Or, the long-winded story of how I became
a published author
officially became a writer at age 35, but I began to write stories as soon as I learned how to put letters together into words with meaning. My family moved from Maryland to Colorado when I was in fifth grade to escape the turbulence and race riots of late 1960s-Washington DC. In my first months at my new elementary school, I wrote a series of short stories about racial issues, such as interracial marriage, welfare recipients not making ends meet, a white girl trying to be friends with a black girl, and so on. My teacher, Ms. Toeppen, was understandably surprised, having been used to suburban white kids from Colorado who might have, in 1969, seen a black person or two in their lives. Her interest and attention made me think of myself as a writer at 10 years old.
When I graduated from high school at 17, I moved in with a couple of girlfriends to escape an unhappy situation at home and began the process of learning to survive. I tried a bunch of jobssecretary, plumber, cookand always played with my band at bars or rehearsed at night. Like most teenage girls, I'd written poetry since the hormones had begun to run amok, and the poems always had melodies, so I wrote songs with my band mates. I journaled and wrote long diatribes and essays and stories, venting the turbulence of being young and scared and defiant and certain that I knew what life was all about.
At age 21, I got a job working for a small advertising company and began, through the generosity of the two partners, to learn about copy writing, design, marketing, mediaall of the things I continue to use to this day. From there I developed a career in marketing, using my writing skills mostly for business but occasionally popping out a bad short story. By age 35 I was very successful as director of sales and marketing for a small company, but I was burned out, unhappy, and unfulfilled by my life. I had no time to think or reflect, no time to use my imagination for anything but solving someone else's business problems.
So, I quit. I floundered for a year (unconditionally loved and supported by my husband Matt), trying to decide what to do next. I wrote a short opinion piece on a whim and sent it to the Rocky Mountain News
. When the editor called to say they would publish it, I was hooked. I knew that being a writer was about the biggest crapshoot possible, but with support from my husband, my friends, and a great writers' group, I decided to go for it anyway. I found every class I could about writing and publishing, and learned the craft of freelancing for magazines. I joined organizations for writers and offered my volunteer services anywhere I thought I might be able to learn something.
Within a year I'd had a couple of lucky breaks, getting an essay published in Mademoiselle and a short story published in Byline, a small but wonderful magazine for beginning writers. I developed relationships with regional and national magazines, writing on assignment for them regularly, and began to write my first novel, which is another lucky-break kind of story.
While attending the Denver Publishing Institute in the summer of 1997, I met many wonderful people, including one who was a volunteer reader for Graywolf Press in Minnesota. She took the short story from Byline to Graywolf and they emailed me, saying they liked the story and was I planning to write a novel based on it? If so, they'd love to see it when I was finished. Of course I said that indeed I was planning to, even though I hadn't even started. It took me two years to finish it, and I sent it off to an agent I'd met at the Publishing Institute. When I didn't hear back for a month or so, I began writing a new novel to take my mind off of it. I knew almost immediately that the new book, which would become Riding with the Queen
, was better than the first, so I wasn't all that disappointed when finally, after keeping my manuscript for four months, the agent sent a rejection letter. I filed the old manuscript in a drawer and kept chugging on the new project.
My writing life has been blessed with good fortune and wonderful people. After the Publishing Institute, I interned for Jody Rein*, a literary agent in Littleton, Colorado. Jody read an early manuscript for Riding with the Queen
and offered to represent it. I was flabbergasted. Jody was a nonfiction agent, and a damned good one. I thought she might give me a few pointers and suggest a fiction agent to send it to, so I was, and am, incredibly grateful that she took it on. With Jody's help, I revised the manuscript more times than I'd like to admit. After receiving a handful or two of rejections and doing even more revision, Riding with the Queen
was picked up by NAL the day after my birthday, making it officially the best birthday ever.
Finally having my book published was worth every rejection and every moment of doubt. It was worth losing half our household income when I quit my job, worth starting over at the age of 35, and worth working for years in isolation. When Jody called to say NAL wanted Riding with the Queen
, I was so overjoyed I didn't know if I'd be able to stand it. Matt and I had just moved to Portland, Oregon, and I was driving through this gorgeous forest above the city with one of my best friends, Sherry Brown, who had kept me going through the course of writing the book. She and I (with Jody on the cell phone, which kept cutting out) screamed and laughed and cried for a while, and I went out that night to celebrate with Matt and Sherry. Then I went back to work on revisions, and thinking of how to get the book into the hands of as many readers as possible, and what I should write next. Like, oh yeah, this is what I do now. And the amazing part is, it IS.
The writing life is hardwe who try it subsist on a steady diet of self-doubt and rejection. I must have sent short stories out at least a hundred times and had only one published. But I knew I had to write fiction. I had a strong set of beliefs that pulled me through:
-Learning all you can is key.
-If you have a natural proclivity for writing and you feel strongly that you have something to say, you have to do it.
You have to.
*NOTE: Jody is no longer accepting new clients, unfortunately.