Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Road to Published – Part III: Rejection & How NPR Made Me a Writer

I know I left some of you hanging in the last edition of this mesmerizing mini-series (The Road to Published—Part II: How to Survive a Rocket Attack). So I’ll go ahead and drop the ending on you…I made it through that first rocket attack—with all my fingers and toes. Hopefully that wasn’t too much of a spoiler. In fact, I’ve been back to Afghanistan twice since then, and lived through plenty of other attacks, all without forgetting to duck when I ran into the bunkers.

Keep reading...I promise it will make sense why I have a picture of Terry Gross in here!
Since I already let out the spoiler, let’s recap—I have no idea how to get published. It’s some wonderful combination of hard work, more hard work, pain, hard work, lack of sleep, self-doubt, luck, and rejection! And somehow all of it makes you a better writer…if you keep going. So far we have, in order:

  1. Start writing
  2. Finish writing
  3. Get honest feedback (from someone who DOESN’T love you)
  5. Never Give Up (Corollary: unless you truly suck, then you should quit…or go to a workshop or find a good writing course)
You got it…REJECTION is step four, and dusting yourself off and trying all over again, that’s step five. Remember how I said that my first novel sucked? Well, it did. After I learned what a literary agent was…I wrote to them ALL. (I can’t actually confirm that I wrote to every literary agent in the world, but it was damn close to it if I didn’t). Half decided my novel was so bad they never responded. Half sent back form letters. The third half (90% of the time I’m really bad at fractions all the time—think about that one!) sent back form letters with the wrong name on them. And then finally, one agent, one very special agent, she sent me a form rejection with my name! And it was hand written! Of course, my name was spelled wrong…which is fairly impressive since it only has two letters, but it was progress! That’s when I decided to move on, and write a new novel. I ignored the corollary to step 5.

Calling on my inner Hemmingway by using all my Afghanistan experience, I wrote about the war. That novel has a chance—it’s Catch-22 meets the Kite Runner. It may someday see the light of day—once significantly revised. But more important to me at the time, I was armed with two novels. I could finish these things! And by going to a few writers’ workshops, I knew what I needed next…more rejection. And this time it went better. I pitched to a few agents. One even asked for the first 50-pages. That’s like sticking your big toe in the tepid pool just to figure out if you really want to swim, but hell…it was progress. And she spelled my name right! After she read the first 50-pages, she asked for the whole thing. I thought for sure that was it, literary destiny awaited. But then it fell through. I got the whole…”I loved the story, but it’s just not right for me.” In other words, the pool was just a degree or two off!

And that’s how it goes. I quit. I gave up, went back overseas for another tour, and decided I wasn’t going to keep beating my head against the brick wall of literary failure. But there was a glimmer of something in there. I still wanted to write. And one evening after I came back from that tour, I was listening to NPR’s Fresh Air on the radio. Terry Gross was interviewing someone, and they were discussing Lincoln. In fact, I think they may have been talking about critical moments in history (Historical Tipping Points). And someone mentioned President Lincoln. I think Terry even said something to the effect of “Imagine if Lincoln had a bodyguard that night in Ford’s Theater…” (He actually did! Just a completelycrappy bodyguard) Now, that’s hardly an original thought. Tons of people have asked the same thing. But for some reason the phrase “Lincoln’s Bodyguard” stuck with me. It wasn’t even the idea of the “what-if”. It was just the fact that it would be a great title for a novel. And that’s where it started.

So when someone asks me where do they start in publishing, how do they get their next great American novel written and published? I tell them that I start at the beginning—the title. For me, there’s something about the title that defines the work, what it becomes as the story evolves, maybe even how I write it. I’m not certain. But for me…those first two little words were what forced me back to the keyboard and pushed me down Step 5: Never Give Up. be continued.