My agent didn’t beat around the bush. “I don’t have good news,” she said one day last spring.
I’d been working on the manuscript for 18 months. I’d rewritten it four or five times, and Danielle, my agent, had read each draft, critiquing it and making suggestions. I accepted her criticisms and each time, tried to reshape the story, tried to flesh out the characters, tried to deepen the tensions.
As a reporter, I could be critical of my nonfiction writing. I knew when something didn’t work. But fiction is a different animal. I can’t judge my fiction. I write things I think are just short of brilliant and find out they stink. Other times, I think what I’ve written is shoddy only to discover I got it right. I hadn’t felt right about this manuscript, but I’d hoped I was being overly critical, that I had done a good job after all. No such luck.
My books are a collaborative effort. My agent and her two associates read the drafts and come back with ways to improve them. They don’t submit the manuscript to my editor until they’re satisfied. Usually Danielle calls and starts with, “Oh, Sandra, the writing is lovely…” And it’s not until a few minutes after she hangs up that I realize what she’s really saying is, “This sucks, and if you don’t shape it up, you’ll have to give up writing and learn to play golf.”
This time was different. She didn’t start by telling me how wonderful I was.
I’d written the book about an incident I’d dreamed up, and the fact was that while the incident was clever, there was no way to shape a book around it. Danielle has an unerring sense of what works, and the minute she said she didn’t have good news, I knew the book was dead. She was right. The characters didn’t grab you, and the story was contrived. Danielle said she would show the manuscript to my editor if I really wanted her to, but I didn’t. If my agent didn’t like it, my editor wouldn’t either. Besides, I didn’t want to publish a book that I knew wasn’t any good.
Unfortunately, the manuscript wasn’t something I could put aside and go back to in a year or two. I’d done that before. My agent didn’t like the first go-around of The Persian Pickle Club, for instance, and I dropped it, only to rewrite it a couple of years later. But this manuscript has a time element and would have to be published next year. Even if I made it work later on, it would be too late.
So that’s why I don’t have a book coming out this year. Or maybe next year. Or maybe ever again. That’s the fear of course—that the well has run dry. I’ve had a book a year for the past several years and thought I was on a roll. That’s when hubris kicks in, when the gods step up. Whom they would destroy, the gods first make successful authors. If that’s the case, well then, I can’t really complain. I’ve published 14 novels, two young adult novels and 10 nonfiction books. And I’ve won a few awards. If it ends now, it hasn’t been a bad run.
But of course, I don’t want it to end. And I’m working hard to not let it end. I’m a writer. Writers write. We write until we’re senile—and beyond, and we’ve all read those books. My first novel didn’t come out until I was 50. I didn’t make the New York Times best-seller list until I was 70. I’m not ready to give it up. That manuscript may be dead, but I’m at work on another. And there’s a young adult book in the works—two of them, in fact.
But I wanted you to know there won’t be a book this year. And maybe there won’t be one next year. But I’m working on it. The manuscript I worked on all those months may be dead, but I’m not.—SD
The Last Midwife is the winner of the 2016 Spur Award for Historical Fiction from the Western Writers of America. Sandra received the award at WWA’s annual convention in Cheyenne in June.
In my last issue of Piecework, I wrote about my life as a feminist and recalled the discrimination I encountered over the years. It turns out I wasn’t alone. I was gratified by the responses sent by readers. Here are a few excerpts:
St. Martin’s Press will issue a mass market paperback of Sandra’s best-selling last novel, A Quilt for Christmas, in October.
Rich People Behaving Badly. By Dick Kreck. Fulcrum.
Dick Kreck was a Denver Post reporter and columnist for 35 years, so he knows all the dirt. In fact, his earlier book, Murder at the Brown Palace, about a scandalous society killing, was a local best seller.
Now he includes more than a dozen stories about the Colorado rich and famous and their infamous doings. Included are a number of prostitutes and ne’er-do-wells, gangsters and unfaithful wives (and husbands), and even a minister whose slothful ways bankrupted his church.
One of my favorites is the tale of Fred Ward, the successful Hudson auto dealer who made a fortune selling cars, some of which he didn’t own and others that he sold twice. When we were kids in the 1950s, we used to sing a ditty to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic:”
My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of Fred Ward
(I guess Ford rhymed better than Hudson)
Ford lived high on the hog and entertained lavishly at his ranch north of Denver (where I once went to a press conference for a subsequent owner.) He lost that and his empire and went to jail.
These tales are brief, but Kreck is an entertaining writer, and we all love to read about how the mighty have fallen.
Winter’s Child. By Margaret Coel. Berkley Prime Crime.
I’ve loved Margaret Coel’s Wind River Mysteries, ever since the first one came out some 20 years ago. Winter’s Child is the last in the series. Coel is changing directions, and while I applaud her courage in trying something new, I’m disappointed. I’ll miss Vicky and Father John.
For those of you who don’t know the series, Vicky is an Arapaho lawyer in Lander, Wyo. Her cases generally involve Indians on the Wind River reservation. Father John runs the Catholic mission, and the two of them solve mysteries. They care deeply for each other, but it is a love that can go nowhere, because, of course, Father John is a priest. So you’ll be wondering throughout the book just how their relationship will be resolved.
In Winter’s Child, Vicky takes over a case from a murdered lawyer. An Indian couple wants to adopt a white girl left on their doorstep five years earlier. At the same time, Vicky is trying to convince a difficult client to give himself up for attempting to rob a woman at an ATM machine.
Winter’s Child is one of the best of the Wind River series, and like Coel’s other books, it leaves you wishing for more. But there won’t be any more. Good-bye, old friends.—SD
Contact Sandra at email@example.com