Monday, March 25, 2013

My First Time: Shannon Huffman Polson

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 Shannon Huffman Polson whose memoir, North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, will be released on April 9.  Polson lives and writes with her family in the Pacific Northwest.  In previous years, she has worked as attack helicopter pilot and business manager.  She spends as much time outdoors as she can with her family.  She started and finished North of Hope from a tiny log cabin in central Alaska.  Find Polson at her blog, A Border Life.

My First Agent

“How long do you think you need, a month?” my boss asked, when I told her I was quitting.  I looked hard at her because she was looking hard at me.  I tried to look respectful, not show my disbelief.  I was leaving to write a book.  She thought it would only take a month?

“I think closer to a year,” I said.

Her phone rang.  She answered it.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I’ll be just a minute.”  She set the phone down.

“So do you want to work part time?  What are you thinking?” she asked.  Something dinged and popped up on her computer.  She glanced at it, then back at me.

“I’m going to need to focus exclusively on writing,” I said, hearing my own words with an even greater dose of disbelief.

This was crazy.  I’d always taken the secure path, the one guaranteeing success within a framework that I could learn and operate within.  College.  The military.  Business school.  The corporate jungle.

I’d written an article for a magazine, and written a book query to one (yep: one) agent, and that agent had asked for a proposal. I didn’t know what a proposal was.

I’d written the first part of the book two years before.  I began in the months after I took a trip down a river in Alaska’s Arctic, retracing the route my dad and step-mom had taken the year before when they were killed by a grizzly bear.  I’d given my few chapters to someone for her thoughts.  In a nutshell she said: this doesn’t work.  I don’t think you’re ready to write this.

I put my writing to the side.  I worked at my day job in business management at a technology company.  Then I started again, this time working on the article, which Alaska Magazine published.  I went to a couple of writing conferences, one big, one small.  I took classes at the Hugo House, our local writing center, on proposals, on essays and memoir.  I wrote several chapters, worked on my outline.  Another year passed.

That's when I sent my first query, the one that was accepted.  I had the talk with my boss.  I quit the job.  My last paycheck came in the mail.  I looked at it for a long, tender minute.

“This might fail,” I said to my husband, whom I’d met at business school and was happily stressed out in the world of start-up companies.  “Maybe no one will like it.  Maybe it will be good but nobody will want it.  Maybe it will be terrible.  I don’t know if this will work at all.”

“Just like a start-up,” he said cheerfully.  I worked to internalize his cheer.

Proposal class under my belt, I sent out my proposal to the agent who’d asked.  She turned me down.  I sent out more queries, which were mostly accepted, and then proposals, which weren’t.  Despite my ability to crank out college essays, creative non-fiction was an entirely different beast.  Things weren’t looking good.

I applied for and was accepted by Seattle Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program two months after I gave birth to my first son, because apparently, I didn’t think I’d have enough to do.  Unlike many, if not most, MFA programs, this one didn’t let you work on a book.  I put my manuscript aside, and while juggling diapers and doctor’s appointments, wrote essays about my military experience, about climbing mountains, about music, about faith.  I tried different forms.  I published a couple of essays and articles in magazines.  I read books on craft, and immersed myself in reading essays, memoirs, biographies.  During the summer months off between quarters, I went back to the manuscript.

The fall of my second year in the program, I sent out queries again.  That night I tweeted: “Sending out queries for the book!”  And someone responded: “Sounds interesting.  Want to send a copy my way?”

It was a colleague in my program, someone who had just graduated.  I hadn’t known he had started work as an agent.  We emailed back and forth.  I sent him a packet.

Long story short, he accepted the proposal, and four months later I was in talks with a publisher.  Of course, that’s just the beginning.  A longer beginning than I thought it would be.  A three-year long beginning (not that I’m counting).  A whole new world of beginnings.

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