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Aspire; Perspire; Inspire

Flickr Creative Commons: Simply CVR [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Simply CVR

(Author’s note: initially I thought I’d write some type of instructional post, but in the process of planning and writing, it turned into more of an effort to inspire those of you who are in the early phase of your writing life—probably because I’m in the early phase of my most ambitious project to-date and can benefit from the sentiment myself. –TAF)

When I was an aspiring author working on my MFA from ’03 to ‘05, my goal was to become a working novelist, i.e. to make my living from my books. To that end, I began reading the trades—Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace—so that in addition to learning the art and craft of fiction writing, I could learn the business of it as well.

In addition to the news about publishing houses and editors and agents and bookstores, I read deal reports announcing lucrative book and film/TV deals almost every day. And I was envious. I wanted to see my name there, see my book there. Whenever I visited a bookstore or library, I would find the shelf on which my book(s) would one day rest. I’d scan the authors’ names—Ford, Forster, Foster—and there, that spot, right next to Connie May and Karen Joy, that’s where I would live. When I watched films or TV shows adapted from novels, I’d imagine the thrill those novels’ authors must have experienced (and, possibly, the disappointment or anger when the job was done badly, but never mind that; in the dreamer stage, only good things result).

However: I also knew there would be none of the above for me unless I could write a saleable book. So I kept at it. I finished a draft of my thesis, showed it to my thesis director, listened to his feedback, and then rewrote the damn thing from scratch. Defended it successfully. Sent it out and acquired an agent—who sent it out, and sent it out, and sent it out, and…eventually we faced facts and I wrote another, different book. Which sold!

In late ’06 I saw my name and my book deal in the trades. In ’08, that book was on the store and library shelves I’d once stroked with intent and affection. There was some action on film/TV rights, but nothing came of it. Same thing with my next book, and the next. Selling an option was, for me, like trying to catch a minnow in a stream with my hands.

But my fourth and most recent novel, Z, was the charm. My first historical novel, first NYT best seller, first book to earn out its advance—it got the attention of a particular someone in the film industry (Christina Ricci [2]) and, after a lot of behind the scenes effort and then many months of negotiations, we had a deal for a TV series. I finally had that minnow in my hands! I was, once more, one of those authors I’d used to read about. Or, nearly—

To extend the minnow metaphor: the question now was whether the fish would thrive in captivity or go belly-up, one way or another. That is, would the show be made, and made well? Or, would it be made, but badly? Or, would it die in so-called Development Hell?

[pullquote]Most of the options taken on literary properties (i.e. short stories and novels of all kinds) are never exercised—the project never gets made. I’ve heard statistics in the range of 95%—roughly the same as the rejection rate writers experience when trying to get an agent. The author is paid some amount of money, usually in the lower five-figures, and then a year or eighteen months later the option reverts and the author can try, try again. I was expecting to be that author.[/pullquote]

Most of the options taken on literary properties (i.e. short stories and novels of all kinds) are never exercised—the project never gets made. I’ve heard statistics in the range of 95%—roughly the same as the rejection rate writers experience when trying to get an agent. The author is paid some amount of money, usually in the lower five-figures, and then a year or eighteen months later the option reverts and the author can try, try again. I was expecting to be that author.

So it was a great surprise, a mere four months after I signed the contract, to hear that there was a script. And then that the script was approved by the studio. And then that casting was underway. And a director signed on. Then a location was secured, and a shooting schedule set for this August (a year after contract), and yes, Therese, you are absolutely welcome to come to the set, meet everyone, watch the whole production, stay as long as you like, take pictures, attend the wrap party, drink champagne.

I did all of that, and I learned a great deal in the process—fascinating things about the inner workings of television production and writing/adapting for the small screen and how that can teach us some valuable things for long-form writing. But I’ll save that for my next post, after the pilot episode has run (this November) and I know whether we got the green light for an entire first season.

Today I simply want to tell you that if you share a similar dream to the one I had, and you keep doing what it takes to write a saleable book—of any kind—all of it can happen to you. Just the way it did for Andy Weir (The Martian) and Richard Russo (Empire Falls) and Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) and Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes) and Lisa Genova (Still Alice) and John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) and, you know, J.K. Rowling. And lots of others. Lots. Of. Others. Who took lots of different routes and wrote widely different stories, one from the other—but who had one crucially important thing in common: they kept on writing even when they hated it, even when it sucked rotten fish heads, even when they got rejected four-score-and-seven times, even when it seemed to make no sense to devote so much time and effort to such a long-odds possibility.

Who wants to be next?

About Therese Anne Fowler [3]

Therese Anne Fowler [4] is the author of the New York Times best seller Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and three prior novels. Her essays have been published internationally in newspapers and magazines such as Psychology Today, the London Telegraph and Harper's Bazaar, and her novels are published in seventeen languages worldwide. Though she writes fiction full-time, she does on occasion teach creative writing workshops, as well as classes at North Carolina State University--most recently in spring '14. She has a BA in sociology/cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing. A native of a rural Illinois town no one has heard of, she transplanted herself to Raleigh, NC in 1995 and currently makes her home there with author and professor John Kessel and their three mostly agreeable cats.