Part II – What Now?
Okay, so I have a story and I’ve written hundreds of pages of a first draft. What now? Although I was pretty sure since I taught writing and had a degree in editing that I could offer a clean draft, I knew I still needed a professional to offer direction. A member of my writing group gave me the name of a directional editor. Enter Suzanne Kingsbury.
It was late at night, a few weeks before Christmas, when I emailed Suzanne my manuscript draft. By six the next morning, Suzanne’s text, single spaced, three screens long, said, Yes, Yes, Yes. I am very selective, she wrote, and take on only a few writers, so that I can offer to your manuscript my undivided attention. First, we should meet, she said, to get a feel for each other. She lived in northern Vermont, and I on Long Island, forty miles from New York City. The Oyster Bar, she suggested. The Oyster Bar is in Grand Central Station, the site where the bomb that could have demolished the landmark restaurant was removed by my husband right before it detonated and killed him. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I wanted Suzanne on my team.
I could feel the flutters in my chest as Suzanne sat at the table. She had so much energy, so much enthusiasm, so much to say about my life, as though she memorized every page and knew just how the book should look. We ate salmon and rich desserts and talked until the restaurant was quiet and we realized how late it was. Scene by scene, she said as we parted. Then we will braid it all together.
I had been trying to write a story, link one chapter to another, and it wasn’t working because instead of being focused on each scene, I focused on the whole book. Before we got to work in earnest, Suzanne offered a workshop she was hosting where I could explore further what my book would look like. I fell in love with those writers and, encouraged by their reaction to my words, I wrote stories that made everyone cry.
There I also met Dede Cummings, book designer and would-be agent, who consented to represent me. I would be her first client as an agent, but she knew top editors in the industry and hoped to land my unfinished manuscript. Then one after another, the rejections arrived. We like your story, those top agents said, but it’s not ready yet.
So while Dede fielded my story to publishers, Suzanne sent a flurry of emails, pages and pages long, asking for details. Tell me five stories about Brian. Tell me about your relationship with your mother, your sister, your children. These were the sensory details that the book needed to place the reader on the page, she said. What was the color of your nail polish, scent of the fireplace, what was Christmas like alone for the first time? She drew out memories I had not thought of, feelings I had buried, accomplishments I had trivialized. Write it all down, every dark corner of your memory. Then we can pick and choose what we want to keep. She forced me to think about the reader as critic, one who wanted to be entertained and thrilled and cry when she is reading my words.
I wrote a story about the day I met Brian. It was tentative at first, bare details. Go back and add everything you saw and felt and heard, Suzanne said. Draft after draft came back with suggestions, until finally she said it was ready. She had a contest in mind.
The HuffPost50 memoir contest offered a grand prize of publication by Simon and Schuster. It was my first contest, and I checked the site a hundred times and watched as the list of contestants grew past the 2000 mark. I was up against bright minds, established writers, but Suzanne was confident and I tagged along on her enthusiasm. Then I received an email from Rita Wilson. I knew that name. Tom Hanks’s wife, known for Sleepless in Seattle. “Your entry has been chosen as one of the finalists of the HuffPost50 memoir contest. Ten Finalists were chosen from a pool of more than 2400 contestants. Congratulations on sending one of the very best pieces our judges encountered,” she wrote.
Sometimes dreams do come true.
Stay tuned for Part III