Taking the Crooked Path
by LJ Cohen
When I was a little girl, my dream was to become a writer and have my books shelved in the bookstore with my name big and bold on the spine. I started and grew bored with dozens of stories and never finished a single one. Yet that didn't deter me one iota from seeing myself as a writer when I grew up. I filled notebooks and journals with snippets of ideas, overly earnest poetry, and letters I never got around to mailing. When I was 14, I even started writing a fantasy novel.
And I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. On the plus side, I was a voracious reader and somehow must have absorbed the pacing of the dramatic arc in a storyline, but I had no discipline and little sense of how to get the idea from my mind and onto paper. So I abandoned my story writing and continued to write poetry through my college years, where I studied not creative writing, but public policy and health care ethics, through my graduate school days, and into my career as a physical therapist.
Through four moves and two floods, I still had my notebooks and scribbled story ideas in a banker's box in the basement. Looking through it one day, I found the Star Wars story I had written just after the first movie was released in the 1970s. I couldn't bear to read it and closed the box for a few more years.
In 2004, while on vacation with my family, my husband finished reading a fantasy book and threw it across the room in disgust. While I don't remember the book, I remember how much he hated it. That's when he turned to me with a challenge: You can write better than this. Why don't you write a book?
So I did. That summer, I unsealed the moldy old box and dug out the fantasy story I had started all those years ago. I forced myself to read it, even though the writing was overly melodramatic, the dialogue stilted, and the pacing ragged. But there was something about the idea and the characters that still pulled at me. I decided to start from scratch, taking only the two main characters' names and the most basic plot from what I had written and drafted what was to become my first finished novel. The Wings of Winter, the story of a war between a race of shapeshifters and humans, took me a year to write. A year of enormous learning. A year of risk taking and boundless optimism. If I had known then how difficult the writing would be, I probably would not have tried it, but ignorance, as they say, is bliss.
I learned enough of the business of publishing that I knew I needed to obtain an agent, so with the same optimistic spirit, I began to query for the manuscript. And got form rejections. A lot of form rejections. A folder full of form rejections. So the next year I wrote another book and queried that one. Mostly form rejections followed, but a few requests for partials kept my spirits alive. Year three brought a third book to life. That novel, a YA haunted house story, got me signed to an agent. I was overjoyed. In my continuing naivety, I assumed that I had 'made it,' and that publication success wasn't far behind.
But then hit the perfect storm: a sea change in publishing combined with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And there I was in the middle of it, hoping to make a living from my writing.
I continued to write, continued to work as a physical therapist, continued to strive towards that dream of publication. Three more novels joined the first three, as I continued to work with my agent on sharpening the haunted house book, only to have publisher after publisher turn it down. Undaunted, I sent her one of the other manuscripts I had been editing and out it went on submission. Again, we received praise from editors without any offers.
After editing and submitting two novels over the course of three years without a sale, it would be easy to lose hope, easy to give up, but that wasn't an option for either my agent or myself. So my crooked path continued and this time, the landscape of publishing had shifted in a dramatic way around me. Tools emerged that had never existed before for writers to bring their work directly to readers. In a frank conversation with my agent, we looked at the choices for the book most recently turned down by the 'big 6': trunk it, or publish it on my own.
It was very important to me that I not burn any bridges with my agent. I wasn't looking to end my contract with her, even though a handful of writers were beginning to break out and be phenomenally successful in the indie scene. I still wanted to keep my options open and walk down both roads: traditional and self-publishing. But I was going to do it methodically and with with clear goals.
With the agency's blessing, I started planning the indie release of THE BETWEEN with about eight month's lead time. That gave me enough time to hire a freelance editor, commission a cover, and learn what I needed to learn about typography for eBook and print, as well as understand the business side of self-publishing. I had already had a website, blog, and social media presence. I barreled ahead with this project much in the same way as I had barreled ahead in writing my first novel: equal parts stubbornness, naivete, and sweat.
On January 13, 2012, I celebrated the release of THE BETWEEN. Over the past month, I have received wonderful feedback from readers, seen my book on Amazon, B&N, iTunes, and other online outlets, and was thrilled to fulfill my childhood dream when our local bookstore hosted me for a reading and signing. There was my book, prominently displayed in the front window and in a display inside the store.
It wasn't the road I had envisioned, but life never provides a straight or simple path. For now, I continue to trust my feet and keep moving ahead.