The Writing Life
My third book, After You’ve Gone, was just published last month, I’m marketing a fourth and working on a fifth. Has it taken me a long time to get to this point? Sure. For me, the dream of being a writer has been part of my life since I was a little kid. Once I realized that people wrote these book things, I knew I wanted to do it. As I grew up and found out more about what becoming a writer entailed, I had to gradually adjust my dream picture – once I began to understand the time involved in becoming a writer, the work involved, the difficulty and the uncertainty. But even as a teenager, I started to read how-to-write books from the public library, and the articles on craft in Writers Market and Writers Digest and Canadian Writers Market. Was I a geeky kid or what? I read Strunk & White for fun. Repeatedly. So I don’t know if I ever had this “dream” that some people seem to have of suddenly striking it rich as a writer or becoming a famous author; I think I became aware of the realities pretty early on.
I did a BA in English at the University of Calgary, after dropping out of art school. I’d intended to take creative writing, but I was too intimidated by having to submit a portfolio to be accepted into the program. So I didn’t start seriously writing fiction until I was thirty-three. I’d written reviews and a little poetry by then, entered a couple of short-story contests. I figured because I didn’t win either contest I obviously couldn’t write short stories. Then I was on maternity leave with my first son, from my job at the public library, I decided to write a romance novel. Yes, I knew that in order to write a romance novel you really should be a reader of romance novels -- which I wasn’t. But of course I thought that the romance that I wrote would be SO good that it wouldn’t matter, that publishers would be fighting each other to get at my manuscript. Big picture, my plan was to make money writing romances under a pen name to support my serious writing. Pretty original idea, huh?
So I read some sweet romances, a couple of bodice rippers and a Regency romance. Harlequin was looking for comedic manuscripts at the time, in fact they specifically said they wanted to see screwball comedy. That really excited me. I’ve always been a huge fan of 1930s screwball comedy movies. And while I wasn’t so sure I could write a straight romance, I figured I could write a funny romance novel. I borrowed all the books I could get my hands on from the library on how to write romance novels. And I kept movies like My Man Godfrey and Bringing Up Baby in my mind while I wrote, as well as my favourite screwball comedy star, Carole Lombard -- and really, the whole thing turned out to be kind of fun. I have to admit that it did take me a little longer than my six month mat leave to write the romance – turns out I was actually kind of busy with that baby – but I did finish it in about eight months and sent the whole manuscript off to Harlequin, per their guidelines. I would be able to quit my job once I sold a couple of romances. I would get a new car. It was so exciting!
Four months or so later, I got a really nice, encouraging rejection letter from Harlequin. It almost broke my heart. And so there I was with a rejected screwball comedy romance novel manuscript on my hands. Oh, and did I mention it was set in Canada? I pulled myself together after the rejection and tried to market the thing to other romance publishers, but no one else was looking for Canadian screwball comedy romances right then. Or at any other time, probably. Eventually, I gave up and put it in the proverbial drawer, and watched my dreams of easy romance money dry up and blow away.
Now all that might sound to you like a bad experience. But on the whole, writing that romance was a really good experience for me as a fiction neophyte. I learned a lot of things doing it, first being that when the baby goes down for a nap, you start writing. You use the whole naptime for writing and nothing else. I also learned that I could actually write something longer than a twenty-line poem or a 1,000-word book review. I could write a 50,000 word manuscript, which absolutely amazed me – I think the longest piece of fiction I’d ever written before that was about 2,000 halting, uncertain, probably not very interesting words. I also learned about plotting, dialogue, pacing, imagery, all that stuff, as well as marketing and submitting. And I learned about waiting, one of the biggest things we as writers tend to do.
Most importantly though, I learned that I’d spent, all told, close to two years writing and marketing and agonizing over a book that really wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I decided then if it was going to take that long and be that much work and drive me that crazy, that thenceforth I would write only the fiction I really wanted to. That was fifteen years ago, And I haven’t looked back since.
Lori Hahnel is the author of two novels, Love Minus Zero (Oberon, 2008) and After You’ve Gone (Thistledown, 2014), as well as a story collection, Nothing Sacred (Thistledown, 2009), which shortlisted for an Alberta Literary Award. Her work has been nominated for the Journey Prize three times and published in over thirty journals across North America and in the U.K.; her credits include CBC Radio, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire and Joyland. Lori teaches creative writing in Calgary.