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An Education in Determination by Donna Everhart

An Education in Determination by Donna Everhart

I will remain forever grateful that the company I once worked for went bankrupt. Doesn’t that sound strange? The truth is, if they hadn’t, I’d probably still be there, a cubicle rat, as I called myself, busily working toward retirement, gathering my bi-weekly paycheck, while daydreaming . . . what if? But, before I go to that moment in time, I have to back up a few decades.

The very first time I told someone I wanted to write, I was eighteen years old. A little hint about me. When I get the itch to take on a new hobby/pastime/interest, I tend to declare my intentions. Like running. I started out with a half mile. I finished it, and thought, well, if I can do that and not stop, I should try to do a mile. I did that, and that was the day I declared myself a runner. I’ve often heard, if you want to commit, tell someone. That’s what I did. Eventually I was running road races, 5Ks, 10Ks, a 15K or two. Next, I declared I was going to run marathons. (That’s 26.2 miles for those who don’t run.) I loved running. It defined me, and who I was.

Saying I wanted to write was another out of the blue declaration. I’ve also said I wanted to learn to play violin, and I bought one. But, there it sits to this day, gathering dust. Anyway, part of my problem was having no idea what I wanted to write about. What I believed back then was it would give me a cool vibe. That was something I was sorely lacking. (still am) At that time, I envisioned how “writer,” might look on me. I pictured myself stating this out loud to whoever, and their reaction. Mouth drooping in stunned disbelief, a shifting of expression from incredulity to awe. I would preen a little perhaps, brushing off their amazement with, you know, the cool vibe.

After making this declaration, and I can’t even recall everyone I told, I dabbled with it half-heartedly. My problem was I wanted quick results–without putting in the work. I tried. I did. I was left most of the time thinking, wow, this is really hard. Geez, this is for the birds! I’d then put away my “playthings.” Writer? Well, I had work to do, bills to pay.

Decades passed. I wrote a little here and there, especially when something would happen at work. I’d drag out what I called a manuscript, festering over typical work-a-day problems. I’d mutter, “I’m gonna quit. I’m gonna go into my boss’s office and say, ‘Here. Take my badge. I’m quitting to become a writer.’” I daydreamed I’d walk out with my head somewhere up in the stratosphere. Except. I’d soon have a little reality check about those bills I had to pay. I’d quietly tuck the manuscript back into its little hidey-hole and not touch it again, for, oh, I don’t know–years.

Of course, I’ve always read as much as I can. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t. Somewhere along the way I figured out what I wanted to write. This happened in the early 90s after I’d read a variety of genres, and I was currently in my Stephen King phase. This was when his writing was getting a little weird, and I was looking for something new. I wish I could remember exactly how I landed on Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. What I DO remember after I finished the book was I’d experienced an awakening of my writer self. It showed me the sort of novelist I wanted to become. I was enthralled with this sub-genre I came to love, and eventually write – Southern fiction. I went back to the horrible, terrible, really bad, and less than half written manuscript, and I began to overhaul it. Think total house-gutting and renovations. This was the way I spent my time writing for the better part of a decade or so–still with huge gaps in time without doing much.

Now we come into late 2008, and the company was going bankrupt. I went home and made another one of those declarations, this time to my husband.

“If I’m ever going to see if I can become a writer, now is the time.”

By now, I was older, more focused. I came up with a plan. First, I would continue to work until they kicked me out the door. The company intended to continue business while it sold off various areas to competitors. It took a while to shut the doors. While I was working, (my end date was an unknown) I also went back to school and got my degree. The degree was my safety net, should my dream of writing never materialize. I continued to put in forty-plus hours a week, did schoolwork at night, and on weekends I wrote like a fiend with the intentions to finish the manuscript.

Sometime in early 2011, I finally had a rough draft. I decided I needed a freelance editor. How did I go about finding one? Good old Google. I landed on an individual, Ann Patty. I found her based on a specific search I used. (You can Google her and see who she is) We communicated via email, and she agreed to read the manuscript, because, “You have a voice.” Sidebar: that compliment was everything! I was over the moon and it encouraged me so much, but, little did I know, the manuscript had a “fatal flaw.” Because of this fatal flaw, Ann Patty referred me to a *freelance editor who worked with first time authors. This is the editor I would work with for the next year, fifty pages at a time. She was very direct. Kind, but direct–she was exactly who I needed.

This particular freelance editor also worked in a very unique way. She said “if,” she believed a manuscript was worthy of an agent’s attention, she would query on a writer’s behalf. She could do this because she had contacts in New York. She had worked at various publishing houses over the years, and knew many in the publishing industry. This is where that bit of luck we hear about came in for me. In early 2012, she believed The Education of Dixie Dupree was ready. She began to solicit agents immediately, one at a time. I hovered over my email. Answers came quick. Two turned down representation, but the third? They say three’s a charm.

It’s been ten years since I signed with my agent, John Talbot. The day I got his phone call offering representation, his enthusiasm was so infectious all I could do was grin. I have no idea what I said. I signed a contract on March, 9, 2012, and left my company on March 30th, 2012 – exactly three weeks later. My end date had nothing to do with signing the contract. I had known it since January. It was pure coincidence, but I was happy to share my good news with my colleagues.

The Education of Dixie Dupree went on submission that same month. Expectations were it would sell quickly. I guess this is where my luck ran out. During the first few months while Dixie was being shopped, I did what I call “panic writing,” meaning I wrote a second book fast and furious. Considering I had nitpicked on Dixie for almost twenty years, wow, I wrote the second one like I was on fire! I quickly turned it in to my agent, but here’s what I learned. This is not a process where submissions occur at will. It was too soon (!) for another book from Donna Everhart. While it was hard to set book number two aside, I did, and at the beginning of 2013, I hunkered down to write the third.

Meanwhile, the submission clock for The Education of Dixie Dupree ticked on. No offer. Only silence. It was devastating, quite honestly. I took my time on the third book. One day my agent said, “Dixie is inactive.” I asked what that meant. In more or less words he said, “It means if someone asks to see it, I’ll send it their way, but we’re not actively sending it out.”

By early 2015, the third book, which was a very different story, was ready to go on submission. By then, I had resolved myself to the fact my first book would never be on shelves, and neither would my second. During those three years, I had matured as a writer. For this submission, I was much more reserved in my expectations. Because it was a hard crime novel, the potential acquiring editor list was much smaller. I was hopeful, but I went into it knowing the opportunity for success was much less than before.

Another waiting period began. In some way, I understood I was potentially at a crossroads in my writing career. I strongly believed if this book didn’t sell, my agent might find it hard to justify retaining me as a client. He never gave any indications he thought this way, it’s just that it’s a tough business. The editor at the publishing house where I thought I had the best chance because of his relationship with my agent, rejected my new book within days. My agent relayed that rejection to me, but also said this editor liked my writing style, and wanted to know, “does she have anything else?” My agent made a mental connection about this particular editor’s likes and dislikes. He took a chance and forwarded The Education of Dixie Dupree.

My agent forwarded the rejections for the hard crime novel as I’d asked him to, because I like to know what’s going on. When I got another forwarded email on April 1st, I was rather sick of them by then, so I ignored it. I wasn’t in the mood for another rejection. I cleaned house instead. Later on that afternoon, I finally opened the email up, feeling I could stomach whatever was said. These words (and we’ve heard this description before) jumped out at me:

“WE HAVE AN OFFER ON DIXIE DUPREE. Call me as soon as you get this.”

After three years, and unbelievably because of a completely different manuscript, my very first–and at that time–the only book I’d ever written had finally sold.

When I tell this story, I always get goosebumps, even now as I write this, I have them. Since then, I’ve completed eight books, five are published, the sixth will come out sometime in 2024, and I’m about to begin on the ninth. I hope this personal account offers a glimpse into how unusual, and uniquely different publication can be for those of you writing. There is no cookie cutter process. Granted, it primarily remains a query/slush pile process for many, but I also know a random elevator pitch, a chance meeting, an editor on the hunt for a certain kind of story, can result in pages requested - and then? Magic.

(*name withheld because this freelance editor has retired and is a very private person)