Becoming a Writer (part 1)
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Wednesday, April 05, 2017
By Carol Svec

When I was 3 years old, all I wanted was a tricycle. I bugged my parents incessantly, daily, as only a 3 year old can. And then, on Christmas morning, Santa put a beautiful, red tricycle under the tree. My excited parents brought out the 8mm camera and made a black-and-white home movie of the moment. In the movie, you can see little me come toddling into the room, still in pajamas. I see the tricycle and run up to it, yelling, "tricycle, tricycle!" But then, something else caught my eye. I ran past the trike, picked up a book, sat down under the tree and started flipping pages. My father tries to interest me in the tricycle, rolling it back and forth in front of me, but I was mesmerized by the book. That was my future right there.

I recognize that I am privileged and extremely lucky to be able to make a living doing what I love most. My journey to this writing career involved immersion, strategy, industry research, social connections, a thick skin, and a giant heaping of luck. Do you want to write for your life? It’s possible, but it takes more than just putting the right words in the right order. This is a business…except work-at-home writers get to wear slippers and yoga pants every day.

Immersion

Chances are if you like writing, your passion started with a love of reading. 

I loved books more than anything. A trip to the library was better than going to the carnival. Throughout elementary and high school, I read more than what was assigned. I remember my freshman year high school, one teacher assigned Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I was gobsmacked. This book was, for me, transcendent. I felt as though Mr. Vonnegut had introduced me to another plane of existence, a different way to experience not only literature, but the world. And his voice was unique. For the first time, I recognized that writing wasn’t just about storytelling; it was also about the author.

After that introduction, I read every book Kurt Vonnegut wrote, and to this day he remains my favorite author. But I also started reading authors. I would choose and author and read everything he or she ever wrote. And then I would move on to my next author. Imagine a cartoon rabbit eating his way through carrots in a farm. I was voracious. This taught me to see the techniques used by different authors. Ursula Le Guin writes differently from J.R.R. Tolkein, and they are both different from Stephen King, but they all can take you through a wild ride into fantasy realms.

While I was chomping my way through shelves of authors, I would practice writing a story in the style of my favorite writer of the moment. This taught me to see the “tricks” and stylistic flourishes used by each writer. By temporarily adopting a successful writing style, I could start to develop my own voice…something unique…something that would let people see me through the words.


Strategy

So, I wrote. I wrote a lot of science fiction and fantasy at first. I tried my hand at horror, but that didn't work for me. I wrote mysteries and mainstream fiction. 

If you want to publish a book through traditional channels, you need to finish the entire book. Then, with a burning desire to see your words inside a hardcover binding, you start by getting an agent to represent you. Typically, this means sending a query letter to an agent asking if she would like to see a sample of your work. If the answer is "yes," then you send one or two chapters, enough so that the agent can evaluate your writing and storytelling ability. If your writing hooks the agent's interest, she'll ask to see the whole book. I got two books through these stages, but ended up with a "no." Months and months of writing, hundreds of pages of a finished book, and the manuscript ends up falling flat in the back of a closet, covered now with old hiking boots, a box of plastic jewelry I once thought was cool, and an ugly throw blanket that's too warm to get rid of. I haven't read these manuscripts in years. I'm a little afraid I'll be embarrassed by them. (Yes, even in the privacy of my own home with no one else around. That's the worst kind of embarrassment because there's no chance to make a joke to flip the situation. You just have to stew in your personal shame.) 

After the second full rejection of my second full manuscript, I went back to the library and got a book called something like "How to Get Published." In chapter 1, the author said that if you write poetry or fiction, give up. The odds are against you. I remember throwing the book against the wall at that point. I may have cried. I was easily moved to tears back then. The book sat on the floor where it landed for another day or two. Then I remembered that I had only read chapter 1. What was in the rest of the book?

The answer, according to the author, was to write nonfiction. Find something you're good at, some unique skill or passion, and learn to write about that. Best of all, with nonfiction books, you don't have to write all 300-400 pages of manuscript. You need one chapter and a proposal! Easy peasy. It's less time commitment with a greater chance of success. 

That's what I did. At the time, I was working (yes, a real job) doing fact checking for a health book publisher. My unique skill was finding health information online. So that was what I wrote about--how to find, understand and use complex health information. I designed it to be read by people who had just received a diagnosis of a serious illness and didn't know where to go to get more (and accurate) information about their disorder. I queried one agent--Jane Dystel--crossed my fingers and held my breath, and she liked the idea. I sent a proposal and sample chapter, and she liked that, too! Within weeks, my first book--After Any Diagnosis--was bought by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House. It was published in 2001. Jane Dystel has been my agent ever since that first book. I would be lost without her.

For me, that was it. I cracked the code for getting published. It may not have been the fiction I had once dreamed about, but it was better. It was real...it got results...it helped people...and it allowed me to become a full-time working writer.

Not that my first book was any great financial success. It had wonderful reviews, but it was published shortly before 9/11. Any publicity plans were pushed aside (as they should have been) to cover the tragedy of the Twin Towers. But thanks to some inside-industry education and workplace friendships, I was soon able to throw away my business suits, kick off my shoes, and set up my home office for full-time writing. 

More about that in Part 2 (coming soon).

 



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