Often, people ask me what’s happened with my book.
About three years ago, I finished my first historical novel, Sister’s of Fate (or Crossing Hearts – it has had the distinction of owning two names dependant upon the slant I wanted to give the book for marketing reasons). A few people badgered me into letting them read the manuscript. Most were impressed, or so they pretended. A few readers were not friends or family, and they had wonderful things to say – this is nice because it gives me a slight confidence boost.
Anyway, there is a funny twinge to inquiries, because many people assume I left dance to write. The fact that I was very successful with dance implies a pressure to be successful with writing too. Anyway, they say, “When is your book going to get published?”
Here is the rundown. I sent query letters to about 40 agents attempting to get someone to take on this novel to try to sell it to a publisher. Of those, two asked for sample chapters. Of those two, one asked for the entire manuscript. She later returned it (I don’t know if it was read fully or not) saying it would be a hard sell due to certain elements of the book – primarily that one character is handicapped. I have a child with downs syndrome in the book, and since I was promoting it as a “Romance novel” that didn’t fly. I guess characters with handicaps kill romance. Not for me – but for others.
I had one, and only one, publisher see my book. I won an auction that promised a publisher would read the entire manuscript and give a critique immediately – this is valuable because it promised the book would avoid the “slush pile” where books sit for months or years to only be glanced at by a low-level reader. It’s a long shot that the publisher will ever see it when it comes from this generic pile. In my case, the publisher didn’t do as promised and she kept my book under her desk for two years. Then, I got a short two-paragraph note that said she doesn’t handle historicals – and she thought my main character wasn’t as nice as she should be. Ha. My character, Hazel, isn’t nice all the time. Do you know anyone, realistically, who is?
The turn around time when sending out queries is sometimes six months, meaning this getting your book looked at is a painfully slow process. In the mean time, my book won six contests and received some very nice commentary from judges, including some established authors. More confidence building. During this time, I began my second historical, Touched by Fate, and a contemporary erotic book (The Gift) and I toyed with shorter pieces. Writing was so much fun when I let my fingers follow my inspiration.
Then, one day, I decided to stop trying to be published, cold turkey and go to school to learn more about this writing business. This is very like me. Here is proof.
When I was young, I knew I wanted to dance. I wanted to write too, but dance is an all consuming, youth oriented art, so that seemed more pressing. I was in love with my high school sweetheart, Joe Caron. He asked me to marry him my senior year (I graduated early, so I was really just a junior with lots of credits.) I seriously thought about it, because, as I stated – I was young and in love. If I was going to stay with him in Rhode Island, I had to consider a career, and we determined together that what I should do was open a dance studio. We looked at space in strip malls, and found one not far from his father’s jewelry store that was a reasonable rent and near schools and homes. I started putting together a modest business plan – working out how much money we would need and how I would attract students. This was not a long shot for us, because when I was sixteen I started teaching independently. I went to the area YMCA’s and started classes of my own and I even taught students in a studio in my home. I already had a name as a local dance teacher so opening a studio was the next step.
One day, in the midst of all this, I was watching TV – a program on PBS. It was the Martha Graham Dance Company in concert. I remember being fascinated and thinking, “What the heck is this they are doing?” Until then, I had been exposed to primarily, corny dance school training. I knew ballet, tap and jazz and I watched old musicals and went to Broadway style shows, but I had never seen a modern company in concert.
I was so disturbed by that program, because I considered myself a dancer, and yet it was clear I didn’t have a clue about sophisticated dance styles. The next day, I wrote the Martha Graham Company and got information. I signed up for a summer intensive in NYC. In the meantime, I went to “BrownUniversity”and signed up for modern classes. I was being trained in Limon technique – which was like learning another language for a kid with a dance school mentality. I didn’t like the classes – I felt physically stupid (that is when your body is alien to the movement) and I’d never danced in ways that were not “pretty” or obviously entertaining before. I was floored by the odd movement and unique methods of jumping or turning. It was just a bit over my naive dancer’s head. Yet, I hung in there and kept attending – complaining about it – hating it cause I was bad at it– yet knowing it was something I needed.
Then one day, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “I can’t open a studio. I have to move to New York.”
He said, “Why? I thought you loved me and we were going to start a life together?”
I explained that I did love him – but I just didn’t know enough about dance to stop learning now. I felt I would be a poor teacher – unfinished – if I opened a school at that time.
Because he understood I was a dancer first and a girlfriend second, he was supportive. We talked about moving to NY together. Of course, this didn’t work out, because I was burning to do something with my life, and he just wanted to be with me. Unbalanced motivation. We planned to stay a couple while apart for awhile, but I became consumed with dance and romance faded from my ultimate life plan at the time.
That (Joe) is another story.
The point is, I sensed that I needed to know more about my art, and I went on a quest to fill the gaps. It cost me in many ways. I made sacrifices. It was hard. The decision hurt. However, I’ve never thought it was a bad choice. Frankly, it wasn’t even a choice. I had to do what I had to do. I wasn’t motivated by logic or clear artistic goals. I just felt compelled to dive a bit deeper into this thing I loved.
Twelve years later, I left New York. What did I do? I opened a dinky neighborhood dance school, much to that utter amazement and shock of many of my fellow NY dancer friends. Man, they made fun of me. Now, some may say I wasted those twelve years. I ended up right where I started. I might have opened that studio with Joe and done well, and with a twelve-year head start, avoided many years of financial destitution and hardship. Maybe that is true.
But honestly, I believe that the studio I had after New York is a far cry from the one I would have had if I “settled” as a young adult and relied on surface knowledge rather than more sound life experience. We are all just a result of our accumulated experiences, and so to, is the business we run, should that be the case. I had such a deep and thoroughly understanding of dance when I finally opened my doors to students that success was pretty much assured. (What I didn’t have was business acumen, and big surprise, I went and got a degree in business to fill in the gaps. Voila, success.) But twelve years after a studio was first a glimmer in my eye, I had contacts in the dance world, varied and intense training to rely on, and most importantly of all – CONFIDENCE. I had authority – I believed I deserved respect because of all I did in my quest to learn the art of dance. (This is not to discredit the input of my spouse in the dance school business, by the way – I am just talking about dance and the studio as it pertained to my career journey.)
So – now let’s turn to writing. I completed some books. They are rather good books in the commercial and entertaining vein. I had no doubt I wouldn’t break into the romance writing biz if I buckled down and got determined. But was my book good writing? That is questionable. Then there was the fact that whenever I picked up a classic book to read, I felt a bit like I did at 18 when I saw that Martha Graham concert. It fascinated me, but I didn’t really understand it. It was over my naive literary head. So, since this disturbed me, I went to some non-romance writing seminars at colleges and such. I went to a seminar at Eckerd College, a forerunner to an MFA (It was not unlike my going toBrown University to study Limon modern or going to NY to take the Graham intensive when I was 17.) All this did was make it clear to me how much I didn’t know about literature and writing. This left me even more unsettled. And feeling more inadequate.
So suddenly, I announced I wanted to go to school for a masters in fiction. My husband was like, “Why? You write well. Your books are good and the only reason they are not published is you haven’t given them a chance. You don’t need a degree.”
But I did need it. I felt the need, inside. Training is paramount to growth. I needed a better understanding of the ART of writing (not just the commercial, fun surface stuff) and I needed the confidence that comes with deeper understanding. So I began applying to low residency programs and got in one by the skin of my naive, clueless teeth. It was a stroke of luck (and thanks to the kindness of one professor who saw potential in my mess of an application).
For one year, I have been laboring in this program. It is hard. It isn’t even fun – in the same way that studying modern dance wasn’t fun for me. You see, I wanted to be a jazz dancer, but I wanted to be a GOOD jazz dancer, and I needed a broader foundation for that which meant I had to take classical dance classes. It was like eating my vegetables to be healthy. Direct comparison – I wanted to be a romance writer, but I wanted to be a GOOD romance writer, so I needed a broader foundation for that, which meant studying classical literature.
I am inundated with classical literature now. (Ha – I am reading Moby Dick for the residency and when Mark saw it, he rolled his eyes playfully and said, “You won’t like that as much as you think. It isn’t a porno book about a hugely hung guy like you might be hoping.” ). . . .Very funny.
I have a year of school to go. I am slaving over writing a book about dance now, because dance is real to me. I think I see all of life through rose-colored romantic eyes, EXCEPT for when I consider dance. I’m down to earth and real regarding that subject. I have been too involved and I have too many strong emotional ties to gloss over dance lightly. So that is why my “literary thesis project” is a dance novel. I just couldn’t write a historical in school, because I would fill it with adventure and sex and laughter – all of which makes for rousing commercial fiction, but those elements knock it out of the literary vein. Literary books are like modern dance to me, and I am still the jazz dancer in the studio gritting her teeth and struggling with the technique to build a broader foundation for her art. It makes me feel inadequate sometimes. Who am I kidding – lots of the time. I’m not as good at literary writing as I would hope. I am more suited to writing romance and adventure or humor. But that is nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t admire modern dancers more than jazz dancers, nor do I admire literary writers more than commercial writers. In fact, by really understanding art on many levels, the magic power of sudo-intellectual importance given the classical versions of art diminishes. The genre you thrive in is all a matter of style, not a determination of talent or brilliance.
When school is over for me next summer, what will happen? I will no doubt go back to writing historicals. So, one may say this jaunt into a masters program is a waste of time because I will end up exactly where I began (like opening a dance studio). But I disagree. The goal is not to change who I am and what I love by influencing my nature with sophisticated literature. Won’t happen. But I’m convinced that the historicals I write after getting a sound writer’s education will be far superior to those I would have written without it. And like my dance school – I may prove remarkably successful later because of what I was willing to do to gain a broader understanding in this art. It isn’t an easy thing to do – it’s costly and eats up my time. It’s hard on the ego and I feel guilty taking up the resources from my family because I could have kept writing without this education and even probably sold some books. Yet – I had to get that MFA. Had to.
I have been reading manuscripts of students that are committed 100% to literary writing. I am not all that impressed – snore. And I have read manuscripts from writers who are totally focused on commercial markets. I am not impressed with them either – ho hum, corny. I can’t help but feel that my natural inclination to write commercial novels combined with a serious education and a deeper understanding of literature, will allow me to strike a balance that will make me a stronger, more grounded writer. One that will find loyal readers. Perhaps the accumulation of my experiences will lead to books that deserve room on the shelves at Barnes N Nobel.
At least, that is the plan.
And if not, well, I justify this endeavor by reminding myself I ‘ll have a degree that allows me to teach. Not that I’d use it in lue of writing– I wouldn’t teach without professional experience. That is like dance too. I don’t want to be a surface person faking it in the art world. I want to be the real McCoy.
If you recall, this blog began with the question I am often asked, “When will you get your novel published?”
The answer. “Who knows. But not until I get out of school, that’s for sure.”
The fact is, I stopped sending out queries. I stopped entering contests (except for an occasional literary contest with a short story). I am letting my novels collect dust under my bed. They are not forgotten or forsaken. They are lying dormant for the winter to pass. When I am finished with school, it will be a literary spring for me. I will take them out and rewrite them with all the passion and true skill they deserve. Then, when I know I have written a historical novel to the very best of my ability, I will send it out. I will send it out over and over and over until someone dares to read it and eventually publish it. I will use the weight of my MFA, and anything else I’ve done, to approach this business with enough authority to deserve an agent’s or publisher’s attention.
I’ll feel like a writer because I’ll be one. I won’t be faking it.
In the meantime, I watch friend’s faces when they ask about my book. They feel badly for me– they think I’m unsuccessful because Crossing Hearts isn’t on the shelves of Barnes N Nobel now, an entire three years after it was written. Poor Ginny – she wasted all that time writing a bad book. She left dance to be something else, and it isn’t happening. At least, that’s what it looks like on the surface. But the fact is, I am someone who always focuses on what is under the surface. Important when it comes to friends, life, art or anything else that touches your life on a significant level.
We all manuver our lives motivated by different influences. One thing works for me every time. Something has to feel right to be right.When it feels right, hold on.