Friday, November 29, 2013
A Twelve Year Unfolding – Part I
When I first saw Alanis Morisette’s music video of “Hands Clean” (2002) I loved its premise of chronicling a hit song from its inception. What inspired it, the writing of it, its studio recording, and its distribution into the world. I thought it would be fun to do the same thing with Just Wait, the novel I’m about to release, because readers are forever asking, “Where did you get the idea for that book?” This particular one has certainly been on a long journey—twelve years, to be exact—that has gotten even more amazing and serendipitous in its final phase.
From the age of nineteen until I was almost 33, I worked as a federal employee in a government facility at an Air Force base. Having started the job at such a young age, I did a lot of my growing up there. My coworkers, who ranged from being four to thirty-four years older than me, taught me professionalism and teamwork. They were a dedicated and hardworking bunch but they also had a playful side. Their quirks and a collective sense of humor left a huge impression on me.
There were inside jokes, office traditions, “office spouses” and people who became lunch buddies. There were also rivalries and the typical agitators who weren’t always the easiest people to be around. Throughout my time in this job, I would often overhear conversations—both in my own branch and in other offices—that were amusing, to say the least. As the years went by, the things I heard and observed inspired little ideas in my head for scenes and scenarios between fictitious characters. If they weren’t actual snippets of funny dialogue that I’d heard, then they were embellishments of them that had been through the spin cycle of my writer's imagination. Sometimes “real life” isn’t all that interesting and you have to make it more outrageous.
When I finally finished college and left my federal job to be a school teacher, I had to pack up all the personal items in my office desk. There in my top drawer was a sizable pile of little pieces of scrap paper and Post-its containing the many accumulated story ideas. I put them in a baggie and took them home, thinking that one day I would turn them into a novel. There was some good stuff in there, but I had to let it simmer for awhile and figure out how to weave it all together into a solid story with a likable main character. A character that had a juicy conflict to resolve.
About that time, I was working on my first “serious” novel. (I say that, because the very first one I wrote in my senior year of high school was a romance novel set in England, inspired by all my New Wave rock star crushes of the era) The novel was a very long and epic story based on the adventurous life of my northern Italian grandparents. As a writer, I had always felt moved to tell their story. It seemed most Italian sagas were mafia-related, and I wanted the world to know there was more to Italian immigrants than Vito Corleone.
Once my novel about my grandparents was complete, I shopped it around to various agents with no nibbles. One agent told me, “Family sagas go in and out of style, so keep trying. If people don’t want it one year, someone else might the next.” And so I put Journey of the Alpine Eagle on the shelf, and got out the baggie of notes.
At that point in my life, I’d finally been through some stuff: feeling stagnated in a meaningless job that wasn’t utilizing all of my skills, switching careers, and suffering my first major breakup. I was over 30 and had hit the snooze button on my biological clock one too many times. Being one of the last in my social circle to marry, I experienced days of literal panic where I wondered if motherhood—a dream I’d looked forward to since I was a child—was in the cards for me after all. I had looked for answers in 12-Step meetings, therapy, yoga class and user-friendly books on Zen Buddhism. At that point, I had some real-life fodder to use for a main character’s struggle with timetables in life. And so Mira Winfield was born.
Mira worked in an office much like mine. Only since mine had been a Top Secret facility and I couldn’t write about what went on there, I instead made it an interior design company. A high school classmate of mine who worked in that field gave me a tour of her workplace and helped with my field research so it would be as authentic as possible.
Mira’s coworkers were varied and quirky. Some were amalgamations of real-life people while others were born of my imagination. They joked and laughed together. They shared personal theories on life, love, and beliefs. Before I knew it, the first draft of Just Wait was complete.
Santa Barbara was my home when I completed the second and third drafts of the book. Then it was once again time to query agents. After a month or so of sending out letters and sample chapters, I finally got a reply from a well-known agent known as the “Pit Bull.” Like the breed of dog who is known for clamping down and not letting go, her reputation was to not "let go" of your book until you were published. The Pit Bull was requesting the entire manuscript because it “sounded like an interesting premise” for a novel! I screamed. I jumped up and did the happy dance. I was sure this was my big breakthrough into the publishing world. I went to Bill’s Printing on State Street and spent $40 to print out my manuscript on good paper. I boxed it up, sent it to her, and waited. Three months later, a letter came back. She felt I was a talented writer and the book was a great idea, but not great enough for her to feel confident enough about selling it. I felt confident, however, and decided that I would just self-publish it to prove to her or any agent that I could sell books.
Right around the time all this went down, the hit TV show The Office came out. An office full of comical and quirky characters. DAMN IT, I thought. My book is going to look like some knock-off of this show! Still feeling the sting of rejection, I decided to take a break from Just Wait. Ideas for a new book were coming fast and furious, and I wanted to switch gears in the worst way. I promised myself I would not abandon Just Wait completely, but return to it at a later time.
Saffire_21 practically wrote itself in one year. I felt it had a lot of potential with social networking being such a big thing. After completing it, self-publishing it and promoting the crap out of it through viral marketing and book events in multiple cities, I had finally pioneered the life of an indie writer and proven that I could sell books. Now I’d have some cred to provide agents and publishing companies.
For the next two years I found myself in a very “stuck” place as a writer. I’d begun a new novel that I was really into at first until family tragedy, obligations and a chronic injury sent me into writer’s block. I knew I had to jump start my writing career somehow if I wanted it to continue, and I knew it wasn’t going to happen with the novel-in-progress that had lost its steam. That was my cue to get Just Wait back out of the closet. A sister and a friend had been my alpha-readers and loved the book. Contrary to what the Pit Bull thought, I knew it had potential to be a success.
There was only one problem.
Ten years had passed since I wrote Just Wait. My 30-year-old main character was outdated. A 30-year-old of today was a member of Gen Y. She listened to different music in high school. She used cell phones and texted. She liked Ryan Gosling, not Matthew McConaughey. I was faced with a choice: I could either make it a retro 90s story or set it in current times. I voted for current times to reach a wider audience. So I spent a few months changing things and polishing the manuscript even more. Then I emailed one of the most capable masters of grammar and English that I knew and said, “Ali, I’m ready to publish this damn book!”
“Well okay, then!” came her reply. She was willing to edit the manuscript for me.
And so began the long, tedious journey of the publishing phase. Little did I know at the time what irony was to befall me, and how long I was going to have to just wait for Just Wait.
To be continued….