Thursday, June 11, 2015

An Author's Two Paths To Happiness

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

I’m living a double life: promoting the new edition of my memoir while also pitching my novel to agents. In one life, I’ve arrived at a pinnacle. In the other, I’m standing breathless on a false summit, staring up the steep slope ahead, wondering if I’ll ever reach the top. The view always promises to be better up there, but I find it important to pause and appreciate the climb.

Back in 2006 to 2007, I began researching my historical novel. I explored East LA and El Paso from my grandmother’s and father’s point of view; interviewed family, locals, and historians; read books about Chinese-American and Mexican-American history; and studied archival photos and articles. That same year, I sent fifty queries to agents to pitch my recently completed memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands.

In 2007, I registered a synopsis of the novel I planned to write, Daughter on the Borderline, with the Writers Guild of America, West. That same year, I landed an agent for my memoir. We soon had a nibble from a major publisher. I naively told my husband, “Our lives are going to change!”

By 2008, no publishers had bitten, but something did change: I wised up to the fact that I was writing for love, not money or fame. I spent the next year pitching my memoir to two-dozen small presses. I also took my novel research to China, where I found my great-grandfather’s village and interviewed a ninety-nine-year-old cousin.  

In 2009, I began actually writing my novel, renamed Tortillas from the Chung King Café. That same year at Denver’s Lighthouse LitFest, I landed a contract with Ghost Road Press for my memoir. I called my husband, jumping like a cheerleader, shrieking, “I have a publisher!”

In 2010, every time I sat down to write my novel, I felt like a castaway floating in a small boat in a vast ocean. Although my memoir read like a novel, it had not prepared me for the challenge of fiction. I took classes at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and discovered how much I didn’t know. I also realized how much I didn’t know about China, and returned for more research. That same year, my memoir came out, and I gave talks on writing and travel.


In 2011, I traveled to Chihuahua, Mexico, infamous for its drug war, to do more research for the novel, then called Tortillas from the Canton Café (I worried that Chung King sounded like a canned food company). I completed about 100 pages, That same year, I drove around the West on a book tour for my memoir.

In 2012, I accepted what fellow authors had warned me about: my novel had the wrong protagonist. I had to rewrite half my pages. By the end of that year, at page 171, my characters had just reached America, which I had originally expected to happen around page 21. 

By 2013, I accepted what my memoir’s editor had warned me about: Ghost Road Press was going out of business. I had to find a new publisher. 

Last year, I finished a first draft of my novel. At more than 500 pages, it only told half the story I intended, but the dramatic arc felt perfect. I decided to split my original idea into two books. Meanwhile, also last year, Conundrum Press published a second edition of my memoir.

Today, I’m still rewriting the novel, but closing in on the finish. This week, I’m going to another LitFest, where my memoir will be for sale in the book tent while I meet with an agent to pitch my novel, now called The Candlelight Bridge. Here’s the basic pitch:

In 1910 a Mexican girl and a Chinese man flee revolutions and devastating losses in their two countries. In El Paso, Texas they meet and marry, but his lust for her thirteen-year-old sister threatens to destroy their lives.  

I’m nervous about the pitch, much like I was the first time, with one big difference: this time it’s just as important to me that I be excited about the agent as it is for the agent to be excited about me. I’ve trekked far enough up this mountain to believe I’m not seeking a rescuer but a partner.

Who knows if I’ll ever reach the top? They’re all false summits, aren’t they? That’s fine because I love the climb, and the unique opportunity I have as an author to walk more than one trail at a time.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles TimesDenver PostConnotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.

12 comments :

  1. Interesting journey, Cara ... which is what it is all about, right? I mean, they keep telling me it's not about the destination ... which is cool, because if you get there, then what?

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    1. Exactly, Christopher. I heard another author say the same thing at a writing conference just yesterday. Though I've found the journey is more joyful when I remember to pause now and then and celebrate milestones along the way.

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  2. You do have a way with titles. :) The first book is the hardest. I'm not saying subsequent books are easy, but you gain a feel for it after the first fifty drafts are under your belt.

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    1. Thanks, Diana. Actually, I'm finding my second book is harder to write, though also more exciting. Maybe the renewed difficulty is because it's a novel, and more has to be created from scratch than with a memoir. However, I do have more confidence now, after all those drafts. ;) So glad you like my titles - the second one took about fifty drafts, too.

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  3. What a great story, and I do look forward to reading your memoir.The road to success is never a straight line for anyone, but the key is to just keep on down the road and never quit. Good for you!

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    1. Thanks, Maryann. I look forward to you reading my memoir too. ;) Indeed, remembering to just keep putting one foot in front of the other is how we get through most things isn't it?

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  4. Hi Cara! If we're not in it for the journey, we're missing the fun part. Hope you find a publisher for that novel soon. It sounds like a great read.

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    1. Thanks, Patricia! It's gratifying to know that people are attracted to the story. The agent I spoke to this week invited me to send her my manuscript when I'm done with revisions. She said she's eager to find out how the story ends...So that's a start.

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  5. I do believe that we're so excited by the first bite from an agent that we don't really examine if that agent is the right one. Glad you've made that determination. Your journey sounds fascinating. What a story to tell. I just have to make them up. Nothing beats real life for inspiration.

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    1. Thanks for that, Polly. I'll admit it can be difficult to say "no" to that first agent, especially after fifty rejections!

      Made-up stories are my favorite. But even when we make them up - including the wildest of fantasies - I suspect that real life is still the inspiration.

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  6. How the writer's journey has changed from the "good old days" when she was gathered under the wings of a protective publisher and guided along the path to (hopefully) fame and fortune! However, this was a limited access highway, and few who hoped to travel it were granted permission to make the journey. Today, many roads lead to publication, but the trip can be difficult and the detours numerous. Both the old and new ways have pros and cons, but I'm most excited about the trip to independent publishing -- the one that gives us control over the route as well as the destination. Love this post, Cara! While you may take side trips along the way, you obviously relish your journey.

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    1. Ah yes, Linda, it would be nice to be gathered under the wings of a protective agent and a protective publisher and carried to the pinnacle. Maybe it will still happen. But I would not go back to the good old days, partly because of the opportunities in this brave new world - some of which you point out - especially for women, who used to have a much harder time getting published. We still have a long way to go, but it's so much better!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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