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After publishing my last post, I realized it was all disgustingly “me-me-me.” Anyone would think I made that ten-year journey all alone.
So now it’s time to thank all the people who helped me along the way. If I miss your name, please believe I have not forgotten you in my heart, only in my aging brain.
My parents made me who I am: My father, James Henry Bolger, contributed the love of words and literature and the introverted temperament that many writers share, while my mother, Charlotte Ann Skinner, gave me compassion, insight into other people, and emotional honesty. Neither of them lived to see me progress with writing, but they would have been proud of me if they had.
My dear husband John has supported me all along the way, even when my writing was inconvenient and occasionally downright painful for him. My four children have been, at various times and in various degrees, readers, critiquers, practical helpers, and my cheering section—not to mention putting up with a lot of slapdash dinners and poor housekeeping.
My sister, Anne Bolger Ramirez, has been a reader, fan, and encourager all along the way. She also was a key factor in my surviving my childhood and adolescence, and in my return to the fold of the faith.
And my parish family (since I came out of the writing closet) has been wonderfully encouraging and supportive as well.
Beta Readers and Experts
When I first started writing, I kept it very close to my chest. Even my father, who was living with us at the time, didn’t know I was working on a novel until I was well into revisions. But I had two friends that I trusted with my secret early on: Susan Shisler and Fr. Ignatius Dodgen. Both have been readers, fans, prayer warriors, and tireless encouragers all along the way.
Charise Olson, whom I met at the first writers’ conference I attended and immediately clicked with, has been my critique partner, writing buddy, and cherished friend since 2005. She’s kept me going when I wanted to quit, more than once. We’ve shared innumerable good laughs, lots of grumbles, a few tears, and some terrific writing ideas.
Molly King and Mark Roberts read The Vestibule of Heaven and offered expertise about the remodeling process from both sides—Mark was remodeling Molly’s house at the time. Both are cherished friends.
Gail Shepherd was my critique partner for The Dome-Singer of Falenda and helped me navigate the unfamiliar waters of YA fantasy.
Jane G. Meyer has read several of my manuscripts and has always been very helpful and encouraging.
I’ve attended several workshops with excellent teachers, each of whom has taught me something invaluable. These teachers include Gayle Roper, Bret Lott, Karen Shepard, Davis Bunn, Angela Hunt, and Laura Rennert, as well as countless people I’ve heard speak briefly here and there. Liz Curtis Higgs was the keynote speaker at Mount Hermon 2005 and a fabulous inspiration to me. Anne Lamott’s hilarious and seriously awesome writing manual Bird by Bird helped me get started, and I never could have made my way through my first mystery without the written instruction of Hallie Ephron in Writing and Selling a Mystery Novel.
Conference and Writers’ Group Buddies
At each conference, workshop, or retreat I’ve attended, I’ve connected with people who have stayed with me for a short or long time afterwards. I’ve also been privileged to be a member of several writing groups that have helped me immensely.
- From Mount Hermon 2005, Carrie Padgett, D’Ann (Anne) Mateer, Richard Mabry, and Christine Kohler have remained steadfast friends. D’Ann, along with Diana Urban, helped me through a revision of The Former Desolations, and Carrie critiqued Arsenic with Austen. Christine has offered good advice about writing for the YA market, and Richard provided valuable medical expertise for The Ghostwriter.
- My annual retreat at Rockaway Beach, Oregon, has cemented friendships with an amazing group of writers, all of whom have suffered through my evening readings of raw material and offered great advice: Jan Bear, Gloria Smith, Bev. Cooke, Katherine and Andrew Bond, Fr. Lawrence and Donna Farley, Heather McKean, and Barbara Eng. Gloria and Bev. have read and critiqued whole manuscripts for me, while Donna offered excellent suggestions for my very first submission to an agent. Andrew helped out with his first-hand experience in an architect’s office for The Former Desolations; Gloria’s EMT training contributed to The Ghostwriter; and Bev.’s many years of cat ownership helped me sort out the cats in Arsenic with Austen. All have rooted for me every step of the way.
- For a number of years now, I’ve been meeting with a lovely group of ladies for lunch once a month. Susanne (C. S.) Lakin started the group (and also gave me a valuable critique of The Vestibule of Heaven); Karen O’Connor is our resident wise woman, a great inspiration and enthusiastic supporter to me. Carol Loewen, Sherry Kyle, Sherry Van Zante, Terra Hangen, Laura Bennet, Lisa Hamil, Kaycee Beames, Maria Lindsay, Columba Lisa Smith, and Sue Gollbach have all mourned with me over setbacks and rejoiced with me over victories along this rocky road.
- For two years I served as treasurer for the Golden Gate chapter of ACFW, where I made a number of treasured writer friends: Susan Mitchell, Marcy Weydemuller, Jenni Brummett, Sarah Sundin, Shelley Bates, and more.
Agents and Editors
Steve Stanton, then editor of Dreams & Visions, published my first short story, “A Tree Falls in the Forest.”
The good people at Ancient Faith Publishing produced my picture book, Lucia, Saint of Light, and have been wonderful, supportive colleagues for many years.
My first agent, Diana Flegal, believed in my work and made a valiant effort to sell it in the Christian market, which ultimately proved not to be where I belonged.
My current agent, Kimberley Cameron, spotted my potential from an idea and a single scene and has been gung-ho on my side ever since.
I’ve only just begun to work with Marcia Markland and her assistant, Quressa Robinson, but I look forward to a long and happy association.
A number of other agents and editors I’ve submitted to or met with have offered helpful suggestions and encouragement, even though the relationship didn’t work out in the long run.
And Everyone I Forgot to Mention
This has been a long list, but I’m sure I’ve left out people who ought to have been included. No writer is an island. We all need a lot of support, and I have been very blessed to have it in abundance. Many thanks to all of you, with all my love! I couldn’t have gotten this far without you.
And our journey together is just beginning!
That’s the short version. The long version involves a decision at age 11 that I wanted to be a writer, followed by the usual adolescent scribblings, then college, where academia consumed all my words except for a few poems. Then marriage, motherhood, and a couple of years trying to write short stories with two toddlers and an unsupportive husband, battling a sense of inadequacy born of academic literature study and the idea that if it’s comprehensible to the average Jane it can’t possibly be any good. A few magazine rejections and I was ready to throw in the towel.
Follow that with several years of a disintegrating marriage, a couple of years as a single mom, then some years working while being mom to a second pair of toddlers—all years during which I did not allow myself to believe I had the right to take time to pursue my own dreams.
Enter midlife crisis. With my husband devoting every spare minute to his dream of becoming a composer, it became clear to me that the only way I could avoid resentment was to take some time for myself, whether it appeared to exist or not, and write. Around the same time, two other events confirmed my decision:
- A college acquaintance—one I had not much liked—published a bestseller that also won critical acclaim. I thought, “If she can do it, I can do it.”
- I read a biography of Charlotte Brontë, who persisted against tremendous obstacles to write and publish her few novels because the creative force in her was irresistibly strong. I felt that same force in myself, and knew that bottling it up was killing me.
So, in the fall of 2003, I began to write. Like many starting out, I drew heavily on my own life experiences, which has both advantages and pitfalls. That first novel took me four months to draft and four years to polish—years during which I gained an education in the ways of the fiction publishing world. The Former Desolations garnered dozens of rejections, ranging from a scribbled “no thanks” across my own query letter to thoughtful tomes detailing why the novel didn’t quite work.
At last I decided novel #1 was as good as I could make it. After a false start on a dud idea, a brilliant idea came out of thin air—well, actually, it came out of a house, but that’s another story—and possessed me. This one took two years to write and refine, and I believed in The Vestibule of Heaven so strongly that when I sent it out to the first round of four agents, I fully expected to spark a bidding war between them.
I got four rejections.
I sent out another round of queries, then another and another, and finally snagged an agent. But after trying for a year, she couldn’t sell it. My beautiful baby didn’t win the photo contest after all. I still don’t quite understand why.
Meanwhile, I pulled out a fantasy idea I’d been sitting on for several years. After a year, a complete rewrite, and numerous revisions, it became The Dome-Singer of Falenda, which was eventually picked up by Oloris Press and is set to release in fall 2014. I loved that story, but the writing process had been so excruciating that I knew fantasy was not where I ultimately belonged.
While Dome-Singer was making its rounds, I again became possessed with an idea and started working on The Ghostwriter. This one fell into the limbo between my first agent, with whom I amicably parted ways about a year ago, and my second, who came into the picture a few months later. So its (I hope) eventual publication story has yet to be told.
Before being possessed by The Ghostwriter, I had begun to consider writing a mystery series. I knew it would be a traditional series, set in a small coastal town and centered in some way around books. I had the silhouettes of my two main characters, a literature professor and a small-town sheriff who were once-and-future lovers. I’d never gotten as far as a plot.
Once Ghostwriter was finished, I returned to this idea and began to flesh it out. It came together surprisingly quickly, but I couldn’t be sure I was doing it right. As a newbie to the mystery genre, I needed to attend a specifically mystery-oriented conference, so I applied for the sole scholarship to the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference at the eponymous bookstore in Corte Madera, a couple of hours north of home. I couldn’t afford the conference fee plus a Marin County hotel, so the scholarship was essential. I’d entered so many contests and scholarship competitions in the past, with no result, that I didn’t really have a lot of hope.
At the conference, in late July 2013, I met with agent Kimberley Cameron, who told me she loved my series idea and my writing sample and wanted to see the novel as soon as it was finished. (It was about half done at that point.) I learned a ton of good stuff at the conference and applied it all as I worked on the second half. By November I had a completed second draft, which I sent off to Kimberley, thinking it would probably be months before I heard back.
She read it over Thanksgiving weekend and called the next week to offer me representation.
I took December to make the few edits Kimberley suggested, December being dead-time in publishing anyway, and sent her the revised manuscript early in January. Again, I expected to wait many months for any news.
On March 13, Kimberley called me to say we had an offer. A good offer, for two books, from one of the leading mystery publishers in the country—and one of the first three editors she’d sent it to, Marcia Markland of Thomas Dunne Books (a sister imprint of Minotaur). I would be in the same stable of authors as my idol, Louise Penny, and dozens of other wonderful, gifted, award-winning mystery authors. I got to meet some of them, along with Marcia, a week later at Left Coast Crime, and they welcomed me warmly into the fold.
I had made it. Despite persistent thoughts of They can’t realize I’m just me—just Katherine, I was in The Club.
So that’s my ten-year overnight success story. Ten years of blood, sweat, and tears, of two steps forward and three steps back, of “flying and thud,” as Anne Shirley would say. Ten years of learning my craft, refining my vision, finding my niche. Ten years during which I couldn’t count the number of times I was tempted to give up; but whenever I stopped writing for a few weeks, I became a person I myself didn’t want to live with, let alone my poor family. Ten years of struggling to master patience, equanimity, and faith.
Ten years: a significant chunk of my life to date, invested in something that could easily have never paid off in any tangible way.
Was it worth it?
A few years ago, I fell in love with a house. It was just like love at first sight for a human being—the kind of instantaneous, unreasoning wallop that has reduced many a better writer than I to clichés. It caught me off guard; it took my breath away; it floored me.
I’d admired the house from afar for years. It sits well back from the road in a charming if overgrown garden just around the corner from my home. The pale yellow siding, low gabled roof, and riotous garlands of wisteria twining the balcony railing pegged it as a “homey house,” the kind I felt I’d like to know better if I ever got the chance.
My chance came when I saw by the driveway first a “for sale” sign, then a sign announcing an open house. I dragged my husband from his Sunday paper and my son from his play, and we walked around the corner to see the house.
A sign on the front door said in stern letters, “Do Not Open,” and directed all visitors to the kitchen door on the side. I climbed the few steps to the side porch, walked in the kitchen door, and started to cry.
I still don’t know why. The house simply opened its arms to me like a loving grandmother, and I laid my homesick head on her ample bosom and wept.
There was no logic at all behind this reaction. The house did not remind me of any of the places that felt like home to me in my youth—neither my grandmother’s shingled split-level with its wide lawn sloping down to the Chesapeake Bay, nor my great-aunts’ Victorian townhouse full of high ceilings and polished mahogany. Nor did it boast many of the features I’ve always considered mandatory in my dream house: where the fireplace should have been, an ugly gas heater squatted on the sealed brick hearth, and no tower or window seat was to be seen. Not only did the staircase not rise grandly from an open foyer, but the house had no foyer at all and the staircase was on the outside.
Further inspection and questioning revealed that the house—built in the twenties and never remodeled—had major structural problems as well. My husband and I lacked the time, talents, and resources to restore an old house; therefore, my dream home would come ready equipped with a good strong foundation under the weathered pine floors, computer-friendly wiring behind the plaster and beadboard walls, and capacious PVC pipes to feed a steady supply of hot water to the clawfoot tub.
But love is blind, and none of these drawbacks made any impression on my affection for the house, which only deepened as I moved from the airy, light-filled living room to the cozy den—just right for a writing room—and on into the warren of tiny rooms at the front of the house, where the precipitous slope of the floor provided a clear explanation for the “Do Not Open” sign on the front door. Upstairs, a blue-and-white bedroom nestled under one gable; I knew my then-twelve-year-old daughter, who could not be dragged from her book to accompany us, would feel just like Anne of Green Gables in that room.
Outside, my son capered across the wooden bridge that arched over the little brook and gazed longingly into the branches of the eminently climbable trees. Dotted about the yard were several tempting spots to linger with a spouse, friend, or good book for companion—one in a rose bower on the east side for coffee in the morning sun, another under the trees by the brook for tea in the afternoon shade.
I walked through the downstairs again, trying to memorize every detail. What was it that called “home” to me so strongly? Surely it had something to do with the deceased owners’ furniture and belongings that still filled the house, untouched. Would the kitchen have been so welcoming if the tall dresser that faced me as I walked in the door had not been filled with brightly colored Fiestaware pitchers and plates? Would the living and dining rooms have seemed so much my own if the ranks of built-in shelves had not been overflowing with gold-stamped hardcover books, if the sideboard had not held hand-tinted photos of the owners’ 1940s wedding in silver filigree frames, if the green nylon plush of the loveseat and chairs had not invited me to sit a spell and chat? I half expected at any moment to see the woman of the house come bustling in from the back porch with a basket of clean laundry, looking just like my Aunt Adee and asking me whether I’d like hot soup or a grilled bacon-and-cheese sandwich for lunch.
We lingered in the garden as other prospective buyers toured the house. I longed for Jedi or wizard-like powers to blind their eyes to the charm of the place, to let them see only the magnitude of the work it needed so they would go away unimpressed, and the ridiculously low offer that was all we could ever afford to make would have no competition. But whatever it was in that house that brought tears to my eyes seemed to affect others almost as strongly. The realtor broke gently the news that good offers had already begun to come in.
I sobbed all the way home—not in despair at knowing I could never own the house, but just because seeing it had shaken me to the core. The despair set in gradually over the next few weeks, as a realtor friend opened my eyes to the reality of the current market and the cost of restoration. The seller was reportedly impervious to any sentimental approach; my love for the house would not impress him. Not even the cleverest, most devious financing tricks would avail to make that house legally mine. At the end of a month it was sold.
I pass the house several times a week, and I always check for signs of progress. My great fear was that the new owners would tear it down and rebuild, or gut the house and remodel it into a typical generic modern box. But so far very little seems to have happened. The external appearance of the house is unchanged. No construction crew has trampled the garden coming in to jack up the foundation or replace the roof. Either the new owners are willing to live with the house’s flaws, or they’ve perfected the art of stealth remodeling.
I’m mystified. And since I’ve never seen people there, only a car, I persist in thinking of it as “my house.” I’ve even named it: Wisteria Cottage—a homey, humble, welcoming name.
Perhaps someday the new owners will put the house on the market again, either untouched or restored with a fittingly reverent hand. By that time, perhaps the novel I’ve written, The Vestibule of Heaven—in which the house is not so much a setting as a character—will have become a bestseller, and I’ll have another opportunity to respond to “my” house’s imperious call.
But even if that never happens, I know now what I mean when I say the word “home.”
This is an essay I wrote as an entry for a conference scholarship. I missed the deadline for the scholarship, but this came from my heart and I’d like to share it with you.
Why Writing Is Important to Me
As a child, I was invisible. The shy second daughter of a working single mother whose devotion exceeded her energy, I did my best to leave the smallest possible footprint on the world.
As an adolescent, I was misunderstood—not by my parents, but by my peers. They mistook introversion for arrogance and assumed my preference for intellectual pursuits equaled disdain for the pursuits of others. I wrote for myself alone.
As a young mother in a difficult marriage, I was lost. My voice was drowned by the demands of children and a husband absorbed in his own needs. I tried to write, but with no encouragement, I soon gave up.
As an older mother with a second family, now in a supportive marriage, I realized at last that my spirit was withering for lack of expression. The only way I could find myself was to pour myself out on the page and watch what took shape. Job and children notwithstanding, I carved out space and time and began to write.
Eight years and four novels later, as a middle-aged woman on the cusp of an empty nest, I have served my apprenticeship. I have honed my craft, persisted through rejection, shared my lessons learned with those just setting out on this daunting but exhilarating road.
I have found my voice. I am ready to be heard. I will not be silenced again.
Today I’m participating in a “blog hop”—sort of like a chain letter for blogs, but without the guilt. I was tagged last week by Susan Cushman (thanks, Susan!), and at the end of this post I’ll tag several other authors, who will post on the same topic next week. Basically, this blog hop gives us all a chance to tell the world about what we’re working on without looking like we set up a blog just to tell the world about what we’re working on.
We’re asked to answer a series of questions, so here goes!
1: What is the working title of your book(s)?
The book I’ve recently finished writing is called The Ghostwriter.
5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? (I moved this question to a more logical place in line.)
Reclusive author Maeve O’Shaughnessy hires her identical twin, Margaret, to be her public persona, but when Maeve goes into a coma, Margaret is in danger of losing her own identity as well.
2: Where did the idea come from for the book?
Like most authors I know, I hate the idea of doing my own publicity and marketing. (I’ve found I don’t hate the reality quite as much as I hate the idea.) I’m an introvert, which makes it especially hard. But my sister is an extrovert. So I was thinking one day, wouldn’t it be great if I could get Anne to do all the marketing for me, because she would actually enjoy it. I played around with that idea and took it to its logical conclusion, and The Ghostwriter was born.
3: What genre does your book come under?
This is always a tough question for me. It’s sort of commercial literary or book club fiction, with a dash of magical realism.
4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I don’t choose actors to represent my characters as I’m writing; I envision them as faces I’ve never seen. So this is a difficult question to answer, because no actors I know of look at all as I imagine my characters looking. But I could see Emma Thompson—with red hair and an American accent—in the dual role of Maeve/Margaret.
The love interest, Edward, is trickier. If you can imagine a cross between Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant—Tom’s wholesomeness with Hugh’s boyish charm—you’d have something like Edward. Unfortunately they’re both a little old for the part (all these characters are in their mid-40s).
6: Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?
The Ghostwriter is represented by Diana Flegal of Hartline Literary. I just sent her the proposal this month, so no publisher action yet.
7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It took about nine months to write the first draft, with three to six months of concept development and research before that. I read a lot of books about twins.
8: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The book that first comes to mind—the book without which I doubt Ghostwriter would have been written—is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. But other than being about twins with concomitant identity issues, the two books have little in common.
I always have a hard time finding comparables for my novels. The people whose style mine resembles tend to write about different topics; hardly anyone writes about similar topics in a similar way, seemingly. Of the writers I know, I think Susan Cushman may be the most similar to me, but we’re both still awaiting publication.
10: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I deal with the special connection between identical twins—twin language, telepathy, feeling each other’s pain, and so forth. It’s a fascinating set of phenomena with no satisfactory scientific or even spiritual explanation. I don’t attempt any explanation in the novel, but just sort of take the phenomena for granted, as a natural part of these twins’ lives.
That’s it for me. Next week on March 6, please visit the following blogs to read about these authors’ Next Big Things:
Charise Olson writes what she calls California fiction—”It’s like Southern fiction, but without all the humidity.” In other words, contemporary fiction with a humorous voice but with underlying serious spiritual and emotional issues.
Bev. Cooke writes a variety of genres for children and young adults. Her published works include Feral, told from the point of view of a feral cat; Royal Monastic, a biography of Princess Ileana of Romania; and Keeper of the Light, a fictionalized story about St. Macrina the Elder.
Katherine Grace Bond‘s latest book is a YA spiritual journey/romance, The Summer of No Regrets. She also teaches TeenWrite workshops where teens interact with each other as their characters.
I’ve just read (in one evening) The Sister of the Angels by Elizabeth Goudge, a sweet story about a young girl, an artist, and a chapel full of frescoes. I recommend the book for anyone interested in any form of art, as well as anyone looking for a new family Christmas favorite. But I’m not going to review it at length; I’m just going to quote one passage that is worth the whole weight of the book. The young girl’s father, a writer, is telling her a story about the artist.
“In some ways this man was rather unfortunate because no one wanted to buy the pictures that he painted, and as he had to support himself and his family this was rather awkward, because if people don’t give you money for the work that you do you starve, and so does your family, and you don’t like that, nor do they. All artists, whether they are musicians or painters or writers, experience the same difficulty. . . . It’s a difficulty that passes, of course; for one of three things is bound to happen fairly soon: either the artist, under pressure of starvation, gives up painting the pictures he wants to paint, but can’t sell, and paints those that he does not want to paint but can sell; or else he manages to last out until the public, having got accustomed to the kind of art that they formerly reviled, suddenly change their minds and like it after all; or else, remaining true to the kind of work he likes and not having the kind of body that will last out unfed while the public slowly change their minds, he dies.”
“But there’s another thing he could do,” said Henrietta eagerly. “He could give up being an artist and do something quite different; he could be a ticket collector or a pork butcher.”
“No,” said Ferranti somberly, “with an artist that is only another form of death. I’ve tried it, and I know.”
I guess this puts me, and a great many other writers, among the walking dead. We kill ourselves with work we don’t love that puts bread on the table, while trying to keep ourselves marginally alive by doing the work we love in bits and pieces of time left over. This is not a good way to live—or to make art.
Of course, it could give you plenty of first-hand experience to use in writing zombie fiction, if that’s what floats your boat. It doesn’t float mine.