I’m sending you to a professional editor.  Don’t worry.  Even seasoned writers use them.”

Lucky for me, my editor was Jane Cavolina.  Jane’s got this gift where she looks at what you said, knows what you MEANT to say, and tells you what it is you meant to say.  My writing improved.

When it was finally ready to send out to publishers, I was practically counting the green that was gonna be rolling in.  My agent sent me update after update.  No.  No.  No.  She exhausted all the big houses, all the little houses, all the independent houses, all the tiny presses, and nothing doing.

For this, I hadn’t gone back to work.  Sure, I was a good mother to my two kids and then three; but how much of a good mother can you really be when you really actually need two incomes to pay bills?  I was devastated.

I began working on a new novel and sent it to my agent.  She didn’t understand what I was trying to do.  “You may want to find a new agent who can help you shape it better,” she suggested gently.

Just like that, I was out.

I began freelancing where ever I could, whenever I could, pulling in money for us.  See, with two kids and a mortgage, I could neither get a job that paid enough for childcare or not work.  My husband, bless his soul, had enlisted in the Army from age 26-29, and when he got out he started all over in a new career.  This is just like living with a recent college grad with two kids and one income.  Suzy Orman would have me hanged for putting my family in precarious financial straits.  Really, the correct thing to do would have been to go get a technical writing certificate or teaching credential and support my family.  But somehow we cobbled together a living.

And I continued to write.

“It’s really the only thing you’re good at,” my husband told me.  Thanks.  He’s right, I think.

After I knocked up again and thought, “Oh, shit! I better get my arse in gear!”   I worked feverishly on my new novel.  I’ve lost count of the drafts.  I got my friend Jane to read it.  Ever since she read my first book, Jane has made me feel like the second coming of Jane Austen.  Whenever I felt down, Jane was there to tell me that I had talent.  “Not everyone likes Gone with the Wind,” she reminded me by way of example.  “Never take it personally.”   She recommended some agents to send it to.  Agent after agent turned it down.

But these agents, either because they knew Jane or were nice people, actually gave me constructive criticism.  They were saying things that made sense, so I rewrote it again.  I sent it out to more agents.  More turndowns.  Until finally I got to Elaine Markson.

“Go ahead and email it to me, and I’ll tell you what I think no matter what,” she emailed me back.

I did.  The next morning, early, I got a call just as my daughter, who was then two, was taking off her diaper and looking at me with a grin.  I barely had time to register what it said on the phone: ELAINE MARKSON.

“I loved it!” Elaine said.  She said she’d read it the night before on her Kindle, meaning to read only a few chapters but finishing the entire thing. “You’re very talented.”

My daughter proceeded to pee all over the carpet.

“Great!” I said, and I got some paper towels and threw them over the pee.  I asked her to represent me.  A month later, the book had sold.

Last time, the best I could hope for was a paperback release.  But with this book, HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, Putnam bought it.  Which means it’ll come out in hardback, then in paperback by Berkeley.

In the back of my mind, I still remember my other book getting canceled.  In the back of my mind, as my wonderful editor asks me to make changes, I worry I’ll screw it up so bad that they’ll burn my contract.  But now I feel like this might actually work out.

So when people tell me, “Oh, you sold a book? I’m writing a book, but I don’t have time to finish!”  Or sometimes, “Oh, lucky you, you’re  a stay at home mom, so you don’t have to bother with a real job,” I actually want to shake them.

And still I don’t know if this hard work was worth it financially.  I hope it will.  But it was  worth it personally.  HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE is basically the story of my mother, a Japanese woman who married a Navy man to get out of postwar Japan.  “My life, it make great movie,” she would often say to me as she told me her stories of childhood. If nothing else, I have an accounting of this, a tribute to the woman who never lived to see her grandchildren.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

Thoughts? Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: