Reality Check

Somewhere in a box in my basement, there’s a legal pad scribbled with notes in red ink. I made those notes in 1996, the intellectual blueprint for a building I longed to inhabit. I hoped it would become my first book.

I lacked neither skills nor experience. I’ve been writing journalism professionally since 1976, had won fellowships and taught writing. Still, moving from successful journalist to published author proved a long and arduous journey. It is, I’ve since learned, a path as individual and quirky as pregnancy and childbirth—while some of its challenges and frustrations are predictable and universal, others remain determinedly singular.

I recently met a magazine editor who uses the same agent I do. We lunched in the legendary steel-and-glass Condé Nast cafeteria, overlooking Times Square in Manhattan. It’s full of skinny, well-paid Fabulous Editors (there’s Graydon Carter in the corner booth, deeply tanned), the kind of place that makes you feel like the fattest high-schooler all over again. We talked about selling, writing and promoting our first books. She found our agent on the Internet and, within weeks, had produced and sold her proposal to a major publisher.

“And you?” she asked.

Three years and 25 rejections.

By that time, I was on my fourth nonfiction book proposal and my fourth agent. By the time I found him, I was wary, burned from three bad experiences. He read my proposal, met me two days later and was clearly—to my delighted surprise—wooing me.

It was odd, indeed, dining with him at the hottest New York restaurant that year, hearing his potential plans for me, this book, my career. It felt a little like choosing our baby’s name on a first date. But as we ate tiny oysters and drank chilled white wine on a sweltering summer afternoon, I listened as carefully as he did. What a pleasure to finally be taken seriously by someone who might help me attain my goals, and who understood them. I liked him: low-key, calm, pragmatic, experienced.

William predicted a bidding war for the idea, which was a national and neutral look at American women and guns. But, to our chagrin, the summer of 2000 proved a terrible time to sell this subject. With national memories of five school shootings in 1999 painfully fresh, 19 major publishers passed on it. We gave up. In summer 2001 we tried again, and six more said no.

The final publisher to see it was intrigued: This was shortly after 9/11 shook our collective sense of safety and security. I met with the publisher, editorial director and my would-be editor. Sitting in a conference room fielding their many questions and concerns, I felt oddly at ease. Frankly, after 25 rejections, what was there left to fear? I’d heard almost every conceivable reason why no one would ever want to buy this book and had ready answers.

The contract from Pocket Books arrived a few months later, all 19 single-spaced pages of it. It sat in the middle of the dining table for days. I wanted to hide in the bathroom. Who was I kidding? Me, an author? Maybe if I just ignored it, it would go away.

Signing that imposing, legally binding document offered a finality I’d never felt before. What did it mean—if anything—to finally become an author? When would I really become one? When I’d written that first chapter? (What if it was horrible?) The book? (What if they hated it?) When it had been reviewed? (What if it was panned or, worse, ignored?)

Eight years after making those first hopeful red scribbles on a legal pad, it was time to get started: to open my fresh notebooks, begin making travel plans and calling sources across the country.

I immediately won a new respect from everyone I met, whether my local dry cleaner or fellow freelance writers. Being a mere journalist had impressed a few people over the years, but now I was An Author. I’d yet to produce a word, but I now had a major publisher offering me an advance. I’d written a detailed proposal, they’d liked it and it was now time to produce.

There were some new challenges, like having much more space and time than ever before—100,000 words and 12 months in which to produce my final manuscript. I relished this chance to deeply explore a complex subject that fascinated me. I felt like an artist moving from painting tiny, manageable miniatures—pieces that, by their nature, felt more private and controllable—to creating a mural. But with this sense came a new fear: the wider the canvas, the bigger and more visible the inevitable mistakes.

It took me many months to feel more comfortable with my growing authority. It accumulated as interviews filled my notebooks and as friends, colleagues and even strangers suggested fruitful sources. The book required some highly specific voices, the sorts of stories that wouldn’t be easy to find or to access—such as a woman who’d shot and killed her husband in self-defense. After a long conversation with the owner of a Midwestern antique store, time in which she’d taken my measure, she said, “My best friend killed her husband.” I asked her to request an interview, and that stunning story now opens one of my chapters.

There were, of course, surprises and setbacks. Based on advice from experienced friends, I planned out a tidy schedule: eight months to research and four months to write. Life intervened. My mother was found to have a benign brain tumor, and I lost a month seeing her through surgery and initial recovery, flying cross-continent to her side. Six months later, her further health complications stole more time. The deadline was then only three months away.

Becoming a first-time author felt just like being a hopeful writer yet to land a book contract. It was business as usual. Get up, give it your best, shut off the computer and start again the next day. As the final deadline neared, normal life disappeared. Goodbye, friends, church, cooking, working out, long evenings talking to my boyfriend. By the end, sometimes writing 12 hours a day, I’d get up only long enough to eat, then jump back on the computer.

I also gained a horrible 22 pounds, puzzling the doctors who knew me better as an aging jock who played up to three games of softball a week.

“What happened?” asked my worried GP and OB/GYN.

“I wrote a book,” I said.

I wasn’t scarfing Cokes and cream pies, but the race to finish, the daily search for the next quote or interview and five week-long research trips across the country took precedence over everything. I could always, I hoped, shed the pounds, but would I get this chance to publish again?

Then there was the fact that, after seven years of working freelance from home, I’d grown used to solitude and isolation. Now, though, there was an agent, editor, marketing and sales team, publicity department, critics, booksellers and—one hopes—readers awaiting the results. No pressure.

I knew it wouldn’t be cool to call my editor, 16 years my junior, and pluck her sleeve to seek reassurance. Nor my agent. They were busy with many other projects, quietly counting on me. They’d placed their bets. I’d signed the contract.

And so I had to count on myself. Like every writer hoping to share her work with a larger audience, I fell back on faith, hard work and skill. I’d already been doing so for years. I just had to do it every day, for much, much longer than I’d ever done before.

Thank heaven for a word count. My anxiety subsided month by month as the numbers rose, finally hitting 89,218. I kept pushing paragraphs around for a few more weeks, tweaking and fine-tuning, until a friend gently said, “You’re done.”

And so I was.

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