All I Had To Do Was Try. For Three Decades.
In 2023, Unsolicited Press will publish As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back — the novel for which I wrote the first sentence in 1993: “I was watching myself from beside myself.”
Over the three decades spent pursuing publication, I’ve gone from, “This has to be an Oprah book and a movie or I’ll perish,” to: “I’ll be thrilled if it’s published by anyone but me.”
Two weeks ago, when I signed my contract, my 14-year-old son asked, “Is this book on your bucket list?”
I said, “This book is my bucket list.”
The early 90s
The times were ripe for My Work. As Far as You Can Go told the story of an incest survivor who steals $10,000 from her abusive parents and runs away to Asia, only to have her disaster way of dealing with life follow her there. Taking on a tai chi practice, she begins another journey, one to find the self-respect ripped from her as a child and the healthy sexuality she craves.
I received an offer from a press that turned into offers from three presses.
It took eight years of writing for a 10-hour stretch every weekend — Friday evening until dawn on Saturday — and two writing groups reading ten pages a week (neither of which finished the book before folding or kicking out me and As Far ) until I had a draft ready to send to agents. The first agent to whom I submitted asked to see the full manuscript. I was so thrilled that I called my now-husband and shrieked, “Full manuscript!” several times into his answering machine (proof of how far back this undertaking goes). They were the only words I could muster.
A month later, she turned me down.
It took four months until I felt brave enough to send to another agent.
More than 75 submissions later
I was over rejection. It was all the numbers: 35% of the agents I sent the requisite 50 pages to asked to see a partial or full. I received not one offer.
It was clear that something was resonating in the opening pages that wasn’t fulfilled by the rest of the book. I ceased submitting to work with Carole L. Glickfeld, who was fresh off winning The Washington State Book Award for her novel, Swimming to the Ocean. (Lovely book. Read.) After two robust edits guided by Carole, I felt ready.
Jump-starting the submissions process
In the airport in Chiang Mai, Thailand, checking email before our hop of a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit the temples at Angkor Wat, I received a request for the full manuscript from the agent who, six months later, offered me representation. By the time she had my manuscript (renamed at her suggestion Wave Hands Like Clouds) ready to send to publishers, it was the September, 2001. Not to imply that I take it personally, but 9/11 happened. In addition to the fact that no one knew if we were going to survive, all any publisher wanted to sign were books about understanding Islam or how bad Muslims were, depending on the political bent of the house.
Next, my agent got sick to the point that she was bleeding from her eyeballs. She dropped me. Putting me in the unenviable position of having had 25 houses turn me down but no agent to champion me at smaller presses. I launched to small houses myself. For the next five years, there was not a day that three, four, five readers at small-to-medium publishing houses were not experiencing the supplication that was me trying to place my book.
No, no, and no.
And no and no and no.
The Oprah Moment for the book had passed. I had no platform to speak of. Additionally, I was not getting pregnant. Then had my first miscarriage. The manuscript took up residence in a drawer while I had two children and published essays, short stories, and flash fiction.
Until 2005, when I took me and my manuscript to Centrum’s Port Townsend Writers Conference. I studied with Michael D. Collins (Keepers of the Truth). In a dream-come-true moment, Collins offered to pass my manuscript to his agent. after a few, nail-biting months, she turned me down, but sending to her kicked off a new submission campaign that resulted in me getting as close as I may ever come to a book/movie deal.
In the end: no. I was not able to convince any publisher to debut that book at that moment.
I needed a zeitgeist.
It would be more than a decade
… opening words which I was convinced would rival “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
In revising, I’d moved the first chapter to the center of the book. The tension the first chapter created was gone, along with any tension driving the subsequent chapters. I reinstated “I was watching myself from beside myself” — an opening which I was convinced would rival “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” — and went about the now-familiar process of submitting. COVID happened. Again with the Will-we-survive. I found a list of 686 agents searchable by genre and submitted to each one that accepted literary fiction. A conversation with a writer-friend resulted in a recommendation from her to Unsolicited Press, where I already had the manuscript under consideration.
Why is it that you can work as hard as you can for decades and in the end, it’s all about connections?
Actually, the only result of the recommendation was that my manuscript was read more quickly. As in: the following weekend. I earned the offer —which turned into offers from two more presses when I formally withdrew the manuscript from the presses and literary agencies still considering it.
What kept me going: the opening sentence in conjunction with the final line of the book.
While I am willing to admit that “I was watching myself from besides myself” might not ultimately rival Mrs. Dalloway in the annals of literature, it is a compelling sentence that reflects the state abuse survivors find themselves in until they find good help. It is an opening ripe with the possibility of the rest of the novel.
I won’t reveal the prose or circumstances of the final image; you’re gonna have to wait for May 27, 2023 at a bookstore near you. Instead, I will share that after 30 years of sweat, tears, joy, and angst, I still get all mushy when I so much as think about the ending. That I will finally be able to share my vision with readers makes me short of breath. I simply had to wait long enough and work hard enough to come to this place.
I wish for you the same success.