The Turning Points blog series is back with more guest posts! I’ve asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is debut author Claire Legrand revealing hers…
Guest post by Claire Legrand
My turning point didn’t come when I wrote the book that got me a publishing contract.
It came with the book I had to let go.
First of all, I have to say as a disclaimer that I’ve already told this story in bits and pieces on my blog. But the more I talk about it, the stronger I feel, the more encouraged, the more determined. So, here it is again:
I still remember how the idea for that story—the one I had to let go—came to me. The summer after I graduated from high school, I visited Washington, D.C., with my family. On the flight home, while staring out the window and daydreaming, I had a vision. Calling it that makes me want to roll my eyes, but it happened. An image popped into my head, one I had to explore.
It would later become one of the final scenes in the final book of a trilogy that I have yet to write.
Two years later, halfway through my undergraduate degree, I changed my major and left music behind, at least in a professional sense. Part of the impetus behind this decision was that vision that wouldn’t leave me. The story of it haunted me, begging for existence. I changed my major rather listlessly to English literature. I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself, at that point. But I knew I was going to write this book.
I spent the next two years brainstorming. I scribbled aimlessly in notebooks and wrote fan-fiction for characters that have yet to see the light of day. I composed glossaries and encyclopedic essays, designed clothing, and dreamed up spectacularly elaborate fictional histories, maps, wars.
In 2008, I finally started writing. I still remember the feeling of sitting down that first day and typing the word “Prologue,” my fingers shaking. (Yes, prologue! Haters to the left.)
This was the beginning of the book that would get me published. I just knew it.
Funny how things so seldom work out the way we thought they would.
I finished that first bloated, ridiculous, beautiful first draft about a year and a half later, in the summer of 2009. Immediately, I started querying this book that was approximately 200,000 words too long. (Yes.)
Part of me was very practical about this whole process, this dream of being a published author. I was in graduate school, after all; I would earn my librarian degree, I would have a back-up plan. Not that I would need it. This mammoth book would be my ticket to the big time.
How could I have possibly thought such a thing?
I think a lot of it stemmed from fear. It was like I knew, somewhere deep and unacknowledged in my gut, that this wasn’t going to work like I hoped. That I needed to do more research, take time to learn the craft. I scorned words like “craft” and “process” because I was confident that I somehow knew it all innately. That sounds like arrogance, but really, truly, it was fear. Fear that, if I took that extra time to research and plan and hone, the window of opportunity would close for some reason. Fear that, at any moment, someone would pop up, point and jeer, and say that I wasn’t good enough.
I therefore rushed into things way too fast, before my poor, bursting book was even halfway ready.
I queried, and queried, and queried. My original query letter was two pages long. Two pages long! I didn’t include the word count. I didn’t do anything that I was supposed to. Somehow, miraculously, I still managed to get requests, and my rejections were always kind (bless the hearts of those nice agents who could have laughed me into smithereens, but didn’t). However, they were still rejections. These requests never panned out.
Until this one, about six months after I started querying. They say it only takes one.
They’re right. Well, sort of.
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Diana Fox, exactly, but somehow I ended up at her blog in November 2009. She was going to attend a conference near me in the spring, and I thought, “How fortuitous!” I sent her my query and the first few pages of my prologue. A couple of weeks later, she requested my full manuscript.
And it was a fortuitous thing that I didn’t say how long my book was in that query, and that Diana requested it anyway. That she didn’t open up the Word document, curse, laugh, and send it back to me with a standard rejection.
In February 2010, I checked in with her. In response, I received the longest, most thoughtful email I had yet received from any agent. She had read my book. She liked many things about it, she said, but lots of things still needed work. Perhaps we could talk about it over coffee at the conference in April? I agreed. I probably danced a happy dance of some kind.
April 2010. I went to the conference, all dressed up and sweating profusely. God, I was nervous. This would be, I was convinced, The Day. Sure, Diana had some reservations about my book, but if she saw me in person, if she heard my passion firsthand, she would change her mind. Maybe we could talk revisions, with the promise of representation afterward. Maybe! Maybe!
But a voice kept whispering in the back of my mind, “You know that’s not going to happen, Claire.”
The voice was right. That didn’t happen.
What did happen was that Diana and I sat on the poolside patio of her hotel and chatted about—well, everything: writing, books, my book in particular, life—for three or four hours. I nodded and smiled and said, “Uh-huh” and admitted numbly that no, I hadn’t read that book . . . or that book . . . or that book. I took notes. More sweating.
She did not offer me representation. She did, however, tell me to stay in touch.
“Stay in touch.” The three most evil words since “It’s not you . . . ”
Later, when I got home, I cried as hard as I did when my parents told me they were getting a divorce, as hard as I did the first time someone broke my heart.
I cried because it had finally hit me: how much work I needed to do, how much time I had wasted, how this was the end. I would have to stick my characters in a drawer somewhere until neglect eradicated them.
I cried because Diana had been so ruthlessly honest, and yet so kind. She loved it, but not enough. I had been so close.
A couple of days later, I started revisions, struggling to incorporate everything Diana had suggested, not pausing for one second to think that rushing into this wasn’t a good idea. Instead, I plowed through, revising and re-writing and re-thinking.
It still wasn’t good enough, though. I wasn’t good enough. Not only was I not living up to my own standards, I was also letting my characters down. I wanted to be good enough for them because the feeling of them in my chest was like solid, warm little knots, made up of me and embedded in me and breathing through me.
But I wasn’t. Every query ultimately led to a rejection. So, I put my first book away—and that right there, that decision—changed everything. I put one book away, and I started another one.
This book was something different. This was not a story requiring glossaries, prologues, and an encyclopedia. It was fun, it was creepy, and it cleansed me. For so long, I had been stuck stubbornly trying to hammer out this story that was too big for me. I had focused on it at the expense of all else—reading, researching the industry I so desperately longed to be a part of, developing relationships with other authors.
My turning point came when I realized all this, and took steps to fix it.
When I said good-bye to the book of my heart and started a new book, a step I had never imagined I could stomach taking.
When I admitted that I had work to do, and did it.
That’s when everything changed.
I finished this book, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, and sent it to Diana, with whom I had stayed in casual contact. She requested it, and by the time all was said and done, she had offered me representation, as had two other agents.
I chose to sign with Diana. A couple of weeks later, we started submitting to editors. A couple of days later, we had our first offer, and we ended up selling the book to my brilliant editor Zareen Jaffery at Simon & Schuster.
I like to think that that first book, the book of my heart, was the hand scrabbling resolutely at the door to the publishing industry. It left behind some blood, some fingernail splinters. But it wedged that door open a smidge, just enough for my Cavendish-shaped foot to slip in and open it fully.
What will happen to that first book? I honestly don’t know. I know that I think about it often. I know that I’ve re-written the prologue, that I’ve re-tooled much of my world-building. I know that, when Diana speaks of it, it is with genuine enthusiasm, and I know what couple she ’ships (an aside: there are many awesome pairings to choose from; I’m just saying). I know that I will return to it, someday.
I also know that, without that first book, without the vision on that plane, I might not have started writing again. You know, I might not even have changed my major. My ambition in life might still be to play in the New York Philharmonic, and I might be spending money on mouthpieces and piccolo trumpets instead of books and printer cartridges and BEA.
We all need that first book, that book of the heart. This isn’t to say that all the books we write aren’t from the heart. But there is always that one book that gets us started, that inspires and propels us. We all need that book—to write it, to slave over it, to get it out of our systems.
Sometimes we even need to let that book go. I know I did.
But whether that book gets published or sits in a drawer, whether it becomes a best-seller or not, whether people love it or hate it, it is the book that made me dream.
And that, the dreaming, is what makes all the difference.
Claire Legrand is a full-time writer and former librarian living in New York City (although she will always be a Texan at heart!). Her first novel, The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, will release on August 28, 2012, from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. Her second novel, The Year of Shadows, is due out August 2013, and her third novel, a re-telling of The Nutcracker called Winterspell, is due out the following year, both from S&S BFYR.