The last full-time job I had before having three kids in the four years was with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). I was hired to work in the alumni office, which was not so much an office as an actual house located adjacent to campus. My role involved reaching out to alumni to keep them connected with and–more importantly–vested in their alma mater; a position that was a combination of public relations, sales, event planning . . . and writing. I created press releases and media kits, and drafted letters and text for brochures, newsletters and annual reports.
When my first daughter was born, I took all of this experience with me and began accepting job offers to freelance from home as a grant writer and a columnist for Ohio University’s online newsletter. This type of work continued to snowball until I found myself writing for multiple publications at a time, including a golf club newsletter and several online sports and health publications. I also wrote for Livestrong, and I wrote a blog. I was writing all the time. Seven years post-graduation and I was finally working as a writer. From home. On my own terms. While my babies slept. It was perfect.
I wrote by day and taught yoga and fitness classes at night. When my youngest daughter turned two, I wanted to push myself physically. I wanted to do a triathlon. And I wanted to blog about it. I actually had more success as a triathlete than as a blogger. Each year I pushed myself to be stronger and faster, to go longer and harder. Each year I raised the bar higher until I found myself looking down the barrel of the ultimate triathlon challenge: Ironman.
I set my sights on Cozumel 2011 and–in an effort to keep family and friends updated on this quest–I created my first Facebook Page: Triathlon Mom. Two years later, I completed Ironman Arizona.
After eight years of training and racing, I was starting to feel burned out. I was mentally and physically exhausted. My body was telling me that maybe it was time to take a break. And I might have done just that . . . if I hadn’t qualified for age group Nationals and been offered corporate sponsorships with Xterra and SLS3.
So I pressed on for two more years. Creating Triathlon Mom turned out to be serendipitous as my corporate sponsors required all their partner athletes to maintain a social media presence. Thankfully, the page–along with my bi-weekly newspaper column, “For the Fun of Fit,”–helped to keep me writing during this busy time.
My ultimate professional goal was to write a book and become a published author. After decades as an avid reader, I’d started creating my own stories–mostly in my head; especially during the hundreds of miles I spent on my bike training for Ironman. But I could rarely envision a single story to it’s completion. Many writers have heard the advice to “write what you know,” but I didn’t feel like I had many interesting stories to tell. By most counts, I’d had a “white picket fence” life that followed a predictable trajectory: happy childhood, college, marriage, kids. But as my 20-year high school reunion approached, inspiration hit out of the blue. I had unearthed my high school year book to reminisce and dust off the names and faces from my past, and a pink envelope slipped out from between the pages. It was your average high school note, punctuated with bits of gossip and a splash of drama. But the post-script is what caught my attention. It went something like this: “We need to talk. I have something important to tell you.”
Curious, I reached out to the author of the letter to see if she happened to remember what it was that she’d wanted to tell me all those years ago. We had a little chuckle over it but, of course, she didn’t remember. But it did make me wonder: what secret could you uncover 20 years after the fact that would have a major impact on your life? And in that moment, my first book was born.
I dabbled with a few chapters here and there, but my girls were only four, six and eight and I found it extremely difficult to carve out quality writing time, if any at all. I kept promising myself: when my youngest goes to Kindergarten, I’ll write it.
But by the time my youngest went to Kindergarten, I was knee-deep in triathlons and two years shy of my first Ironman. I soon learned that training for an Ironman was essentially a part-time job and my new refrain became: after I’m finished with Ironman, I’ll write it. As I ended up doing two Ironman triathlons and then continuing on to Nationals, it was 2014 before I made a serious effort to write the book–a five full years after I first started it.
In 2014 we moved to a new house and I decided that, finally, writing my book would become my top priority. I joined the Maryland Writers Association (MWA) and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA), and I dedicated a full year to writing–and finishing–the book, getting feedback from three beta readers, and then revising some more. In July 2015, I submitted my manuscript to WFWA’s Rising Star contest for unpublished authors and my book–WHAT’S LEFT UNTOLD–was one of five finalists selected from 75 submissions. I was thrilled!
As a finalist, my book was reviewed by several agents, who then provided feedback and–if they wished–offers of representation. This process was as frustrating as it was insightful. What one agent liked most about my book, another disliked. It was a quick education in the subjective nature of the business. After polling several avid readers and a few published authors, I chose to write my book in a first-person chronological format–with the story beginning with the protagonist in her teen years–rather than with flashbacks. One agent, however, told me that I could not claim my book to be of the “Women’s Fiction” genre if my main character was a child/teenager for the first chunk of the book.
I’m not sure if I wholeheartedly agreed with all the agent feedback I received, but what did I know? I spent the next several months editing, revising and reformatting the story until it morphed into a barely recognizable–but hopefully improved–version of its original self.
Satisfied with my newly revised draft, I began doing the submission rounds and received one rejection after the next. My query letter and book premise almost always got my foot in the door. Many agents requested additional chapters and some even requested fulls. But the response was invariably the same: “I read the book with great interest but just couldn’t connect with the characters.” Or, “The writing is exceptional but it’s not the right story for me at this time.” Or, “I thoroughly enjoyed your book but I don’t think I can be the champion this manuscript needs.” Or, “This book has an interesting premise but some of the twists may not sit well with a Women’s Fiction audience.” And on and on. Agents seemed, generally, to like my book, but none wanted to commit to it. I kept hoping for the specific constructive criticism that might help me over the hump, but it never came. All the feedback seemed elusive, intangible and contradictory. I was at a loss.
While enduring the submissions and rejections, I also made an attempt to build and grow a social media platform. I found a web host and created a website. This took hours of headbanging and mental energy as I don’t think I have a single IT bone in my body. I also created an author page on Facebook and started linking my newspaper columns to the page. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
Frustrated with the endless stream of rejections, I began to work on a second book and has some initial agent interest based on the premise. I’d only gotten a few hundred words in when I saw some signs posted around the community: 15 students from Spain arriving in six days. Host families still needed!
I’d seen these signs in years past and, while intrigued, always felt that our family was too busy to take on another responsibility. But in 2016 there was this light bulb moment: We are never going to be less busy than we are now until the kids are all in college. And then what’s the point?
If we were going to host an exchange student, I wanted to do it while my kids were still home so they could be part of the experience. I called the number on the sign. There were three students left–one girl and two boys–and they were arriving in four days. Having teenage daughters at home, I told the program coordinator that we were interested in hosting the girl and I schedule an appointment to meet with her. She then came to my home and showed me profiles of the two boys; the girl had already been placed. There were a few hoops to jump through–background checks, paperwork, and making sure my family was on board with hosting a boy–but we were approved and, three days later, welcomed a 16-year old Spanish boy into our home and family for the month of July. Long story short: the boy entered our house a mere stranger and left four weeks later as our son and brother. His family became our family and we spent two weeks with them in Spain later that year. And our Spanish son has returned every summer since to spend several weeks with us.
What, you might be wondering, does any of this have to do with writing? The answer is this: Nothing!