I came to writing books late in life after a twenty year career as a successful exhibiting painter living in Belgium. When my maternal grandmother turned ninety, I was forty-nine years old and had just celebrated my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. My daughter was a freshman at an American university and my son was a senior in high school. And I’d written a novel, my first.
I loved writing poetry and I was an avid devotee of writing daily in a journal, but I had no real writing experience. I had no MA in Literature, no MFA. In fact, I didn’t know what I was doing. I only knew that my art pieces were no longer telling the story I wanted to tell after twenty years of painting. It turned out that by facilitating a few creativity workshops in my home, using the seminal book on creativity, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, my participants encouraged me to write. As we walked side by side in their creative journeys, I realized I was also on a journey—a quest—but I didn’t know where I was headed. So I decided to put my money where my mouth was and I wrote a tribute to my maternal grandmother in celebration of her ninetieth birthday.
You must be passionate about your story. If you’re not, you might find it difficult to stay the course. Readers can smell a writer who isn’t passionate about their own story.
I was the kid who sat at my grandmother’s knee, begging her for one more story; I just couldn’t get enough of her stories of growing up poor in Playa de Ponce and marrying well and settling in Ponce, on the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico. I loved her colorful tales of life in turn of the century Puerto Rico with her fascinating cast of characters, my relatives, and about stories of poverty, wealth, and what it was like to be a woman in that era. My grandmother happened to have a wonderful relationship with the midwife of her three children, Ana, an Afro-Caribbean woman who’d caught two aunts, an uncle, and my mother. As I wrote the tribute, which included all my grandmother’s stories, I realized I was writing her life story, and boy, did I love writing. My husband asked me to write an outline of my grandmother’s life, and when I presented it to him, he said, “You have a story to write.”
In six months, I’d written the first draft of A Decent Woman—124,000 words. Looking back as I pen my second book, I find it incredible that my memories and words flowed as they did. It seemed the spirits of my ancestors and Ana whispered the story, descriptions of colonial Puerto Rico, and dialogue in my ear.
If I’d thought to write a commercial fiction in a popular genre that I knew would sell, I would have chucked it all. I had to write a historical novel; that’s just the way it was. I wrote what I loved and was passionate about—women’s history, Puerto Rico, the place of my birth, and about life. I discovered women of that era weren’t so very different than women today: they fell in love, married or not, raised families, and worried about the same things we worry about today.
You must have a vision and fiercely guard that vision no matter what happens in life. Have unwavering faith in your story.
I had a vision, many visions in fact, and I wouldn’t be deterred. I knew at a gut level, that this story had to be told. I could publish this book, why not? I had two things going for me: naivety and a vision. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t write this story. And if I loved my story, others would, too. Right? Not always.
I bought the current version of Guide for Literary Agents – Writer’s Digest, and sent the first chapter of the manuscript to 100 literary agents in the US, who were open to historical fiction. Three months later, I received ten positive rejection letters and over sixty firm rejections. Yes, I call them positive rejections letters in that the agents actually wrote me back; that doesn’t happen all the time. Those that did write back offered suggestions on how to improve the momentum of the story. Two agents invited me to resubmit after I’d reworked the novel.
I resubmitted months later, waited another three to four months, and the agents replied that sadly, historical fiction was difficult to sell at that time. They wished me well. I learned to develop thick skin. I didn’t give up. I knew my story was unique and my characters were interesting and diverse, and I still loved my story despite the many road blocks and rejections. I’d caught some attention and I wasn’t about to allow jump ship—the momentum and force was with me.
Be open and flexible; when the characters lead you away from the outline of the story, or to a new place, be sure to follow. Listen to them.
A year later, my twenty-five year marriage ended. Just like that. No warning, no preparation time. I packed up the manuscript and returned to the United States with my son, who was starting university in the DC area. I went back to school, went back to work, and in the quiet times, I thought of my novel and couldn’t get my grandmother’s midwife, Ana, out of my mind. But there was too much going on for me to take the manuscript out of the box at that time; my mind was scattered and life was pulling at me from different directions.
By 2011, my kids had graduated from college and were settled in good jobs. It was time. I jumped off a creative cliff and landed in my creative life in West Virginia, a new state to me. I took the manuscript out of the box and listened to Ana urging me that this was her story, not my grandmother’s. I rewrote the entire novel featuring Ana as the protagonist and introduced Serafina, her lifelong friend. The same cast of characters remained and I added two more women, the prostitutes, Maria and Emilia. It was time to send it out to literary agents once again. More of the same—historical novels don’t sell.
I wasn’t deterred. I began researching in earnest, and with every edit and rewrite, the story became more polished. I quit sending the manuscript out to agents and discovered small publishing companies. More of the same replies, and then in 2014 Booktrope Publishing signed me on.
Hire the best editor you can afford, one who gets your story. I cannot stress that enough. Listen to them and move your Ego aside for the sake of the story.
By the time, A Decent Woman hit the shelves on February 20, 2014, it had been edited three times by professional editors. And with every editor, the rock of my story was polished until the rock became a gem. My last editor was the real gem. She encouraged me to remove male POV and cut out chapters that slowed down the momentum. Done. She was brilliant, and I ended up with 75,000 words from the original 124,000 words: a tighter story.
I can’t stress enough how important a good editor is to your story. The original manuscript bears little resemblance to my book on shelves today. Move your Ego to the side and take their suggestions and advice seriously. Not all changes will resonate with you, and if you feel strongly about not taking their advice, so be it…but remember, more often than not, a good editor knows a good story.
In my personal experience, an editor who writes fiction as well is THE perfect editor for me. My editor is a dream to work with and she’s tough. That’s what I want and need in an editor—tough love.
The best marketing of your book is done on social media. Build an author platform early, blog, and create a website. Interact with other writers and build friendships on social media. Find a writing mentor. And for goodness sake, start writing your next book immediately.
During the years I rewrote, edited, and researched for the book, I was on social media. I blogged anonymously for seven years, which was an early education into blogging, and I loved my new cyber friendships. I went on to meet many fellow bloggers who are still friends to this day.
A month after the publication, I was inundated with marketing and publicity. Not a day went by that I wasn’t writing articles, doing interviews, on blog tours, book blasts, and book promo tours. I was writing blog articles related to the themes of my book, and offering guest interviews to other authors. It was a crazy time, but necessary!
In March, my mentor, the incredibly talented writer, Jack Remick, gave me some good advice—start writing your second book immediately. I began writing my second historical novel, The Island of Goats, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico, Spain, and France. I’d given my marketing and publicity a solid month of my attention, and of course, marketing one’s book never ends, but I also needed my feet and butt firmly on the ground. It was time. I #amwriting.
Don’t give up. Keep writing.
Thanks for having me, Allie Burke!
Puerto Rican-born novelist Eleanor Parker Sapia was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s life experiences as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker inspire her passion for writing. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago a second time.
A Decent Woman, Eleanor’s bestselling hirtorical novel, is the July 2015 Book of the Month selection for the national organization Las Comadres & Friends Book Club. It is described as “…a true work of historical depth and artistry.” Eleanor has two adventurous, grown children and currently lives in wild and wonderful West Virginia.
Visit Eleanor at http://www.eleanorparkersapia.com.