Tuesday, March 01, 2005
How I Got Here, Part 4
Question from yesterday—Yes, Serena got her new trial. The whole thing was quite fascinating, even as the reason for it all was tragic. A Question of Innocence is now out of print, but you can buy used copies at online stores, if you’re interested.
When I was five years old, my best friend found herself with a new baby brother. One sunny afternoon her dad drove to the hospital to bring her mom and new brother home. My friend and I wanted to give them a special present. We hit on a brilliant idea—well, brilliant to a five- and six-year-old. We took chalk and colored their entire sidewalk from street to porch. I mean the whole doggone thing. We worked until our fingers cramped and our little backs ached. Oh, my, we were so proud of that sidewalk!
I can’t remember how my friend’s mother reacted to the sidewalk. But her father’s reaction wasn’t at all what I’d anticipated. He must have been tired, worried over his wife and new son. And he must have seen that sidewalk as nothing but a huge mess. Mind you, this was over 40 years ago, long before the days of sidewalk chalk that washes off with a simple rain. These chalk pictures would remain there for months. I still remember his words to my friend’s mom: “Well, I guess we won’t spank them because they were trying to give you a present.”
I was absolutely crushed. I stared at the sidewalk, unable to imagine how anyone could look at that beautiful sight as a mess. And we’d worked so hard on it!
Incidents like this, readers, are how books are born in the mind of an author. It would take me thirty-five years to pull this scene out of the recesses of my brain and put in on paper. And the rest of the book would be entirely fictional. In fact, the parent who reacted so negatively would be the mother. And her six-year-old daughter would wonder why her mother could not love her. Then that little girl would grow up, and the rift between mother and daughter would widen—until it threatened to destroy them both . . .
To this day, Color the Sidewalk For Me remains my favorite among the novels I’ve written. I love its depth. I love its characters. Certain scenes in it can still make me cry. This is the book that’s brought many women—and men—to tears. It’s amazing to me the variety of people it has touched.
I poured myself into writing this book. Got lost in the characters. I’d stay up all night, writing. Remember that at this point, I’d written Eyes of Elisha, and had sold A Question of Innocence, but that’s it. I had yet to sell a novel. I was on my second agent (more on this in a minute), and had been rejected by just about every publishing house in the U.S., it seemed. And I'd been working on learning fiction for six years already. As I'd done with Eyes of Elisha, I wrote and wrote, and studied and studied. I read other women’s fiction novels to learn about characterization and dialogue, and on and on. I finished Sidewalk—that is, written, edited, totally done—at 5:00 one morning., then stood in the shower and bawled. I had absolutely lived and breathed my characters and their problems. All their emotions poured out of me, now that the book was over. Yeah, I know. We novelists are crazy.
The book was 200,000 words. I didn’t know enough yet to realize that was not a good thing.
By this time I’d broken with my first agent—the one who’d sold A Question of Innocence. That agency had been a partnership that became reduced to one person who couldn’t possibly keep up. I pulled Eyes of Elisha away set out to find new representation. It took months. Even though I’d sold one book, it hardly mattered. It was a nonfiction—a true crime—and agents already seemed to want to peg me as a true crime author. “Hey, you wrote one successfully, why change now?” Finally I landed a new agent. She was more of a nonfiction agent but trying to get into fiction. She said I needed to change certain things about Eyes of Elisha. So I did. One more rewrite. Then she set out to sell the thing. Again-rejection after rejection.
I should note here that Eyes of Elisha was not this suspense’s title at the time. In fact it went through numerous titles before receiving its final one when I joined the Christian market some years later. But that’s getting way ahead of my tale.
So now I had agent #2, who’d had no luck selling my suspense novel, but who said she’d look at my new novel that I was so excited about. “Yes,” she said, “send Color the Sidewalk for Me.”
I did. And waited on pins and needles. I'd now worked for almost seven years. I so wanted to be published in fiction. Surely, this was it. This was the novel of my heart. This was the novel whose characters still talked in my head, whose agonies could still make my own heart clutch. I just knew my agent would love it.
One morning I received the long-waited fax . . .
Read Part 5