Writing My First Novel: Part 2

So after I overcame the grief of killing off a character and once again tackled the writing of She’s on First, I had four chapters to go. And I was still working full time. I finished the four chapters in five months. Voila! A completed manuscript!

Finishing a manuscript is quite an accomplishment, but as any writer who wants to be published knows, that first step, difficult as it is, is often easier than getting published.

I set out to find an agent. Using Literary Market Place, I found the names of reputable agents and wrote short (less than a full page) query letters to three at a time, describing my novel and asking if they would like to see the manuscript. I also wrote to agents who weren’t listed in LMP but who were listed in other sources, specifically in writer’s magazines. This, as it turned out, was a beginner’s mistake.

Few agents responded. One who did respond asked to see my manuscript. He was not listed in Literary Market Place. This was a warning I should have heeded. I was so thrilled that an editor wanted to read my story that I paid no attention to warning  signs. After I mailed him my manuscript, the agent then failed to communicate. When I asked him to return my manuscript, he said he lost it. Never in my life have I been so grateful for backup: I had a carbon copy. Not long after I learned the agent had lost my manuscript, I purchased my first computer, a Macintosh. I re-typed the manuscript on the computer, backed it up on a floppy disk, and once again started out to find a reputable and responsible agent.

A Chicago writers organization sponsored a talk and interview with agent Jane Jordan Browne. I went to hear her and was impressed with what she had to say. So I sent her a query letter, and she asked to see my manuscript.

After Jane read She’s on First, she said she would represent it if I rewrote it, cutting 100 pages out of the total. The manuscript was 406 pages long, which meant I had to cut it to 306 pages. “Cut the deadwood,” she advised.

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It was up to me, of course, to determine what was deadwood. And that in itself was an interesting lesson. I sat down with a red pen and began to cross out sentences and paragraphs that didn’t advance the story. That took several days. Then I  began rewriting. When I finished, my manuscript was 304 pages long. I had managed to cut 102 pages.

I sent the rewritten manuscript back to Jane and she accepted it. But Jane did not have an especially easy time trying to sell She’s on First. Mostly she received rejects saying that the story was enjoyable — but that “the public” did not want to read about a female baseball player.

I, meanwhile, attended the American Bookseller Association’s Conferences each year (the ABA annual event is now called Book Expo) to look at the new crop of fiction, to study publishers, and to meet editors. One year I was thrilled to see that a novel about a woman hockey player was being prominently displayed. This made me feel that a novel about a woman baseball player might be looked at with interest by editors.

sc00160a8fThe novel about the woman hockey player apparently didn’t do well, which caused even more editors to turn down She’s on First. Finally, though, more than two years after Jane had accepted my story, she sold hardcover rights to Contemporary Books, a Chicago nonfiction publisher which was branching out into fiction.

She’s on First was published in hardcover in 1987, and I was super-excited when my first novel came out. I had an autographing at Kroch’s and Brentano’s the very first day, and other autographings in different states the entire year.

The following year She’s on First came out in mass market paperback. Paperjacks, the Canadian publisher which bought paperback rights, made She’s on First their lead novel of the month, and as I was driving across the Midwest and Southwest on an extended trip, I saw my first novel in paperback racks everywhere, including tiny little drugstores in tiny little towns. That was exciting.

One year later, She’s on First was published in Japan.

sc00161e3eIn the US, the hardcover edition sold out within a year. There was no second printing, probably because the mass market paperback was available. After my novel was out of print, my agent made sure the rights reverted to me. She did this by writing to the publisher and having them send a formal reversion-of-rights letter. This was around the year 1990.

After that, She’s on First was out of print for twenty years. During those twenty years, there were three movie options on the book, but none came to fruition. Two publishers expressed interest in reprint rights, but nothing came of that.

During the twenty years that She’s on First was out of print, I wrote many other books. I thought my first novel would remain out of print forever, available only in used bookstores and on eBay. Then came the revolution in the publishing world: digital publishing and Print on Demand, making it possible for any individual to self-publish a book. In 2010, I self-published my very first CreateSpace book, and, fittingly, that book was my first novel, She’s on First.

With self-publishing, the writer is in control. So, as writer, I restored a small scene about a female umpire — this had been cut from the hardcover version in 1986. It gave me great pleasure to restore this scene — to show that there’s more than one way for a woman to be on the baseball field, and to show that those who are discriminated against usually feel solidarity with one another.

The second thing I did once I was in charge of republishing my own novel was to put a different cover on it. By 2010 both previous covers looked dated. So I searched for photos of women playing baseball and found the one I wanted. I paid for one-time use of the photo and asked writer-illustrator friend Robin Koontz to design the cover.

The result is my favorite version of my first novel.

KindleCover-SOFI’m not sure that I expected book reviews with the reprint of She’s on First, but as it turned out, the book was reviewed, as a reprint of course.

Another big surprise to me was that on the 25th anniversary of the publication of She’s on First, Patrick Reardon wrote a review of it on his blog, The Pump Don’t Work. Twenty. Five. Years. I wasn’t paying any attention to this anniversary, but certainly should have been. I’m very grateful that Patrick Reardon was paying attention.

Writing a first novel is a daunting proposition. It’s a long road across uncharted (by you) country. You’ve never driven a vehicle before, you’ve never crossed this land before. Unknowns everywhere.

But both the newness of the experience and the blank landscape of the country can be conquered. If you were driving a journey of 10,000 miles, you would of necessity break it up into individual days. Say your goal is to drive 500 miles a day. That’s a twenty day trip. You take it one day at a time, confronting that day’s obstacles as they come up.

Writing a novel is similar. You have a journey of, say, 300 pages. You can make the trip in 300 days or, if you’re very lucky, 150 days. Even 75 days, though most first novels aren’t written that quickly. With a rough outline before you, you know where to go each day. You sit down at the computer and write.

Sort of like a batter steps up to the plate and hits.

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You can read reviews of She’s on First here.

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