Starting From Scratch

by Annie McCormick

Editor’s Note:
Annie McCormick is not a kid with a romantic idea of being a novelist. She’s old. Well, that was rude, but let’s just say she’ not young. She is, however, very serious about being a novelist and she’s changing her career path at this time in her life to do just that. I could tell her that’s not a financially sound goal, but she’s a big girl and she’s had a long and successful career so hopefully she’s socked away some extra cash.
Annie wrote a book. Is it good? Probably not but maybe it’s a good first draft. I don’t know, I haven’t read it.
Annie knows that’s just the beginning. She knows there’s a lot more hard work ahead, so when she proposed that she write a monthly column for the CWA blog about her journey I thought, well…maybe that would resonate with our audience. Maybe we could all teach each other something.
The thing I really like about Annie is she’s humble. She knows she has to put in the time and effort and she knows there’s a lot she doesn’t know. She’s willing to learn and to listen to criticism. She’s willing to study the craft and apply all she’s learned to her work and then to reconsider, to ponder, to revise and revise again.
So I said I would consider this column for our blog even though I had never read a word she’d written, other than emails (beautifully composed). She sent me the first installment. I edited the hell out of it – kind of ripped it apart, actually, but she was undaunted. She revised it. Resent it. Revised it again. She’s learning the craft of writing.
This is Annie’s first column.

Starting From Scratch

As I write this, I am in the south of France. Not as glamorous as it sounds, actually. I’m in a little flat, on a wobbly wooden chair, staring at my screen—and not to be too over the top about the perfectness of it all, a dozen or more horses and riders were clopping down the cobblestone laneway yesterday, right under my window.

I am here because I put my career and my life on hold. This goofy little apartment is very much like my undergrad days in Ireland. Fitting, I suppose, as I am now a student of the craft of writing.

I’ve always dreamed of being a writer. I give great credit to the Irish. I am first generation American so I am genetically predisposed to tell stories. It is really all I want to do.

At a party I’m pretty entertaining. I can hold a room with my stories. Someone once suggested I study stand up. But it is words on a page that hold the magic for me. For me the best thing is when someone can take a normal moment and infuse it with meaning that triggers understanding and insight, to bring laughter or tears, to tap into emotions so deep and unexpected that you touch the reader in ways you can’t imagine.

I want to write stories that make you laugh, ponder and cry, whether you’re in a middle seat of a flight from Atlanta to Chicago or staying up way too late at night, when you know full well you have an 8:00 meeting the next morning.

So, here I sit, in a tiny flat a block from the Mediterranean Sea, with wonky wifi, a laptop and my writing coach in the next room. I’m following a dream. Did I forget to mention that my writing coach is about to hit send on her latest manuscript? How lucky am I?

Years ago I followed a different dream. My friends raved about my cookies and craved them. I thought, hey! I’m a decent baker, I should open a bakery. I thought a passion for baking was enough (#hubris). I opened a small, boutique-y bakery with fabulous scones and amazing cookies. And in the weeks and months before the doors opened I realized that just because you can bake doesn’t mean you can run a bakery. Running a bakery is managing food cost, labor cost, vendor agreements, the science of baking and payroll. A decent cookie is actually the least of it. 14 months later I closed the bakery, exhausted, defeated, and weary.

So when my friends said with great enthusiasm about my new career as a writer, “You should write a book!” I did it! I wrote a novel. I shared it with my friends, the same friends that loved my cookies. They raved about it. They wondered who would play me when Hulu picked it up and made the movie because surely Hulu would want this. And so would Reese Witherspoon. A bidding war was discussed. My friends cheered me on.

I flashed back to the bakery. It is not a stretch to say there are similarities between baking and writing. Both are creative fields. Both will have well-intentioned friends cheering you on. Both are fueled by passion. Thanks to the bakery I learned that passion is not a credential. It is simply a starting point.

Great friends are terrific for your ego. I have learned, however, you need more than your besties to buy your cookies or your books.

This time I used their enthusiasm as encouragement to take the next small step. I went to a writers conference and tested my pitch and got shot down halfway through the opening sentence.

I “queried” 87 agents without an answer back. I actually had a moment in front of the acquisitions editor for Netflix. She nodded politely. And told me to come back when it was written and when I had an agent.

So I stopped thinking my book was finished and began to think it was just the beginning.

I have much to learn and needed a guide and teacher. I researched authors whose work I enjoyed, who were leaders in the field AND who taught at conferences or hosted seminars. I needed someone who would teach me. There is another story about that whole process, but let's fast forward for the moment to: I got a mentor. She read the first 20 pages and said, “Start over. Learn the craft. Understand your art. Focus your talent.”

She was going to France and asked me to come with her. She wasn’t saying that to be nice, we made a deal, handshake and all. I would do consulting for her, she would coach me in exchange. Each of us would bring our best to the table and defer to the other’s expertise.

And neither of us could afford the other, if we were paying in money.

My mentor asked me hard questions: “Why do you want to write? Have you read other authors in this genre? Your idea is great, but is it a story? What does your character want and what does she need? Can you please stop head hopping!” It was endless, exhausting and exciting. There is so much I have to learn. The adage of old dogs, new tricks is whispering in my ear.

Fast forward to this moment in our sunny little kitchen, sitting across the table from her in France. I have this blog post to write (and rewrite). She had a new novel to finish and a few workshops to teach. In exchange for making the occasional cup of coffee, giving her tips on managing her brand and helping her to stay on time, I get the benefit of watching her work and soaking it in, of sitting with other authors and just listening. I get to learn from her while she preps to teach a class on craft, writing in scene and the importance of POV.

I get to watch her read and reread her manuscript before hitting send. Five books later and a spot on the USA Today best seller list and she still hovers over the send key and holds her breath.

I now know that a finished manuscript has months of edits and rewrites and battles over the right phrase or word—the art of the craft vs the business of the book world. I’m sure you already knew that.

As I write this, my inclination is to call our flatmate in the next room and ask her to read this. She’s here to explore the markets and sit by the sea while we work.

I’m nervous. You would be too if you were starting a blog series for the CWA. I need some affirmation. Our friend is not a writer, she’s a PR exec. She will probably love this. She’ll laugh out loud at times. I kind of need that. But in all honesty, that means nothing. Instead, I will save this, take a walk, and read it again before I send it to my coach. Who will surely shred it. And I’ll do it again. And maybe then I’ll send it to CWA, and Samantha Hoffman will probably shred it too. So if you’re reading this…YAY!

I feel so lucky to have the amazing opportunity to peak behind the curtain, to watch a master at work and to sip wine at an umbrella table along the coast.

You probably already know everything I’m going to write about but I will share the ideas, insights and secrets I learn, and maybe you can share yours. You’ll have to bring your own wine though.

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