Back at Halloween, I went to visit my granddaughters and found the 3 ½ year old decked out in full regalia as Cinderella. Young Cinderella reenacted the fairy tale over and over all afternoon, kicking off her transparent shoe (“Oh, no! I’ve lost my glass slipper!”) and trying it on again.
There wasn’t any prince in her version of the story, and she was in no hurry to get to the happy ending. Instead, before trying to fit the shoe on her foot, she would slip something into it, a pill bottle, a plastic fork, a finger puppet, leaving no room for her foot.“Oh, no!” she would moan. “I’m not Cinderella!"
Thinking about how good it feels not only to have a novel on the brink of publication but to be able to say I do, I’m reminded of how awful it sometimes felt to be a writer who had not succeeded in finding a publisher who found my manuscript a perfect fit. I’m not thinking so much of my recent quest of several years, when I’ve been surrounded by a huge network of other writers who know exactly how hard it is, and that talent gets most of us nowhere without incredible persistence and that bit of luck that can’t be willed or forced. Some published writers are kind enough to use the controversial term “pre-published” to help writers who so far have only the talent and persistence feel a little better about themselves.
Back in the 1970s, when I was writing and then trying to sell my first three mystery manuscripts (now hopelessly dated and unsalvageable), I remember being asked a cocktail party, “What do you do?” “I’m a writer,” I said. “What have you published?” my inquisitor asked. “Nothing yet,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.” The guy’s eyes glazed over and he drifted away.
Today, I’d have a lot to say to my younger self. “How far have you gotten?” I might ask. “Are you in a critique group?” “Do you have anything finished?” “Has anybody seen it?” “Have you taken any writing workshops?” “Have you sent it out?” If she had a completed and revised manuscript, I could offer helpful suggestions about how to seek an agent effectively. “Don’t let anybody call you a wannabe,” I would say. “You’re pre-published. Keep writing, keep revising, and keep sending out. Your mantra is “talent, persistence, and luck.”
For many years, I kept a Peanuts cartoon pinned up on my bulletin board. It showed Charlie Brown lying on his back on top of Snoopy’s doghouse, reading a rejection letter. “Your novel stinks,” it says. “I’ve never read such a terrible piece of writing. Stop trying to be an author.” In the last frame, Charlie Brown says, “It’s probably a form rejection letter.”
The trouble with writers is that we need the hide of an elephant, but many of us have the skin of a grape, and most of us lack Charlie Brown’s optimism. An agent or editor writes (as they do so frequently. “Not for me” or “I didn’t fall in love with this.” “Oh, no!” we moan, like Cinderella. “I’m not a writer!”
I admit freely that I’m a lot better writer than I was when I started sending the first version of my book to agents. I was impatient and had to learn from my mistakes. I’m also a much better writer than I was at the age of seven, when I first said, “I’m a writer.” Looking back, I can see it served me better to keep saying, “I’m a writer” and keep on writing than to get so discouraged I stop writing because any given agent or editor’s glass slipper doesn’t fit my manuscript. So here’s another mantra for those working hard to achieve first publication: “I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I’m a writer.”