Truth on the page

So you’re going to publish a novel…

For a while I’ve been wanting to post about my first novel contract, signed about six weeks ago. I’ve wanted to post about the publisher who’s willing to take a chance on this first beloved project, and take a chance on its creator too. I’ve wanted to talk about the exhilaration and strangeness of all this.

Journaling is often the only way I can discharge an overloaded brain, but for some reason, this time, I’ve also wanted to keep everything to myself, even when I feel desperate to talk to someone about it. This road to real-first-book-in-the-flesh, or at least in print and on paper I can hold, has been a long and winding and rough one. Now that I’ve gotten to this place, the one thing I’ve wanted so much for all these years, more than anything I feel scared.

The destination doesn’t look like what I imagined, back at the beginning. For one thing, publishing has already changed so much since the year when I started this book. When I started it, I dreamed, the way a lot of us do, about an agent and the traditional publishing road. After many, many rejections, I finally decided to try a different path: sending the book out to indie presses that might be willing to think differently and take a risk on an unknown quantity. The Canadian indie Blue Moon Publishers was a lucky find. I submitted to them on a chance, more than half thinking – the way you think after you get so many rejections you stop counting them – that nothing would come of it. Instead, one morning, I got a phone call.

I remember how my hands shook as I tried to write down everything the publisher told me over the phone: what the contract with them would look like, how Blue Moon’s publishing process works, how they wanted to market the book to specific audiences who would love its musical angle and connect with its social issues. Even then, as I scribbled notes I could barely read, I told myself none of this would really change anything. Even later, when I finally signed the contract, I told myself I would still be the same person the next day. The funny thing – and the difficult thing – is that it turned out not to be true.

Almost nine years ago, during a crazy spring and summer, I started trying to write this book. At the time, my professional life was going down the tubes: a job I had desperately wanted had turned out to be a nightmare, and I was depressed and didn’t know what to do with myself. I remember those things now, but when I look back, they don’t seem to matter. What glows in my mind is that early time, the new story in my head, the new heartbeat of each day. My novel To Love a Stranger.

It started because I wanted to get a character onto the page. I wanted that character to be perfect, and because of that, it was practically impossible to write anything. I didn’t know where to start and got discouraged so often. I tried to create a story that was much too big. I always thought there was something important about it, something that needed to be said, and it was heartbreaking not to know how to say it, even when working on it was full of joy.

And now we’re here. A lot has changed. When I started this book, I thought I only wanted to write one story and then I’d be done. Somewhere along the line, I realized one story wasn’t going to be enough. I wanted to be a writer. Strange shift. That word writer used to feel shameful to me, even while I was working as hard as I could to become one, because I wasn’t good at it and it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with myself anyway. It’s not shameful anymore.

For as long as I’ve been trying to get words on the page, I’ve been a writer, but I never thought I had the right to call myself one. Now I need to own that title, for once and for all, because I need to own the words that are going out there. This first book came from a deep and intensely personal place. My truth is sitting there on the page. Now other eyes will take it in.

The book isn’t perfect, but I think my character, Sam, comes to life. I think his conflict is visceral and real. It’s a gentle story, despite all the emotions in it. It’s a quiet and understated story even though it deals with major events in people’s lives, and intense personal conflict. It’s a tribute to the classical music I love, taking the “heard” experience of orchestral performances and putting them on the page. I don’t know how good of a job I did. I certainly don’t know what anyone will think of it: anyone who opens it and reads it, and doesn’t have all the ties and all the long history I have with it. I don’t know what they’ll see or how they’ll feel about it.

In the end, though, I do think there’s something beautiful about it. Something that deserves to be shared. I don’t know if I did it well enough, and maybe I’ll never be sure. That’s a scary thing, like the realization that once you put your truth out there, you can’t take it back. But if it’s a choice between doing this now, and never doing it at all: that’s not a choice. We do it.

[p.s. If you’d like to learn a little more about the novel, please check out Blue Moon’s blog, on which I talk about the music that helped inspire the book.]