Don’t Write That Book

Aug 1, 2016 by

Don’t Write That Book

A few years ago, I attended a writer’s conference in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I had an appointment with one of the top acquiring editors for a well-known publishing house. I felt confident leaving Michigan behind. I had my pitch honed to perfection, and my business cards in hand. I’d even thought to bring along a little bag of dried cherries from Northern Michigan, figuring it would be a great ‘break-the-ice’ gift for the editor. When the time for our scheduled appointment came, I sat down in front of her, bubbling with enthusiasm about the book I was there to pitch.

 

She squinted at my name tag. “I know I’ve seen your name before. Have we met?”

 

Progress! She already recognized my name, if not my manuscripts. Way to go, Kathleen!

 

“We’ve never met,” I politely replied, handing over the cherries.

 

“Oh, nice!” Her eyes lit up. “Do you mind? I skipped lunch.” And without waiting for a reply, she ripped open the bag and began popping dried fruit into her mouth as if she were coming off a sixty-day fast. “Go ahead,” she urged between mouthfuls. “Let’s hear what you’ve got.”

 

And so my pitch began.

 

And ended just as abruptly.

 

A COLD SNOWY DAY IN NORTHERN MICHIGAN“A fireman?” The editor snorted. “I see firemen stories every day. Completely overdone.”

 

“But it’s an award-winning manuscript,” I stumbled. “In fact, it’s a finalist in one of the fiction categories at this convention.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “Like I said, firemen are completely overrated. What else have you got?”

 

I blinked and sat there, one of those Northern Michigan deer trapped-in-the-headlights stares plastered on my face. Who doesn’t like firemen? I’d been married for over twenty years to my very own hero-husband-fireman. Firemen are American heroes. And everyone loves heroes, right?

 

Obviously some people don’t. Continuing to toss back the cherries, she settled back in her chair and regarded me with a semi-amused gaze, as if she relished being the cause of my discomfort. “What else have you got?”

 

I snapped back to attention. I didn’t want to waste this pitch appointment. “A hometown girl who’s grown up poor.” My words rushed out. “When she wins $70 million dollars in the lottery, Lucy has to learn how to redefine her life so—”

 

“Nope,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Not interested. What else have you got?”

 

Not interested? But I’d spent eighteen months of my life working on Lucy’s story. How could she simply dismiss it in one brief comment?

 

“What else have you got?”

Kathleen in chair

I scrambled to come up with something. Anything. Should I mention my book about Patty Perreault, the overweight schoolteacher who was looking for love at the bottom of a cookie bag? True, I’d sent this editor a query and partial manuscript of FATTY PATTY the year before, only to receive a form rejection letter in response. Maybe I shouldn’t mention Patty’s story. Didn’t the pundits advise never to resubmit the same work unless invited? But fear makes sanity fly out the window. Besides, I’d grown up fat. I weighed 300 lbs. when I graduated from high school. If anyone knew what it was like to be fat, it was me. “I wrote this book about an overweight woman—”

 

“Fat books sell.” Her hand halted, mid-cherry. “Tell me more.”

 

I warmed to the cause, knowing she’d finally taken the hook. “Patty is an overweight schoolteacher with a dieting dilemma. When an overweight man comes into her life, Patty is torn. She’s been fighting fat all her life, and the last thing she needs is an overweight boyfriend. She thinks that if she loses—”

 

“Stop right there.” A scowl lit her face. “Did you send me a partial on this?”

 

Caught. I had no choice but to admit the truth. “Yes.”

 

Her gaze narrowed. “If memory serves correct, I rejected the manuscript. It was very negative. Well, guess what. I don’t do negative.”

 

Glub, glub, glub. I felt like a fish, drowning in my own response. Negative? But Patty wasn’t negative. She was anything but.

 

“I never forget a name,” the editor said, and popped more cherries in her mouth. “What else have you got?”

 

At this point, I was desperate. What else? She’d already dismissed ten years’ worth of my work. What else? True, I had my current manuscript. FOR I HAVE SINNED is the story of Fr. Greg, a Catholic priest who was still in love with God, but who’d fallen out of love with the church and its outdated rules. Not only did Fr. Greg’s story address how many people had suffered at the hands of the church and some of its leaders, it also was a personal reflection of my Catholic faith. Writing Fr. Greg’s story, I felt inspired and uplifted. I knew I had something special. But should I mention it? Don’t ever talk about a book before it’s finished, the experts warn.

 

“What else have you got?”

 

“I’m writing a story about a Catholic priest.” The words tumbled out of my mouth like clothes fresh from the dryer. “It’s in first person, and tackles issues of prejudice and bigotry in a small town setting. Fr. Greg is still in love with God, but he’s fallen out of love with the church and—.”

 

“Don’t write that book.”

 

“Excuse me?” I couldn’t believe she’d cut me off again.

 

“Don’t write that book,” she said, not even bothering to meet my eyes, but focusing instead on the very-soon-to-be-empty bag of dried cherries. Her fingers scrounged against the bottom of the sack.

 

Tired and discouraged“But… but I’m nearly half way done,” I stammered. “I don’t want to stop now.”

 

“You don’t want to stop?” She pulled her gaze away from the cherries to meet my own. “I just told you not to write that book. You’re wasting your time.”

 

“But I love this book.” I felt like a child, being rebuked. How could I explain it to her? It felt as if, when I sat down to write, that Fr. Greg’s story was coming straight from my heart. “I love this book.”

 

She shrugged. “It will never sell.”

 

I sat back, defeated. If she didn’t want Fr. Greg, I didn’t know what else to offer. I hadn’t finished the manuscript yet, but I already knew it was my best work. And no matter what I did in future, I would never be able to write another story like that.

 

“On second thought…” She drawled out her words as she popped the last of the cherries in her mouth. “On second thought, maybe you should go home and write that book.”

 

I straightened in my chair. She’d had a change of heart? Maybe there was hope for Fr. Greg after all.

 

“Go home and write your book,” she advised with a strange smile, before crushing the empty fruit bag, then rolling it into a tiny ball between her palms. “Go home and indulge yourself with your little hobby. Finish the book, if that’s what you want to do. Lots of people enjoy writing as a hobby.”

 

A hobby? She thought my writing was just a hobby?

 

writing as a hobby

 

I couldn’t think straight. The one and only thought flashing through my mind? How I wished she would have choked on those cherries!

 

Clearly, our interview was finished.

 

“Thank you.” Somehow I managed to stand up, my dignity intact. “Have a nice day.”

 

She didn’t bother to respond, but turned her attention to the author behind me. “Are you my two o’clock?”

 

I stumbled from the room, and made it through the hallway and into the elevator. Finally, I reached my hotel room, where alone, I indulged myself with a good cry. The editor’s words still stung like a fresh slap in the face. My ego was bruised, and I cried until there were no tears left. Then I dried my eyes, washed my face, and—putting on a brave smile— went back to join other authors at the writer’s conference.

 

Fast forward years—and six published novels—later. Do I have any regrets about that day? No. I handled myself the best way possible. I was professional and polite, despite her rudeness. And I’m grateful to have had the experience. That nasty editor did me a huge favor. That moment long ago helped define who I was, what I was doing, and why I was doing it. It made me reflect on all the hours I’d spent hovering over notebooks, scribbling down stories, rising earlier than the dawn to spend hours hunched over the computer, pounding away on the keyboard while the rest of the world still slept. It reminded me of the joy and elation I felt as the story magic unfolded before my eyes; the tears I shed at each story’s completion over saying goodbye to characters I’d grown to know and love; the terror (and thrill) of submitting my work, and knowing it would be judged on its own merits. My stories making a difference in people’s lives. That’s all I have ever wanted. That’s all I have to offer. And from the numerous reviews I’ve received, the book sales, the meetings with readers and book clubs, the personal emails, and everything else that goes along with the writer’s life, I’ve come to realize that I have made a difference. If only in a small way, I have made some sort of difference. Which leads me to believe I can only reach one conclusion.

 

Is it enough?

 

It is enough.

 

Is it a hobby?

 

No, this is not a hobby. This is my life.

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