I'm always interested to hear about other fledgling writers' experiences with pre-agent adventures, especially with what got them writing in the first place. Today, I have TM Hayes sharing her story.
While listening to Year of Yes of by Shonda Rhimes, I’ve been struck by the fact that a string of cathartic moments in her life in 2014 led her to say yes more, while the ones in my life the same year caused the exact opposite reaction. I said no, and I said it a lot. I’ve always been a yes person, a die-hard people pleaser, even when it meant taking less care of myself and spending less time with family and friends. Unsurprisingly, all the yeses left me feeling empty and alone. I couldn’t feel joy even though I was succeeding professionally and raising three healthy girls with my husband.
Miserable and lethargic, I felt guilty for feeling so disconnected from my life. I hit rock bottom at the end of 2013. I promised myself that 2014 would be my Year of No, and yes I called it that before I ever heard the title of Shonda Rhimes’ memoir. It was my mantra, my guiding principle. It was terrifying. Initially my noes were timid and uttered question-like. But like anything else with practice it became easier. And I didn’t only say no at work. I said it at home. I even said it to my kids.
It was excruciating but I intuitively knew what was on the line—me. It felt alien to be self-indulgent, but I learned to speak to myself kindly. It was okay to protect time for myself sometimes. It seems so obvious, but it still sends a shiver of guilt through me. Taking care of myself emotionally and physically resulted in immediate rewards—more energy, more engagement both at home and at work.
Something was still lacking. I knew what it was, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself at that point. I was afraid—afraid of failure, afraid of rejection, and just plain afraid of trying. The turning point came in July 2014 when we received the devastating news that my cousin, who was only 6 months my elder, died of a massive heart attack. She was healthy one day, raising two beautiful children with her loving husband, and then gone within hours. Her loss fractured our family both immediate and distant. It was a shockwave that reverberated through us all, and not one of us has emerged the same.
In the midst of grief and shock, I finally woke up. How often do we hear it said that life is short? I assist surgeons on cancer operations, I literally face death on a daily basis. But it finally sank in. None of us knows how much time we’ll be given in these precious lives of ours. Time isn’t on any of our sides. But it’s never too late to start. Yup, some clichés exist for a reason.
It was time to put the story that had been swirling in my head on paper. I started writing my first novel at the end of July 2014. I had a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, but aside from that, zero experience writing. I wrote anyway. No outline, no character sketches, other than the ones that had flitted in and out of mind for the months preceding. I’d newly joined Twitter (yes, I’m old and late to the party), and found that I could follow and interact with many of my favorite writers. These writers often doled out pearls of writing wisdom.
At exactly this time, one of the authors I greatly admired, E. Lockhart, tweeted along the lines of “Sit down and write a little every day, 135 words a day will equal a 50,000 word novel in a year”—an easily achievable goal. I downloaded Scrivener, set my target to 135 words, and promised to write daily. I did for a couple of weeks, but then life got in the way. Still, I didn’t stop. I adjusted course. If I worked a twelve-plus-hour day at work, I would aim for 300 words the next day. I made the commitment, allowing myself to make the time to write.
I stumbled, I wrote garbage, but I kept going. As I wrote more, it became easier. I even surprised myself with a couple of 4,000 word days. I finished draft one in less than a year. Rewrites ensued. Then I did what most impatient, naïve new writers do, I submitted to contests. The feedback after the first contest was pretty harsh. I gave myself ten minutes to cry it out, and then hit the keyboard again. I took the advice and rewrote the first five pages. I rewrote those five pages dozens of times. I submitted to another contest. I cringe at the thought of it, but this time something good came of my inexperience.
One of the judges gave me some encouraging feedback, and offered her editing services. We exchanged emails, and I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. I sent her an early draft of my novel, and she gave me my first overall manuscript critique. She perfectly balanced constructive criticism with encouragement, and I agreed with most of the changes she recommended. I rewrote again. I lost chapters, panicked at the dip in word count, but it cleared the path for a better story to emerge. Now fevered with writing, I watched the clock impatiently at work, eager to return to my laptop. My children and husband have been remarkably supportive of my writing time, and I could never thank them enough.
My editor fielded my concerned emails whenever I hit an impasse. She helped reason through the best next step. It was such a great experience working with her. I highly recommend investing in a professional editor. When the revision was finally completed, I sent it to her, and held my breath. Once again her fixes were fair and helped the heart of my story shine through. By October 2015, I officially had a final draft of my first novel. I did what I always do at the achievement of a major milestone in my life, I cried.
I closed the file, and took a two weeks off. In November 2015, I started my second novel for NaNoWriMo. I’d learned a lot, but was still a novice. I completed 50,000 words on November 29th, 2015. I had a very rough draft of a second novel, and again I cried.
Through the process of writing both novels, I have made incredible connections online. There is a vibrant, supportive network of writers of all stages on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. I consider these people I’ve never met in person my closest friends in some regards. I share the highs and lows of writing with them. They understand this crazy journey in a different way than family and friends do. They offer invaluable advice. And I try to return the favor, whatever I learn, I share.
In December 2015, I forayed into querying my first novel—a frightening and overwhelming experience. Writing a query letter, synopsis, or any number of shorthand forms of your novel that an agent may request is like learning a new language. Thankfully agents also abound on Twitter, and they’re always offering advice. I take it all to heart, and try to implement the common principles. I’ve had some positive responses, many negative responses, and some non-responses as well. I’m trying not to let the process dishearten me. Writing is an exercise in perseverance, and now that I’ve said no to everyone else, I have nothing but time.
TM Hayes works as a Surgical Physician Assistant in Robotic Surgery when she isn't busy writing or s-mothering her three daughters and husband. An avid reader of many genres, she can almost always be found with her nose buried deeply in a book with tears streaming down her face. Follow her on twitter @hayes_tm or on her blog www.notsoyoungadult.com
What about you? What got you writing? What have been your experiences in the querying world? Share it all in the comments!