Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Late Bloomer

Sandra Parshall

I’m sure the man in the bookstore didn’t mean to hurt my feelings.

I was doing my thing, standing by a table near the door and inviting customers to stop and look at/hear about my books. I gave this particular man my spiel, including the information that The Heat of the Moon won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel of 2006. He picked up a copy, studied it, looked back at me and said, “This was your first novel?” Yes, I said with a smile. He scrutinized my face with narrowed eyes and finally remarked, “So I guess you took up writing very late in life.”

I wanted to grab the guy by his polo shirt and scream into his face, “Do you have ANY IDEA how many books I’ve written? Do you have ANY IDEA how hard it is to sell a book to a publisher? I'd like to see YOU try it. And I don’t look THAT danged old.” I could have simply hit him, of course, but striking the customers probably wouldn’t go down well with the bookstore manager. What I did was smile – by now, my smile felt fixed in concrete – and say, pleasantly, “Getting a book published is wonderful, at any time of life. I’m really enjoying it.”

And that’s true. Except...

Many writers have unsold manuscripts stacked in a closet, and although we may claim to be glad those earlier, imperfect efforts were never foisted on the public, a sense of regret is inevitable. Regret that books we labored over and loved at the time were deemed unworthy. Regret for the years of rejection that left permanent bruises on our egos. Regret that we had to wait so long to enjoy the satisfaction of sharing our work with readers.

I’ve been writing since I was a child. I started trying to get my fiction (short stories back then) published when I was in my teens. I started working as a newspaper reporter in my twenties and also began writing novels. I wrote and wrote and wrote and got absolutely nowhere. One agent after another took me on and failed to sell my work. One manuscript after another went into the closet. I never seemed to be writing whatever it was that editors were looking for at any particular time.

I didn’t even start reading mysteries and suspense until I was around 30, and it was years after that before I decided to write them. The Heat of the Moon was my first attempts at suspense. It didn’t do any better with New York publishers than my previous literary efforts had. One editor wanted to buy it, but shortly after she informed my agent she intended to make an offer, she lost her job in one of the corporate takeovers that were rampant at the time. My book deal went down with her. Another editor – my dream editor, in fact – loved the book. Wanted to publish it, but didn’t have room for it on her list. She asked my agent to resubmit it in three months if it hadn’t sold. My agent resubmitted, the editor read it again, decided she didn’t like the ending, and rejected it. All the other editors – 20, I believe – turned it down because they thought it lacked suspense and readers wouldn’t stick with it. I put it away and would never have submitted it anywhere again if a couple of friends hadn’t read the manuscript and urged me to keep trying. An editor named Barbara Peters eventually bought it, and Poisoned Pen Press published the book exactly as it was originally written. A year later, it won the Agatha Award. At last, I had bloomed – but late, very late, by comparison to my youthful hopes for a writing career.

So now I’ve arrived, right? I’m secure, no longer a wannabe. Well, one thing I’ve learned since becoming a published writer and getting to know others is that only the mega-bestselling authors are secure. In the past several years, a lot of wonderful writers with solid followings have been dropped by their publishers because they haven’t “broken out” of the midlist to major sales. I’m sure James Patterson sleeps well at night, but I imagine quite a few less prominent writers are having nightmares about being dumped in the near future.

It’s a hard world out there. Every aspiring writer should be aware of how difficult it can be to sell your work. But if you’re a true writer, the knowledge of disappointments ahead won’t stop you – it will only make you more determined. If you're a reader and you meet a middle-aged author selling his or her first novel, recognize that this probably isn’t someone who “started late.” In all likelihood, what you see before you is a survivor. Offer your congratulations, buy a copy of the book, and please keep your thoughts about the writer’s age to yourself!

For another look at life as a middle-aged beginner, be sure to read this weekend’s guest blog by June Shaw. June is one of the most charming, vivacious people I’ve ever met, and she’s thoroughly enjoying her new career as a mystery author.


Cheryl Hollon said...

One way of looking at your circuitous path to publication is to view it as an investment. What you invested was the time required to collect enough life experience to write such an vivid, compelling, award-winning mystery.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, like you, I'm a lifelong writer who needed to "collect enough life experience" (great way to put it, Cheryl!) to write the first mystery that's coming out in April on my 64th birthday. I'm moderating a panel on publishing the first mystery in midlife at the New York Public Library in May, and the library insisted on titling the event "Late Bloomers"--in full, "Late Bloomers Dream Big." The truth is that some are like us and others DID turn to writing late in life. Either way, and whether we have long or brief literary careers from this point on, we've accomplished something remarkable.

Rhea said...

I have been writing since about age 8 and I am now 49. I make my living writing (journalism) but my true desire is to sell a screenplay. I tried novel writing and selling to no avail. So if one of my screenplays does sell, I won't be an overnight success. It will just be an event occurring later in life.

Sandra Parshall said...

Rhea, that event will still be exciting and rewarding. I'd rather be starting late than never starting at all. :-)

write4rx said...

Today I feel disappointed and discouraged. Thank you for sharing your experience and reminding me that there could be light at the end of the tunnel. I've tried to understand why I want to publish. After all, I did it. I wrote. I laughed. I cried. I lived the book. I revised and shared and revised. I queried. Nothing--yet. Now, I'm fighting niggling doubts about the quality of my novel. Maybe it stinks. Maybe everyone lied to me when they told me they liked it. Maybe all this work to publish will be for not. Then, I remember. I laughed. I cried. I lived the book. It was great. I want to publish so I can share that experience with others, but if that never happens, I must remember--I was blessed to take the journey.