Happily Ever After Indeed: A Grub Success Story
Long, long ago in a United Kingdom far away, a thirteen-year-old girl (a thoroughly unpleasant age for all involved) prepared for a weeklong skiing holiday in Austria (as you do). She asked her mother, who was staying behind in London (already giddy with the prospect of solitude and books, books, books):
“What will you DO while we’re away?”
“Why, I’ll be suspended here awaiting your return, of course,” her mother replied. Because, really, isn’t that what they all thought? To her daughter she was either a complete numpty or utterly indispensable but, as in most things, the truth lay somewhere in between.
“No, Mum,” the girl said, “What would you do if you could do anything at all?”
“I’d write a novel,” the mother said, surprising herself entirely more than her daughter.
“Great, can I read it when I get back?” the daughter asked and bopped out the door.
That novel was a failure in every way. Oh, it had elements that were fine and some good writing, very good, even. But mostly it was silly and amateurish. Still, it was a thing.
Slow forward and that little girl is 16 and that mother (me) is hurfty-hrft and we are living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and no one is zipping off on European jaunts or nipping down to Portobello Road for some fruit and veg. There is, however, another novel. And, somehow I ginned up the courage to enroll in a Grub Street class to bring it into the light. I am a recovering publishing executive. I know how ugly this business is, how cruel and unforgiving the blue/red pencil/track changes/agent/editor/Michiko Kakutani can be. It took a lot of self-talk and wine to push the ‘sign up’ button on the Grub Street site one night.
In the fall of 2013 I had never shown anyone The Sparrows, never let anyone read even a sentence, never read it aloud to myself. I sat down in Sophie Powell’s class on that very first day and was certain that my head would blow off and leave a stain on the ceiling. Instead I found a circle of bright, interested writers who were gentle and careful in their critique and fearless as they shared their work. And so over the weeks and months, I too, became a Grubbie: fearless and gentle, caring and careful. I learned craft and structure, process and revision. I was taught that throwing things out could be as creative as writing things in. Less is more, more is more, more is less, and rules are rules are meant to be broken only after you’ve learned the rules. Now I am learning all new rules about writing short stories.
Right, my point (which by now is so dull as to be a crayon) is this: I became a student again because I needed teachers and the company of other students. In becoming a student, I became a professional. I managed to get an agent, which elicited squeals of delight from my fellow writers, but I knew how tiny that first step was. The manuscript went out and…meh. Here are sample quotes from some of the townspeople with pitchforks (oh fine, editors with finely-honed senses for what works): “There's much to like, but for some reason I just couldn't get into this in the way I know I was supposed to.” And: “I did feel that the love stories became a bit contrived…” And: “The trial scenes tied up loose ends too neatly.” And: “Kill the witch!” Okay, that last one isn’t real.
Just before I threw myself off the (very low) stone wall near our house this happened: on July 9, 2014 William Morrow bought The Sparrows at auction. Faye Bender of the Faye Bender Literary Agency negotiated the contract. The other day, my editor (mine, mine!) sent the manuscript to me. It landed with a satisfying thud on the front porch. It was annotated, but not overly so. Here’s one note: “Ellen, the trial scenes seem to tie up the loose ends a little too neatly. Let’s discuss a deeper take next week.” Happily ever after indeed.
Ellen Herrick is a former publishing executive with Warner Books, which became Time Warner (now HBG). She was Vice President, Director of Publicity during a time of great successes and great upheaval in the company. She survived and thrived during a merger to become a member of the editorial board of Warner Books, the flagship of Time Warner Trade Publishing. She takes partial and perhaps slightly red-faced responsibility for her role in making bestsellers out of a great many titles including Scarlet: The Sequel to Gone with the Wind, Madonna's Sex, and The Bridges of Madison County. Her friendships with people in the industry remain strong (if only for the free books). Ellen moved to London for two years and returned nearly twenty years later with three children, her own, it must be said. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a small town on Cape Cod very much like one she writes about in her first novel.See other articles by Ellen Herrick