Never Never Never Give Up
The issue of my age came up shortly after Simon and Schuster bought my novel, The Book of Unholy Mischief. After I sent my agent an over-excited email that must have sounded faintly adolescent, she bluntly asked, “How old are you?”
OMG, OMG, should I lie? No! It would be hideous to get caught. I shot back, “I’m sixty. Is that a problem? Because, if John McCain can run for president I should be able to publish a book.” Not that I was defensive.
My agent is about the same age as my daughter, and I wanted to fit in. I considered emergency plastic surgery. A facelift? Liposuction? Plumper lips? I had to pretend to be young and game. Didn’t I?
On the other hand, I wasn’t entering witness protection, and I was pretty sure that I needed to be exactly where I was in life to write the book I wrote.
Excellent. No surgery.
Still, embracing my age was an uncomfortable novelty. I’m shocked, really, to be over sixty. I don’t think about my age, and I usually feel like I’m about thirty-five, only smarter. Actually a lot smarter, because while amassing rejection letters I was honing my skills and leading a busy life.
I’ve had many jobs, from popcorn girl in a theater to project manager in an ad agency; marriages, good and bad; lovers good and really good; generous friends, caring children and cherubic grandchildren. I draw, I paint, I cook, and I travel. I’ve lived in many places on two continents and circled the globe at my leisure. I have survived divorce, single parenthood, life-threatening illness, and even teenagers. There have been moments of ineffable joy, as well as patches of despair black as scorch. It’s all fodder for the writing life, but it does take time.
At age fifty-five I had an epic collection of rejection letters and I felt like a failure. Isn’t fifty-five the age most people start thinking about retirement? But I couldn’t stop writing. I need to feed my creative impulse the way an addict needs a fix.
One of the nice things about writing is that no one can stop you, and so, at fifty-six, I finished my third novel. I remember the surge of elation when that book caught the attention of a reputable agent. Phew! Just in time. I flew to New York and the reputable agent said, “This book is a gold mine.” Hallelujah! It was finally happening.
And then it didn’t.
After six houses rejected my book, the reputable agent stopped returning my calls. I re-wrote it and tried to get another agent, but no luck. I wrote another novel, but I couldn’t get an agent for that one either. One day, I accepted that I’d started too late and my books would never be published. It was crushing, and it knocked me down for the count. I recently learned a new word that describes how I felt: Gobsmacked.
I spent weeks on the sofa, reading other people’s novels. The only way I could get out of bed was by rolling directly into my reading chair, a comfy old thing in a corner of my bedroom, and plunging immediately into a fictional world. After a massive infusion of industrial strength coffee, I was able to shuffle out to the sofa where I collapsed for the rest of the day. Appalling, I know. I spent weeks wallowing in the tragedy of my own crucified ego.
About that time, I hit my 60th birthday. Ghaaa! I thought about Shakespeare who had finished his immortal work in his forties, VanGogh dead at thirty-seven, Caravaggio revolutionizing art in his twenties, Bernini sculpting masterworks at sixteen, Mozart composing at five. Even Jesus had wrapped it up and headed back to heaven in his early thirties. I sulked on the sofa in rumpled pajamas and ate cold pizza.
I hunkered down for a good, long, well-earned sulk, but found that, short of faking my own death, I couldn’t hide out from all of the people all of the time. An occasional conversation was unavoidable, but if I mentioned my writing, I’d see that patient look people get when they realize they’re talking to a lunatic.
Then I got angry.
I had always followed the rules. I’d written scores of polite, well-crafted query letters, double-spaced and proofread. I followed submission guidelines, I took classes, attended workshops, learned to take criticism, and honed my craft. And where had it gotten me? Slumped on the sofa with enough rejection letters to paper the Astrodome.
I decided to take things into my own hands.
I took the humble route of self-publishing because I just wanted to hold my own book in my hands. That would be enough. I spent a lot of money, endured endless edits, and eventually my book showed up on Amazon. I watched my literary baby make its debut to a shrieking silence and a riot of apathy.
My friends bought a copy out of loyalty, but I don’t have a lot of friends, only very good ones. I used to visit my book on Amazon; it looked lonely and unloved, and that’s when I realized that holding my own book in my hands was really not enough. I wanted people to buy it, and read it, and love it, and tell me so. But I couldn’t afford a publicist, so I curled back up on the sofa and turned on the TV. I don’t remember what I watched; it didn’t matter.
But one night, while watching Sex in the City, I saw Carrie Bradshaw be nauseatingly cute and self-effacing as she floated through her glitzy book launch party. Carrie Bradshaw isn’t a real person and Sarah Jessica Parker isn’t a writer, yet there she was having my book party. Champagne flowed, beautiful people milled, cameras flashed, and I got an idea.
I gambled on a do-it-yourself website and spent thousands on an Internet marketing course. I would throw myself a virtual book launch party. I organized a one-day virtual party website designed to generate a surge of sales on Amazon, and catapult me onto their bestseller list.
My website looked colorful and festive with food graphics captioned by witty quotes (food for thought) and a ton of downloads (party favors) free to anyone who bought a book. But a website is useless if people don’t visit it and I needed to reach 500,000 people to make a few hundred sales. I needed partners.
I approached droves of website owners, inviting them to participate in a cross promotion. It goes like this: I give you space on my party website and you send my invitation to all your subscribers. I sent them each a letter, a box of homemade cookies, and a signed book, with a bookmark on the page where those same cookies appear in the novel.
The cookies are called Bones of the Dead, so, with an aching back, I stood at the kitchen counter, well into the wee hours, shaping cookie dough into little bone shapes, baking them, tray after tray, and then rolling them in powered sugar to make them look bonier. Only the boniest cookies went out — fifteen hundred of them. The rest…well, I gained four pounds.
My friends and family were apprehensive. I could see the pity in their eyes and I imagined their conversation: “Isn’t it sad to see Elle so desperate? First all that craziness with the Internet and now she baking, for God’s sake.”
I forged ahead, bold as a crow. I blogged and talked up my book on message boards. I got a few Internet partners, I baked more cookies, I begged, pleaded, flattered, cajoled, bargained and I got more partners. In the end I had enough support to reach 500,000 people. Yes! I would hit the Amazon bestseller list.
But two days before my virtual party, my son, Michael, thoughtfully stroked his goatee and said, “Mom, if you want agents and editors to notice your book, why not invite them to your virtual party?”
Of course Michael doesn’t know the rules. You’re supposed to approach agents according to a well-established protocol, and you’re not supposed to approach editors at all. But I’d already done that. In the end I decided I was too old to be timid; I just didn’t have that kind of time. I got online and dug up e-mail addresses for 400 agents and editors. The night before the launch, I wrote personal invitations with a link to the party site and hit “send” 400 times.
By noon the next day, I’d heard from dozens of agents and editors. People were clamoring to read my book! An editor from a major house flat out offered me a hardcover deal via e-mail based solely on the reviews. Agents asked me to overnight books to New York, and while I manned the computer, my husband, Frank, made multiple trips to the post office. Within 24 hours I had offers from several impressive agencies — including William Morris, with whom I made an agreement at whiplash speed.
I did hit the Amazon bestseller list, not that it mattered anymore.
New York was talking about The Book of Unholy Mischief, and the buzz was so loud I could feel the vibration in California. I swear the earth moved. During that first wild week, my new agent turned down a respectable six-figure offer from a major publisher. She said, ”We can do better.“ I swallowed hard and hoped she knew what she was doing. Two weeks after my virtual party, The Book of Unholy Mischief went to auction.
The auction was due to start at 11:00 a.m. EST, which was 8:00 a.m. for me on the west coast. I planned to be sitting at my phone, showered and fully caffeinated by 7:30. As I stepped out of the shower at 6:00, the phone rang, and I ran for it, dripping and clutching a towel. My agent said, “Are you sitting down?” I stood there, holding my towel and said, “Yes.” She said, “Two book deal, Simon and Schuster.” Then I sat down, naked and wet as a newborn, and I cried.
In the following unbelievably heady days, the foreign sales started. It was a global feeding frenzy. As of this writing The Book of Unholy Mischief will be published in a dozen languages. I can’t wait to see the Hebrew and Chinese and Cyrillic and Korean editions — I love those exotic alphabets that look like music.
All writers hope to be published, but the publishing world is not for Artistes who cannot get down in the trenches. Getting published is the beginning of a difficult balancing act between art and business. Something gets twisted when we focus on publishing instead of writing; the work suffers and so do we. We need to remember that we began writing in the first place because we thrive on creativity. It is a passion and we do it for those transcendent moments when we are swept up in a magic act of creating something out of nothing. Published or not, writing enriches our lives.
Passion is our consolation for mortality, age is irrelevant, and none of us knows what waits around the next corner. When my work was passed over or my age seemed like cause to quit, I thought of Winston Churchill: with the sky over England littered by falling bombs and London besieged and people dying and the future looking hopeless, sixty-eight year old Churchill pushed out his pugnacious chin and growled, “Never, never, never, never give up.”