I can distinctly remember in 2nd grade being told that I was “good at writing.” Having just made my first collection of poems with illustrations I was proud. I vividly recall thinking, how I might just become a writer someday…which to my small 7-year old mind meant “making books for the library without a stapler.”
Whatever happened to that career path, I’ll never know, but I don’t recall thinking along those lines ever again. I may have written a clever story or two, but for the most part I was inclined to write persuasively and became more technical; a style that would serve me well in my career years.
And I could have gone on as I was, never really needing to write anything but procedures and manuals, but in-between my childhood fantasy and my eventual employment, stood a good a few decades of unusual and tragic experiences that I would end up needing to express. For these I needed skills I had either abandoned at a young age; or had simply never had. While I imagined I could write something a broader audience would find worth reading, over time I found that I could not tell a story–at least one of any length.
My first attempt at writing “The Six-Foot Bonsai” was in 2001. It was basically a brain dump from my earliest memories until that point. I’m not sure if I realized it then, but it was horribly raw. At the time I hoped it would become a book, but I wasn’t even sure what kind.
Six or so years later, I pushed the old floppy disc into my Dell and reread what I had documented and realized that what I had written was so bad that I had to use the content as notes and start from scratch. Moreover, the tale I thought I wanted to tell in 2001 was no longer the real story. There had been a major, unexpected twist that changed the whole thing.
This second attempt, in the end, would only result in a longer story– not a better one. It is hard for me to believe now that I actually thought I had written book that was marketable and even queried a dozen agents in hopes of becoming an author (thank heavens snail mail was the common method back then or I might have really hurt my reputation with even more bad queries!) But before I could get even a dozen rejections, life happened again– and this time it would turn the whole story on its head with a dramatic redemptive ending.
Several years would pass, another eight actually, before I would once again attempt to tell the story of Bonsai. You see, the new “last chapter” was so different from all that had occurred before that I wasn’t sure I could fit it all together into anything that would flow. There was romance, abuse, mental health issues, sins beyond sins, more abuse, and finally salvation. The sheer volume and nature of the material made the idea of writing it again very intimidating.
I spent the better part of a 2014 into 2015 rewriting the whole story (again) from scratch for what would be my third attempt. And when I thought I had finished I sent a query letter to a local agent who promptly responded with a request for more.
In my heart, I knew the now three hundred page manuscript needed some work, but I needed feedback and boy did I get it. “Interesting story, very unique,” he said, “but you need some serious editing.” In the end the agent recommended a “coach” and offered to connect me with one.
And so in September of last year I began working with a best-selling author and professor of writing on what would become my fourth (and final) rendition. Yes it cost me– but no more than a 4-credit college course at a good school and I had her undivided attention for what I estimate was a good 40 hours over the course of the next 5 months. She help me do what she called “the heavy lifting.” My private professor showed me how to grab the audience more effectively at the beginning, assisted in pointing out where I went too long or needed more meat. She suggested expanding my upon and including more “anchoring images,” and provided other valuable tips.
In my naive mind I somehow thought that my coach would take me to the end, but when all of the broken bones of the story had been firmly set, she advised her job was over and suggested I obtain a copy editor be to polish the piece. She offered to be that editor, but in the end I opted for a new set of eyes.
My copy editor was obtained from the same agent who lined me up with the coach. She was a 30-year veteran of a well-known publishing house that was taking side jobs in her retirement. I was told that this process would go fast and it did. I would send her a third of the chapters at a time, and within a week she would send back the section with edits and requests for clarifications. After all three sections were complete she went over the entire piece once more.
At this point I thought I’d nailed it, prepared my manuscript in the best possible way to be picked up by an agent and publishing house. But I would be wrong. In all my efforts to get story print-worthy, I had neglected to hone my pitch. And what happened over the next six months nearly made me bag the whole thing; but honestly I had come to far for that. I couldn’t turn back.
It took a bit out of me to be able to express the story I had written in succinct, engaging terms, but by trial and error I finally got it (see The Six-Foot Bonsai Pecha Kucha). But I wasn’t done. It might surprise you to know, that I actually paid for another copy line edit for good measure– to make sure that I’d done everything I could to please my readers. This, as it turned out, was worth the extra thousand, as small formating and punctuation errors were eradicated and the whole piece became more consistent in that regard. As part of the fee the piece was also formatted for print.
I venture to say, that at this point I have paid for a total of three 4-credit college courses and spent two years of my spare time crafting what soon will be the published version of “The Six-Foot Bonsai.” This was by no means a fly by night endeavor. In fact, outside of living Bonsai, writing it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
And was it worth it? In my case it most certainly was. I put the past in perspective and I learned so much about writing in the process. Once more I am thinking that when I grow up I just might make books without a stapler.