Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Keeping the theme - my journey as an author by Michele Ashman Bell

If the V-formation was a chain, I would definitely be the weakest link. I am so honored to be part of this great group of women, as well as have an association with so many other wonderful LDS authors. I marvel sometimes that I am even able to count myself as one of them.

My journey to becoming published, and the journey I believe I'm still on, is definitely the way NOT to get published. I did everything wrong. I will get to that in just a minute.

Like most, my desire to get published was born out of love for books. Fourth grade was a pivotal year for me. I clearly remember my teacher reading us the book, My Father's Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett. For me, that story came to life and was so visual that I felt as if it was a movie playing in my mind. That was also the year I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder. I started with Little House in the Big Woods and read all the way to the Happy Golden Years, then started all over again. These are beloved books for me and cemented my passion for reading. Here's the funny thing, on my 4th grade report card my teacher actually wrote, "she has a tendency to daydream. She would probably do well with creative writing." HELLO!

I am a little ashamed to admit that as I grew into a teenager, I didn't always read the most uplifting books. In my defense, there weren't a lot to choose from. LDS fiction hadn't taken off yet and except for the occasional Jack Weyland book, I read what was out there. A favorite was LaVyrle Spencer. Her historicals were rich and wonderful and beautifully written. I was guilty of hiding my paperbacks inside my textbooks so I could read during class. Yes, I got busted a few times and got in trouble, but that was how much I loved reading.

I was so busy reading that I didn't pay attention in English, nor did I bother excelling in any kind of literary pursuit. It hadn't occurred to me yet that I might actually need to use this knowledge someday.

The writing bug bit me when I was in my mid-twenties. I had two small children and while they were sleeping I would spend time reading. Back then Good Housekeeping always had a short story in it and I enjoyed reading these stories until one day I read a story that I thought was so stupid I proclaimed, "I could have written something better than that!"

The declaration caused something inside me to click and I dared to wonder, could I really? Soon after I took my kids to the library and checked out some books on writing. I devoured them, absorbing each page like it was feeding an empty spot I had inside that I didn't even know I had. I also took a Creative Writing class through the community education system. I absolutely loved going to class, doing the assignments and receiving feedback for my efforts. Learning took on a whole new meaning for me. It wasn't long after that I joined the Utah League of Writers and attended their conferences, even receiving an honorable mention for a short story I'd written. From there I found critique groups existed and joined two of them so I could have a place to read my work and have a support group who understood why I spent so much time writing and why I was so determined to get published. No one understands authors like other authors. My husband didn't get it, my friends and family didn't get it, only my wanna-be author friends got it. Thank goodness I was too dumb to know how hard it would be to get published or I would've given up before I started. For TEN YEARS I wrote, submitted and collected rejection letters. I kept every stinking one of those rejections because I vowed that one day I would prove them all wrong. I keep them in a binder to remind me of the dues I paid to get where I am now. Finally, after giving up on the national market, I decided to try the regional/LDS market. It was just taking off thanks to Jennie Hansen, Anita Stansfield and Chris Heimerdinger. They are groundbreakers and deserve a lot of credit for the success of the LDS fiction market. I came up with a story that I thought was the perfect LDS story. A romance/conversion story. I thought it out very carefully and wrote 400 pages of a story I thought would be perfect for the market. It was sent back after six months with a suggestion to get rid of 100 pages and to change my main character because none of the evaluators even liked her. That really hurt! And I was used to rejection by this time! Anyway, I threw the manuscript on the shelf and moved onto other projects because I was so discouraged. Then, after about a year, I started thinking about my story and what I would need to do to change it. I began the rewrite and took out 100 pages of unnecessary story and I changed my main character by giving her an eating disorder, something I had strong feelings about because my sister suffered with anorexia when she was a teenager. Suddenly the story I had thought so much about in my head, became an effort from my heart. I developed a love for the character and a passion for the story. I learned an important lesson about writing from this experience. Stories from the heart will touch other people's hearts. I sent the manuscript back to the publisher and several weeks later a wonderful woman by the name Valerie Holladay called to tell me that Covenant Communications wanted to publish it. Ten years of hard work had paid off and I was so glad I never gave up on my dream. It has been so rewarding and such a thrill to write books and receive touching letters from readers, and to get to know the amazing authors that I call my friends. When I go to writers groups and libraries to speak, my message is always one of encouragement and hope. I firmly believe that if someone wants something badly enough and is willing to work hard enough, they can make their dreams come true. Dreams aren't usually handed to us on a silver platter, they happen because we make them happen. Those are the best dreams of all. Those are the dreams that last.


Annette Lyon said...

Thanks so much for sharing this! I love hearing stories of authors who struggle for years. I think success tastes that much sweeter after rejection and when you've gritted your teeth, determined to make it happen.

I don't really envy those writers who land backward into success--I doubt they can appreciate what they have.

Annette Lyon said...

(Oh, and I've kept every single rejection letter too. Still have them all.)

Jennie said...

Great blog Michele. I've met so many people who say they're writing a book, or they're going to write one, but never actually do. Real writers are those who keep writing no matter how many rejection slips, puny royalties, sleepless nights, or misguided insults they have to endure. Some writers seem to magically arrive on best seller lists without paying their dues, but those are few and far between. Most of us could wall paper our offices with the rejection slips we've received, spend years writing obituaries or advertising jingles, or endure seemingly endless rewriting and rewriting some more before we actually hold a book in our hands we've written. Somehow it always looks like someone else's trip to success was easier than ours, but I think we just hit different speed bumps along the way.
I'm so glad your dream came true because I love reading your books.

Cheri J. Crane said...

I agree with everything Jennie said. You're a talented, inspiring writer and I've loved your books.

I also have a scrapbook full of rejection letters. Most are signed by people who are famous now like Orson Scott Card, Sherri Dew, etc. I'm glad I kept them. ;)

Gale Sears said...

Great blog, Michelle! Ah yes, only makes us stronger, right? And I'm in total agreement with you about the wonderful LDS authors I've been able to meet. We're becomming quite a force, aren't we?

Valerie said...

I'm glad I got to share the journey with you, Michele. I'm sure I got twice as much out of our working together as you did, which is a shame, but clearly you've managed just fine :-) And I'm just so impressed with and proud of your hard work and willingness to do what it takes to make wonderful stories for your readers.

Hugs, Valerie