Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, June 26, 2009

Timing is Everything

My first book was accepted for publication on my first try. Or was it? It was definitely my first submission, but I’m not sure the end result was my first book.

Home Run was my primary effort at fiction-other-than-roadshows. It was a story about conversion and spring training in the Cactus League – two things I figured I knew quite a bit about. Since I had three teenage sons and taught sixteen-year-olds in Sunday School, I wrote it with them in mind. I mailed it to Utah in a moment when I was out of my mind. Then I checked “write a novel” off my List-of-Things-To-Do-Before-I-Die and moved and on.

A few weeks later I was on the playground at the elementary school setting up carnival booths when one of my kids appeared, having just remembered a phone message he’d taken the day before. “By the way,” he said as I dropped rubber ducks into a wading pool, “somebody from somewhere called. She said they want to publish your book.”

I couldn’t quite process his words.

“Can I go buy tickets now?” he asked. Wordlessly, I turned over cash and he added, “Did you write a book?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing at the computer for the last six months?”

He shrugged. “Grandpa said you were having a midlife crisis.”

Grandpa was probably right.

The woman who called was Valerie Holladay from Covenant Communications. She couldn’t have been nicer. I was over-the-moon happy, telling everybody who would listen that I would soon be a published author.

About a week later, the official acceptance letter arrived. Included were three additional typewritten pages. (10 pt. Single spaced.) If it was titled at all, I’m sure it said something professional like “Suggested Revisions,” but I will always and forever think of it as the “612 Things We Really Hate About Your Novel” letter.

First I hyperventilated. Then my eyes leaked a little, probably from lack of oxygen. At last I picked up the phone and called Valerie. “Never mind,” I told her. “I’m not really a writer and I don’t want to publish a book.”

Apparently, nobody had ever called to tell her that. She sputtered a little then we hung up. A few minutes later, she called me back.

To avoid making a short story even longer, Val talked me down from the ledge. Somehow, my book for young men metamorphosed into The Heart Has Its Reasons, a romance – in a pink cover, no less. (As someone who had never even read a romance -- aside from Romeo & Juliet, Pride & Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights -- I didn’t die of mortification, I just thought I might.) Maybe I can tell you the whole story sometime, but what really matters today is that over the years this incredible editor/mentor became one of the best friends I will ever have in this life or all of eternity.

This is, obviously, a very (very) long way to introduce my guest blogger, Valerie Holladay. (Please note: this is essentially a two-for-the-price-of-one blog. Does that make up for whiffing it last week?) Val is a writer, editor, and educator extraordinaire. Formerly at Covenant Communications, she teaches editing at the college level, works tireless in the Association of Mormon Letters, and has served as editor of Irreantum. She blogs at V-Formation from which this blog came. It is used with her permission.

Timing is Everything
by Valerie Holladay

In teaching my editing class, I always like to pass along stories about how books are accepted, and how they get skipped over until some editor finally "connects" with the book. One amazing story is "The Confederacy of Dunces," a book that was rejected by all the major publishers over a period of several years. After the author committed suicide, his mother continued to submit his manuscript and finally prevailed upon author Percy Walker to read it. Walker used his influence to get the book published. The book won the Pulitzer but that's not even the end of the story. When 100 prominent writers were asked to name the single best work of American fiction in the last 25 years, this was the book they named.

The story I personally love is from Lillian Jackson Braun, author of The Cat Who books. Her first short story about her cat was published in Ellergy Queen's mystery magazine and made the "Best Detective Stories of the Year." After she was asked to write several more, a publisher asked if she'd like to try writing a novel with a cat, so she wrote The Cat Who Could Read Backwards and then the publisher asked for another and then another.But then...there's a gap between book number three and four--a gap of 18 years.

As Braun explains, "By the time I had written the fourth one, tastes in mysteries had changed, the management had changed, the policy had changed. They wanted sex and violence, not kitty-cat stories. [Note: This was the late '60s, the era of Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins.] Sex and violence were not my style, so I just forgot all about The Cat Who. I had a full-time job on a newspaper and it was exciting and I had a wonderful life, so who needed it?"

During those years, her husband died and she remarried. One rainy day she gave her manuscript for book #4 to her second husband, and when he read it, he said, "I think its time has come. There are fifty-six million cats in the United States and I think you should resubmit it." So she did and now twenty-something years later she's on book #30.

The idea that an author may have to wait eighteen years may not be terribly comforting, but to me the point is more that we can't know the future and there may be some wonderful things ahead. We just don't see it now. But what we do now helps us be ready for it--whether it's writing a book or enjoying whatever we're doing because life is full of changes and we may be doing something else at any point that we didn't anticipate.

You just may be surprised.


At 6/26/2009 3:04 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

56 million cats...I'm sorry but that had me giggling.

This post (dual-post?) is wonderful. There are so many golden nuggets in it for me. Be it timing or tenacity, I just have to believe that there's a place for my story out there. =]

At 6/26/2009 3:29 PM, Blogger Doug Johnston said...

Kerry, Can you imagine how many lives would have been different if you didn't turn that first book in. You are one of the best know, loved and adored writers in the LDS market.

I know I am a better man, a much better writer and much better member of Gods Church because of your example.

At 6/26/2009 7:07 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Kerri, I'm so glad Valerie was smart enough to call you back :)

At 6/26/2009 9:16 PM, Blogger Traci Hunter Abramson said...

Your story is priceless! And I agree with Heather. I'm so glad Valerie called you back!

At 6/27/2009 1:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, personally, am very proud to know a person with the strength to say no to a chance to get a book published--although I know you will say it was not strength but something more like "distress at the possibility of having to make all those changes" or such. I wonder if more of us could do that what changes it would make in the way writers would be treated by editor/reader critiques. "Yeah," that you stood up against a system that sometimes is very painful, and "Yeah." that the second call came.

Marlene Austin

At 6/27/2009 10:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Heart Has Its Reasons ... my mostest favoritest book ever. I'm forever grateful for Valerie's perseverance in getting your cooperation. Where would I be without Kerry Blair to read on a sunny day?

Great two-for post.


At 6/28/2009 1:11 PM, Blogger Anna Buttimore said...

Kerry, you know I love The Heart Has its Reasons because I wrote to tell you so, and that's how you became such an important friend to me. (So important, in fact, that I named my daughter after you.) It was so interesting learning how that first masterpiece came about.

And Val, your post was really encouraging since I had 7 years between book no. 2 and book no. 3. I hope not to leave it that long for the next one, and perhaps to some day be as prolific and successful as Kerry.

At 7/02/2009 1:03 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

Kerry, since you are one of my fav people, I am so glad Valerie talked you down from the ledge. I love Valerie! She saved me from a depression area I never thought I would recover from. She showed me what real editing looks like, and she helped me move on with a career I had abandoned due to my lack of faith in myself. She is an amazing woman.

At 7/15/2009 1:42 PM, Blogger Stephanie Abney said...

Always the optimist! And timing IS everything. Hope all is well. Love you! (sorry so slow in getting to your post ~ crazy life these days... oh, I always say that, don't I?). Take care!

At 7/04/2011 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To all who knew her, Valerie passed away 7/3/2011 at 1:15 p.m. at the U of U hospital after a brief bout with cancer.
Information about a memorial service is not yet available.
posted by her brother David

At 7/04/2011 11:52 PM, Anonymous The Froggers said...


I am so sorry. Valarie was an amazing editor, person, and friend. Please update us as you know more.

From the Froggers


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