Chapter 4

Please read chapter 3 first!

January 17, 2004, in the middle of an ice storm in Providence,  Rhode Island, I give birth after 36 hours of labor.

A few months later, March 1, 2004, on a chilly, gray afternoon, I give birth, again. This time it’s to my first published novel…after over a decade of labor.

Though I get to hold my human baby immediately when she arrives, it will be another six weeks before my book baby arrives on a warmish April afternoon.

Bleary-eyed from erratic, new-mommy sleep, I throw open the door and there, in a box of ten, on my doorstep, is My Sister’s Wedding, the result of a Bad Romance in high school coupled with an overactive imagination and a love for Judy Blume books.

Riiiippppp. Tear. Pull. And—

Ugh! I peer into the box of books to get a closer look. Yikes! The cover is kind of hideous. It’s this burnt orangey, hand drawn mess that doesn’t resemble any of the popular YA book covers of the time (or any time). Though it fits the three-word description that they asked me to provide to describe what I thought might be a good idea on the cover—bottles of wine, wedding, and sisters—it’s not what I had envisioned.

But I get over it quickly because… IT’S MY FIRST PUBLISHED BOOK!

I take one out of the box, hold it to my heart, and kiss the top of it like it is a human baby. It’s a glorious moment! Now that it is in my hands, I become truly excited for the first book signing planned in the upcoming weeks at Island Books in my hometown.

I send out a ton of press releases via email to local papers and land an interview and photoshoot with The Newport Daily News. A few days before the signing, I find myself on the front page with a full, feature article.

The signing is a huge success—self-published author or not. I sell over 100 books in just two hours, and the bookstore is definitely ordering more. No consignment for them; they are calling the publisher directly!

Yes, it helped that I was not only a local author, but also a teacher in the town. The high school orders a set of 20, and puts it on the recommended summer reading list. A few other schools in the area follow.

Motivated by this unexpected success, I set out to get my books into as many bookstores as possible. So, with Chelsea strapped to my chest and several boxes of books in the trunk of my car, I pedaled books to every bookstore within an hour or two’s range, driving to Massachusetts and Connecticut. Pounding pavement brought consignment opportunities and book signing dates. Soon, I was booked out until January of the next year! I also accessed databases online of town libraries and high schools all over the country. I emailed out press releases and detailed information about the book. Through those channels I was able to get my book in places all across the country.

The signings and increased visibility led to teaching writing and self-publishing courses at adult education centers across the three states and giving talks at everywhere from high schools to libraries to churches. All of this brought opportunities for editing and consulting gigs. I didn’t know it at the time, but these opportunities would eventually grow into what is now my business.

Though I was officially on a year leave from my teaching position, in the back of my mind, I knew as that year came to a close, that I was never, ever going back. Though I had no illusions that I would (or could) live off profits from my book, I also knew that I couldn’t go back to the rigor of being a high school teacher because I had to see this new editing and consulting thing through. Being a mother, a high school teacher, and whatever this thing was, all at the same time, even I knew that would be impossible.

Looking back, the incredible part is that this was a time of pre-social media, so any success I had was all due to word of mouth. The benefit of living in little Rhodey is that word travels very quickly. Getting featured in all the major local papers and even on The Arlene Violet radio show (I fan-girled pretty hard over that one!), wasn’t that difficult because of the not six degrees, but two degrees of separation that exists in the smallest state in the union.

But, all that glitters is not gold. There are some not-so-great moments during this first year. My radio show host friend is trying to grow her show, trading self-published, local authors for more well-known, mainstream ones as guests, and distance grows between us.

However, the self-published authors who I had met through my radio show friend become my tribe. We cheer each other on, exchange marketing ideas, and then do the dumbest thing friends could ever do—go into business together. During one of our regular get-togethers, there is a lot of discussion that we should create a business that will help others successfully self-publish. Pretty quickly, we form an LLC, and it goes horribly wrong before we land our first client. I cut ties with the help of a lawyer and try hard to forget the damn thing ever happened.

Meanwhile, though my memory in terms of timeline is a little foggy, as that is happening, I do remember one particularly snowy day in early 2005. My mother-in-law was with Chelsea at the house, and I was at Starbuck’s working on a project for a client. The snow was coming down hard so I decided to pack up and head back. After cleaning off the car and buckling in for the ride, I decide to call home to let me mother-in-law know I’m on the way. Before I dial, I see a voice mail has been left on my phone, so I listen to it.

As the snow falls all over my car and I question if I should even drive back, the words “you won first place” hit my ears.

Turns out, I won The Writer’s Digest International Self Published Book Awards, first place in the Children’s Book Division (that’s when they used to lump YA with children’s books).

For a minute, I panic that it’s a mistake because I don’t even remember entering such a contest. A number is left on the message and I quickly dial it.

Yep. Hannah R. Goodman you have won first place…a check for $500 and a free copy of The Writer’s Market is on its way if you could verify your home address, please?

First place? To the girl whose only award thus far was in 6th grade for “most improved older hitter” for softball, which I only played for one season. I’m pretty sure my coach made the award up so I wouldn’t feel bad about being the absolute worst player on the team.

I make the quick call to my mother-in-law that I’m on my way…which I really was in more ways than one because within just a few weeks of this win, I am contacted by two literary agents who offer representation.

And this is when the failing forward really begins…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FAILING FORWARD, Memoir of a Writer: Chapter 3

Deep down, I am also beginning to wonder if the life of a public school teacher is for me. It isn’t the teaching or the students or parents, it is the politics. I just want to close my door and teach, and it is really too difficult to do that as time progresses.

Please read chapter 2  first!

As the summer of 2001 passes in a blur of disappointment, my resolve to get my book published intensifies.

Then, 9/11 happens.

Watching the replay, over and over, of the falling towers in the weeks after the attacks is surreal and terrifying and sad. It also forces me to face the reality that both my husband and I need to make some major life changes. Both of us have grown disenchanted with our respective jobs. For my husband, he just needs to switch positions at the same company and problem solved. For me, it’s more complicated.

Though I adore my seventh graders, I’m in year three of teaching at a middle school that has a really negative environment with no sign of change. Whether it is complaints about our inconsistent administration or the poor conditions of the building or the overcrowding of the classrooms or that we are one of lowest paying districts in the state, everything is crumbling, and many of us are looking for a way out. Deep down, I am also beginning to wonder if the life of a public school teacher is for me. It isn’t the teaching or the students or parents, it is the politics. I just want to close my door and teach, and it is really too difficult to do that as time progresses.

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At the time, I thought it was the district, that there must be better places to teach. Not to mention, I missed the salty, ocean air of my hometown in the East Bay and The Money Pit was driving us to (almost) divorce). So, I throw my hands up to the universe and cry, “HELP!”

Not more than a few weeks later, a position at my old high school down in Middletown (located on Aquidneck Island, as in ON the OCEAN!) opens up—MID-YEAR! It’s a sign from the heavens, I tell myself and apply immediately.

I get the job and we move to Bristol into a home that doesn’t involve any fixing up. I throw myself even more passionately into the process of getting my book published. I hire a book doctor and do some deep, deep revisions. I pass the manuscript around again, this time to my high school students who give me some more feedback. I rewrite again, and soon it is 2003, and oh—that was quick!

I’m pregnant.

The pregnancy is the second miracle for me, in just a matter of a year, and I feel unstoppable. I feel possible. Dream job. Baby. Why not a book?

The internet becomes my place of research. During my long stretches of searching, I listen to A.M. radio (my favorite, until satellite comes along in 2005) and happen upon a radio show dedicated to talking about books and authors! Remember, doubt isn’t in my vocabulary yet nor is the idea of failure. So, I send out an email to the radio show host. The email is a simple, will you consider reading my manuscript—something every novice novelist does at least once or twice…something I did years and years before as a teen. (I once sent a short story to Paul Zindel because I had gone to summer camp with his son. I never heard back.) So, when the radio show host actually replies with a yes, I take that as yet another sign of miracles. In 2003, I’m not sure how often manuscripts were sent by attachment. So, by postal, I ship out the whole 140 pages and include a SASE, which turns out to be unnecessary because not more than a week or so passes and the talk show host emails me that she loves the book and do I want to be a guest on her show!

I go on a few times, once with two of my students who have read my book. This gave me a little bit of a small-town famous feeling. It was FANTASTIC!

Over the next few months, as I start to move from the nausea phase of the pregnancy into the extreme exhaustion, I attend some local author events with my talk show host friend and meet several what is called “self-published authors”. What is that? I had no idea that something outside the concept of “vanity press” even existed. These women were so fascinating and inspiring…and about twice my age. They mentored me along and encouraged me to research options for self-publishing. Two of the women used a self-pub company called iUniverse.

Remember, I’m pregnant while continuing to still chase pavement for my book. It’s been about four years at this point, so watching these women have book signings and get featured in local newspapers and TV, becomes very appealing.  Coupled with a small fan club of students, I am beginning to catch the bug of Life of an Author.

Things like agents or rejection, things like giving up or failure, they are foreign concepts, and when I see glimpses of it in some of the seasoned authors I will eventually meet at events, I think, “That will never be me.”

How eerily ironic those words will eventually become.Chelsea 3 Days Old

Before self-publishing, I’m still childlike in my dreams to become the next Judy Blume—a phrase used by my radio show friend to describe me.

Me Book 2004

So, just as my eighth month comes to a close, I finish another and final round of revisions so that I can give birth, not once in 2004, but twice. My first baby, a human girl with a full head of black hair and espresso bean brown eyes and my second, a book baby with 110 pages of story.

I’m five years into my teaching career and just a month into my life as a mother when I make another major life-changing decision…

Chapter 4

FAILING FORWARD, Memoir of a Writer: CHAPTER 2

It’s now deep into Y2K (for you youngsters, this is what we called the year 2000), and another six months pass with this so-called agent. Though a lovely grandmotherly-type who, when I ask if there’s anything I should change about the manuscript, tells me—as a good grandmother would— that “It’s perfect just the way it is.”

Be sure to read Chapter 1 first!

It’s now deep into Y2K (for you youngsters, this is what we called the year 2000), and another six months pass with this so-called agent. Though a lovely grandmotherly-type who, when I ask if there’s anything I should change about the manuscript, tells me—as a good grandmother would— that “It’s perfect just the way it is.”

That’s probably because she never read it.

Anyway, nothing has happened for A WHOLE YEAR (I laugh at young me who thinks a year in publishing is a long time.), so I don’t sign with Agent-Who-Charges-Me-Money again when the contract runs out—and I get to pocket my $150!

Through this all my hope is so bright, I can’t see anything ahead except possibility.

I decide agents are a waste of time (I will eat these words later), and I send the first three chapters of the manuscript out directly to editors at pub houses (based on my research in The Writer’s Market) and receive (rather quickly) several replies. They all say similar things like, the voice of the pov character is spot on, the plot has some holes, but your characters are really authentic. Two editors (who happen to both be Jennifers, which I see as a sign from the universe as a “YES” because my big sister has that very same name) ask for the rest of the book.

fullsizeoutput_b1c2I stuff those manila envelopes (again) and include my SASEs and head back to the post office. I pray, light candles, and tell way too many of my friends and family that this IS IT!

I wait. Something I never really get good at. I go to work, correct papers, plan lessons, go to grad school at night, clean the Money Pit (a.k.a. our house), and work on the sequel to the first book. I play with my cats and visit my niece and nephew who are 1 and 2, respectively. My husband and I, married not quite a year at this point, already sign up for couple’s counseling…and partner yoga.

sadieupsidedown
My niece’s favorite trick when she was almost two.

It’s a stressful time.

Then, a miracle happens and Jennifer 1 and 2 both respond back within just a few days of each other. They both give me notes for revisions. Although I’m still fairly green at publishing, I know enough from devouring countless issues of Writer’s Digest that this is actually a potential problem because neither one knows about the other, and the fact that they want me to revise means…well, the truth is, I have no idea what it means.

I realize that this is when an agent—one who didn’t charge me—would come in handy.

So I make a real ballsy move, one that I will later learn is a real no-no. I call one of the agents who had rejected me…but in a positive way. One who complimented me on my voice and characters (but insulted my lack of a cohesive plot). The conversation goes something like this:

“Hello, my name is Hannah Goodman, and I would like to speak to Jane Agent.”

Jane Agent: Yes.

Me: Uh, hello.

Jane: Yes.

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Me and my nephew, early 2001.

Me: Well, IknowyourejectedmebutI’minasituationanddon’tknowwhattodo—

Jane: Excuse me?

Me: I have this manuscript that two editors seem to want and I don’t know what to do!

Jane: I see.

Then I launch into the WHOLE story, including that I once had an agent who I paid. This woman, who I am intentionally not naming, was patient and kind and ultimately, without signing me, stayed the course for a few weeks. She advised that I go ahead and make the changes to the manuscript and send them back to each Jennifer. Then, when I hear back again from the Jennifers, I should call Jane Agent again.

Meantime, she wanted me to (re) send her the book, too—the same one she rejected.

“Right now,” she told me, “You don’t need to tell either one about the other. Once they offer you a contract, then we use it as negotiation.”

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My husband and nephew, early 2001

It was the “we” part I hung on to. Oh, and the negotiation part was pretty awesome, too.

Here is the thing about all this…so far, to me, I was on this fast-track to publishing success. It never really occurred to me that this all could fall apart in an instant.

And then it did.

Eventually—my memory, as well as journals about this time period, are not totally clear with the details—both Jennifers respond. Neither one tells me yay or nay. One tells me, unfortunately she is moving pub houses, would I like to come with her? The other one gets a new job and basically can’t move forward with my manuscript.

I call Jane Agent. It’s a three second conversation that ends with her saying stoically, “Good luck.”

catsonmike
Our fur babies, Lester and Maisey.

Words that I will hear again and again throughout the journey.

Upcoming…Chapter 3: Now what?

 

FAILING FORWARD, memoir of a writer: CHAPTER 1

Three months passed, and after enough “thanks but no thanks”, I begin to reconsider the whole agent thing, and then I got one yes.

Once upon a time, in 1998, a young woman of 23 decided to take 80 handwritten pages of a novel she began when she was 15 and type it into her computer. She was inspired by an intense feeling of I’m-running-out-of-time, because at the ripe old age of 23, she was about to become a bride to her college sweetheart and knew her life would soon be taken over by wifely duties, those of which she really had no idea about. She couldn’t iron (her grandmother told her that the reason why her parents divorced was because her mother didn’t iron her father’s shirts). She hated to cook (luckily her husband-to-be was Italian, and cooking was practically a religion). She did love to clean. She loved to organize. She was vaguely interested in decorating. These things would take up a lot of time, she figured.

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The notebook that contains the handwritten version of the first 80 pages of My Sister’s Wedding, circa 1990.

That young girl was me, 17 years ago, when I set out, just three months before my wedding and just a week before my 24th birthday, to type all the handwritten pages as well as finish writing the novel I entitled, My Sister’s Wedding, a story loosely based on the most significant relationship I had with a boy when I was a teen. I knew very little at this time of publishing except that I wanted to be the next Judy Blume and that somehow it was going to happen with this book. I was absolutely, 100% convinced of this.

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First page, handwritten, of My Sister’s Wedding, my first (of many) failed novel

Fast forward to my wedding—an epic evening people are still talking about because it inspired others to get married, break up, and even get pregnant (actually not certain about that last part but some of those dance moves that night really convinced me that some conception was about to go on).

Party like it's 1999...actually, it was.
Party like it’s 1999…actually, it was.
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Such a pretty bride and handsome groom. They have idea what’s to come.

As I predicted my life changed once we were married. No ironing or cooking but we purchased a home in the vein of The Money Pit and promptly almost got divorced during renovations. Then, there was my job as a 7th grade English teacher and my husband’s job at a financial institution. I schlepped home piles of papers to grade, and he was nursing a bit of the disenchantment-post-college-quarter-life-crisis blues. In fact, these first two years of marriage are a bit of blur. At some point, I edited the manuscript, and at some point, I told people I had written a book.

Sadly, our bedroom in our first home, a.k.a. The Money Pit
Sadly, our bedroom in our first home, a.k.a. The Money Pit

I was so green, I hadn’t even heard of “young adult” as a genre separate from adult fiction. It wasn’t until I started showing the manuscript to some curious colleagues that I realized I had written a novel for teens. Their feedback inspired me to finally think about how I would break into publishing. I did know about The Writer’s Market and that getting an agent would most likely be the way to a publisher; as a teen, I had gone to various writing camps and programs and was schooled in those basics.

I bought a copy of The Writer’s Market and began to scour the pages for an agent who specialized in teen fiction. Then, I methodically created a chart to organize my submissions. This is when submissions were rarely done through email, and so I made copies and stuffed manila envelopes and collated and stamped and took many trips to the post office.

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Three months passed, and after enough thanks but no thanks, I begin to reconsider the whole agent thing, then I got one yes.

The one caveat was that this agent wanted money; it wasn’t a lot, and it was for what she called “incidentals” on the behalf of the “client”—postage and copies, etc. I really didn’t care because I was razor-sharp in my focus, tunnel-vision sharp. I cut a check for $150 and signed a 6-month contract. Who cares how it happens, I thought, I just want it to happen and I was still 100% convinced it would.

When the 6 months ended, the agent and I spoke on the phone for the first time, and she seemed very nice, in a grandmotherly way, and she produced a long list of rejections we had accumulated. So, the good news was she did, in fact, earn that $150, but the bad news was no bites. Yet, her reassurance that 6 months in the publishing world was akin to 1 day in the real world made me sign for another 6 months with her.

And this was the very beginning of what would become almost two decades of failure.

Chapter 2…where the name “Jennifer” becomes significant…(I write these chapters as I go so my clues are going to be intentionally vague and mysterious…)