1. The Apprenticeship

I took the first steps toward my career as a writer and my standing as a published author while I was in junior high. It was the teen novel, The Outsiders, that inspired me; if S.E. Hinton could write a book before she was old enough to get a drivers license, why couldn’t I be a writer? I began writing short stories for my girlfriends to read.

Then life intruded; I got married. I birthed two sons. And I resumed my career in broadcast radio, a vocation I’d begun when I was seventeen. Thirteen years would pass before I took up my pen again, this time after I started college and talked my way into a graduate-level creative writing class. Our assignment each week was to compose six pages of something — anything — and be prepared to read aloud in class; we would critique each other. I had an idea for a story set in a Montana radio station. But this wouldn’t be a short story; it would be a full-length novel — a romance novel. The spark became a flame, and it burned hot. I wrote the entire first draft — 160,000 words, approximately 350 printed pages — between Christmas break and final exams in May.

I would write six more drafts of Something in the Airwaves — except it wasn’t good enough for publication. I set it aside and began a second novel. This one, Noble’s Healing, was set on the Santa Fe Trail in 1865.

Between my junior and senior years of college, I took a break for about eighteen months and acquired a lowly position in the newsroom of the local paper. My responsibilities were small, writing wedding and engagement announcements and the occasional obituary, but I got to know the editors and approached one of them about writing a piece for the special Christmas supplement.

I’d embarked on the next step in my apprenticeship, being schooled by the skilled. I learned how to meet a deadline, how to search for topics readers wanted to read about, and how to not get bent out of shape when a professional points out an error. I learned how to make my writing stronger, clearer, and more concise, to answer in the final paragraph the question I’d introduced in the opening one. I studied at the feet of wordsmiths who’d been at it for decades, and I learned confidence.

I returned to college, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental regulations and hazardous waste management, and I landed a position in an environmental engineering consulting firm. I had an office with my name on the door. I kept writing for the newspaper, but I added to it two articles for national magazines, and I was invited to write the forward for an Idaho back country trail guide. Nine years after I began writing my first novel, I’d also seen my 70th byline in print and I’d completed the seventh draft of that second novel. Noble’s Healing was ready. It was good enough.

I phoned a literary agency that had been suggested to me. Yes, it was accepting new clients, and the gentleman on the phone gave me a list of documents to send in my book proposal package, which included

  • The first three chapters,
  • A 10-page synopsis of the story,
  • A character list,
  • A bibliography of my publishing history, and
  • My resume.

But he warned me to be patient, that I wouldn’t receive a reply for 30 days. In other words, it would be a month before I’d get the rejection letter. He was wrong; three days after I dropped that bulky manila envelope in the mail, I received the phone call. Her name was Kathy, and she was calling from the airport, on her way to meet with publishers in New York City.

  • Had I written the entire book?
  • Had I submitted a proposal package to any other literary agents or agencies?
  • Was I under any kind of agreement with any other literary agents or agencies?

The best we could do — she had to board her flight — was a verbal contract over the phone. Kathy became my literary agent.

Two months later, she had two contracts for me to sign. Something in the Airwaves would be re-titled Airwaves, and Noble’s Healing would become Only His Kiss. I had a publisher.

Kathy later told me that I’d “climbed over the transom,” that the questions bantered about the offices of her literary agency and among those at the publishing house were — Who is she? Where did come from? What has she written before? I guess that’s because the first time anyone in the industry had seen any of my writing, it was already ready to go. That’s the value in the apprenticeship. If there’s any lesson here for aspiring novelists, it’s this — Don’t get in a hurry. Pay your dues. When you launch yourself, make sure you have the powder behind you to go all the way.

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