My Ten-Year Overnight Success
Contributor
I suddenly look rather prolific. In the past two years I have published two novels – my new one, Bird in Hand, comes out this week – and co-edited an essay collection, and I’m under contract for another novel. “I don’t know how you do it!” a friend exclaimed the other day. “You make it look so easy.” I agree that it looks easy now – three books in two years is pretty good. But it took a long eight years to get to this point, during which time my confidence was so shaken that I questioned everything about myself as a writer. More than once, I wondered if I would ever publish again. Here’s what happened: In the mid-nineties, after making a small but audible splash in the big pond with my first novel, Sweet Water, my second novel floated quietly on the surface. In truth, Desire Lines did nearly as well as the first, but the publisher’s expectations – and advance – had been much higher. Nobody would quite say it, but I sensed it: the book was a disappointment. I felt like a failure. (A friend who got a large advance for a book that sold modestly described walking down the hall with the publisher himself and running into a famous, perennially bestselling author. “X, this is Y,” the publisher said dryly. “He’s the one who subsidized your book.”) When Desire Lines came out I was working on a new novel. But my sense of having let people (including myself) down, combined with moving to the suburbs and raising three young children, played havoc with my self-confidence. On top of that, I was writing about the death of a child who was exactly the age of one of my own, and the subsequent dissolution of a marriage. This difficult, painful material, while not specifically autobiographical, cannibalized my own experience in myriad ways and often felt overwhelming. In the middle of all of this, I took on what turned out to be a disastrous ghostwriting project to help pay for that house in the suburbs. Without an adequate contract (or, it must be said, a clear sense of boundaries), the whole thing eventually imploded. I took a full-time teaching job and other works-for-hire to make up the lost income when my kids were 6, 4 and not quite a year old, and at some point, without even quite understanding what was happening, I became completely demoralized. I sunk into what I now recognize as a mild depression. With the help of a therapist and support from my husband, I eventually rallied. My children grew, my teaching job got easier, I acclimated to life in the suburbs. And after four agonizing years, I turned in an unwieldy manuscript. My editor at the time took forever to read it; I didn’t hear anything until one day her assistant called to say that the novel was “in the pipeline,” scheduled to be published in the spring. I was flabbergasted – I knew it wasn’t anywhere near ready. I went to lunch with my editor and she asked what I was working on now, and out of nowhere I summoned a new idea, fully formed, like a movie pitch, about a single woman who meets a guy online and moves to Maine. “I love it,” she said. “Why don’t you write it quickly, and we’ll publish this book first? The economy is rough – people want to buy books that make them feel good. And the other one is dark and complicated. This book sounds like fun.” So I did it. I wrote The Way Life Should Be in a fever of relief after the torment of the other novel. This new book was a lighthearted, humorous, first-person, present-tense story with recipes, and looked nothing like my life. It was a joy to write. Within several years, this new book was published – and I was back on track. (The editor was right; people were eager for a light, funny read.) When I turned back to the old manuscript, I had regained my confidence. I had a new perspective and a new editor who proposed radical structural changes that helped transform the manuscript. And after all that time, I had distance enough to see it clearly. I finally knew exactly what I needed to do. In my eight-year publishing drought, when I feared I might never finish another book and it seemed as if other authors were whizzing merrily by, writing one novel after another, I felt as if I’d blown my chances, fallen out of the race. But what I’ve come to realize – and what may be heartening to others who, like me, take a while to get their act together or go through ebbs and flows – is that when you do eventually publish, the intervening years disappear. The current book is the only thing that counts, and it doesn’t matter how long it took you to get there. So yes, now it all looks easy. But I need to acknowledge just how hard it was, and how long it took, if only to remind myself how important it is not to get caught up in other people’s judgments and my own unrealistic expectations. Ten years after I wrote the first word of Bird in Hand, it is finally being published. During the fallow years, I gained insights into marriage and family life and the complicated choices people make that I didn't have access to when I was younger. I developed the confidence to write from the perspective of mature characters, including men (which I'd never done before). And I think that, perhaps as a result of the many drafts and revisions, Bird in Hand is the best thing I’ve written. It's certainly my proudest accomplishment -- probably even more so because it’s not an overnight success. This piece also appears on More.com.

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Comments
  • Michelle Cox

    A great post about endurance and weathering the writing/publishing storm, Christina.  Very encouraging!  Good luck to you!

  • Annemarie Musawale

    I recently took back my book from a publisher and redid it myself. Just so I can have the control of everything as the publisher seemed to be doing nothing. My target is 20 years to be an overnight success.  wish me luck.

  • Hi Christina!  I am glad that you wrote this.  I have yet to finish a novel but I have started three.  I also have raised three children and we moved seven times.  We have lived in four different states.  I think though that you improved as a writer because of all that you went through in your life.  Raising children and being married helps you to grow and mature.  Also, when things don't work out we learn from them even more than when they do work out.  Congratulations. I am going to look up all of your books.  You are an inspiration! Crystal Meinstein

  • Lizzie Eldridge

    Thanks so much for this piece, Christina. It really resonated with me. My second novel is about to be published this year but it's actually the first novel I wrote. I began writing it in 1997, rewrote it in 2004, rewrote and edited it again in 2013 and...

    I love the way you write about your own journey, both as a person and a writer. Thank you for your integrity and honesty. I wish you all the best and more with Bird in the Hand and very much look forward to reading it.

  • Patricia Robertson

    A post worth repeating!

  • Christina Baker Kline

    I appreciate your note, Barbara. I just re-read this piece after, I guess, at least a year ... and wow, that was a long hard journey. I'm in the final few (I hope) months of writing the new novel I mentioned, and honestly -- in some ways it never gets easier. But having come through that experience, I know that I will come out the other side one of these days!

  • Barbara Fischkin

    I am more than a year behind reading this post but Christina I love it. It should be a Shewrites classic, if it isn't already.Ebb and flow are the stuff that make a writer's life. (Men, too!) It's not like other careers that follow set trajectories - or that blow up when the trajectory does. The important thing is to keep telling stories.

  • Thanks, Amber! Glad we're *friends*!

  • Amber Guidara

    Ah! So needed to hear this today... Thank you!
    Wishing you many more overnight successes! :)

  • Shannon Saia

    Thanks so much for sharing this inspiring story. Congralations on your success! It sounds well-deserved!

  • Robyn S. Carter

    Thank you for your inspiring post, and best of luck to you with Bird in Hand. It seems like you are in a very good place--you understand why things happened the way they happened, how everything finally came together, and that you really and truly have arrived once more. Enjoy it! You've earned it!

  • Erika

    Congratulations! Thank you for sharing!

  • Jennifer Margulis

    Wow, thanks for sharing all that here. I look forward to reading the book. One thing we can all do to help is ask our local libraries to order a copy of it. I'll do that tomorrow! It's a small thing but every book sold is a book sold.

  • Benilde little

    Bravo Christina. We met (and became friends) when you were in the early stages of your "fallow" years. I was on an up swing, having had a big best-seller and subsequent healthy contract for three additional novels. You were then and are now an inspiration. I'm so happy for you and glad that I have witnessed first hand your journey. I saw how hard it was, how deep the hole and seeing you climb out of it and do a victory lap, gives me the confidence I now need to do the same thing.

  • Randy Susan Meyers

    Thank you for your honest and gripping post. Most of us have a story about the long climb up--and sometimes down--and then up again--but few feel comfortable sharing it. I look forward to now reading all your books.

  • Loren Stephens

    Thank you for your insightful and inspiring essay. I am going to buy your book today. Your comment about ghostwriting was particularly meaningful. Sometimes I am so used to writing in someone else's voice that I feel as if I can't find my own. Congratulations. Loren Stephens

  • Carol Jenkins

    Christina-- Looking forward to reading the new book. By wild coincidence both Elizabeth (Gardner Hines) and I are here in SheWrites. It was our pleasure to be included in The Conversation Begins...the book you did with your mother on feminist mother/daughter pairs. Congratulations on an overnight success well deserved.
    Best,
    Carol

  • Christi Craig Revising

    Congratulations on your book! And, thanks for such an inspiring post. I definitely needed to read it.

  • Sarah Saffian

    Wow, brava -- for getting Bird in Hand (which I'm eager to read) out there, and for posting this courageously candid and thoughtful account of your experience. Greatly appreciate your honesty, which comforts and inspires, both. My first book (and only one, so far), Ithaka, was published way back in 1998, and my novel has been in the works nearly since then (with, yes, life, jobs, etc. constantly intervening). Thank you especially for: "when you do eventually publish, the intervening years disappear. The current book is the only thing that counts, and it doesn’t matter how long it took you to get there." Indeed. All the best to you, writingwise and otherwise, Sarah Saffian.

  • Thanks so much for your post. I am a former lawyer who has spent close to five years finishing a novel and trying (still - though close) to get it published while juggling significant childcare and eldercare issues, along with my spouse's almost life-threatening illness and recovery. I have been having a bad week in terms of my day-to-day, though my head is filled with ideas for the last small edits I want to make to my manuscript before re-submitting it to the two agents who have expressed interest. Though life looks perfect on the exterior, internally I am constantly pushing a large boulder up a steep hill, and your post was just the inspiration I needed today, as I slog through solving all the burning problems faced by family, parents ,etc before getting back to my own project - which will hopefully happen before another season passes. Thanks.

  • Yael Harlap

    Thanks for posting this! A great reminder to keep slogging even when the last flash of inspiration feels depressingly distant.

  • Casey D.D. Nicholas

    Brava!