When I signed up for my first Gotham Writers' Workshop online course in 2007, I was feeling discouraged.
In 2006, in a previous fiction workshop, I submitted the first chapter of my historical thriller, set in Tudor England, for feedback. I got pretty good comments from my fellow aspiring novelists. But this is the email I received at the end of the class from the instructor, herself a novelist with an MFA: "I'd love to see you produce some more material that seems a little closer to you personally, closer to the bone. I mean, you're writing crime thrillers and historical novels, but how about trying to write a story that was closer in spirit to your own time, your own place, your own experience? I'm just saying, please don't be afraid to write your fiction of your own sense of character and personal concerns. These genres feel a little uncomfortable to me, and perhaps you haven't really discovered what your subject matter as a fiction writer is. All Best, T."
This is not the sort of email a budding novelist wants to get.
Yet I kept working on my historical thriller. This is what I wanted to do. I was working fulltime as a magazine editor--I was the articles editor of Ladies' Home Journal and then the deputy editor of InStyle magazine--and I desperately needed deadlines imposed on me to keep going on my novel.
I enrolled in Greg Fallis's Mystery Writing class online. Greg had been a medic in the military, a counselor in a women's prison, and a private detective. Yes, the man had lived. To my tremendous relief, he didn't look down on my book. In fact, he liked it. A lot. I worked on my chapters and read Greg's assignments, novelists ranging from Dorothy Sayers to Walter Mosley. I learned about clues, about how to handle sex and violence. About pacing and crafting interesting characters in a fast-moving plot. I took two classes with Greg.
I have two children, and between work and kids, life got too crazy for a time. My novel went into the proverbial drawer for a number of months. But then I thought, how can I live with myself if I don't finish this book? So I signed up for Gotham's Advanced Novel class with Russell Rowland. I looked him up after I put through payment: He had an MA in creative writing and had written two highly respected modern novels, In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years.
Oh, no, I said. He's going to hate me!
But in Russell's classes I finished my book. With his encouragement and constructive advice I got the momentum I needed. In his class, I found a group of fantastic writers who gave me valuable input.
I finished my book in June 2010; I signed with a literary agent on July 4, 2010; and Touchstone Books bought my book in an auction at the end of July.
Last night I had my first public reading in the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, and shared with the audience my love of the historical fiction genre. I read aloud the first three paragraphs of my book.
And I had a fleeting memory of that early teacher who told me to try something else. I'm really glad I didn't!