Note from M.J. - I'm moving the Backstory blog that I've had since 2006, here. On Friday's BB&H will be a place where authors share the secrets, truths, logical and illogical moments that sparked their fiction or memoirs. Today I have a special backstory - since this is a book I've read and loved!
A Sweet, No-Bake Tale of Success by Therese Walsh.
You are a lover of words. One day, you will write a book.
That fortune, cracked free of a cookie after eating my favorite Chinese meal of chicken and broccoli (extra spicy), resonated with me. I did love words. I did want to write a book. In fact, I’d been writing children’s picture book manuscripts for over a year. I wasn’t choosing the right sort of words for children’s books, though—words like “Go, dog. Go.” I liked words that filled a mouth with multiple syllables and a mind with interesting possibilities—words like unbounded and asymmetry and cryptophasia and hallucination.
So, with the fortune cookie slip before me, I began writing a novel for adults. The year: 2002. I intended it to be a romance, because I had a friend who loved the genre. But the story wanted to grow beyond the traditional bounds of romance; there were twin sisters here with something to say—about a tragedy and music and misunderstandings—not to mention a Javanese artifact, an antique dagger called a keris, bent on having a starring role.
Two years later, after hacking 40,000 words off the manuscript and polishing the surviving sentences, I queried agents, still not 100% sure of what I’d written. Turns out, I wasn’t alone.
“The premise of your book is compelling and the writing evocative,” one agent wrote in her rejection letter, “but the tone and set-up make this novel a bit difficult to categorize.”
“The scope of your novel is too broad for a contemporary romance,” said another.
Agent Deidre Knight took the time to explain why the manuscript would be a difficult sell: While the love story drove the plot, the relationship between the sisters provided the most intense emotional moments. “My gut tells me you probably have a part of you that either wants to write women’s fic, or that ultimately *will* write women’s fic,” she said. “My gut tells me you need to write something bigger than romance.”
This? Depressing. I’d worked on the story for so long, making time for it while mothering my two children and between nonfiction jobs (I’d been a freelance health writer). I’d given up sleep. Given up television. My fortune cookie slip hadn’t predicted failure.
I tried to work on something new, but the desire to do my already rejected story justice gnawed at me. Eventually, I committed to a rewrite. I tucked the first incarnation of the tale into a box, and focused on the twins, looking for more. What hadn’t these characters already revealed to me? I cast off my developed notions about who they were, what they wanted, even whose story needed to be told. I decided to interweave narratives to better explore Maeve and Moira Leahy’s unique, magical relationship. I added new characters, left old ones to molder on the cutting-room floor. I turned the plot on its ear. I studied my craft.
Three years and several gray hairs later, I finished writing my 400-page manuscript for the second time and editing it for the 100th. There was still a love story there, along with elements from other genres—mystery, suspense, even mythical realism. But this time when I submitted it, I knew it belonged in the emotionally honest genre that is women’s fiction. Luckily for me, an important someone agreed; Elisabeth Weed became my agent, and sold my story to Shaye Areheart Books, an imprint of Random House, in a two-book deal.
After seven years, this word lover’s “one day” has finally arrived; I have written a book.
I credit the fortune cookie.
To learn more about Therese, please visit her website here.