There was a trip to Missouri in 1979 that became the thing of legends for me, my sister, our mother and grandmother. The four of us embarked on a journey to learn our family history, and the trip illuminated many unknown stories that built us – stories of bravery, sadness, humor, and hope. It also blessed us with absurdly funny moments amidst the tensions that sometimes brewed between us.
Fast forward to 2005. My grandma had long sense passed, and Mom’s health was fading, but all it took to get a laugh out of her – or me or my sister – was the mere mention of that trip to Missouri. I decided that story needed to be told, so I began writing what was originally titled Eight Days in the Canary Cage.
As I wrote the book, it occurred to me that family stories are sticky. I was already struggling with how much truth I should allow into the story. After all, it would only be my perspective. But I carried on and allowed the story to maintain a lot of authenticity.
The first draft was ready by the summer of 2006, during which time we moved our parents close to us so we could care for Mom. I started reading the book to Mom and Dad, usually a chapter at a time. They enjoyed listening, and I managed to read the entire book to them before she passed away in 2007.
By 2008 I renamed the book Songs from the Canary Cage, I decided to let the characters take on lives of their own and depart almost completely from facts. I turned the book into a fictionalized young adult novel. I polished the first chapter and entered it in the Frontiers in Writing contest where I won first place. I was certain this book was on a fast track to publication.
Here’s where my inexperienced novelist’s angst began.
I wasn’t new to publishing in general. I had published many articles in magazines. But writing a book was new territory, and I wanted to do everything right, so I did all the things one is supposed to do. I took creative writing classes, joined writing critique groups, sought feedback from readers, attended conferences where I scheduled visits with agents and publishers, and took classes where I learned the biz.
For the next ten years, I struggled to make that book publishable. I received lots of feedback – some of it helpful, some of it misguided. I heard my book needed more and less backstory, dialogue, and action. I edited accordingly with each critique. Other advice included changing the narrative voice, the point of view, the genre, and even the main character. It was too short; then it was too long. I eventually lost sight of something terribly important: Writing is an artform, and the prose should be mine – for better or worse. Realizing this, I reclaimed the book and began the arduous task of cleaning up the train wreck it had become.
The next two years were spent editing, getting more beta reader feedback, and querying agents. Many of those agents never replied or replied up to 15 months later (sigh).
So now I’m at a pivotal junction. I can stay the course in seeking to secure an agent for a book that exceeds 120,000 words (which scares off agents left and right), or I can shorten the book (which I’ve already shortened from over 135,000 words, causing my beta readers to tell me to stop cutting out scenes and character development they liked), or I can embrace the art that it is, the timeliness of the 19th Amendment’s approaching centennial, and my ability to release it as an indie title.
I never dreamed this book would be released in the midst of a global pandemic where all of us are singing the same troubling song, yet here we are. And while we’re here, social distancing and waiting for the world to regain some sense of normalcy, I hope you might take some time to read my book.
May the songs you sing be happy. May the trees you plant be fruitful. May the time you spend with this book bring a laugh and a tear and a hope for the future.
All the best,