What did I do right?
In two weeks time, I (and hopefully you) will be able to walk into a bookstore and buy my book. For me, this is a sensation that is surreal. Two years ago, my beautiful gleaming book was nothing more than a bunch of notes that I was writing down in a diary in a Whole Foods store near Columbus Circle, and then it was a ream of computer paper piled up on my desk, and then a somewhat neater pile with fewer marks on it. Then there were galleys with editorial marks and then it disappeared into the bowels of Plume and then it came out, all sort of awkward in ARC (advance review copy) form, and then it came out again, all spiffed up and lovely, with beautiful colors and blurbs. And now it is going on sale and people who are not related to me are thinking about buying it.
Let me tell you, it feels great. People have told me that there’s a lot of angst associated with being published—the reviews, the disappointing sales, the stress of marketing, and so on, and I’m sure that’s true. I’m also sure that it’s very difficult to be beautiful because you never know if people really like you for you or your looks. But neither of these issues is up there with finding a cure to cancer. The fact is that somehow, remarkably, I have beaten the odds. My first novel is being published by a major commercial publisher; I have done something right. And I keep trying to figure out what that is.
The Fiction Class is the third novel I wrote, but the first that I sold, and so I keep asking myself, how is it different from the other two. The first novel I ever tried to write, Pitch, was the story of a woman whose first lover, an eccentric musician, suddenly reappears in her life, forcing her to choose between the life she has and the life she once thought she wanted. My second novel, Courting Disaster, was the story of a woman who has been engaged seventeen times and then falls in love. Both novels were finalists for major awards, so I think they were well-written, and yet they never made the cut. In the rejection letters, which I saved, so that I could torture myself, agents and editors praised the writing, but said they just didn’t love the book.
When I began to write The Fiction Class, I did have a sense that I had stumbled onto a topic that might have wide appeal. I know firsthand that a lot of people want to learn to write and I did think, that if I could do it right, I could probably sell this book. One thing that struck me was that my class evaluations always came back saying that the students felt that I was warm and friendly, but the rejection letters for my novels came back saying I was cold and bitter. So clearly I was doing something different when I was teaching than I was doing when I was writing. Then I realized, when I’m teaching, I’m concerned with keeping my students interested and entertaining them and I’m not thinking about myself quite so much.
So, I decided to pretend that I was teaching my novel to my students. I put imaginary names on post-it notes and stuck them in front of my computer, so that I could imagine a class sitting there, listening to me. I stood up and spoke the words of the novel out loud. I became much more conscious of the reader. And the novel almost wrote itself. I have never written anything so quickly and with so much pleasure.
So what’s my advice? As always, write what you have to write, but you might want to think about who you hope is going to read it. How about you? Who do you imagine reading your work?
One side note. I have a bunch of readings coming up and I will be posting the event schedule on my web site (www.susanjbreen.com) very soon. So if you’d like to meet face to face, please stop by and say hello.