I tell my ‘writing story’ to my Dad’s freshmen classes at UW-Oshkosh every spring and fall semester. Because he is awesome, he got permission to use DRIVING SIDEWAYS as a required text in his ‘Coming of Age in America’ theme-based writing courses after the book came out. (Not to be outdone, my English teacher brother also secured similar permission with his high school honors English class.)
Ah, nepotism, you dear, sweet, old friend. Yay, nepotism!
My father asks his students to submit their questions to me in advance, because we learned the hard way that if you expect a thoughtful response from a room full of hung-over 19 year-olds when you follow your speech with “Any questions?”, you are probably high on some kind of industrial solvent.
The kids usually submit insightful and entertaining questions, and this year, I was surprised to see that many were particularly curious about how rich publishing a novel had made me.
After I finished polishing my monocle and stepped down from my diamond-crusted throne onto the back of the young man I pay $0.35 an hour to be my personal step stool, I decided to give an honest answer.
“How much did I make? Well, when you add the hours spent researching, writing, revising, editing, developing and executing my publicity plan, meeting with book clubs, mailing books and PR materials, organizing and attending events…I believe it came to negative fifteen cents an hour.”
I also enjoyed the response paper written by one of his male students, who said that reading my book made him feel “a little gay.”
But on to the writing story. It began, as these things do, when I received the lowest score in my Chem 101 class on a major exam and realized that a career in dentistry was probably not in the cards. I know! I thought, I’ll be a famous novelist!
How hard could it be?
Ten years later, after shelving my first novel (let’s call it STINKING PILE) because it garnered over 120 agent rejections, I got the idea for DRIVING SIDEWAYS. My experience with STINKING PILE taught me that plot was a very important element in a novel. As was time to research, polish, hone, revise, and edit the hell out of it. But the most important ingredient? FUN. Somewhere at the tail end of those years of practicing and being rejected and learning from STINKING PILE, I developed my own narrative voice and gave myself permission to be playful and irreverent. I stopped taking myself so damn seriously. So when I began to write DRIVING SIDEWAYS, I actually found myself having fun again.
When I had three polished chapters and a synopsis, I thought I’d test the waters and enter two writing contests: the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and the “Get your Stiletto in the Door” competition sponsored by the Chicklit Writers of the World. After a few months, I learned that I was one of 8 finalists from over 600 entrants in the James Jones Fellowship, and the only entrant in the Stiletto contest to have a request for the full manuscript from both the agent and editor judges.
Once I finished the celebratory shrieking and skipping around the kitchen, panic set in. Holy hell, I only had three chapters…now I had to write the damn book!
Which I did. I let it age, I solicited feedback from a dozen early readers, I edited, I revised, and then a year later I finally submitted a polished query package to 10 agents who had worked with the editor requesting to see my full novel. In the end, I was able to pick which agent I wanted to represent me (swoon!). Then, after an auction, I was able to pick the editor I wanted to work with (double swoon!).
It’s been a wild, amazing ride; I received some emails from readers that made me cry (in a good way), and some reviews that also made me cry (in a bad way). I still need my day job, but it provides the security (and some entertaining fodder) that supports my fiction writing habit. And despite having a somewhat successful debut, yes, there has been a STINKING PILE 2: The Stench Returns.
But, as they say, onward and upward! Forward and sideways!