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From Slush Pile to Big Five: How to Stay Sane While Working on your Debut

I was recently asked to visit my former MFA program to speak with current students about my experience publishing my debut novel, The Salt House, forthcoming from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster this summer.

As a woman in her mid-40’s who’d only graduated from the program several years earlier, my journey to selling my debut was a meandering road filled with curves and detours. Looking back, the lessons I learned are the same lessons I keep reminding myself of every day.

Here are some things I figured out along the way to publishing my debut:

This guest post is by Lisa Duffy. Duffy’s debut novel, The Salt House, is out now. Lisa received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her short fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and can be found in numerous literary magazines. She is founding editor of ROAR, a journal supporting women in the arts. Lisa lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children. Find her online at Follow her on Twitter @lisaduffywriter.

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There is no single path…there is only your path.

I think a lot of writers know they want to be writers early on in life, but attempting to make a living at it is a bit like admitting you want to walk on the moon. How do you get there? In my experience, there is no single correct path…there is only your path.

When I decided to take my writing seriously, I was a thirty-four-year old recently divorced mother of three young children. I had an unfinished bachelor’s degree, and a resume that included a stint in the pharmaceutical software industry followed by years of odd jobs while I raised my kids.

And I had never published a single piece of fiction. I had never even tried to publish a single piece of fiction. The only evidence that I was a writer were the stacks of stories and poems I’d written through the years, piled in bins and moving boxes, and a poorly conceived and disastrously executed novel that to this day will remain tucked away in desk drawer, never to see the light of day. (Literally…never).

So, at 34, with my youngest in preschool, I did the only thing that made sense at the time—I went back to school. I majored in Women’s Studies because it was the only degree that offered classes on nights and weekends. I worked part-time, and whenever anyone asked what I was going back to school for, I would say, well…I want to be a writer. If you’re wondering if I was on the receiving end of lots of side-glances, some blank stares, even some scoffs…of course. It was an unlikely path. But, so what?

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That undergraduate degree led me to a creative writing class, where I would write the first chapter of my novel. The teacher of that class, who would become a cherished mentor, encouraged me to apply to an advanced fiction workshop—which happened to be taught by the director of the university’s MFA program…the very one I would graduate from years later.

If you want to be a writer, take the path that makes sense to you and don’t look back.

Here’s another thing I learned along the way:

You don’t have to write every day. But do engage with your writing every day.

Aspiring writers hear this advice all the time—if you want to be a writer, write everyday—and there’s good reason for it—it’s great advice.

Yet depending on what’s happening in your life, it’s not always realistic. Perhaps the time you normally set aside to write is hijacked by something out of your control—kids’ schedules, an ailing parent, a job deadline—or in my experience, all three. When the novel I was working on went weeks or sometimes months without any forward motion, it led to feelings of frustration and failure. And there were lots of days like that.

Juggling work and motherhood and school sometimes left little time for writing, and it wasn’t long before I realized I had to nurture that creative space inside of me or it would fill up with overwhelming doubt and negativity.

So I started recognizing those quiet, solitary moments in my day when I could mentally engage with my writing even though I might not actually get words on the page.

My hourly commute to and from work became my office. I’d shut off the radio and drive in silence, using the time to think about plot, character or structure. Showering became an act of revision, drops of water forming words, sentences, paragraphs, filed away in my mind for a moment when I could put pen to paper. In bed at night with the house quiet and dark, those minutes before sleep were loud with dialogue from my work in progress scrolling behind my closed lids.

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These moments became my lifeline to the work, and more importantly, my way of engaging with my writing, even if I wasn’t sitting at a desk adding to my word count. I think all writers need to give themselves credit for time spent away from the page, but for aspiring writers who haven’t found a writing schedule that’s consistent, it’s crucial in nurturing that creative space.

Which leads me to just that: the creative space.

Nourish it. Honor it. Wrap it in body armor so protective it can deflect, absorb, and survive the fiercest attacks, because chances are, at some point in your writing life ...

Rejection will try to annihilate you.

If writing a novel is hard, the process of finding an agent and subsequently, an editor to invest in your novel, can oftentimes be equally as challenging. I found my agent from the slush pile exactly one year, six months, three days and two hours after I sent my first query letter. There were some close calls, and lots of interest and in the end, when the manuscript found its current shape, I had several offers of representation.

But those 18 months when I wondered if my novel was ever going to find a place on a bookshelf were difficult. Especially when it came time to pay the bill for my monthly student loans. So how do you deal with the rejection? The agonizing wait? The meandering journey to publish your first novel while juggling all the other areas of your wonderfully full life?

You remind yourself every single day that you are a writer. And the road that you’re on requires only one thing…that you drive down it. And don’t stop.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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