It officially started 10 years ago, though the seeds were planted a few years before when two characters appeared in a free-write exercise during one of the weekly sessions that I used to go to for the Burlington Writers Group. There were seven of us, give or take on any particular week, writing hobbyists who met Tuesday evenings in a back corner of The Daily Planet, a bistro-style restaurant that tolerated us taking over their largest table for a couple hours since their well-paying patrons were few on those nights. This was shortly after my husband (who was not yet my husband) and I had moved to Burlington from Salt Lake City. I was two years out of an MFA program that had left my ego bruised and my savings thin. Academia was not going to be my path, and I was working as a marketing something-or-other for a wind power company. Writing to these short prompts every week was the barest effort to keep my fiction-writing heart on life support.
But back to those characters. They were “the narrator” a young woman my age and her work colleague, a guy I randomly named “Pooter” after the Poudre River. I had loved the way Coloradoans Americanized the pronunciation of this French word for powder. These two with their snappy, sarcastic dialogue would continue to pop up in some of the exercises, and over time, the group started looking forward to their occasional appearances.
Now let’s take an intermission. Because shortly after that, I had a baby, and babies blow up everything that doesn’t have to do with them.
It wasn’t until 2010 when Nathan, my good friend and then-business partner in our virtual marketing agency, emailed: “Hear me out. There’s a church group doing a 4-day writer’s retreat. It’s cheap and it won’t be churchy. You won’t have to pray; you’ll just have to write and help with the cooking and not be an asshole.” I figured I could manage at least two of the three. (Admit it, you thought the last was the one I might have trouble with, but I was actually more concerned about the writing part.)
Once I’d settled into my room at The Old Hotel, a literal old hotel turned B&B where we were staying, I opened my laptop and sat. And thought. And sat and thought. And then, magically it seemed, they were ready to step into the spotlight: Narrator and Pooter. It was a slow start, but with the space to imagine and try out ideas, it felt like their story was finally allowed to begin.
Sitting around the campfire that night, among what turned out to be a terrific group of writers, artists, and musicians, I shared the earliest scenes. The listeners’ laughter in all the right places, their encouraging praise when I’d finished…every bit of it fed the starving writer in me. Maybe I had a story worth exploring?
For eight years, I explored that story. I plotted it out in my daydreamy mind and squeezed the writing in among domestic life, full-time work, and recreation in Vermont’s great outdoors. Mostly, I wrote between the hours of 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. a few days a week and sometimes no days a week. There were more retreats with the church group and a hugely productive week at Vermont Studio Center. All the while, I was chipping away at what I choked on calling a “novel.” It was simply too big a word, and every time I thought about how I would ever finish it, my sense of the impossible was renewed. I credit Nathan with helping me get over it with words that I now apply to just about any overwhelming task I encounter. In a paraphrase of a quote by Ann LaMott quoting E.L. Doctorow, he said, “Imagine you’re driving across the country, New York to California. You don’t spend all your time obsessing over how far you have to go. You have more important things to pay attention to: other cars, rest stops, speed traps. And at night, you need to narrow your focus even more. You just focus on what’s in the headlights. Eventually, you’re gonna get there.”
Focus on what’s in the headlights, I did. One scene, one chapter at a time, sometimes one paragraph or even one sentence. I remember the day I wrote what would turn out to be the last sentence of the first draft of the book, which now officially had a title: “In Light of Recent Events.” My work was nowhere near done, but I had a complete story. Pooter was still Pooter, Narrator was now Audrey, and there was a whole cast of characters I’d grown to love just as much.
The revision hurdle was just as daunting as the writing one. I let a few gentle readers have the manuscript. Their feedback was kindly worded and helpful in teasing out the holes, the weak links, the unnecessarily long sentences, and inauthentic dialogue. I made changes. I shared with a tougher handful of readers whose more structural feedback left me a little derailed, so I shelved the story for several months. When I returned to it, still stymied, I imagined what each of the main characters would say to me having been abandoned for so much time; it was clear who would be forgiving, who would judge, who would pretend he didn’t notice or care.
Three major overhauls, four revisions, and countless line edits later, I had a five-letter word that rhymed with “grovel”.
I won’t bore you with details about the year+ I spent querying dozens+ literary agents. Suffice it to say, the experience was one characterized by a mix of non-responses, form rejections, polite rejections, and encouraging rejections.
In August 2020, months-deep in the pandemic, my husband, daughter, and I had retreated into serious isolation from relatives, friends, travel, live music, and most public places (my blog post Dark and Darkly Beautiful offers a window into that unsettling time). I had been going for daily walks along our road, finding comfort in the sounds of the river and the birds, as well as the occasional shouted conversation with the neighbors. I remember, I was passing by our favorite swimming hole, thinking about writing, thinking about connection, thinking about the connections between writing and connection, and I decided then and there that I didn’t want to wait anymore to get In Light of Recent Events (shorthand ILORE) out to the world and into the hands of my encouraging family, friends, and possibly a few strangers. Maybe this lighthearted, quirky book could offer a respite from the heaviness of the discouraging COVID-ridden world.
I decided to self-publish. I did my research, talked to others who had done the same, started to build a plan.
But then, an alternative door opened. Author’s Publish, a writer’s newsletter I subscribe to sent around a list of independent publishers that accepted manuscripts from un-agented writers. Most of the listings were genre-specific, but one focused on bringing new writers to market. That night, on a whim, I sent my query letter and sample chapter off to The Story Plant. The following morning, I had an email from the publisher, Lou Aronica, inviting me to submit the full manuscript.
The rest was not history, but rather, breath-holding and impatient waiting. And then, in early November, the email came through. The Story Plant was interested in publishing In Light of Recent Events but with a caveat. They wanted a follow-on book, not a sequel necessarily, but a novel that could follow shortly after the first book’s publication. The conversation went something like this:
Me (trying to sound all smartypantsy): Actually, I’ve been working on a series of interconnected short stories examining a changing Vermont as seen through the lens of characters not typically portrayed via the cliché and romanticized ideals of the state.
Lou (being very polite): I don’t really think that’s what we’d be looking for. Why don’t you take some time and see if there’s something that feels more in line with your current book so we can help build a reader base for you.
Fair enough. I went into full-focus mode and decided that one of the short stories had strong enough legs to be blown out into a full-length novel. I pitched it, we did a virtual handshake, and the contract was signed a few weeks later. Today, in between working a day job and promoting ILORE, I’m a little more than half-way through the draft of “Ducks on the Pond”. I won’t say too much about it except that it’s a whole different writing experience when you have a publisher waiting for it.
Though a few early readers have gotten their hands on ILORE, the official release is next week, March 22. The anticipated publication of what was a private endeavor for so long continually feels surreal. I suspect it will only get more so as people read the novel, and I will have to talk about it in ways I never thought I would get the chance to.
A long, strange trip, indeed, throughout which those headlights have served me well.