The year was 1989 and I was about to be published for the first time. I was at the notoriously exciting Washington Romance Writers conference in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia where I gave a workshop on Innovative Characterization Techniques, something I still teach, albeit with modifications. Back then, I identified myself as a psychotherapist and still had my private practice, since I hadn’t yet made a dime off writing. (Not quite true. I’d made $150 for an op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times and I’d received an advance on my two book contract, less my agent’s 15%. So as of that conference, I’d made $4,400 and wasn’t exactly ready to quit my day job. Nor did I want to. I loved my work). But getting back to the conference.
I wasn’t nervous as I presented that workshop even though the audience was quite large. I’d been making presentations for years as a social worker and felt at home “on stage”. When I went to bed the night after my workshop, I was happy and relaxed. When I got up the next morning, though, anxiety hit with a vengeance. Why? That morning I was going to have an event writers both crave and fear: a pitch meeting with an editor.
I was now contractless after turning in my second book, but I had an idea for a third that I was completely, utterly, head-over-heels in love with. I also had a problem: I was, and frankly still am, a terrible pitcher. I can never seem to sum up my stories in a neat package for an agent or an editor or even for a reader. I’d rehearsed what I would say, though, and was as ready as I could be.
I waited in the ballroom for my appointment and soon it was my turn. The editor (I have absolutely no memory of who she was) and I met on the long glassed-in porch that runs along the side of the old Hilltop House where the conference was held. We sat across from one another at a small cloth-covered table overlooking the spectacular view of the rivers. Harpers Ferry is where the Shenandoah River and the Potomac River come crashing together. It’s one of my favorite places. But looking over the cliff from our table, I felt a wave of nausea.
I began pitching.
“It’s called Secret Lives and it’s the story of a young woman named Eden, she’s an actress, who wants to make a movie about her mother, who was a famous children’s author. She was odd. Her mother, I mean. Her name was Kate and she lived in a cavern, like the Luray Caverns near here, because she was agoraphobic. Or not agoraphobic exactly, but. . . Well, anyway, Eden wants to humanize her, make her sympathetic. But she has to live with her aunt and uncle while she’s researching her mother’s life and she hates them because something happened when she was living with them when she was a teenager. . . ”
Here, I had to pause because I was having some sort of panic attack. I couldn’t seem to breathe properly. I was swallowing in all the wrong places and the words sounded strangled as they rushed of my mouth. The editor was smiling kindly at me, nodding her head a little, but I could tell she was not catching my passion. I continued.
“But now the uncle is an archaeologist in the Shenandoah Valley and he has a partner, Ben, who Eden falls for, but Ben’s been convicted of molesting his daughter, but he swears he’s innocent and. . . ”
Again I stopped. This time I was so freaked out that I had to excuse myself and get a glass of water, which I brought back to the table. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I seem to have something caught in my throat.” Like, the story, I thought. It wasn’t coming out right at all.
“No problem,” said the kind editor.
“I forgot to mention the journal! The uncle has the mother, Kate’s, journals and they tell the story of her life, and–”
“I’m afraid we’re out of time,” the editor said–words I’d said many times myself to my therapy clients. “I have another appointment.” She leaned toward me and spoke sincerely. “I can tell you love this story and that it means a lot to you on a personal level, but I think it’s too complex for the sort of book I’m looking for right now. Maybe you could simplify it, although I really don’t think it’s for us either way.”
Drat. I’d blown my chance, plus made a fool out of myself in the process. When I told my agent about my failed appointment, she said I would have to write the whole book on spec. There was no other way, because every time I tried to describe the complexities of the story that were so clear in my mind, I failed, even with her.
So that’s what I did. I wrote the entire five hundred pages on the weekends and in the mornings before I headed off to work. I started with Kate’s journal, writing her story in first person, my heart breaking for her the whole time. I wrote her entire journal first so that I didn’t lose her voice. Living inside her head, I became so close to her that I could hardly bear to let her go.
Then I created Eden’s story, and Ben’s, and I filled them up with a complicated blend of love and anger toward Eden’s aunt and uncle. Yes, the characters’ stories were complex. I gave them a hundred and one obstacles to happiness. Then I threw them all together in the Shenandoah Valley and let them work it out.
When I was finished, my agent sent the manuscript to Karen Solem, who was then an editor at HarperCollins, and I had my offer the next day. Karen saw what I saw in the book but had been unable to express to that editor in Harpers Ferry: a story too complex to easily describe, but not too complex to fall in love with.
I had a very small readership when Secret Lives came out in 1991. It sold a few copies in hardcover and a few more in paperback. Then it quietly disappeared, as so many books do. Although my current publisher is doing a nice job of reissuing my older books, Secret Lives and some of my very early books may never get to see the light of day again unless I take action myself. So that’s why I’ve arranged to publish Secret Lives in an electronic format. I apologize to those of you who prefer print. Creating an e-book is an inexpensive, relatively easy experiment. Self publishing in print is another matter, one I’m not yet ready to tackle. (You may be able to find old print copies of Secret Lives on ebay or used on Amazon or other Internet booksellers). If you are an electronic book reader, I hope you’ll try a free sample of Secret Lives on your Kindle or any other E-reader. And please let me know what you think. I’m sure you know by now that it’s one of my favorite books. Just don’t ask me to describe it to you!