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a:There Will Be Worms


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We’re so pleased to announce Liza Nash Taylor as a regular WU contributor! You may remember Liza from her guest post, On Being a Debut Novelist at Sixty. From her bio:

Liza was a 2018 Hawthornden International Fellow and received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts the same year. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle MagazineDeep South, and others. Her debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS (Blackstone Publishing, 2020) is listed in Parade Magazine’s 30 Best Beach Reads of 2020 and Frolic’s 20 Best Books of Summer 2020. Her second novel, IN ALL GOOD FAITH, will be published in August.

We love this first official post from Liza, which takes the long view of her journey and highlights the importance of perseverance (WU’s Official Favorite Word!). Welcome, Liza!

Adapted from a series of blog posts on one writer’s path to becoming a late-blooming novelist.

It’s late February in Virginia, and freezing rain has been falling on and off for several days. This morning, the birds huddle in and beneath the boxwood bushes near the feeders, feathers puffed, waiting it out. The openings in the feeder tubes are clogged with ice, and loose seed in the trays has frozen. A lone dove basks in the steam of the heated birdbath, but for the most part, today is not a good day to be a bird. I wonder, do they think of spring? Of plump larvae and juicy worms ahead? Getting published, I’ve learned, is like waiting for worms. Waiting being the key word here.

Seven years ago, I was in my early fifties and a fledgling writer. Having embraced a new passion I was taking every writing class I could find and I had “finished” (ha! Finished! [snort]) my first historical novel manuscript. I wanted to see where this writing thing would go.

I wanted to soar, but first I needed to hatch.

In an attempt to make up for lost time I applied to a semester-long course through Queens University in Charlotte, called One Book. I was fortunate to be paired with an experienced New York editor from a major publishing house. She read seventy-five pages of my manuscript before our first workshop. After friendly introductions among our group, she said, “Now then. We’re going to start with Liza’s submission, because we can cover a LOT of ground here.”  My antennae went up. She went on the elucidate, “…because a lot of these mistakes will apply to everyone’s work.”

I wanted to lock myself in the bathroom and sob. But no, after my work was chuckled over, mocked, and dissected by said editor, our group had to go out to lunch together. Over salads, I looked across the table at the woman who had just flayed my submission and I said, “Wow. I feel like I’ve just been on an intervention on What Not To Wear.” She smiled.

This was my first exposure to eviscerating criticism of my writing. I deserved it. I needed it. I was crushed, then defensive, then humbled/weepy/tremulous, and finally, determined to do better, dammit. It had been a long time since I’d felt this sort of life-changing inspiration and a long time since I’d been able to invest my time into something more creative than a child’s mermaid costume. What I discovered over the course of our six months together was that each time that editor smacked me to the ground, she also taught me how to get up again. I learned a lot from her. Next, I took a year-long novel class, working on the same manuscript. I tried essays and short stories and had a couple of things published. I applied to a low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and I sent out my first agent queries, then I waited to hear.

Some agents never responded to my queries, some responded four months later, and a couple replied quickly to ask for a full manuscript. One replied in six minutes, asked for the full, said she “couldn’t wait to read!” Well, apparently, she could, because it took 4-1/2 months for her to say “no, thanks, I didn’t connect with the character.”

In early 2016 I found an agent who offered to work with me on an exclusive revise and resubmit status. In my naiveté I expected a single round of revisions, then things would start to happen. Right?

Not so fast, missy.

That same month I began my MFA program and was one of two members of my cohort who had an agent. At the start of residency, I fear I dropped the phrase “my agent” into every conversation. Gak. How tedious I must have been.

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Wikimedia Commons from Hatch and Co. [Public domain]
Not to worry. I was quickly brought to my knees by the stellar quality of some of the work of my fellow student writers, by their workshop comments on my work, and by the readings of faculty and visiting authors. I was a hungry bird, waiting and watching. And this is exactly how it should be. An inflated ego is not the friend of a writer. Enough said about that.

Eleven months and three big novel revisions later, I was offered an agency contract. I began another manuscript in my MFA coursework. My writing was evolving and I liked where I was going. My agent, not so much. I was no longer the writer she had found a year before. We parted ways and I had a crisis of faith. At this point, one might berate oneself with some version of: WHAT ARE YOU THINKING? Why are you spending all this money on MFA tuition? Why the HELL are you starting a second book when the first one hasn’t gone anywhere?

Did I mention yet that getting published requires fortitude? That’s one of the main points I mean to get across here, so let me drive that home:

WRITING TAKES FORTITUDE.

I’d been agented, suffered a creative breakup, and started a second novel. And let me tell you, the self-doubt is real. I’ve heard it described as impostor syndrome:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome, or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. (Wikipedia).

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Milli Vanilli Photo: Flickr- Mark and Andrea Busse

Well, I had paid all that tuition, so I plodded on, buoyed by the support of my MFA cohort and advisors. The characters in my second novel compelled me to tell their story and for several months I licked my wounded ego and let the dust settle, concentrating on the new work. My first manuscript “sat in a drawer” and after about six months I began to change some things I had put in because my first agent had wanted them. That, frankly, was tough. Because it is easy to brainwash yourself into believing that you agree with everything your agent suggests. It is easy to make nice and be a good camper.

I realized that I had, on some elemental level, lost touch with my own work. That in some places, I didn’t recognize my words. And that, my friends, was scary. Because, as I said before, my style was evolving. In moments of doubt, I thought that the first success had been a fluke.

After a few rejections to my second-round agent queries with my first manuscript I began to think, well, you know, Liza, a lot of first books aren’t published, right? But in late February 2018, I had a positive response and almost exactly a year after my first agent breakup, things started to happen. My new agent made no editorial changes. We discussed where he might send the manuscript and he patiently listened to my requests. The manuscript went out on submission and ten days later I left for a month-long writing fellowship.

Weeks passed, and I had the very pleasant distraction of being at a castle in Scotland with four other writers. The only tricky bit was that there was no talking allowed during the day and very little internet connectivity. If I held up my phone at just the right angle while standing on a chair by the window set into the thick stone walls, I might catch a signal. I checked and checked for messages from my agent while working on my second manuscript. I think that modern technology has conditioned us to experience adrenaline surges in response to the stimulus of an email notification. So, secluded in the castle, I was jonesing for news. For silenced-phone vibrations of DINGS.

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Hawthornden Castle, Lasswade, Scotland. Photo- Flickr Magnus Hagdorn.

When I asked my agent what he had heard, he began to forward responses from editors. While on a walk in the woods on castle grounds, five forwards came in in rapid succession. Ding! No, they had something similar in the works; Ding! No, they weren’t looking for Historical Fiction at that time; Ding! No, the editor just didn’t connect with my characters. I stopped reading, then asked my agent to stop sending them. I was obsessing, attempting to decipher if there were some veiled message in each response, or something awful being tactfully withheld. I was taking these rejections to heart to an unhealthy degree.

At this point I had yet another self-reckoning. I had to wrestle with the fact that my book might not sell. I mean, we’ve all read those interviews where a now-famous-and-successful author laughs, confessing that their first book was truly terrible. Well, hell. They can laugh now, now that they’ve got a mini-series coming out and an endorsement from Reese or Oprah. Har, har, har. But I had to admit that I had allowed this process to take over my life. First, I had wanted to learn to write, then to finish a novel, then to make it as good a book as I was capable of, then to find an agent, then another agent, and then to sell the manuscript. All through the process, I sought validation. My thinking was that if this book did not sell I was invalidated. A fraud. An impostor. (see above).

I decided I only wanted to hear good news.

More months passed in waiting, and by July 2018 I felt like my second novel manuscript was complete. On a trip to New York in mid-August, I arranged to meet my agent at his office. Although it was beastly hot I was determined to look professional and, hopefully, stylish. I wore a pair of kitten-heeled mules that look fabulous but are extremely hard to walk in.

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The Cruel Shoes. Photo by author.

I teetered around behind my agent on the office tour, admiring the display of bestsellers while hoping I wouldn’t wipe out. We discussed both of my novels and I had a chance to tell him about the second and the historical events that figure into the plot. He did not want to send it out yet. He believed that something good would happen with the first manuscript. I left the meeting and careened back through reception and onto the elevator. Outside, on Madison Avenue, I leaned against the building and exhaled before changing into flip-flops and stuffing the cruel shoes into my bag, all the while trying to construct a metaphor about kitten heels and walking the walk, because at that moment I was mired in self-doubt.

The next afternoon, I boarded the train for the seven-hour trip home to Virginia. Around Philadelphia, I had a glass of wine (okay, two). Then I fell asleep. I woke to the ringing of my phone. Disoriented and fuzzy-headed, I noticed it was a New York number. It was my agent. He said he had an offer on my book.

I sat up, trying to clear my head.

As the news began to sink in he told me he would negotiate terms and get back to me. I thanked him and we hung up. I looked around the train car, smiling broadly, but everyone seemed to carry on as before. I wanted to burst into song—something along the lines of Forrest Tucker in The Music Man, or Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly, where I would jump up and high kick my way down the aisle of the train car as my fellow passengers performed choreographed moves with briefcases and laptops and boater hats, harmonizing on the chorus: “SHE-HAS-AN-OFFER! AN OFFER ON HER MAN-U-SCRIPT!” But I just kept it to myself, jiggling my crossed leg and staring out the window and smiling and smiling.

A couple of days later my agent called again. He had told the prospective publisher that I had a second finished manuscript that was a stand-alone sequel to ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS. The publisher asked to see it. More waiting, as several days passed. I heard back that the publisher wanted to buy both of my manuscripts. Negotiations began. My agent did a great job for me. I was given pub dates of August 2020 and August 2021.

Having my first book published during a pandemic has been a wild ride. Throughout the process, my publisher, Blackstone, has been a dream to work with. Like birds in an ice storm, we writers have to wait, and we have to struggle for those seeds on days when it feels like winter (especially this one) will never end. We have to allow our work to be critiqued and edited by others and, if it is accepted, allow a price to be negotiated for our babies. There are a lot of variables and many things can go wrong, or go sideways. While we wait, we must battle insecurity. I speak only for myself here, from my own experience, so take this all with a grain of salt.

I don’t know where the world will be in August when my sophomore novel comes out. I’ll just have to wait and see.

How do you handle the waiting game?

 

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About Liza Nash Taylor

Liza Nash Taylor (she/her) is a late-blooming historical novelist and self-proclaimed empty nester with attitude. She was a 2018 Hawthornden International Fellow and received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts the same year. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle MagazineDeep South, and others. Her debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS (Blackstone Publishing, 2020) is listed in Parade Magazine’s 30 Best Beach Reads of 2020 and Frolic’s 20 Best Books of Summer 2020. Her second novel, IN ALL GOOD FAITH, will be published in August 2021, also from Blackstone. A native Virginian, Liza lives in Keswick with her husband and dogs, in an old farmhouse which serves as a setting for her historical fiction. Find out more at lizanashtaylor.com.

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