There! I said it. And I said it with all the mediocrity I could summon into my fingertips.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It is a big deal, or rather it was when I finished the manuscript. But I am trying to make a point in this post, and to get to it, I must dwell on the title line a bit. So I’ll say it again.
I wrote my first book.
Yes. I wrote it in January of 2012. It all happened quite suddenly, and very unexpectedly.
I was with my family one Saturday morning brunching at the Egg Harbor Cafe in downtown Naperville. We were just making small talk when my wife brought up the topic of schooling in India. Before we knew it, somewhere between the belgian waffle and the cheese grits (if you haven’t, you’ve got to try their cheese grits), the conversation whittled itself into a long and slender bamboo cane – one that graced the hand of our high school headmaster. No, we’re not that old, but we did go to school in India, and back when we were in school, about twenty-five years ago, getting your daily stripes courtesy said bamboo cane could easily become an everyday ritual, albeit a painful one.
So as we whittled the proverbial cane of our conversation into dust, I said to my wife (and I paraphrase):
“Hey, maybe I could write a book on this. You know, about oppression at two entirely different levels. There’s the headmaster figure, and… and maybe a tyrannical ruler, like the pharaoh. Right? You know, to show how oppression is ugly, however small or large the scale of it. Right?”
My wife looked at me, and said, “Why don’t you do it?”
My then-nine-year-old daughter looked at me and said, “Do what?”
My then-six-year-old daughter looked at me and said, “I can’t finish my eggs.”
So, I finished them for her.
I spent the rest of the weekend thinking about our conversation, and a plot began to emerge in my head. The following Monday, my commute to work helped me finish chapter 1. I decided I would call the book “Tyrants”. The return commute knocked out chapters 2, 3 and 4 (maybe even 5). Anyway, by Wednesday of that same week, I had a fully thought-out story in my head, divvied up into thirteen chapters. I told myself the plot had to be tight and engaging, and the characters interesting and believable. I even decided I would be as minimal in my writing as possible, with everything distilled down to only what was needed to carry a story and keep it interesting. I read somewhere that it was easy to add pages, but not so easy to remove, and feeling insecure as a first-time writer, I embraced the advice fully.
I wrote the first chapter the very next night. And then I kept at it for the next three weeks, working weeknights and Saturdays. And when I finally finished the manuscript of “Tyrants” in three weeks flat, it felt good. I had a 53,000 word manuscript on my computer. I put it on a flash drive and drove down to a copy shop where I printed it out. It felt so good.
My wife had been reading the chapters as I was writing them, so she finished reading the book about the time I finished writing it. She liked it, but her feedback was a bit tainted as she knew the plot from the outset.
So then I gave it to my Dad. He had no idea I had written a novel, so when he liked it, I was encouraged a bit.
I began to read up on the querying scene that all writers ought to get familiar with. I became a frequenter of queryshark.com (great resource for new fiction writers by the way). After several iterations of “writing my query letter and letting it sit”, I felt my query letter was ready for the world of literary agents.
I mustered the courage to send out a few. I started with the most popular agents on the east coast, sending them email queries, and in some cases, snail mail.
One in three got back to me and politely declined saying the work “was not a good fit for them”. After about five queries, my interest began to wane. I began to wonder if my two-hundred-page manuscript was a colossal waste of time. In the days and weeks and months that followed, I shared out the manuscript with a close circle of family and friends. Some liked it a lot, a few had mixed but good feedback, while some (actually many) never got back to me.
Then someone said, “Friends and family will never tell you your book is garbage.”
So I approached the founder of the poetry club I had been a member of. She was not family. She was not a friend. She was… an acquaintance. She seemed unbiased. And she taught creative writing too. She agreed to read my manuscript. It took her three weeks to get back to me. We met up right after an open mic. Her feedback was very good. She liked the story a lot, she liked the writing, she liked the characters and the twists in the plot. She pointed out a few inconsistencies and I fixed them.
And that’s when I told myself there was something here. I redoubled my querying efforts.
Fast-forward from then to six months ago: I had altogether sent out just under twenty queries, twenty if you count one pathetically half-hearted attempt. That’s really not a lot at all. There are happy souls out there who celebrate one-hundred query rejections by throwing their friends a party – it is the sort of grit you need to keep your head up in this industry.
Nevertheless, one bright and sunny day in May, I stopped querying. I had grown tired of it, but that wasn’t why I stopped. I stopped because I had started to think. You see, my father-in-law visited with us some time back and he had given me some advice. It was simple advice: keep writing; churn out the books; when you finish one, stuff it under your bed, and start on the next one. He told me not to worry about getting published, but rather to be preoccupied with the craft of writing.
When this advice finally sank in (and it took a few months), the realization was quite liberating for me as a writer. And that is really the simple point I am trying to make in this post.
You see, I was getting better. My writing had improved. I could tell. My ability to spin yarn from word-pulp, and weave an intricate tapestry of fiction drama had increased. Cheesy imagery, but you get the point. My writing had improved just with stepping into my second book. I felt like I had crossed a bridge after dodging the one-novel-publisher troll who dwelt beneath it, a beast that ceaselessly spat the word “Publish”.
Now, if you ever comes across such a bridge by happenstance and encounter a troll beneath it spitting the word “Publish”, do take my advice and risk your everything to get to the other side where the grass is greener. I know, I’m chewing on it right now. And guess what, there will be more bridges that I, and you, will have to span in our respective journeys as writers, and you don’t want to not cross any of them. Now, don’t get me wrong. You can lean on the railing, chat with that troll, you know, query an agent every now and then with the work you have accomplished – just make sure you continually sharpen your query letters. But then once you’ve done that, flash that troll a smile and keep walking. The grass will keep getting greener and greener with every bridge you cross.
So I’ve decided that on my journey as a writer, I will not allow myself to be preoccupied with my destination. Besides, the journey is far too beautiful. And if you’ve been stuck on that query-your-nth-novel-like-there’s-no-tomorrow bridge (especially if n = 1), I hope this gives you a push to keep walking.
I close this post with the opening verses of an old Cat Stevens number.
Miles from nowhere,
I guess I’ll take my time,
Oh yeah, to reach there.
Look up at the mountain
I have to climb,
Oh yeah, to reach there.