My guest author this week, Ellen Baker, started writing at the age of six! Her first novel, Keeping the House, was a Booksense Notable Pick and one of the Chicago Tribune’s “best books of the year.” It’s just been released in paperback and is already a Heartland Indie Bestseller – and it’s a great read! – Meg
I have to confess that I never once had the sense to realize that writing a novel is difficult. I started my first novel at 13 and wrote something like 48 chapters before… I got a boyfriend. But then, when I was 17, I met the novelist Frederick Manfred, who, at age 81, had published about 20 novels. He showed me a finished manuscript he had boxed up and ready to send to his editor and the tower-like room in his home where he did his writing, looking out over the prairies of southwestern Minnesota. (I guess it’s no wonder that I’ve yearned for a writing tower ever since.) He even offered to read some of my work, so, after I returned home, I mailed him a few pages of my old novel. He called me a couple of weeks later to tell me that, if I kept writing, I would be published by the time I was thirty.
Thirty? I thought. I’m going to live to be thirty?
But the encounter inspired me. I began a new novel. I wrote during my breaks from college, finished the manuscript the summer after my junior year, and sent a copy directly to Ballantine Books. I was a little surprised when they didn’t want it – I’d done research, and I was sure they were the right publisher for me – but I was unfazed. I’d already started writing another novel, this one set during the summer of 1919 and concerning what happened to a family called the Mickelsons when one of their sons came home from serving in the Marines in World War I, while another didn’t return.
I finished college, went to grad school in American Studies. Meanwhile, I finished and revised the 1919 novel, researched and queried agents, got many rejections. I tried to publish some short stories, and got many more rejections. I met a soldier and got married. When my husband’s enlistment was up, we moved to northern Wisconsin and I got a job working at a World War II museum. We bought a house and tried to settle in. A couple of years went by without my having any time to write. I felt hollow.
Finally, in 2003, a part-time job opened up at the local independent bookstore, and I made the big decision to give up my professional salary and my museum career-track, to pursue my dream. Maybe Fred Manfred’s words were still lingering at the back of my mind – and I was nearing thirty.
The bookstore gave me just what I needed – time to write and to read. I read one or two novels every week. I talked to customers and co-workers about what they’d liked or hadn’t liked about particular books. I attended writers’ workshops. And, after receiving about my thirtieth rejection for my 1919 novel, I decided it was time to start something new. I decided I would write about what happened to this same family – the Mickelsons – during World War II. I envisioned that the tragedy of losing a brother during World War I would still be hanging over the family.
But I realized there are a lot of novels about family tragedies, and I thought my novel needed a different spin. The question was, what could that be?
Around this time, I attended a writers’ workshop and discovered that I’d made my characters too perfect. One person in my workshop said, “I think you just love your characters so much that you don’t want to say anything bad about them. And you don’t want anything bad to happen to them.”
Obviously, trying to avoid conflict doesn’t make for good fiction.
I remember the long drive home from that workshop, thinking, okay, if I can’t see the bad things in my characters, I’ll create a character who can. The Mickelsons’ nosy neighbor, Mrs. Cecilia Fryt, was born. Then there needed to be a reason for Mrs. Fryt to tell her story and to share her opinions about the family, so Dolly Magnuson came on the scene. She was just the character I needed to tie the story of the Mickelson family together.
I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, shared my manuscript with friends and other writers, welcomed whatever criticism they would give me. Their feedback and encouragement helped me to keep pressing on with round after round of revisions. When I finally decided the manuscript was as good as I had the ability to make it, I started querying agents. I had one in mind that I particularly wanted to work with, and I sent my first query to her. I was in suspense for months, but, finally, she agreed to represent me. I was ecstatic! I made a few revisions based on her suggestions, and submitted the manuscript to her. It was only about a week later that she called with news of a two-book contract with Random House. I was stunned – and overjoyed!
I had always heard that this sort of thing was impossible, especially for a wholly unpublished, unconnected writer like me.
So – you might as well shoot for the impossible! I know I would have kept writing forever, even if I’d never been published, but now I just feel so lucky that I get to spend all my time doing what I love.