My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Susan Adrian, author of Tunnel Vision, a Young Adult novel about a teenage boy with an extra-sensory superpower who ends up working as a spy for the U.S. government. Tunnel Vision easily provided some of the most fun I’ve had between book covers this year and I’m happy to learn that Susan—a fellow Butte, Montana author—is working on a sequel. Susan is a fourth-generation Californian who somehow stumbled into living in Montana. She danced in a ballet company and worked in the fields of exotic pet-sitting, clothes-schlepping, and bookstore management. She’s settled in, mostly, as a scientific editor. When she’s not with her family, she keeps busy researching crazy stuff, traveling, and writing more books.
My First Finished Book
I started writing my first book after having a particularly vivid dream.
I know that’s a cliché, but it’s completely true. I dreamt I was being held a prisoner in a medieval, white, oddly-shaped tower, by some sort of evil duke who sliced my arm open with a knife. It was so clear that I could feel the cut in the dream, feel the immense terror of that moment. When I woke up, I was so intrigued that I had to write that down.
I researched a little, wrote a scene, and then being the complete nerd and newbie that I was, I searched for a forum for writers and posted my first scene on the Compuserve Books & Writers Forum for feedback. A few people criticized it (I’m sure it was appalling). But then one of my writing heroes, Diana Gabaldon, commented that it actually wasn’t bad, and I should keep on with it.
And so another writer was born.
I wrote that book—The Murderess’s Tale—off and on, for four years. I wrote it during my pregnancy with my only child (I abruptly stopped writing for about two years when that child was born and I discovered what parenthood was really like). But I came back. I stayed on the Books & Writers Forum and learned how to write, how to research, and how to query. How to be a writer. I was writing it when I started going to the Surrey Writer’s Conference in Canada.
In the course of researching, I discovered the exact tower I had dreamt of—that oddly-shaped white tower—existed, exactly as I’d seen it in my dream. It was the family seat of the Duke of York. As I like to say, writing is magic.
I kept writing, and revising, and learning, and rewriting again. Then, in 2005, I finished a 90,000-word I-didn’t-know-it-was-YA novel based in 1387 England. I sucked in my breath and pitched it to an agent at Surrey, and she read the full manuscript…but didn’t sign me.
A good friend of mine, already published, told me at the time that was a good thing. Because if I’d knocked it out of the park on the first try, they all would’ve had to hate me. She was right, too. I wasn’t ready.
Diana Gabaldon referred me to her agent, who also read the manuscript but didn’t take it. I queried other agents, but I just couldn’t break through. Eventually I stopped trying, and wrote an actual Young Adult novel (now that I knew what I was doing), a contemporary fantasy. That book did end up getting me an agent. But it didn’t sell, nor did the next three. They kept piling up in the drawer, my lovely attempts.
Tunnel Vision came out in January of this year. The sequel is in the works, and not too long ago I got to celebrate another sale, a middle-grade novel called Nutcracked to Random House for publication in 2017.
The Murderess’s Tale, that odd little quirky historical, will never be published—but I’m completely okay with that. I will always be so proud of it. Not because it’s publishable, or even good, but because it’s the one I tried. It’s the book I learned on, practicing plot and characterization and description and pacing. It was the one where I shared chapters with other writers, and saw for the first time what it was like to have someone else read something I made up. It’s also where I learned to fail. Where I found out that it’s not only okay to write a whole book that doesn’t get published…that it’s very often part of the process. It was necessary to write this book before I could write any others. It was necessary to write those others before I could write what I’m writing now. It was all growth and development—all part of who I am, and the stories I will continue to tell.
I bet some of you have first books out there that didn’t make it into the wide world, but they’re still vital to you, to your journey as a storyteller. And maybe some of you have first books in your head that have yet to come out. Work on them. Experiment. Play. Learn.
It isn’t bad, and you should keep on with it. You never know what might happen later.