Please welcome author Kathleen Bailey to The West Corner! She’s here today to talk about her writing journey.
The Good, the Bad and the “What were you thinking?”
When I was six years old I fell in love. No, it wasn’t a freckle-faced first grader who carried my books. It was a series of books, the “Betsy, Tacy and Tib” stories by Maud Hart Lovelace. The series detailed life in a small Minnesota town just after the turn of the century (Not Y2K, the one before). Three little girls got into scrapes and adventures, from mixing up a concoction of everything in the pantry to spying on their older sisters to snagging a ride in the town’s first automobile (the intrepid Tib). I loved their escapades and even tried a couple. But the thing that stayed with me, from the first page to the rest of my life, was Betsy’s determination to be a writer. She had a collection of stubby pencils and five-penny tablets, and she scribbled stories from her perch in a tree house. I wanted to do that. Still do.
My dream came to fruition this past winter when I sold my first novel, an Oregon Trail historical romance, to Pelican/White Rose Publishers. The fulfillment of a 61-year-old dream came true on a cold Friday night in New Hampshire. I’ll be 68 years old by the time the e-book is published, but I’d be 68 anyway. Part of the delay was my own fault, part God’s perfect timing.
There were missteps along the way. What did I do wrong? How much time do you have?
What I got wrong
One of my biggest mistakes was not studying craft enough, which led to not accepting constructive criticism. I knew what was best for my story, didn’t I? Except that agents, editors and publishers were lukewarm, at best, about what I produced. I probably delayed publication at least five years through my own stubbornness. Sometimes I broke a major rule, sometimes just a small slant of words or a punctuation tip would have made all the difference in the world.
I learned to learn, reading craft blogs on Seekerville and other Web sites, taking that fateful step back and looking at my stuff with a fresh set of eyes. I worked with criticism, first in a multi-author critique group and later with two successive individual critique partners. I sifted through their responses and looked for the wheat among the chaff. Usually there was more wheat than chaff.
I also began to look differently at contest feedback, discerning when a judge was snarky, when a judge was trying to make me over in his/her mold, and when a judge had valid and sometimes crucial input. I learned to follow the two-out-of-three rule, and if two out of three judges brought up the same point, it got dealt with.
There are specific craft rules such as punctuation, head-hopping (just don’t) and structure. There are acronyms such as SDT and Deep POV. But the rule overarching all of this: what’s in your head doesn’t necessarily transmit to the page. The reader has to see what you see, or it doesn’t work. This is the single biggest lesson I learned on craft: get it out of your head and on to the page.
I also had to learn the “soft” skills, such as not nagging editors and agents at conferences and not bugging my friends to introduce me. There is a place in all of this for connections, and using them, but trust me: when you’re good enough, they will come to you.
And never go over an acquisitions editor’s head to scream at their boss because you think they’re taking too long on your story. Trust me, it will end badly. And it will definitely end.
What I could have done better
I should have trusted the Lord more. In the early years I was guilty of trying to use connections, to take shortcuts, to bring this about by sheer will if nothing else (see above). I blame part of it on my secular job, which is in print journalism. If I don’t hustle, it doesn’t happen. And if I do hustle, it does. Well, Christian fiction isn’t like that, especially in today’s market. Things will happen in His timing.
I wish I’d developed a better business plan, which doesn’t really contradict the above. We do need to plan, and then leave the results up to Him. I didn’t spend enough time learning about contracts and rights, so I had to play catch-up.
But I didn’t learn about contracts etc. because I was busy writing, so there’s that.
I also wish I had, early on, done a better job of supporting other writers. I used to operate from a position of scarcity, and whenever someone I knew got published, it seemed to shorten the list of opportunities for me. But with publishing houses merging, lines closing, and the market turning back flips, I’ve learned that when one of us makes it, it opens the door for more to succeed. Because if someone publishes in THIS market, it means books are still being published. The metaphorical rising tide lifts all Christian fiction boats.
What I got right
I believed in my story and didn’t give up on it. But I was flexible enough so that when the acquisitions editor suggested I cut 20,000 words, including all but two points of view, I did it. Maybe one day I’ll write a huge, sprawling multiple POV saga, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker here. When the editor suggested I not kill off two secondary characters because she’d fallen in love with them, I again did what she wanted. One of them didn’t drown in the river crossing after all, but got swept away and rejoined the wagon train later. The other one didn’t die of the cholera, but went blind. The bones of the story, the rigors of the Oregon Trail, stayed the same, and the central love story, Michael’s and Caroline’s, remained intact. I was flexible on the peripheral issues, and I got a contract.
I also set up strategies to work, discipline, schedules and deadlines before I saw a contract. My sister writers warned us that life doesn’t slow down after publication, and that you now have someone else’s deadlines to deal with. I run a complicated household, my husband works nights and sleeps days, so I have to do most of our business dealings. And our main computer is in the living room, I don’t have a dedicated space, so I have to work around that. I knew early on that if I sold, I’d have to make this fit. I wouldn’t say I’m the most disciplined person in the world, but this winter when our washing machine died, I printed stuff out and line-edited at the Laundromat. You do what you can to make it work.
I took the advice of Mary Connealy, a Seekerville friend, and learned to be ready. When I finished the Oregon Trail story, I immediately began working on the first sequel. When I finished my 1920s New York settlement house story, I drafted the sequel to that. And when I finished a contemporary Christmas romance earlier this year, I drafted the sequel to that. Some writers advised me not to, in case the first books didn’t sell, but I had confidence in my work and knew they’d sell in some form, some day, even if I had to cut some of the POVs or keep people from dying. The bones were there and the bones were good. So when the first piece in a series sells, I’ve got at least a draft of the second. Which will buy me time to work on the third.
And I let God set me in the place He wanted me to be. Sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes just numbly acquiescent. I had to get the right perspective, and it wasn’t the secular one (work, work, work and you’ll succeed, succeed, succeed). God brought me face to face with needs, sometimes in my own family, far greater than me getting a byline and an ISBN number. He specifically told me He didn’t want me praying for my writing in church, Bible study or other public prayer times. So I didn’t. And He brought me to the brink several times, asking me if my writing was more important than my nuclear, extended and church family. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.) He positioned me in a place where I don’t need money, which is good ‘cause there isn’t any, and I’m doing this for craft and for Christ. He also positioned me in a place where I’m semi-retired, so I have the time to do this right.
The dream that began with a six-year-old and a classic book will finally bear fruit, on the down side of that girl’s 60s.
To God be the glory.
What did YOU get right, what did you get wrong and what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your writing journey?
About the Author
I’m a freelance writer with 35 years’ experience in the nonfiction, newspaper and inspirational field. Born in 1951, I was a child in the 50s, a teen in the 60s, a young adult in the 70s, and a young mom in the 80s. It’s been a turbulent, colorful time to grow up, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and written about most of it. I live in southern New Hampshire with my husband David, an ordained elder in our denomination, and am active in our local church. I recently contracted with Pelican/White Rose Publishers for an as-yet-unnamed Oregon Trail romance, and am hard at work on the sequel.