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  • Writer's pictureDonna Norman Carbone

How did I get here? C.V. of Sorts

When I worked as a graduate teacher’s assistant at Southern Connecticut State University, I heard the term Curriculum Vitae (C.V.) for the first time. My advisor told me I’d need to start one. Of course, I knew what a resume was. I even had one, all polished and awaiting my next job application. “Curriculum vitae,” she explained, “means your life’s work. In academia, you’re going to want to compile a list of your life’s work. We don’t use resumes, for they don’t tell the complete story.” What did I know? I was young, then; my life’s work hadn’t yet amounted to more than a short story.

Lisel Mueller, one of my favorite poets, entitles a poem, “Curriculum Vitae,” and takes a very different approach, a more personal one. I use it when I teach spoken word poetry to my creative writing students to prepare for them writing their own C.V. poems and performing them in front of the class.

That’s what we do, as writers, don’t we? We morph what we have experienced into our own–our own perspectives, our own memories, our own stories.

“Parents and grandparents hovered around me. The

world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws.”

I wrote my first short story when I was 8 years old. I was people-watching while waiting for my parents to arrive home on a train. My grandmother brought paper and crayons for my siblings and me to occupy us while we waited. My brother and sister busily contented themselves with coloring pictures. Not out of the norm, I wanted to be different, so I asked for a pencil instead and let my imagination flow. The narrator of my story was a camera that I named “Blinky” and it took lots of pictures of what I saw I translated into words on the page–my first documented experience at people-watching. I’m not sure if that’s where my love of writing began, but it’s my first memory of it. My mother said I loved reading before I could actually read. I memorized “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and various Dr. Seuss books by the age of 4. I took great pleasure in reciting them to anyone who asked. Maybe I had an inkling even then that a love of words would be my future.

After reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsider’s and coming across Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” I decided I could write poetry. I wrote poetry for occasions, as gifts, and how poetry carried me through my angsty years when I discovered emotions and boys. I proudly read my work to whomever would listen, and they told me it was good. I’m not sure that they were being completely honest, but I felt validated and continued to hone my craft. My poems were published in school yearbooks and literary magazines. I even became an editor for the high school literary magazine and again at college.

“At home the bookshelves connected heaven and earth.”

During the early years, I tried my hand at writing two full-length novels. One was a mash-up of Little House on the Prairie and Hannah and Her Sisters full of strife and sibling rivalry, while the other was a female version of Heaven Can Wait. I distinctly remember being so caught up in the stories that I didn’t want them to end, so I continued them as the writer of my own versions. I'm not sure that I finished either of them.

While in college, I tried on different majors: journalism, communications–neither of which were for me. I only knew that writing had to be a facet of whatever I’d do in the future. Richard Russo, acclaimed author, working on his own first novel, was my advisor. He sat me down in his office and asked, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” Such a big question for a nineteen-year-old. I told him I wanted to be a writer. He chuckled and told me, from experience, I needed a day job to sustain my writing life. That advice steered me toward teaching. I discovered another passion in teaching that I hadn’t been aware existed. Though, now that I look back, I recall setting up a school of stuffed animals and my siblings in our playroom. I was always the teacher.

During and after college, I had a few of my poems published in magazines and anthologies. I didn’t deceive myself by thinking I was destined for the life of a published author, let alone poet. I’d been well-cautioned by my writing professors in college about what an arduous business publication can be.

“When I met you, the new language

became the language of love.”

Instead, I dove headfirst into teaching and put writing to the side. Around this time, life flourished. I became engaged and soon married my high school sweetheart. We had three children and bought a fixer-upper house. My life had become full; me-time was a hot commodity. Nonetheless, I felt the tug–the need to write. During what little down-time I had, I began writing a novel, the first one I’d complete. It was a historical novel, a fiction based loosely on my grandparents and the many experiences they relayed to me living through World War II. Occasionally, I’d print it out (yes, print the whole thing out–that’s how things were done then), and send it off to a publisher, one at a time. It took eons to get a response, but if I was lucky, I did. Always a rejection. The rejections made me sad, for I’d always been hopeful and a glass half-full kind of girl. I didn’t persist. I chalked writing up to being a hobby that I could live with doing simply for the joy of writing. Besides, my life was so busy I rationalized that one day when I had time, I’d kick my potential publishing life into gear. For then, I was content with it being a dream.

I wrote more poetry (for myself, for gifts, for one day if I ever put a collection together) and got a new job as an adjunct teaching English at a university, then another new job as a full-time high school English teacher. When I take on a commitment, I pour my entire self into it for better or worse. As I age, I’m learning the value of balance.

At my high school job where Writer’s Workshop is among the classes I teach, a colleague and friend turned me onto NaNoWriMo, an organization that promoted writing for the months of November and April. Set up as a competition you take on with yourself, the challenge being to write 50K words in one month. I participated for the first time in 2012.

“Ordinary life: the plenty and thick of it. Knots tying

threads to everywhere.”

A close friend had passed away 4 years earlier. I yearned to write through my grief with a cast of friends I made up and experienced loss too, thus began the novel that I first named Affinity. Upon its completion, I edited (or so I thought) and sent it to a publishing company on the recommendation of a friend who knew an agent. He read it and passed it on to the right department, another agent who dealt with women’s fiction. She said she liked the concept, but the story wasn’t there yet. If it wasn’t there, where was there? What was it missing? I put the story aside. And the following year, I did another round of NaNoWriMo. This time I wrote a story unlike the past stories I’d written–serious topics, heavy content. I went for a Rom Com with a quirky main character who was trying to find herself as a new adult. After a revision or two, I thought, this story might be marketable, but I put it on the back burner because I was busy, and frankly, I didn’t know a damn thing about marketing a novel.

Fast forward to my children becoming young adults, graduating, going to college and beginning their own adult lives. I suddenly had time. The prospect of a new role at work came about, one that I applied for. I needed a kick out of the midlife-crisis stage of my life into something for me. I didn’t get the job. Instead of lamenting over something I thought I wanted, I took the rejection as a sign that the powers that be were pointing me in a different direction.

Around the same time, an ad came across my Facebook page. “Query Mastery” in big letters with the face of an editor with a warm smile: free webinar. I believed I was a good writer, weary that I was good enough, but I knew marketing and putting myself out there was what I lacked. So, I decided to invest. This became a turning point in my decision to pursue writing as a plausible career. This course opened up a whole new, modern-day world of writing and publishing to me. I opened a Twitter account where I joined the #writingcommunity, I learned about pitch parties, how to write a good, eye-catching query letter, I learned about Publishers Marketplace and Manuscript Wish-list, the differences between the variety of publishing options. It all seemed overwhelming and enticing at the same time. The best thing I took away from this course, however, was the importance of a writing community. Some of the other students and I leaned on one another for feedback and support. It’s there, I garnered my first critique partners (CP) for writing.

“Years and years of this.”

The next few years would be a roller-coaster. I wrote a query I was proud of for my Rom Com, Desperately Seeking Clarity. I sent out a round of queries–another mind-blow. Who knew you could send out several queries at the same time? I sent 25. Some requests for more pages came in, but ultimately resulted in rejection. Instead of giving up, determination took over. I used Megan Lally’s CP Match on Twitter and was matched with some terrific CP’s. My novel went through more revisions. Then I began the query process all over again.

At the same time, I picked up Affinity, dusted it off the shelf, and revised it during NaNoWriMo. I changed the perspective for the novel completely. This, followed by working with some CPs.

Desperately garnered some interest through pitch parties and some requests for more pages, but ultimately it hit a dead end and I shelved it. That decision is tough for writers, especially for a book that is near and dear to my heart. Charles Dickens wasn’t wrong when he referred to his characters as children. They become part of you.

I refocused my attention on Affinity. I began the querying process but came up empty, much less favorable feedback than I got for Desperately and crickets. But this was the book. I felt it in my soul that I had to get this book in shape to put out into the world. One of the small publishing presses that had expressed some interest in Desperately, was marketing a writing class and looking for writers to pilot it. In exchange, we’d get a free assessment of our query package (letter and first 25 pages). I jumped on that. It was a 6-week commitment, geared more at entry level writers than where I was, but I certainly learned some new tricks to add to my writing repertoires. More importantly, I developed a relationship with the editor, Myra Fiacco, who I hired as a writing coach. The help she afforded me was immeasurable. She saw the potential in my work and helped me learn how to move my story toward it. She also helped me find my current title: All That is Sacred.

For the next round of NaNoWriMo, I joined a Twitter group with the purpose of supporting a group of writers of similar genres through the month-long process. It was sponsored by a group of editors called Revise and Resub (@ReviseResub). I wrote another WIP (writing in progress), a different story, one that I’m still working on, a historical women’s fiction novel. This was yet another opportunity for me to make some writer connections.

Through this process, I gained 2 new CPs that were extremely helpful in providing feedback on my All That is Sacred manuscript. Then, I queried some more. Nothing. This was a down time for me. I poured my heart and soul into this novel and literally got nothing in return.

I came to a juncture where I needed to assess what I wanted out of this experience. Did I want to remain committed to the goal of publishing traditionally? Would I consider self-publishing? Was that even an option for me because I knew nothing about it? Should I shelve All That is Sacred and move on? Should I give up my dream of being a published author?

Those are some heavy questions to deal with. I would be lying if I made the decision sound easy. It was one I vacillated on. It was one that made me feel depressed at times. Ultimately, I decided to self-publish. I believed in my novel so much that I wanted it out in the world to give readers the opportunity to let me know what they thought. In order to self-publish, I knew I had to hire an editor to read it with a keen eye, so I did. I went back to the editor from Revise and Resub (Carly @ Book Light Editorial) who had assembled the NaNoWriMo group.

Now, for those of you who have never queried a book before, as such have never received hundreds of rejections (yes, hundreds over the course of the 3 novels I queried), sometimes it takes agents/editors a long time to reply (3 months is the average turnaround time). I’ve also received rejections within 10 minutes (did they really read what I sent?–I digress) and there are always the agents that say “No response means not interested.” Right around the time I hired the editor and put my student hat on to learn as much as I could about the self-publishing process, I heard from a small press I had queried. A favorable response–of course it was.

“So far, so good. The brilliant days and nights are

breathless in their hurry.”

The company expressed interest in my work but had a contract freeze over the summer months. If I was still interested, I should re-submit at the end of the summer. Do you see the existential crisis ensuing? My work was already with the editor I had hired. I decided, for all intents and purposes, to self-publish. Now what should I do?

I went ahead with the edits. And waited. I finished the edits. And waited. I re-submitted to the small press. And waited. It was a long wait, no longer than promised, but let me tell you, waiting for this news made 3 months feel like a year.

Ultimately, it was good news that led me to where I am today. Still waiting, but at least now I know my book will go out into the world.

Some C.V. take-aways:

  • When you commit to something, stick with it

  • Learn all you can

  • Develop thick skin because the road to publishing is rocky

  • Every single experience has purpose and value

  • Community matters

  • Patience is necessary

  • Realizing your dreams means you’re in it for the long haul

Lines of poetry are excerpts from “Curriculum Vitae,” by Lisel Mueller


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