Step One in a Book Contract: Crash Your Car

In several of my responses to comments I’ve alluded to the lengthy process involved in eventually developing Odin’s Promise as a middle grade historical fiction piece. My personal journey as a writer was every bit as meandering and complex.

I have to thank my teachers for convincing me that my writing was more than just competent, that it could accomplish something beyond a good grade or answering a question.

The first time I ever read something aloud in class and heard laughter, including my teacher’s, it began to sink in that connecting with the reader was at least as satisfying as a good grade. After that, little by little, I wrote for more than just assignments (although there were plenty of those). Having a story or poem appear in the school paper was my concept of publishing.

Eventually, after pursuing a surprisingly different path, I became a teacher.  I wrote for and with my students, kids from preschool to middle school, working with them to discover joy  and satisfaction in their own writing. Trust me, students are the best audience in the world for writers, especially when the writer is their teacher. They  thought everything I wrote was brilliant, at least in September. As the year progressed they learned more about the value of thoughtful critiques, and together we would analyze and compare quality published text in stories, poems, and essays. Eventually, they offered astute and helpful suggestions about each others’ writing, and mine, too. This process, and years of reading and sharing outstanding  children’s literature, led my writing to be more  effective, creative, and complex.

But it never occurred to me to submit anything for publication.

Until one October day several decades ago when I pulled out of a parking lot and caused a fender bender. No injuries, thank goodness, except to my wallet. Insurance is great, but it was my fault and that deductible came out of the modest funds I had set aside for Christmas gifts.

That’s when the light bulb went off. I had started creating an example for a school writing project. I wanted the kids to write about a holiday event they’d never forget, but not involving gifts. These writings would  given during the holidays. I headed home to work on it. (Yes, the other driver and I exchanged information first and both cars were drivable.)

I spent the rest of that day working on a first draft, then revised and reworked it for several days. I was convinced that I could send this to a magazine and get paid enough to cover the deductible, allowing me to shop for gifts as planned.

So, my course was set. I did a careful proofing then mailed it in to a magazine known for holiday special editions.  Then I got back to classroom planning.  

My ignorance of the publication process was exceeded only by my optimism. This piece hit the mailbox in early October. I learned later that magazines need a minimum of six months lead time for each edition, often longer for specialty issues. Payment is made AFTER publication, and the amount paid would never have approached my $500 deductible, especially in those days. The only time that story has been published is when I shared it in a post on my picture book blog last year. 

November rolled around and no check arrived in the mailbox. I scrambled for alternatives, baking and packing cookies. Then I headed back to the typewriter to produce another clean copy of the story, which I duplicated on holiday paper and enclosed with the cookies for my parents and siblings. I wasn’t able to be with any of them during the holidays, but their reactions to reading it came through clearly in our phone conversations. No budget of any size could have purchased something that would have pleased them as much.

Lessons learned from that experience were worth the cost of the deductible, and then some. First, it launched me on an extended search to better understand the world of children’s publishing (pre-internet-era, of course). Endless trips to the library and book stores revealed detailed guides, which in turn revealed my ignorance of, and stoked my interest in, publishing. Even after my discoveries made it clear that I’d invest far more in the effort than I’d ever recoup in cash, I couldn’t resist trying.

That initial lightbulb and the resulting writing and research it inspired began many decades ago. More than ten years after that fender-bender I submitted a single poem from a collection written in the first days of the journey. By then I knew to continue writing and submitting without looking back. That’s why it came as a surprise when,  several years later, I opened a letter of acceptance from Spider Magazine. Still another two years passed before it actually appeared in print- surprise!- in the October issue.

Nearly six months later a check finally arrived. That twelve-line poem, at a rate of $3.00 per line, netted $36.00.

The title of this post says “Step One”, so take your pick. Was the first step when I found my writing could make a teacher laugh? When I made that switch to a teaching career? When fender and budget crunches turned my pursuit of quick cash into priceless family gifts? When my dismal failure pushed me to learn, grow, and  believe in my writing?

There are overnight success stories, but they are few and far between, even in this instantaneous social media age. The only overnight success I’ve had in writing is when a thought or dream comes to me in my sleep and I manage to write it down before I forget it. I found out early in the process that writing to make fast cash (or any cash, for that matter) is a fool’s errand. I write for myself, for those I love, and for imagined audiences. In each case, I write to make connections. Priceless.

Now I’m writing about this personal journey, in October, many decades later, anticipating the publication of my debut novel. Some things are worth waiting for, aren’t they?

2 Comments on “Step One in a Book Contract: Crash Your Car

  1. I remember hearing that several of the greatest authors’ main motivation for writing was… not to express themselves, not to make a great contribution, but yup, just to pay the bills. So I think your start with a fender bender deductible puts you in a great tradition.

    • Christa, it certainly reinforces that “don’t quit your day job” advice, doesn’t it? But my day job was a huge part of how I grew as a writer.

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