Years ago, after leaving a stressful job which I loved, I was at loose ends. Not knowing what to do next, I first decided to write a scholarly paper but then a book.
Now, I knew nothing about writing a book. The only thing that I had written was a dissertation which likely few except my doctoral committee ever read and an essay which was published in my college newspaper.
The only thing that I knew about writing a book is that one needs a publisher. So I sent a two-page outline and three initial pages to the marketing director of Simon and Schuster, getting his name from the telephone directory (remember them?). Two months later I received an apologetic phone call, stating that he had been out-of-town and just got back. He said that S&S wasn’t interested since they wouldn’t know how to market the subject but that they would be very interested if I wrote more stories like the one I sent.
Angered by how long it took to get a response, I ignored his interest. A week later, while strolling with a friend in Riverside Park, we met a couple that she knew. The man had a degree in English from Columbia and earned an income by writing small things like travel articles for The New York Times and supermarket-sold booklets asking, “Do You Know Your Wife/Husband?”
Assuming that I would eventually get a contract and aware that a lawyer-less author gets screwed, I asked if he knew the name of a publishing industry lawyer. He gave me a name and I called her the next day. She turned out to be the lawyer for the Association of American Publishers and, long before, had been Edna Ferber’s lawyer. She asked to see what I wrote and I sent her what I had sent to S&S. She became my agent and sent the pages to Pat Knopf at Atheneum who offered me a contract. Thus, within three weeks, I had a lawyer, an agent, a contract, and an editor. All that I need do to become an author was to write a book but, as I said, I knew nothing about how to do it.
I was offered six months to complete the manuscript. Feeling terrified of failing, I asked for and was given a year. Though kindly, my agent frightened me. Her firm’s office took up two stories of a Madison Avenue building, had a winding wooden stairway from one floor to the next and phones in the waiting room for the use of clients. It demanded respect.
I got down to work, first deciding to write until I couldn’t but soon realized that this would lead to collapse. I then set a quota of two pages a day which, over time, instinctively increased to four or more pages a day.
I lived beside the East River, a few blocks north of the United Nations Building. My agent was a few blocks south and Atheneum was a few blocks beyond on Forty-Second Street opposite Grand Central Station. I spent 8AM-9AM reading newspapers and drinking coffee in the Citicorp Building atrium before returning to my apartment to write. After finishing a chapter, I walked it to the publisher and took the next day off. I submitted the manuscript in six months, not realizing until receiving Atheneum’s acceptance letter that they might reject it (like I said, I knew nothing about publishing). A year later, my agent sent me the rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.
The two crucial lessons which I learned from writing my first book is to remove all inessential words from a manuscript, that each word should count, and that what initially seems impossible may merely take just a bit longer.