EDITOR'S NOTE: One thing is known when it comes to writing — you probably aren't going to be a millionaire. Between the surge of self-publishing, ebooks and the decline of bookstores, much of it seems bleak. But there are those in Indy who could write an encyclopedia on this labor of love. Barbara Shoup is one of those people. In the next few minutes you will read her story of failures, successes and what drives her to keep going. We also spoke to a few of the key players in Hoosier publishing: Jane Friedman — an Indiana guru of what (and what not) to do when getting that manuscript an ISBN number — two of Indiana's avant garde small presses, and IU, which is making a big effort to get Midwest writers to bigger markets. Call it your who's who and what to do of writing.
In the Beginning
I read. Anywhere, everywhere — walking home from school, at the dinner table, in the car, in bed with a flashlight when I'm supposed to be asleep. A book is the most amazing thing! Open one and a life that's not mine unfolds; I'm alive in a place I've never been.
I'm maybe 8 when I figure out that books aren't magic, people write them, and those people are called "Authors." More than anything else in the whole world, I want to be one. So I start writing stories in blue notebooks I buy at the dime store and keep in a secret place.
Around the same time: It's a summer evening, I've just had my bath, I'm in bed, drowsy, even though it's still light and I can hear the voices of neighborhood kids still playing outside, when (who knows why?) I am overwhelmed with the sudden, visceral realization that someday I will die. It scares the crap out of me. I lie for a long time, my heart beating wildly. One good thing, I tell myself: books live forever. Which means, sort of, if I write books I can live forever, too.
Then there's the money thing: my family never has enough. There are a lot of things I want, but can't have, especially nice clothes and a nice house with a room of my own in it. Authors are rich, they must be. Naturally, I conclude that when I am an Author I will be rich, too. All of our problems will be solved and we will be happy.
My first novel
I am extremely distressed watching hateful white people scream and throw things at the children walking to the school just because they're Negroes. I'm only 10 years old, but I know it's stupid and wrong to try to keep those kids from going to school just because of their color. I don't understand why this is happening, but I do know that the trouble started a long time ago, when there was slavery and, in a leap of imagination, I decide to write about a girl my age escaping the plantation, traveling north by Underground Railroad.
It will be more than a story, though. It will be a whole book.
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I come home from school every day, close my bedroom door behind me, and work diligently until I get my story told. It's forty pages long! A typewriter is another thing I want and don't have, so I recopy the story in my very best handwriting. When I finish, I draw some pictures to go with it, make a special front page from green construction paper and write the title on it: Slave Girl. Then I send it off to a New York publisher whose address I found in the front of a library book.
My book is returned, with a letter saying that they do not want to publish it. Then to make things worse we get to the unit in social studies and I learn that the Underground Railroad was not a subway train that ran from Atlanta to New York City. It gives me a stomachache, thinking about people in New York reading my book and, surely, laughing. You are too stupid to be an Author, I tell myself. Quit now, before you make a bigger fool of yourself than you already have.
Fast Forward: I become a high school teacher instead
Then one day a kid asks me if that's what I always wanted to be.
"Oh, once I wanted to be an author," I say. "But that was ages ago, in grade school."
"And you don't want that anymore?"
I've buried this dream so deep that his question rattles me to the core. I can't just brush him off, nor can I ignore the voice inside me saying, You still want to be an author, you never stopped wanting to be an author and, if you're going to be the kind of teacher who inspires students to make their dreams come true, you can't keep copping out on your own.
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Within a year, I've written a book about the community-based learning program where I teach. To my amazement, it's bought, published, gets excellent reviews, and even wins an award.
I'm an author!
But so what? It's not a novel.
You're never satisfied, my mom often said to me in frustration when I was a kid — and she was right.
Novel: Take Two
I am determined to write a novel, even though I believe talent is required and am convinced that I have none. I also believe that you're supposed to have the story all worked out in your head before you start. But all I have is the image of a young woman, home for a brief time, in the midst of a family she simultaneously longs to feel a true part of and longs to leave behind — and, no matter how hard I think, I can't figure out where it goes from there. I start anyway. What else can I do?
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Characters start to come alive. Sometimes they're as intractable as spoiled children; sometimes they thrill me, doing something I hadn't planned for them, showing me who they really are. Characters I hadn't even imagined when I started the novel appear and complicate things in interesting ways. I still don't know exactly where the book is going, but I sit down every day and write until I get to the end — kind of like a blind person, tapping.
I am (I realize now) incredibly lucky. A kind IU professor reads my manuscript, says I should seek an agent, and tells me how. I find one! Rhoda! In New York! She sends the novel out, and it gets numerous complimentary rejections — which Rhoda says is very encouraging, even though it doesn't sell.
Meanwhile, the kind IU professor recommends me for a graduate creative writing program, and I get a fellowship to work toward a degree. I love being in Bloomington, it's wonderful to be in a writing workshop with talented, experienced writers. But everybody in the workshop is writing short stories and, though I'd never admit it, short stories feel like snacks to me. I want the groaning buffet of the novel.
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I try writing a short story anyway, but it turns into the first chapter of a novel I had no idea I was going to write. I bring a new chapter, or part of one, each week, but the workshop doesn't quite know what to do with it. Feedback on craft is useful, but feedback on what the novel is, and where it might be going often makes an already confusing process even more so. I second-guess myself, listening too much to those who feel confident in their ideas about what my novel should be but have never written a novel themselves.
Regretfully, I leave the program, settle down to work on the book on my own.
Journal entry: 9/14/81. "Night Watch is in the process of being sold to Harper & Row. Found this out last Wednesday and since then have been in a state of shock. Can this really be happening? Better yet, it's being sold under excellent circumstances — senior editors, good house, first novel bought for a new imprint. What a fantasy to have my editor call me and go on about what a wonderful writer I am.
'Splendiferous!' she said."
I am an author in New York
I arrive at the offices of Harper & Row on East 54th Street on a January morning in 1982, and am escorted to the office of my editor. She's on the phone, makes an apologetic face, and gestures for me to sit down in a battered chair with cat pillows on it. I do, glad for a moment to collect myself. The office is small, lined with bookshelves overloaded with books, precarious towers of manuscripts on every surface.
"Barbara Shoup," she says, when she hangs up, beaming at me.
She's in her late 40s, petite and blond, wearing paisley, high boots, a shawl. Cornelia is her name. I instantly adore her — and her husband, Michael, too, who comes in when Cornelia calls to him. He's older than she is, wearing a rumpled suit and a flowered bow tie. He loves Night Watch, which he says is, "spare, economical, elegant." He tells me about Cornelia giving him the manuscript to read, how, when he was twenty or so pages in, he hollered at her from another room, "Who is this Barbara Shoup person, anyway? Where did she come from?"
I am thrilled. And extremely embarrassed.
He grins at me. "Smile," he says. "It's okay. It's a wonderful book."
I lunch with Cornelia at the St. Regis, then we go back to her office and work on the manuscript the rest of the afternoon. Just a few things to tighten up, she says. We go to the ballet together that evening, end up in a coffee shop eating grilled cheese sandwiches and talking about everything.
And it's back to the St. Regis the next day, this time to lunch with Rhoda — and sign the contract. Needless to say, this makes me very happy — but what I, mainly, feel is relieved. What I've wanted all my life is actually beginning to happen.
My author copies arrive in August and when I open the box, pick up a book, then turn it over and see my photograph, which takes up the whole back cover, I'm so freaked out by the realization that people other than the ones who know and care about me are going to read and judge my book that I return it to the box, put the box under my bed, and don't take it out again for three days.
The good news: reviews, including a starred review in "Publisher's Weekly," are mostly excellent. The bad news: sales are modest, at best. Worse: I learn that the shelf life for novels with modest sales is about three months, then it's time to make room for the next crop. I also learn that those bargain novels I love to buy are books that have been "remaindered," like mine will be soon, sold to bookstores for next to nothing.
Some of the hardbacks on the bargain table are there because the book has gone to a paperback edition. The ones that didn't make it to paperback all too often represent the death of an author's dream.
Stranded (in Harmony)
In Outliers: Stories of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. I spend mine in the twelve years between the publication of my first and second novel. Turns out, I wrote those first two books by the grace of instinct, stubbornness, and dumb luck — and when that grace fails me with the third, I have to teach myself the craft of fiction. It's a bad time. I work constantly. When I'm not working, I'm distracted, often depressed. I dread the question, "When is your next novel coming out?" But it's even worse when people quit asking, having concluded it's never going to happen.
I keep going. If I stopped, who would I be?
And I am still a teacher, one who constantly reminds her struggling students, "It's process that matters. Not money or fame. Not even publication. A real writer writes because she loves the process, she keeps going even though a lot of the time it drives her crazy."
Teaching is what I have. I love it, I love my students. It's the one thing in my life I know I'm good at—and a big part of why I'm good at it is that I never expect more of my young writers than I expect of myself. If I stop writing, I fail at teaching, too. So I'm grateful for the terrible awareness that my students are out there just waiting to judge me as one more adult in their lives whose subliminal message to them is, "Don't do as I do, do as I say."
Cornelia is a trouper. She reads draft after draft of Stranded in Harmony, making copious notes on each one, and, despite the fact that I keep failing to get it right, she continues to believe in the book, to believe in me. Five years pass. Even I know this can't go on forever; it's not good for either one of us. Finally, in 1988, she writes to my new agent, Alice, "Barbara is a writer, a very, very good one, and I know a lot about her: I know that she won't be defeated by this setback, and I know that in her long future there are going to be many good books. I hope I'll get to publish them. But there are moments in a novelist's life where it's the wrong time for a certain story, or books that simply refuse to be born...This may be the case here, or it may be that there is some way to fix this story that Barbara and I together couldn't find."
I'm broken-hearted, but I know she's right to let it go.
I inadvertently become a young adult author
Years pass. I write another (failed) novel, start a new one that stops in its tracks — then, suddenly, an idea I've been noodling around with for a while combusts and begins to tell me what it wants to be. I write like crazy, finish the book in less than a year. The problem is, the main character is a teenager, and Alice is leery about its marketing potential.
"People don't want to read about teenagers," she says.
Which seems strange to me. The book is about a kid trying to come to terms with his parents' divorce, and so many of my high school students are doing the same thing that it seems to me divorced parents would be a natural audience.
Another agent, Mary, loves the book; she's certain she can sell it. So I switch. Mary almost immediately gets an offer from Hyperion, the new Disney imprint. They want to publish it as a young adult novel.
I have very mixed feelings about this. I don't want to be pigeonholed as a children's author, but I am so hungry for a second publication. I need it. So I say yes, sign the contract — and, as it turns out, the decision was a good one. Wish You Were Here gets way more attention as a YA novel than it would have as a novel for adults. It gets stellar reviews. It's named a 1994 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, a Blue Ribbon Book by the Center for Children's Books, a Best Young Adult Book by the Voice of Youth Advocates. It's optioned for television. Best of all, several years after its publication, Wish You Were Here appeared on the list of 100 Most Banned Books in America, which I still consider to be my greatest literary accomplishment.
Stranded in Harmony: Take Two
Hyperion wants a second novel, and it occurs to me that there may be hope for Stranded in Harmony yet. One of the characters is a teenage boy. Why not recast the story from his point of view? My editor likes the synopsis I submit, so I get the book out and go at it again.
She says yes to the finished manuscript in December, 1995; the book will be published the following fall. But a few months later, Hyperion cleans house and fires most of the staff (including my editor). In their sweep, they decide against publishing many of their contracted books. Fortunately, the editor assigned to Stranded in Harmony likes it well enough to hang on to it, but she takes it off the fall list because she thinks it needs considerably more work to be finished — and sends me eight single-spaced pages of notes explaining why.
I swear a lot. I'm also very confused. How in the world am I supposed to know what to think about my book when two equally qualified editors feel so differently about it? I could withdraw it and hope to find another editor who likes it as it is, but it would be iffy — plus, the thought of a long process of rejection is just too horrible to contemplate. And to be honest, the main thing the new editor thinks is wrong with the book is something I struggled with a lot, finally settling for what I hoped worked all right.
So I tackle the changes she wants. Back in process, my understanding of the book shifts, revealing the solution to the problem that had been there all along. Stranded in Harmony is named an ALA Best Books for Young Adults; it's on International Reading Association Choice List, The Children's Choice List. It's a finalist in the Great Lakes Book Award for Young Adult Fiction.
For fun (sort of), I have photo taken of myself next to a stack of all the failed drafts of the novel. They come to my shoulder.
My writing career versus my writing life
Between 1997 and 2005, I publish two adult novels Faithful Women and Vermeer's Daughter and co-author Novel Ideas and Story Matters, books about the creative process. In 2006, I win the PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship for Everything You Want, a young adult novel that's published in 2008. I win the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Regional Indiana Authors award just before the 2012 release of An American Tune. Looking for Jack Kerouac comes out in 2014. Several other novels are out there looking for homes as I type; another one is still in process. Characters roam around inside my head, searching for their stories. I've won artist fellowship grants from the Indiana Arts Commission and creative renewal fellowships from Lilly Endowment and the Indianapolis Arts Council.
All this looks great on paper. But when I add up the money I've made over nearly four decades of writing, it averages out to about $2,600 a year.
So much for rich—
So totally not there, either.
Some days I look at my books lined up on a shelf and feel successful. Some days I feel like a complete and total loser; I mean, where did all those years of writing get me?
On those days I remind myself of what Cornelia said to me years ago when I asked her what I should do to promote my writing career. "Writers don't have careers," she said. "They write." It seemed an odd response at the time, but now I know exactly what she meant.
If you choose a traditional profession, how high you climb the ladder of success will depend on a variety of factors including your intelligence, aptitude for the job, work ethic, willingness to learn, innate leadership qualities, and a certain degree of ruthlessness. When you reach the peak of your career, the extent to which you're considered successful will be measured by the amount of money you've made and the power and recognition you've achieved.
But there's no ladder to climb in the arts, very little logic in why some writers become rich and famous and other, often better writers remain unsung, even destitute. There is no reliable measure of success by any standard other than your own.
Of course, as in any profession, it doesn't hurt to know a powerful person willing to give you a step up. Years ago, I met a writer whose first collection of short stories had been published to great acclaim; now he was desperately struggling with his first novel. A few years later, he appeared on "Granta's" prestigious list of Twenty Best Young American Novelists.
I congratulated him the next time we met, said I was looking forward to reading the novel.
Mortified, he replied, "Oh, God. I still haven't finished it."
His novel was finally published five years after he was named to the "Granta" List. Digging a little, I learned that he was a protégé of an icon of contemporary American fiction.
I was pissed off and discouraged by the unfairness and dishonesty surrounding this honor; I was also weirdly relieved to realize that at least some of the failure to achieve recognition for my work has little or nothing to do with the work itself.
I'm not complaining. There are ways to be savvy as a novelist, ways to give your work a better shot at being recognized, and I'm the first to admit that promoting myself is not my strong suit. It doesn't help that three cardinal rules of my upbringing were: Never Brag; Never Admit You Need Anything; For God's Sake, Never Ask for Help. Then there's the fact that writing takes me out of the real world, which is why I love and need it. Once a novel is finished, I'm on to the next one — and that world is so much more compelling than the real world or even the finished, fictional world of the published book.
But these days the meager marketing budgets for all but a few novels requires novelists to be marketers, regardless of their marketing skills. Months before the publication of your book, you spend hours and hours lobbying for readings, reviews, interviews, book signings, blog tours. You post the book jacket on Facebook, Tweet every positive comment that comes your way. Then, finally, the novel arrives in the world and you spend the next months being an Author, doing all the stuff you set up and feeling guilty about stuff you should have set up but just didn't get around to because you were in such a state of anxiety and exhaustion about bringing yet another book into a world that might or might not pay any attention to it.
Some very good writers have the knack for marketing, even enjoy it. I'm envious of them — and wish them well. There are certainly book events I enjoy myself: the launch, when friends and family gather to celebrate the birth of the new book; radio interviews with smart interviewers; lively discussions during visits to book clubs whose members have read the book; visits to high school and college classes to talk with students who studied it.
But a lot of book events leave me feeling catatonic.
Once, for example, I arrived at a bookstore for a signing of Night Watch to find that they'd forgotten I was scheduled to be there. There was no table, the few copies of the book they had were in a Local Author display in the window, so they offered me a rolling office chair near the entrance of the store, plucked a copy of the novel from the display and handed it to me, I guess with the idea that I would accost people entering the store and make a sales pitch.
Customers glanced at me curiously. "Where are the Garfield books?" one asked. "Could you tell me where I can find Thinner Thighs in Thirty Days?" asked another.
I sold one book, to a close friend's mother — and went home and took to my bed.
So I am an Author, just as I set out to be when I was 8. But I rarely think of myself as an Author, a word that describes a public persona defined by work I've already done. What I am is a writer; I write. I'll never stop writing. It's who I am.
Near the end of Lake Woebegone Days, Garrison Keillor wrote, "Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known."
This is exactly the way I feel about my writing life.
I write from my heart, for myself—the only way I know how to write. Writing novels is a way of looking "sideways" at the joys, sorrows, fears, regrets, and unanswerable questions of my own life. It's a way of living more than one life: imagining the inside of my head, I see a circle of doors, each one with the whole life of a novel behind it. Mine.
I've published eight of these novels. They've made their way into the world, into the hands of readers I'll never know but who sometimes send an email or a letter to tell me that my work has brought them pleasure, comfort, insight.
And talk about "some luck." Becoming the executive director of the Indiana Writers Center was about as much a surprise to me as it was to those who thought of me as a teacher and a writer, yet it has been incredibly satisfying to rebuild that organization over the past seven years. My life is full of writers — from the aspiring writers who attend classes at the Writers Center to the many accomplished Indiana writers whose work is known well beyond our state.
The world of my 8-year-old self, setting out to become an Author, wasn't wide or rich enough for her to imagine what her life could become. My 10-year-old self believed she'd already failed as a writer, but had no idea what writing really was. My nearly-30-year-old self finally gathered up the courage to write again without fully understanding why it mattered.
If I could travel backward through time and talk to all of those selves from where I am now, I'd say to them, "You will do what you are meant to do, write, but you will be astonished by the strange journey on which writing takes all throughout your life. You won't get what you thought you wanted, and that disappointment will shadow you forever — undermining your confidence, causing you to second-guess decisions you made along the way, making you feel low. But you'll keep writing because you are a writer and that's what writers do. Sometimes you'll wonder, What if? But then you will remind yourself that no other path would have brought you to this moment in your life, made you the person you are. So, in the end, despite all that's happened, because of all that's happened, you won't want to change a thing.