While I was at the University of Waterloo, working on my English degree, I became intimidated by the writers I studied, by their words and images that made me see ordinary things in new ways. Though I’d begun my studies with an eye to becoming a writer, I soon discarded this plan. I wasn’t good enough; words didn’t flow from me with ease. And I couldn’t think of anything to write about, anything that people would be interested in reading.
By the time I’d earned my degree, I was tired of dissecting books and short stories, of breaking down sentences, of trying to think about what writers were trying to say beneath their thin veils of words. I entered Ryerson where I honed my research and writing skills, and completed a two-year journalism degree. Journalism gave me the structure I was looking for, the built-in readership, and most importantly, the ideas. It was a perfect match—editors fed me topics and I produced stories. I wrote and people read my words. I became a quasi-expert on real estate, health issues, parenting, and interior design. The more I wrote, the more ideas I began to generate. Soon, my writing improved along with my confidence.
I went back and read some of the books I’d studied at Waterloo, books by Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje that had frightened me into complacency, and read them again. I was still frightened by their insight and genius, but somehow I appreciated their work more, and I was comfortable with them sitting high on the Canadian pedestal of literature.
At night and on weekends, when I wasn’t consumed by kids and their activities, I began to write creatively. The house grew messy but I plodded on with my words, until I had a first draft. It was a disaster, an historical fiction novel that went off in tangents with forgettable characters. Yet I had enjoyed the process, sitting down alone and living inside my head. I revised the draft of Rachel’s Secret, changed the point of view to balance the narrative, and wrote it again, and again. Then I enrolled in the University of Toronto’s creative writing program, where I learned three important facts about getting published in Canada:
1. It’s next to impossible to break into the small circle of agents and publishers.
2. Even if my manuscript was good, it would likely take at least three years to be published.
3. I would make more as a freelance journalist.
Discouraged, but not broken, thanks to a thick skin developed as a freelancer, and encouragement from author Joy Fielding, who taught one of the writing courses I took, I continued writing and editing, taking courses, and seeking feedback. I read every day, wrote every morning, and shoved thoughts of failure out of my mind. The newspaper and magazine world was crumbling anyway, due to an incredibly stupid idea to provide news for free on the Internet, so my freelance career was on shaky ground. What did I have to lose?
After a few unsettling rejections, I revised Rachel’s Secret once more and sent it out again. Then, I started writing another book, The Third Twin, and work-shopped bits and pieces of it in my writing classes. Readers were immediately drawn to the characters, they were intrigued by the plot, and by my images. My writing had improved. This was a small consolation in light of the fact that I still didn’t have an agent or a publisher for Rachel’s Secret.
I was in the grocery store when I received the news on my Blackberry. Second Story Press wanted to publish my manuscript. My heart stopped for a second; I was dizzy and held onto my shopping cart to keep from falling over. I read the e-mail again and again. Everything around me blurred into a thick, nonsensical haze.
A day later, an agent contacted me by e-mail, wanting to represent me and my manuscript. This time I was at the pharmacy without a cart. Unable to comprehend that not one but two different people believed in me and my story, I fell back against the shelves of toothpaste, knocking a few tubes of Crest onto the ground. A young woman bent down to pick them up, and asked me if I was all right. I nodded but could not speak. Not yet, I didn’t want to break the spell.
When the news had finally sunk in, after the contracts had been signed and I was waiting on yet another set of revisions from the publisher, I realized that luck had only a small part in my getting published, that perseverance and a willingness to accept criticism were key to my success.
Looking back at the young, immature girl I was when I graduated from university, I see that I needed time and experience to grow into the writer I am today. I also see that writing is a journey I’ll be on for the rest of my life, that there will be more criticism, and even more disappointments along the way. That the day my book hits the stores, will be an ordinary day for most people. But I’m going to celebrate, just a little, then I’ll go back to my computer and keep writing.
–Shelly Sanders’ first book, Rachel’s Secret, will be published by Second Story Press in the spring, 2012. It’s about a 1903 pogrom in Russia that led to the widespread emigration of Jews to the United States, China, and Canada.