Thursday, November 25, 2010

Failure? It's All Part of the Writing Journey. My Story By Karin Gillespie

I went from the top of the publishing world to the absolute bottom in the space of four years

When I was eight, I read a casting call in the newspaper for a community theater production of Alice in Wonderland. Since I had long, blond Alice-like hair, I was anxious to try out. Sadly the notice in the paper said actors should be twelve and above. I was discouraged but decided to give to audition anyway, behaving older than my years and ruthlessly scrutinizing my competition. (No one was a match for me in the hair department.) Although my mother tried to temper my expectations, I was convinced I had the part in the bag.

That afternoon I got the call: I was Alice. From that time on I won nearly every role I wanted, and always went for the big, juicy parts. I was very cocky about my acting abilities until I was cast as the lead in a college play called “Hot L Baltimore.” To my dismay, the director was unhappy that my performance didn’t mature during the rehearsals. As a result, I was excluded from his next play, a rare failure for me. Determined to find out what I was doing wrong, I went to the library and checked out at least a dozen books on acting. I finally figured out that my performances lacked nuance. I’d always relied on raw talent, never refining it. I spent months reading plays, working on my delivery. When it was time to audition again, I easily landed the lead.

From actress to writer

Later, in my mid- twenties, I became a single mother and no longer had the time for acting so I sniffed around for another creative outlet. Since I’d always enjoyed reading, I decided to give writing a whirl. Novels seemed too daunting so, at initially, I wrote non-fiction pieces. My first byline appeared in a free weekly, and I was hooked. I started to freelance for the weekly, and I also wrote theater reviews for the daily. Later on I finally gave novel-writing a try and wrote one rambling, autobiographical 100,000 word novel with no idea of structure, characterization or artistry. I also went to my first writers’ conference, clutching the first thirty pages of my opus, convinced I was on the verge of being discovered. Instead the evaluator scoffed at my efforts. Still, the conference fired me up. One of the presenters said that writing a publishable novel was “harder than rocket science.” I’ve always loved a challenge so I trashed my previous efforts and started a new novel that day.

A few months later, I went to yet another writers’ conference; this time the evaluator loved my new novel. (Honestly it wasn’t very good but I guess he saw some sort of spark.) He challenged me to finish my novel in a year. If I did, he’d refer me to his agent. I felt like I’d been given the keys to open the publishing doors.

A dream of a lifetime realized


I accepted his challenge and completed my novel by the deadline with the help of a critique group. The evaluator kept his promise, referring me to his agent, who promptly rejected me. I continued to query until I found an agent to take me on. After several rewrites, she was ready to submit my work to the world; rejections streamed in. (Too quiet, too much plot, too precious.) Finally an editor at Simon and Schuster showed interest, requesting rewrites with no guarantees. I worked diligently to please her and a few months later, my efforts were rewarded. She offered me a three-book deal. Many wine bottles were uncorked that night; I felt like I was living in dream world.

My agent told me to keep my expectations low: no tour, small marketing budget, etc. But another miracle happened; the main fiction buyer for Barnes and Noble liked my book. Suddenly my unassuming little Southern novel was going to be the lead book for Simon Schuster. They flew me to New York to meet with sales and marketing and decided to send me on an eight-city tour. James Wood, the actor, optioned movie rights and I got a starred Kirkus, as well as many other glowing reviews. I was being treated like a rock star, but the whole time I felt like a fraud. I’d just started writing novels. How could people be so excited about my work?

I ended up writing three more novels, touring for each one and receiving healthy royalty checks. Secretly, though, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d start writing a book with a bare bone concept and let my characters lead me around. After the first novel, my editor barely touched my work; it went straight to copywriting. I was starting to get a false confidence about my abilities. It was all so effortless.

 The lowpoint of my creative life

Then, the fall of 2008 dawned and my option was not renewed. I wrote two novels that I couldn’t sell, and I didn’t know how to fix them and eventually gave up on them. No one seemed particularly impressed with my track record; it was all terribly humbling and for a long while, even though I wrote daily, I didn't feel like a writer. Instead I felt like a complete loser. Eventually, I recalled those days years ago when my acting had disappointed the director, and a feeling of familiarity washed over me. Again, I’d been relying on raw talent (and a flair for humor) and hadn’t bothered to take my writing to the next level. I’d also been writing novels from sheer instinct, without structure or planning.

That’s when I decided to get my MFA; I knew I needed a swift kick (albeit expensive) in the butt and Lord have mercy, did I get it. I also read numerous books on structure and decided to never again blindly write a novel. Now I make informed, artistic choices, and give a great deal of thought to my characters and their arcs. I no longer write funny just to be funny (or at least I try not to). Now I bow to the story and not to my vanities. And finally, now I’ve arrived at a place in my evolvement as an artist that I know I’d continue to write for seven or eight hours every day even if I knew I’ll never get published again.

Hope renewed

I've just finished the first draft of a novel that's very different from what I used to write; trusted readers tell me it's my best work yet. But even if it doesn't work out, there's always the next one or the next one after that. To me, failure is only one part of my long, rich journey as a writer and I would not have changed a thing.

Happy Thanksgiving to all. No blog on Friday but look for new blogs on Saturday and Sunday!

GREAT GIRLFRIEND BOOK GIVEAWAY

During the holiday period and into early January, many of the girlfriends will be giving away books so visit daily and leave comments for a chance to win. Today I’m giving away a copy of EARTHLY PLEASURES about a greeter in Heaven who falls in love with a mortal of Earth. Just leave a comment for a chance to win.

26 comments:

  1. What a fascinating journey to publication! I'm always interested in reading how authors get from point A to point B.

    I'd love the chance to read "Earthly Pleasures". The premise is interesting, and has nothing to do with vampires, heehee.

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  2. Karin, thanks for sharing your story. It's so interesting to see how everyone's journey began and the different paths it takes them. I heard someone say the other day, you've only failed if you haven't learned something. And you've done SO much (and give so much to other writers), so I'd say you're a huge success!!! Here's wishing you loads of luck with your new and different project. :-)

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  3. Karin, I so appreciate you sharing your story . . . and I LOVE how you didn't let the rejection knock you down, but, rather, faced it down and figured out how to climb over it. You're amazing . . . and I can't wait to read your new project!

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  4. What an inspirational post! Thank you for your openness and honesty. I hope many, many aspiring writers get to read this.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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  5. Karin, what a great post! Really appreciate your honesty in telling the hard truth that many aspiring writers may not want to hear.

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  6. Inspirational post. I think many successful authors need to embrace this post.

    I promised myself no matter what I will remain humble.

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  7. Thank you for sharing your amazing, emotional journey, Karin! Truly inspiring!

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  8. I love seeing the mix of confidence and humility that you included in the story. So many of us have felt that bravado only to be knocked down. Thanks for showing us that there's a place to come back from that fall.

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  9. This is an amazing post, and it reaffirms that for most of us, publishing is a marathon - not a sprint. I really loved reading about your journey, and thank you so much for sharing it, Karin.

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  10. Thanks for your encouraging words. It's nice to be among a bunch of supportive girlfriends.

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  11. Great "insider" post. I'm always wondering the ups and downs of other writers. Thanks for sharing your journey!

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  12. Karin, what an amazing post!! I agree with the group-- this should be required reading for any aspiring writer.

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  13. Fabulous post, Karin! Thank you for all you do.

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  14. This is a terrific post, Karin. Humble, informative, inspirational, real. All of us emerging writers have dreams, fantasies about what the publishing life might be like, and you've just given us a gift by sharing this story. Good luck with the current novel! (I'm 2/3 finished with first draft of my novel. Have 8 published essays--yes, nonfiction is easier, isn't it?) Happy Thanksgiving!

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  15. Thanks Lauren, Brenda, Laura and Susan for your kind words.

    Susan, I hope you finish that draft soon.

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  16. Thank you for sharing this! It reminds me of Tayari Jones essay on SheWrites. http://www.shewrites.com/profiles/blogs/writing-in-the-wilderness This happens to the best of us, and reminds that even with talent and good karma nothing is promised. Each book is a gift.

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  17. Thanks Karin for your honesty. It is such a uncertain time for writers. A time filled with emotional highs and lows, (which you explained quite well). You also touched on the fact that writing is a business. Publishing Companies care more about the future than the past. Would you mind sharing the books you read as I could personally use a bit more structure? Thanks, Renea

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  18. This post was great Karin,congratulations and thank you for sharing with us,it's a great example of how things really are,and how we must keep going,no matter what,'cause the world keeps turning,somedays we're hig and some we're low.
    Please,enter me in the giveaway,I'm really interested in this book,loved the theme!

    julianapiovani@hotmail.com

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  19. Sorry,my last comment went as anonymous!

    julianapiovani@hotmail.com

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  20. Great essay, Carleen. I'm so glad Tayari got her happy ending.

    Renea, I like the Save the Cat books by Blake Synder and Anatomy of a Story by John Truby. (They are actually for screen writers but novelists can learn lots from screenwriting structure. Also there are two amazing blogs for novelists on structure. One is called Story Fix (read through archives; he also offers an e-book)http://storyfix.com/ and Alexandra Sokoloff's blog http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/

    I'll email you this structure cheat sheet I use as well.

    Thanks, Juliana. I'll be announcing a winner here Saturday in the a.m. (before 10 EST)

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  21. Karin, you amaze and inspire me. Thank you for your wonderful post.

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  22. This was great, Karin, and I agree, aspiring writers would all do well to read it.

    Wishing you all good luck with your newest effort!

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  23. Karin, thanks so much for sharing your journey with us. The rollercoaster highs and lows of this industry can be so hard to face, but you did it. You hung in there. I actually think that quality of tenacity is what a writer needs most, even more than knowledge or talent. Fingers crossed that, when you finish this new manuscript, great news will soon follow ;).

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  24. Winner of the book is Juliana! Thanks for all the great comments.

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  25. Wow,can't believe I won!!Thank you Karin!!

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  26. That is some journey! Can't wait to hear what happens with this newest book.

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