A writer’s journey

In which our coast correspondent learns that the secret to publishing a novel is to never, never, never give up

Next fall will mark 20 years since we moved to the Oregon Coast. The years were some of the hardest of my life, but also the most gratifying. We came to the coast because we loved it. We’d discovered it while living in a small town in Southern Oregon that we abandoned nearly every weekend to camp by the beach. And even though we eventually moved on to Colorado, it was here that we wanted to one day land.

When the hubs got a job offer here, I didn’t see how we could say no. I was pretty sure a similar offer wouldn’t come anytime soon. But faced with leaving my job at the Rocky Mountain News, leaving my Denver friends, leaving all that a thriving city offers, this rugged landscape on the Pacific no longer seemed so enticing. Still, I believed if I wanted to focus on the writing that was important to me — fiction, creative nonfiction — I needed to go someplace where I could be quiet. I needed to take myself out of the race. As it turned out, I actually really liked that race.

Lori Tobias (right) is joined by Denver writer Sherry Spitsnaugle at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. Tobias’s novel, “Wander,” won the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction.

Nonetheless, here I was. Every morning, I’d rise at 5 and go to the office to write. But the words didn’t come. It seemed everything I’d learned in many writing workshops and classes had evaporated, simply disappeared from my brain. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Still, whether the words came or not, the rule I’d made for myself was that I had to spend time in the chair.  

A little more than a year after moving to the coast, my brave new venture seemed doomed. Despite clinging to every bit of pithy advice and encouragement — including a ceramic piece from a friend that paraphrased Churchill: “Never, never, never give up” — I seemed to be getting nowhere. Reluctantly, I decided I wasn’t meant to write fiction. It was time to give up. I made the decision with a mix of sorrow and relief. It had been my dream from a very young age. But now at least I could move on, focus on the career I was building as a travel writer.

Days before Thanksgiving, as I returned home from buying the holiday groceries, I opened the mailbox and found an envelope from Literary Arts. I assumed it was a fundraising plea and nearly tossed it. But for some reason, I opened it. And that was how I learned my novel had won an Oregon Literary Fellowship. The money, though welcome, wasn’t much, but the validation that came with it was priceless. It also made me face some hard truths.

Largely, that the work I’d done, the structure of the story, pretty much everything but the setting and major characters, had to go. And so, sitting alone in the cabin just outside of Sisters that was included in the fellowship prize, I started from scratch.

Every morning, I awoke, climbed down from the bedroom loft, built a fire, had breakfast, and sat down to write. I stopped only for lunch and later, a walk around a nearby lake. Only then, did I allow myself a visit to the neighboring cabin with an internet connection.  Nights, I read books on writing, old copies of The New Yorker, and planned my work for the next day. I was absolutely determined I was going to walk away from my self-imposed exile not only a better writer, but also one with a completed manuscript.

At the end of two weeks, when it was time to return to the coast, I had a rough draft of my novel. Or so I thought. Really, it was a rough, rough draft of what I would eventually see as a summary of a novel. But still, having it gave me a boost in confidence, as well as a road map of sorts.

Fortunately, while I hate facing the blank screen, I love rewriting. And so, on I wrote, squeezing out whatever time I could when not racing up and down the coast for the reporting gig I’d landed with The Oregonian. In time, I judged it good enough (it wasn’t) to send out to agents, which, of course, earned me nothing but rejection. That, in turn, sent me back to the computer to see if I could figure out how to make it better.

It wasn’t all rejection. One agent wrote to say she loved it, but could I lose a particular character, and did people like him even exist in Alaska? The problem was, the entire plot revolved around that character. Without him, I had no story. It was a rude awakening to the truth that just because someone said they were a literary agent or editor, didn’t mean they knew jack about literature.  

Eventually, I’d done all I could to improve the book and moved on to the next one, but there was always that nudge to send it out just one more time. I couldn’t just give up — though I was beginning to think I had no choice. Then one day, as I worked on the memoir that was my therapy after losing my journalism job, I picked up the phone and found an editor on the other end. She said, “Lori… you sent me your novel. I love it.”

And so, 12 years after finding that letter in the mailbox from Literary Arts, 12 long, frustrating rejection-filled years, my novel found a publisher. And I found a sense of gratitude for the gift of perseverance that allowed me to “never, never, never give up.”

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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