I began to spend some of my leisure time developing a plot idea that actually turned into a novel. (The manuscript is currently sitting in a drawer, where it will remain.) After ten years with Henry’s business, I quit in order to become a stay-at-home mom caring for our two children.
I had enjoyed expending energy and creativity on that first book, so decided to see if I had it in me to become a successful novelist. Like any newbie writer with professional ambitions, my bright dream was sometimes darkened by misgivings and self-doubts. Parents, teachers, and motivational speakers often tell you that you can make any dream come true as long as you want it badly enough. But they never add the caveat that each of us know on some level — the dream will surely die if you don’t have any talent.
However, I labored diligently at the writing tasks and within a year had completed the draft of a book that I called Everything We Keep. Once the manuscript was ready for review, I began the most difficult part of the process. First time authors face a huge challenge in finding a publisher who agrees to turn a manuscript into a real book. Acquisition editors are continually buried beneath an unceasing tsunami of manuscripts submitted by wannabe authors. This results in a desperate Catch-22 situation because the easiest way of getting a book accepted by a New York publisher is to be the author of a book that was previously successful.
I finished the novel in 2011 and then spent the next three years in needle-in-the-haystack efforts to locate any agent who would take a chance on me. I researched agents on social media, seeing what kinds of books they published, and then emailing numerous sales pitches to those who might be willing to market the type of book I had written. I had to build a thick skin as rejection notices continued to come. The nicer agents would send feedback and when their suggestions for improvement resonated with me I would make the indicated revisions and then forward the updated manuscript to the next agent.
After completing that cycle innumerable times, I finally received a positive response from Jen Karsbaek, who was an agent with the Fuse Literary Agency, which had the hopeful tagline “Igniting Author Careers.” I accepted Jen’s offer, she put the book on submission, and began advertising it to publishers. After a year of anxious waiting, the manuscript was still on submission. Jen stepped down and her associate Gordon Warnock picked me up as a client. In less than a month, we had one offer for the book. Before two months passed we had three offers. The next month Everything We Keep went to auction and we eventually accepted an offer from a company called Lake Union Publishing.
Sometimes you just get lucky because Lake Union turned out to be the book club imprint for Amazon. The process began to accelerate. The book was selected to be part of the Kindle First program and Everything We Keep turned out to be the most successful title in the program. We were suddenly moving at a gang busters pace, because the novel made it onto the Wall Street Journal’s Best Seller List and then became the #1 Amazon Kindle best seller.
A fan base began to grow and readers were sending me complimentary letters and emails. Some of them wanted to learn more about the lives of my characters, whom they had come to love, so in six months I wrote a sequel called Everything We Left Behind that was published in 2017. Last year I followed it up with the final book in the trilogy that I called Everything We Give. I followed the trilogy with a fourth book, All the Breaking Waves, and added a fifth book last summer with the falsely eponymous name Last Summer.
That first novel set the process for the books that followed. Some of my writer friends are baffled by my routine of writing out a detailed outline and first rough content by hand. However, I learned that composing text longhand onto my digital pad with a stylus employs a different part of the brain than is used while sitting at a keyboard in front of a computer terminal. It unleashes a unique layer of creativity.
I can write the first draft of a book in two months, but that first effort is like the book’s skeleton. I add multiple layers of subplot to the main narrative while endlessly editing, rearranging, and fine-tuning the material.
Lake Union Publishing has contracted me to write four more books. Side Trip is due next July. I’ve already begun the first book of a new trilogy that we’re calling No More Words. I won’t be finished with that series until 2023. By that time, of course, more titles will be in the pipeline. I intend to continue adding to the shelf of novels that I’m writing as long as I can pick up my stylus and begin working on the outline for the next book.
Unfortunately, there is a real possibility that I might lay that stylus back down sooner rather than later.
MY REAL LIFE DRAMA
Drama is the oxygen that keeps most novels alive, as the heroine and other characters encounter a challenging situation or adversity. In fact, the narrative of my personal life is in the midst of a dark chapter. The dramatic sub-plot began four months ago. On July 1 we were preparing for a family vacation, planning to spend three weeks traveling throughout Europe. However, at 6:30 in the morning, three days before we were scheduled to leave, I suddenly experienced abdominal pain so severe that I nearly collapsed. The entire mid-section of my body was seized with terrible cramps. I have high pain tolerance, so I went upstairs and got back in bed to wait for the pain to subside.
When Henry awoke, he was surprised to see me beside him. His first thought was appendicitis. We decided to go to ER rather than Urgent Care so that if it was my appendix, they could remove it and three days later I could still get on that plane, even if I was still a little sore.
Unfortunately, a CT scan at the Sutter ER discovered that, rather than a simple case of appendicitis, my pain was caused by what they called a descending abdominal aortic dissection, which I learned referred to a tear in the wall of a major artery carrying blood out of the heart to the lower areas of my body, permitting blood to flow between the layers of the blood vessel wall. In my case, the tear extended from below my sternum to the artery by my left hip. As if that weren’t enough, they also discovered a 2 cm (3/4 inch) aneurism bulge in that right artery.
I learned the marginally encouraging fact that, since the descending tear affected organs in the lower part of my body, it was less serious than the “ascending tear” that, for example, killed John Ritter. Nevertheless, they warned me that the condition was dangerous and they transferred me to John Muir Concord where I spent six miserable hours in ER while waiting for a space in ICU to become available.
I spent three days as doctors experimented with varying dosages of blood pressure meds to identify the “sweet spot” at which my blood pressure was high enough to keep me from fainting but not so low that my organs would begin to die. I had to maintain my blood pressure below 100 (which turned out to be good for sleeping). Every six hours they conducted a full blood panel to ensure that my organs were receiving sufficient oxygen to prevent organ failure.
The doctors finally identified the appropriate dosage for blood pressure meds and discharged me from the ICU with instructions that if I ever felt numbness in any extremity, I should immediately return. The very next day, on July 2, I suddenly felt numbness in my legs, so we rushed back to the hospital where a CT scan located another tear and an aneurism in the subclavian artery — the one that channels blood between my neck and chest.
The profile for a victim of descending abdominal aortic dissection is an overweight male in his 70s, with bad health, and is a heavy smoker. They revised the preliminary diagnosis and now suspect that I have a connective tissue disorder affecting my vascular system.
It turned out that I also have a penetrating atherosclerotic ulcer in my midriff. If my blood pressure rises or if I do anything strenuous the ulcer could burst with possible fatal results.
The doctors are waiting for the swelling to subside and for the ulcer to clot off on its own. If that doesn’t happen, they will slice me open, clamp off the ulcer, and insert a stent. They have scheduled CT scans every three months to monitor the aneurisms until they grow to the size where they can be repaired. The cause of the disease is unclear. My relatives want to know if a family gene is responsible for this. One thing doctors know for sure is that there is no cure, so I am on a maintenance plan designed to control the symptoms. I will continue to have CT scans for the rest of my life.
Coping with the disease has forced me to make lifestyle changes; I will never be as active as I was before. Until they make some progress in addressing the symptoms, I am not supposed to lift anything. For the rest of my life I must remain aware of how much I am trying to lift and how I am lifting it. The doctor said that it will take a year before the symptoms are sufficiently under control so that I can resume life on a new normal.
As terrible as the ordeal has been, there’s a lot to be grateful for. For example, the timing was good because I submitted the draft for the last book in May with the idea that I would have three months off for book signings and travel. I’m especially grateful for my husband, Henry. Twenty-three years ago he made the routine “through sickness and health” pledge, and it turned out that he meant it from his heart. Henry has done everything he could possibly do to help me — and has done it with an attitude that is always helpful and usually cheerful.
My connective tissue disorder involves a slow deterioration of the vascular system, which means it will eventually kill me. However, we are all are going to die, of course. Facing the reality with renewed clarity and understanding of how it will probably happen is something of a relief. Just like the words in Tim McGraw’s song, “I hope you have the chance to live like you were dyin’.” Now I have the chance. In the meantime, I’m writing books. That series for 2023 is on my schedule.
If one of my characters ever has to deal with a life-threatening disease, I’m going to be able to write those passages so that readers will imagine that I know what I am writing about. That will be good!
Photos by Casey Quist