Today we welcome Suzanne Nelson, author of the upcoming SERENDIPITY'S FOOTSTEPS to the blog. It can be a long, convoluted road to becoming a writer, and Suzanne is talking about her own fascinating journey below.
Becoming a Writer by Suzanne NelsonWhen people ask me when I became a writer, two responses come to mind. The first response: in utero, or close to it. I can’t remember a moment in my life when I did not want to write. That doesn’t mean, however, that I understood what it meant to be a writer or even how to write something other people would actually want to read. Which brings me to my second response. I became a writer when I became an editor.
Oh yes, I was writing long before I packed a suitcase, blindly answered a roommate-wanted ad for a tiny Bronx apartment, and took a job as an editorial assistant at a children’s publishing house in Manhattan. I was in my twenties and writing daily. In fact, I had finished one coming-of-age novel already and was working on a second. I was filling pages with stabs at fiction, adult and children’s. But who was my readership? That’s right. Me, myself, and I. Without the eight years I spent working with other authors, editing other people’s manuscripts, I would never have become a published author.
My education in the art of writing began with reading. As an editorial assistant, I was expected to stay in-the-know with publishing trends and review journals. When I first began in children’s publishing, I had a fierce loyalty to the books of my own childhood—Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, Little Women, and more. It had been years since I’d browsed the children’s corner of bookstores to see what was new. It didn’t take me long to realize how out-of-date or redundant many of my own writing ideas and stories were. Soon, I was scouring shelves in bookstores, devouring Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch for the latest deals and publishing trends, and stretching my meager budget thin to buy new releases. Other authors’ books became a means for me to study voice, characterization, and idea execution.
The second formative moment in my education as a writer came when I wrote my first rejection letter. I’d been instructed to pluck a children’s book submission from the towering stack residing beside my desk, read it, and decide whether it was worthy of being passed on to my supervisor for consideration, or returned to its creator with a few succinct but polite words of refusal. Dutifully, I read the submission, and as I did, something incredible happened that never happened when I read my own writing. I could see its strengths and weaknesses, and I could “feel,” usually within the first few paragraphs, whether it showed promise as a potential book or not. Like a doctor examining a patient, I assessed a submission’s “vital signs” and made a diagnosis of what might be remedied.
With some submissions, I’m sad to say, there was nothing I could to do to help. This is where I developed another important quality that helped my writing career: empathy. Because of my own dream of becoming a published author, I developed compassion for other people’s dreams. I didn’t want my own work to be rejected any more than I wanted to reject someone else’s. But rejection, doubt, and criticism, I came to understand, were part and parcel of the publishing world. I tried to reject submissions as gently and kindly as I could. I wish you the best of luck, I wrote in my letters. Or, keep trying. I wrote the letters at work, then went home to open my mailbox and find my own stories had been rejected with much the same sentiments. I decided that if I was telling so many others not to give up, I certainly couldn’t either. Empathy gave me persistence and bravery.
Empathy also drove my desire to help other writers succeed. When a submission hooked me, my response to it was as much physical as emotional. My pulse raced, excitement surged, and I felt an unshakeable passion for the story that made me want to share it with the world. None of the books I acquired came to me perfect, and yet, I loved them unabashedly, flaws and all. That love fueled my dedication to helping authors whip their stories into publishable shape. That love poured into the revision letters I wrote to my authors and into the line edits I made to manuscripts. I wanted my authors’ books to be the best they could be, not only for their sakes, but for their readers. It was what I wanted for my own writing, so of course I’d want it for theirs.
It was through the hours I spent editing other peoples’ work that I was able to develop a measure of objectivity when it came to my own. It was a slow learning curve, but eventually, I was able to study my manuscripts with an editor’s eye. The editor’s eye let me hone in on problem areas, identify repetition, and strengthen my style and plotting. It made me leery of the pitfalls I saw so often in submissions and helped me to avoid them. It made me strive for more original ideas and veer away from the “old reliable” stories of my childhood. It made me a better writer and a stronger critic. That’s not to say that I can always see the faults in my work or know how to fix them. I may have an editor’s eye, but I still have a writer’s heart. I will forever need the astute observations of my editors and agent to guide me and help me see what I could never on my own.
There is no checklist for what makes a book publishable. None of the other talented authors and editors I worked with ever shared a secret recipe for a “good book.” I came to understand that their instincts led them in much the same way mine led me. And the magic that happens when we fall in love with a manuscript, whether it’s our own or someone else’s? Like the writing process itself, it remains just that. Delightfully, mysteriously magical.
The many authors I’ve worked with or read may never realize the gift they gave me. They may never know how working with them on their writing and reading their books strengthened my own. But they have my thanks. They were the best writing teachers I could ever have hoped for.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Dalya is the daughter of a cobbler in 1930s Berlin, and though she is only fifteen, she knows she will follow in her father’s footsteps. When she is forced into a concentration camp one violent November night, she must leave behind everything she knew and loved.
Ray is a modern-day orphan, jagged around the edges in every possible way. She sees an impulsive escape to New York as her only chance at happiness; there, she knows she’ll be able to convert her sorrows into songs.
Pinny is an unwavering optimist and Ray’s unintended travel companion on her passage to a new life. She inherited from her eccentric mother a fascination with shoes as a means of transformation and expression.
A single pair of shoes entwines these lives. How these women connect across different times and places is an unforgettable story of strength, love, bravery, memory, and the serendipity that binds us all together.
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