’Author’ sure has a nice ring to it

ONE OF THE wonderful and terrible things about writing is that anyone can attempt it. If you decide you’d like to try your hand at brain surgery, you have to go to school for a couple of dozen years before you can try an operation to find out if you like it.

All it takes to have a piece of writing considered by a publisher is a typed manuscript, brown envelopes and stamps. I use the word “consider” loosely since the industry term for such unsolicited manuscripts is “the slush pile.” Most unsolicited manuscripts are hardly glanced at; a token minority are skimmed. As a result, few published books come from the slush pile – “Ordinary People” is the much-cited exception and was the first unsolicited book Viking had published in 37 years. Most houses are hesitant to burn the welcome mat because, at least in theory, publishers realize they must remain open to new talent.

A good agent is an alternative foot in the door, but is no easier to find than a publisher. Since an agent’s income is 10 or 15 percent of the writer’s income, agents are understandably reluctant to take on writers whose work is unlikely to sell well, if at all. The public has a false impression of how much money authors make. People read newspaper articles about a paperback sale of $3.2 million for Judith Krantz’s “Princess Daisy,” or they hear that Anne Tolstoi Wallach received $850,000 for her first novel, “Women’s Work,” or that Carl Sagan is getting a million dollars for a novel he hasn’t written yet, and they assume that writers are all filthy rich or will soon become so.

Not true. Those stories make the newspaper because they are unusual. Columbia University recently conducted a survey to determine writers’ incomes. The study found that among published book authors, the median annual income from writing and writing-related activities is a modest – even paltry -$4,775.

I had a desperate desire to write a novel and had a story I wanted very much to tell. At the time, I was a full-time science writer. Every evening I tried to write three good pages on my book. I’d published many magazine articles and had been a newspaper reporter, but having never published a word of fiction, the novel was a very new experience. My husband thought I was crazy. Why join the ranks of unpublished novelists when I could be writing articles for major magazines? I never had a good answer, but I wrote every night anyway.

In about six months I had finished a neatly typed 334-page manuscript. Of course, I thought it was wonderful.

My first efforts were directed at my few meager contacts: an editor who had published a book by a friend of a friend, an agent who had represented a fourth cousin once removed – that kind of thing. When those dead-ended, I improvised. For several months I’d been gleaning whatever sensible information I could from writers’ magazines.

I kept a list of editors who, for various reasons, I thought might be interested in my novel. Some had published books I admired; some had recently changed companies and thus might be actively looking for new things. Others were independent publishers associated with large houses.

After a week of pondering and polishing, I sent off letters, just over a page long, in which I did my best to convince each editor that my book and my abilities were extraordinary and that they warranted the risk of publishing – or at least serious consideration. Half the editors to whom I sent that letter asked for more.

I’ve refused to count how many letters and manuscripts I sent out, but I do know that it was almost six months to the day that I finally spoke on the phone with the woman who is now my editor. She was one of the first people I wrote to.

That weekend my husband and 1 went to dinner at a restaurant we couldn’t afford, and I flew off- at my own expense – to New York for a conference and lunch with the publisher.

THAT WAS MY FIRST experience as an author. I must say it is nice. Being an author is very different from being a writer. A writer sits in a little room with a pencil and worries about verb tenses and points of view, is very unsure of herself and works hard to stay in touch with whatever muses may or may not be visiting.

An author, on the other hand, is a confident, talented, charming personality. An author always knows the right thing to say, and she usually says it in an interesting and clever manner suitable for quoting. An author is fearless. Most of all, an author is published.

Marilyn French (“The Women’s Room” and “The Bleeding Heart”) has been quoted as saying that she never expected or even considered the possibility of becoming wealthy and famous as a result of her books. 1 can’t imagine not imagining those possibilities.

Many a first novelist enters the publishing process certain that the world will be changed by her book. The world is waiting for it, holding its breath in a fevered anticipation that almost matches the author’s own. The author-to-be already sees the ecstatic reviews, imagines her face on whatever magazines and television programs suit her – trading gentle witticisms with Johnny Carson perhaps, or being earnest with Phil Donahue. She envisions the parties, the auctions for subsidiary rights (will paperback go for six figures? seven figures?).

In all modesty, I was never quite that naive. I knew that in the fall season before my publication, some 150 first novels were put out by publishers. Of those, a handful can boast more than meager sales. Most come and go with such speed that the author’s relatives in neighboring states may never find a copy of the book.

Yet even someone who knows the statistics has to be hopeful. I felt as though I was one of the few who was able to write a good book my first time out; 1 was one of the few who managed to sell a first book to a major publisher; so why couldn’t I be one of the few whose first book was really successful? Also in my favor, I thought, was that the story in my book involved a very timely issue.

“The Proposal” is about a college couple and how their relationship is affected by an unplanned pregnancy and subsequent abortion. The young man and woman are very much in love, but are not ready for marriage. She is deeply religious; and while she violently objects to being forced to make such a decision, she feels that she has no choice. There is but one way out of a predicament she did everything possible to avoid. Initially the crisis draws them together, but there are complications.

The protagonist is a good person who has been forced to do something she believes is “bad.” Does that mean she’s now a bad person? While the book is not about abortion (it’s about people), an abortion – and how it is dealt with morally, logis-tically and interpersonally – is the focal point of the book.

PUBLICATION DAY is an artficial concept. I received my first bound copy of “The Proposal” in April and my publication day was June 8. Supposedly the books are in the stores by then. Reviews start appearing then, along with any advertising and publicity efforts.

I spent publication day in my office staring at blank paper and waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened. Nobody called. The world, needless to say, did not stop or even heave a small sigh of relief.

The following weekend my husband and I traveled to our California hometown, where I did interviews and other authorly things. A local bookstore held an autograph party, and people stood in line for my autograph. We sold books numbering in the high two figures. But back in Dallas/Fort Worth, G. Sanders Books sponsored a party for several local recently published authors. Not one person bought a copy of my book.

Interviewers all ask the same questions. They ask how long it took to write the book. They ask how you got it published. They ask whether you write with a pen, pencil or typewriter. They almost never have read the book. Newspaper reporters are the exception. My theory is that it’s partly because they respect the printed word and partly because most newspaper reporters want to write books.

Reviews can be just as irritating as interviews. My reviews were mostly very nice, but then again it is a rare first novel that receives bad reviews (if it’s so bad why waste the space to say so?). But several things were very frustrating. The Dallas Times Herald review referred to “Sarah’s carelessness” with respect to her getting pregnant. Her pregnancy, however, is the result of contraceptive failure, a seemingly minor point that could greatly affect the way someone views an abortion.

A review in The Denton Record Chronicle was passable except that the reviewer got the name of the protagonist wrong. Throughout the review the character was called “Leslie.” The main character’s name is Sarah.

FOR ME, the most consistent feature of being a writer is that there is no even keel, no ordinary day, no going to the office in the morning and coming home at night. There are highs and lows; there is writing and not being able to write; there is selling and there is rejection. There is very little middle ground. There is sitting home worrying about grammar, and there is being asked to speak at colleges. There is wondering what people think you do all day (and wondering yourself sometimes) and there is fan mail.

One reason I think many people are fascinated with writers – or at least they feign fascination – is that most people don’t understand unsupervised productivity. We are asked if we compose in longhand or at the typewriter, if we have a favorite place or time for writing, and if we prefer working in marathons or short spurts. People wonder about favorite pens, whether alcohol or coffee helps, and about the advantages and disadvantages of deadlines.

People ask writers all sorts of funny questions, but really they are always asking the same thing: “What’s the trick? Those things you say about applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the typing chair are all well and good, but where’s the magic button on the typewriter?”

Folks are fascinated by writing because everyone knows the alphabet, which means, presumably, everyone has the tools to be a writer. But everyone can’t write. In fact, few people can write well. Still, there is the fascination.

Writing one book, like taking one shot of heroin, is addictive. I wrote “The Proposal” while holding down a demanding full-time job. Now my writing is my job. I have an office, a letterhead and a new self-correcting Selectric typewriter complete with service contract.

So my productivity, if not the quality of the product, should be up dramatically now that writing has my full attention, right? That’s what I thought. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Writing well is very rewarding, but it is still the most difficult thing I can imagine doing. The empty page is just as empty and just as intimidating every morning. The only thing that makes it seem possible is that if I wrote a little bit three days ago, a little bit the day before yesterday and a little bit yesterday, there is no reason today’s little bit should be impossible.

Originally I hoped to complete the manuscript for my second novel by the publication day of the first. I missed that goal by a couple of months; now a draft of the new book sits in my refrigerator, safe from fire and theft, awaiting major revision.

Sales of “The Proposal” have been fairly good, meaning of course, fairly good for a book with a four-figure print run. If everybody who had asked me, “How’s the book doing?” had actually bought a copy, it would be high on the best-seller list. Foreign rights have been sold to Germany, Spain and Italy. The paperback edition will be released in the middle of next year.

ASIDE, OF COURSE, from the writing itself, the most difficult thing about writing is the continuous tugging doubt. What if the first one was a fluke, and I’m never able to do as well? Or worse, what if it turns out that everyone has been fooled, that the book is not good, that I’ve sold magazine articles only because I was persistent-that I’m too stupid to know that my ability doesn’t match my aspirations? That, I think, is my biggest fear.

Bad as rejection slips are, there is some value in their coldness, their anonymity. The person behind the slip isn’t rejecting you, he’s rejecting your work. But if you’re rejected by someone you like and respect, it’s hard to remember that it’s still the work, not the self, that isn’t quite right.

Those, however, are only thoughts forthe bad days. And even on the bad days”author” has a nice ring to it.


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