Right place, right time, right answer
Published: February 24, 2006
|"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." --Thomas Edison |
Once my first novel was published, I was astounded at the number of people who asked me for advice. I want to be helpful. Many people helped me along my way, so I give my advice with all sincerity.
People think I'm being flippant when I say, "Write the book. That's my advice."
But I mean it. That is how I got published.
When I attended the wonderful Antioch Writers Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for the first time in 1995, Sue Grafton was my fiction teacher. She advised us to make five-year plans for our writing lives, and to list the steps we'd take to achieve our goals. I listened to classmates read aloud such steps as "Find an agent" and "Attend the Maui conference to network with editors" and was puzzled. Some of them didn't have completed manuscripts yet. I was too sheepish to read aloud the one and only step I'd written: "Finish my book."
My writing improved the most after I had finished a full draft of the whole novel. There's a great Isaac Asimov quote that says, "It's the writing that teaches you." Once you have a story actually on paper, you can then begin to edit and revise and learn from it. As long as you're talking about a story as an abstract idea, you've got nothing.
I read every book I could find about the craft of writing fiction. I did the exercises in those books and applied what I learned to further revisions in my novel. I kept attending writing conferences and workshops.
Years later I began the process of carefully researching agents, and over the course of a year queried 17 of them. Three of the 17 asked to see the first 50 pages. One of those three asked to see the entire manuscript.
That agent gave me a professional read and several suggested revisions. She ultimately passed on the book because she had recently agreed to represent another novel that dealt with AIDS and didn't feel she could return to the editors with such similar material.
Although each rejection came with a natural sting, I was not unduly discouraged yet. I knew I was just beginning this process and many more rejections would likely follow.
Buoyed by this "good rejection," I attended the Antioch Writers Workshop again as a workfellow. I received tuition in exchange for doing several hours of work for the conference. One of my jobs was driving guests back and forth to the airport. One of the guests that year was an editor from Warner Books.
I attended her talk. She was vivacious and bubbly, a lovely person clearly passionate about what she did. But, she explained that she mainly acquired nonfiction and stressed that Warner did not look at unagented material. Although I learned a great deal from her talk, I didn't think she was a person I should approach about my novel.
That same day, I was selected from my class to read my first chapter to the entire conference. The editor attended the reading. I saw her in the back row.
I was assigned to drive the editor to the airport the next morning. I needed to pick her up at 5:30 a.m. That night we experienced one of the violent summer thunderstorms for which this part of Ohio is famous. Power was knocked out in my dorm. I awoke to my alarm clock flashing "12:00, 12:00, 12:00." I grabbed my watch. It was 5:20 a.m. Fortunately I had time to brush my teeth, but that was about it. I put on a baseball cap and left in the T-shirt and awful tie-dyed shorts I had slept in.
The editor was waiting outside her bed-and-breakfast when I pulled up. Even at that ungodly hour, she was cheerful and friendly. Her first words upon getting into my car were, "I really liked what you read last night. Is that book finished?"
The book was finished.
The storms had left a thick, clinging fog hovering over the corn and soybean fields. As I slowly drove, squinting through the murk, the editor asked me several probing questions about the book. I thought she was just being polite, making conversation.
The fog delayed her flight. We spent three hours together at the airport. We ate breakfast--me still in my awful shorts and cap--and by the time she flew away, she'd invited me to send her the entire manuscript.
I did, of course. The very next day.
Four months later, she called to say she loved it and Warner wanted to buy it.
Magical words. I did a little dance in my kitchen and frightened my cat.
I could then call an agent and say, "Warner wants to buy it. Will you represent me?"
My editor and I often joked about that inauspicious foggy morning--and my bizarre attire.
Many people tell me I'm lucky. I am, I know. Publishing is a tough, capricious business, and I know many wonderful writers who have trouble finding their work a home. But sometimes people say I'm lucky in a dismissive, almost offended way, as if my publication plopped down into my lap from the heavens. My editor herself corrected someone once. A person, upon hearing this story, said to me, "Boy, were you at the right place at the right time." My editor smiled and said, "She was at the right place at the right time with a finished manuscript."
That made all the difference. What good would it have done me to drive that editor to the airport otherwise?
Write your book. Revise your book. Polish your book. And then put yourself in the right place.
I've never forgotten that my editor's first question was, "Is that book finished?"
Copyright © 2005 Katrina Kittle
Katrina Kittle is the author of The Kindness of Strangers, Traveling Lightand Two Truths and a Lie. She helped found the All Children's Theatre in Washington Township, Ohio, and teaches theater and English to middle schoolers at the Miami Valley School in Dayton, Ohio, where she lives. Web: www.katrinakittle.com.