My Serendipitous Road to Getting Published

In my last post, I had a comment from Cathy with regards to writing. I hope you don’t mind, Cathy if I post my answer this way, as it occurs to me that other people might be interested in my journey to published book as well.

After Arron died and I started coming out of that dreary numbness stage, I started thinking I should start writing down some of the stuff I had experienced, if for no other reason than to record the events for the kids in the years to come. By this time I had met the Prime Minister of Canada, Carter had slapped Joe Clark across the face, I had collected my Ground Zero dust in a weird little urn, received tons a letters and had been visiting the various “Family Centers” on a regular basis. Life was so beyond normal.

So for a year or so, this idea just kept bouncing around in my head. I wondered if perhaps I could write something that might help other widows, or other widowed parents, or if I should write something specifically for kids. This hung me up for a while. I thought I had to have it all figured out before I started writing. Of course, that was silly.

Just before the second Anniversary, Selena and I traveled to London in July and had a tour of Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove, meeting the Prince himself in the process. We went back to London in September with the kids, had tea at the Canadian Consulate, and attended a beautiful ceremony in Grosvenor Square, which is where Carter almost knocked over Princess Ann chasing pigeons, a skill that Arron had taught him.

It was at that point, after so many amazing experiences, that I realized that I had better just hunker down and write. So, shortly after I got home from London, I sat down at my computer and wrote “September 11, 2001” across the top of the page and just started writing. I didn’t care very much about how it sounded or grammar or all that nonsense. I just was trying to get down all I could remember. Remembering the first year was the hardest. Mostly it was a series of crystal clear events punctuated by long periods of fog. But it didn’t matter. I wrote on and off for around 9 months, until the kids got out of school for summer. At this same time, I was building the birdbath, so I was busy!

That summer, we went to Seattle for the month and decided we were going to move there. When we got back, I had the birdbath party and wrote an essay about it. Through a writing class I took sponsored by Tuesday’s Children I become friends with the teacher, Maria Housden who wrote Hanna’s Gift, a beautiful book about losing her 4 year old daughter to cancer. Maria had had quite a lot of success with her book, and she loved my essay, so passed it on to people she knew at SELF and at O Magazine (who I never did hear from). SELF loved it and actually wanted to pay me for it! In June, they arrived to take a picture for the magazine, loaded with clothing and makeup artists, the whole shabang! It was crazy.

It was the first time I thought, “Hey maybe I AM a good writer.” Before I was published, I really just thought I was just getting the story down. I had spent all my years as a student thinking I was a crappy writer. I blame my 9th grade English teacher who tried to teach me the art of essay writing as though it was a lesson in geometry — all triangles and rectangles, and it made absolutely no sense to me. I got terrible marks and from then on, decided I was a bad writer.

After we moved to Seattle, I took a memoir writing class through the University of Washington Extension program with Theo Nestor and learned a ton. The class forced me to practice, and increased the amount of material I had, not to mention my confidence. The summer after the class, The National, a CBC TV News program in Canada, came to Seattle to film me, the kids, my sister and my mother for a piece they were doing about me for the 5th Anniversary. It played on September 6th, 2006 and was almost 20 mins long!

About a week after the program aired, I got a call from my mom, telling me that an old colleague of hers was trying to reach me. Denise had seen me and my mom on the show, (where I had read a little of something I wrote), and as luck would have it, she was now a literary agent who wanted to see more of what I had written. She and my mother had worked many years before for a publishing company in Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, where my mom was a book designer and Denise was an editor.

Two weeks later I had written a full proposal (with her help) and attached a couple of sample chapters (stuff I had written way back in the beginning) and she began shopping it around with some of the Canadian Publishers. By some divine stroke of serendipity, it was picked up within two weeks, by, you guessed it (given my love of serendipity), McClelland and Stewart. That was October 2006. They gave me until June 2007 to finish the manuscript. I worked hard to make the deadline, but I did it, practically ignoring the kids in the final stretch. I handed in double the amount of words that I was supposed to.

I had the summer off and then spent the fall doing (a ton of) edits as suggested by my editor, which were finished by December. The book came out in Canada in March 2008. Alas, selling it in the US where “9/11 widow” seems to be a dirty word, we went through 30 publishers who all turned it down. HCI finally picked it up, but like many publishers in the US has done almost nothing to promote it. They are not even going to produce it in paperback. Sigh.

So, Cathy, my advice? Get writing. Buy Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, one of the best books on writing out there (and it will make you laugh) and just begin. Pour it all out. Don’t worry about what it’s going to be, there will be lots of time for that.

You all know how I love the idea of living with “No Expectations.” Writing definitely fits in that category. Its very freeing to have that mantra in the back of your head as you write. And you just never know where a little serendipity might get you.

7 Comments

  1. anniegirl1138 October 24, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Thanks for sharing. An another writer friend loves Bird by Bird, but I think it's out of print now.

    One thing I still haven't figured out is how to write a proposal. I've run across an online course run by a woman I think is very knowledgeable but she makes you take about 3 other courses from her first that I don't need. She's going to offer it again in January and I am hoping to talk her into letting me do it anyway.

  2. Maggie May October 24, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    Bird by Bird is still in print, available at major bookstores, a great book about writing. Another I love love is Norman Mailer's book The Spooky Art.

    I have read about your friend and her book about ehr daughter- incredible.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. cathyb October 25, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Hello Abigail,

    I should probably send you an email directly, might be better! I am another would be writer widow named Cathy! I thought maybe you were responding to ME today, except I didn't think I had ever commented on your blog. I found your blog through Roads blog I think. I really like your writing and feel a kindred spirit with you, I, too, so believe in serendipity! I started writing when my husband was ill, and have been writing since he died now 3 years ago. I am now in a writing program, focusing on non fiction. Your post today was very helpful to me, and yes, I've read the book Bird by Bird and loved it, it's sooo great for us aspiring writers. I have no idea where I will go with my writing but it is good to do and I do enjoy it. I have some very dear friends in Seattle, maybe we can meet someday. I really don't keep my blog up much anymore, but it can be found at: http://www.lessonsfromlou.blogspot.com I once had a wonderful love and am just another widow struggling to find her place now..you are lucky to still have kids at home, I am practically an empty nester with my youngest off in college now. At any rate, thanks for your writing and best wishes to you! You have come a long, long way since Sept. 11….I can't imagine the struggle it has been and my heart breaks for you and your family. You are very courageous and it gives people much hope, I am sure.

    Cathyb

  4. dadshouse October 26, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Congrats on serendipity weaving its web in your support! The publishing world is crazy. Good writing is in competition with celebrities who can't write, but have name recognition. It can be frustrating. Blogging helps, but all those other media spots – magazines, radio, TV – seem to be a huge difference maker.

    Fingers crossed for every would-be published writer to find their own serendipitous magic!

  5. maria October 27, 2009 at 8:51 am

    so happy that our lives connected, abigail. may success continue to bless you. <3

  6. Cathy October 27, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    once upon a time there was a beautiful and talented writer…
    this cathy is happy you documented the timeline and struggles.

    interesting that you mentioned, "Bird by Bird" I see the significance to your bird bath?
    2 years for me yesterday. moving on, moving on.

  7. Daniel Mount October 31, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Bird by Bird is great > I can't agree with you more Abby.

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