When Your Characters Insist That Their Story Has Legs

Some creations won’t let you abandon them

Kate Bracy
The Memoirist

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Black and white photo of woman sitting alone at table writing
Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Once upon a time, about a decade ago, I wrote a long, heartbroken blog and placed it anonymously on OpenSalon. The response was immediate, and suddenly there were comments and ‘likes’ in numbers I had never enjoyed. It made it to the front page of OpenSalon (OS), and then, briefly, on Salon.com. Whoa! The story had definitely hit a nerve. I was excited and gratified and I couldn’t show it to a soul, because, you know, “anonymous.” About three days in I got a private message on OS from a New York agent asking if I would consider making this a memoir. She loved the voice and she loved the story.

Are you kidding?!?

Of course I called her, using my secret anonymous name, and she told me what my memoir could offer. (By then I had Googled her and found that she had represented some very famous people and their memoirs.) I felt like Lana Turner being discovered at the Schwab’s soda fountain. Oh, yeah. I was doing this. When fate drops a break on your keyboard, you’d better snap it up. Snap I did.

With the help of the agent I wrote a book proposal and outlined the memoir. I wrote a first chapter and submitted it to her. She liked it. She said she would shop it around.

Then, of course, you wait. She went to all her usual publishing contacts. She pitched hard. She came up empty. It turns out that if you are offering the memoir of a very famous person, they are all ears. Relative unknown with no publishing history, not so much.

She called me with the bad news. No one would chance it with an unknown memoirist. (Ugh. Deep breath.) “But we would love to sell something of yours. Do you have any other ideas?”

Are you kidding?!?

I was loaded with them! I worked up a few and sent them back. One of my ideas was to tell the original story as fiction instead of memoir, but from a different point of view. She liked it. “Send me the first three chapters.”

I sat down and outlined the story. I began the first chapter and something happened that you probably won’t believe unless you’ve written fiction yourself. I was telling the story from a bystander’s perspective, a secretary named Melanie. Well, Melanie saw her opportunity, grabbed the story, and ran with it. I spent the next two months just trying to keep up with her. My outline changed, my timeline changed, my head exploded. Melanie was in the driver’s seat and she was not giving it up, thank you very much!

Sprinting along behind her, I wrote Mel’s story. I met all the people in her world. They were interesting and hilarious. And flawed and traumatized. And real. I sent the first three chapters to the agent and she said, “Yes! Send me the manuscript when you finish!”

I finished the manuscript — all of Mel’s story including the one I had hinted at in my heartbroken original blog post. And I waited. I did not eat or breathe for several days, until finally the agent emailed me.

“I did not expect you to be such a good story teller.”

Um… Thanks?

“Here are some changes I think would strengthen your story,” and she listed several points. Okay, I’m good with constructive criticism. I made the changes and sent the manuscript again.

Then, of course, you wait. You wait for that call. You wait for that thumbs up or thumbs down. You try not to get your hopes up, but you get your hopes up. Again.

The call came. The agent said, “There is an editor from Simon & Schuster who loves your book. She wants to buy it.”

I was at work among cubicles. I resisted the urge to whoop. “Really? Oh, thank you!!” I whispered.

“But,” she continued, “you will have to be willing to make some changes. So keep an open mind when you talk to her. She’s going to call you this afternoon.”

Are you kidding?!?

“Yes, I’ll make changes. If she wants me to insert a vampire into it, I’ll find a way to do it. Or whatever it takes.” (These were the days of the Twilight frenzy.)

The editors name was Kate. She sounded about twelve. She loved my book.

“So let me tell you that I really don’t like first person narrative, and I’m not a fan of prologues or the epistolary style, so I was not looking forward to reading this. I took it home on the weekend, and I read it straight through. I finished it up here in my office on Monday. I was sitting at my desk and I was hiccup-crying! [Be still my heart! Someone who reads manuscripts for a living was hiccup-crying at my book??] My office mate asked ‘what’s going on over there’ and I said, ‘It’s this story. I think we need to buy it.’”

My heart raced. Are you kidding?!?

She had interesting questions. Would I be willing to make some changes if the committee required them? (Yes.) Did I miss my characters once I finished the story? (Yes.) Did I have a dream about this book? (Yes. I want to see it become a movie or a mini-series.) She would take it to her committee that week. Was this a good number for me? (Yes.)

And then, of course, you wait. And wait. And you try not to get your hopes up, but you get your hopes up. And, finally, it was the agent who called and said that they had passed on it.

Are you kidding?!?

They passed on it! But she was hiccup-crying!! Deep sigh. They passed on it. No reason given.

The agent said there are no more publishers to try. She offered to put it on Amazon, as a self-published novel. “We have a small division in our agency that handles these works. Did I want to sign on?”

Mel, my protagonist, elbowed me. Yes. Yes, let’s just get this out there!

The small division’s name was Ivan. He formatted my book and I paid a teenager to create a cover. Finally my story — Mel’s story — was in the world. It stayed in the world for several years. I entered it into every “Independent Publishing Award Contest” I could find. It won seven of them. My family and friends bought the book and they loved it. (Of course they did.) It got great reviews on Amazon, but not too many. The agent took ten percent of the profits, and sent me the rest.

Two years ago the literary agency closed their small division. (Perhaps Ivan moved on or was promoted. They didn’t say.) and sent the files back to me. I would need to put it back on Amazon myself, with a new ISBN number. They washed their ink-stained hands of my story.

Not one to go down without a fight, I asked another agent whether she would look at it. “Yes,” she said, “but get it edited professionally first.” She gave me a name.

I paid that editor to tell me all the places I went wrong. All the small changes that would make it awesome. I spent weeks making every change she suggested. I reworked the plot in small ways, I corrected errors. Mel was whispering in my ear. Don’t let our story go!

Sign on desk saying, “Write without fear. Edit without mercy.”
Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

I sent it to the second agent. She liked it. A lot. But it was “too long to sell.” At least, too long for a first-time novelist. Did I want to try to cut it by a third and resubmit?

Are you kidding?!? (No.)

Mel and I were daunted. Put-it-in-the-drawer-and-have-a-little-cry-and-then-ignore-it-for-months daunted. I told Mel that I needed to move on. I needed to write the second story that has been in my mind and heart for a decade. Mel said, Get THIS ONE back up on Amazon and we’ll let it go. You will be free.

I found a custom publisher here on the island where I live. She does not publish fiction, but she agreed to look at it. She liked it. A lot. Yes, she would help me get this back on Amazon. I paid her money and she took it from there. New cover, new format, proofread and finalized. She emailed me often for input. I emailed her often with gratitude. She solved each issue as it arose, and didn’t annoy me with the details.

(When she asked for my Amazon password so she could enter the work, I said, “If I see any suspicious purchases…” She said, “I know! This will be awesome!” We laughed.)

She set the story up on Amazon and it was (finally) back in my hands. Relief flooded through me. Having read it carefully as I looked over the drafts, it was clear to me again that Mel’s story deserves this bump into the bibliosphere. I hope you’ll take a look. She and her band of colorful dear ones are all crossing their fingers. (And if you read it years ago, you might want to see how the characters are doing, and what changed in their story.)

You’ll find it here.

Mel is finally smiling. And I am finally free to move about the keyboard.

Now, of course, we wait. Do I dare to get my hopes up again?

Are you kidding?!?

Book Cover: That Crazy Little Thing
My Crazy Novel

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Kate Bracy
The Memoirist

Novelist, nurse, teacher, learner, human. Her novel, "That Crazy Little Thing" is available on Amazon.