Today’s post is by memoirist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elizabeth McGowan (@ehmcgowanNEWS).
When I dipped my bicycle tires into the Atlantic Ocean in Yorktown, Virginia, in early November 2000, my yelp for joy was followed by a lengthy sigh.
At last, I had finished my absolutely-must-do, solo, cross-country trek of 4,250 miles. Completion liberated me to focus solely on conservation and energy articles for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Or, so I thought.
Then somebody, a supposed friend, suggested I write a book about my adventure. After all, I had a natural start with the journal entries I had posted online. But a book seemed a reach to me.
Still, the friend offered to connect me to an acquaintance, a New York City literary agent. I guess vanity trumped common sense because I pounded out a few chapters and sent them. The agent offered words of encouragement, but said I would have to dig much deeper to accomplish what it seemed I wanted to do. She suggested I keep in touch.
Three months later, when the chaos of 9/11 erupted, a book seemed irrelevant. I set my puny manuscript aside and delved into my paying job. When home, I avoided my computer, because looking at it filled me with angst about my book albatross.
Finally, tired of my cowardice, I began picking at my chapters to see what I could salvage. In my head, I was intent on weaving together three themes: my physical journey on the bicycle; the mental part of duking it out with melanoma for more than a decade after being diagnosed in my early 20s; and how my ride helped me rediscover and better understand my father, who died of melanoma at age 44 when I was 15.
By 2008, I reconnected with the New York agent, who offered to review my draft. I wasn’t too surprised, but still slightly crushed when she told me over the phone that, sorry, it wasn’t a story she could market. Ouch.
Too headstrong to quit, I enrolled in an evening workshop at a local writers’ center the next year. Each week, the 16 or so participants critiqued our classmates’ efforts. Their insights revealed where I had fallen short. At semester’s end, the instructor told me I should dedicate time to writing and polishing, not more classes. Persist, she urged, because too many people give up on hard projects.
I wrote and rewrote. By early 2015, I was ready to seek an agent—again—because that’s what I thought I had to do. Though I earned my living with words, book publishing mystified me. I knew my query letter had to be stellar—and short. The five or six New York-based agents I mailed the letter to immediately said yes to reading the manuscript. Yay! Then, most of them got back to me, telling me it was a wonderful, but likely unmarketable book. Boo!
Stung, I delved into a book proposal, figuring it would lay out the plot and show publishers how I would hustle to market it. Following advice of marketing gurus, I perused local bookstores to find books similar to mine. I jotted down the names of agents, authors and publishers. I sent out 10 or so individualized queries and proposals. The four responses I received were friendly, but nobody was receptive.
Feeling stuck about what to do next, I signed up for an October 2015 presentation by Jane Friedman at the National Press Club about book proposals and publishing. It was informative, but painful. My sinking feeling was confirmed in a follow-up conversation with Jane. She told me the chances of finding a publisher are exceptionally small because memoirs are one of the most competitive categories and “it’s a cancer memoir, which puts you in an even worse position.” She said she didn’t want to offer false hope that her editing of my proposal would change that scenario.
Jane also spelled out how my three themes made the narrative complex and that my existing journalism platform didn’t match my book. “Agents and editors come off as unfeeling and rather horrible people for basically saying what amounts to, ‘No one cares about your cancer story,’” she said. “But they’re nearly impossible to sell, and while as humans we care, we’re also aware of the business reality.”
Ouch. I felt as if the oracle of publishing had spoken and her words hurt like a gut punch. I panicked. Should I shelve the whole thing? Explore independent publishing? Rewrite it as a work of fiction? Although I intensely explored the latter two options, I decided neither was a good fit for my psyche or my skillset. Instead of rushing to a decision, I set the book project aside for several months and focused on my reporting.
When I revisited the manuscript in 2016, I remembered how I’d heard similar bluntness from the surgeon tasked with removing a cancerous tumor that had sprawled beyond my liver in the early 1990s. Even perfect execution, he had told me, might not be enough to keep me alive.
Yes, this was only a book, not my body. Still, I was determined to put it in the hands of readers. I sought out a reasonably priced development editor who gave me concrete ideas about streamlining the flow of my manuscript, and I burrowed in. By 2017, I hired a line editor to tackle my manuscript. I wanted it to be in the best shape possible before circulating it again.
Later that year, I was ready to try again—with a sharper focus. This time, I combed through a lengthy list of smaller, niche presses, carefully reading each website for openness to memoirs and requirements for proposals. That meant skipping the agent route.
I received an immediate “yes” from one small press affiliated with a university. But hope was dashed by nope when that publisher ghosted me via email. What followed was a succession of “almosts,” “no’s” or no response at all. I chugged on, clinging to the comments about how well-written my story was. It confirmed what Jane and so many others had stated: It’s a business decision, not a personal one. Still, who wouldn’t take three dozen rejections personally?
By mid-December 2018, slightly down, I plopped down on my living room couch, wondering how I could muster the energy to endure another year of this. The name of a local reporter-cum-author popped into my head. She had written a book about reconnecting with a father who had abandoned her years ago. I had heard her speak. If she could find a publisher, why couldn’t I?
My trusty laptop revealed her publisher—a small press in Baltimore that wasn’t on any of my lists.
I revamped my proposal and query letter, and sent them off with a full manuscript in the wee hours of December 24. Later that day, the Baltimore publisher sent a note: “Great pitch. I’ve begun to read.”
My heart rate jumped, but my wary Irish side told me to tamp down any excitement. Then, four days later: “Finished it. Loved it. Let’s talk Monday.”
Oh my. That evolved into my best Christmas present ever. We did indeed talk and I signed a contract a few weeks later. Maybe settling for the first “yes” isn’t right for everybody, but I trusted my instincts. I wasn’t pursuing a get-rich-quick scheme.
He set the publication date for June 2020. I figured I could last another 18 months, after my circuitous route to acceptance. Then, a few weeks after we photographed a new book cover in June 2019, I was admitted to the hospital.
Intractable abdominal pain had forced me to go to the emergency room. A CT scan revealed a very large tumor lurking under the enormous horizontal scar that already bisected my belly. I braced myself for the worst and wondered if a God I didn’t fully believe in could be cruel to write me out of my own story before my memoir was published. But a biopsy during the four-hour surgery revealed the tumor as a cyst generated by an uncooperative ovary. It was benign.
I didn’t tell my publisher about my medical saga until he resent an email asking if I had seen the box of galley proofs he had mailed. Rational or not, I feared he might dump a client who wouldn’t be able to follow through on a long list of marketing promises. Instead, he told me how sorry he was and to take time to heal.
About half a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Wisely, my publisher opted to delay release of my book from June 2020 to September, figuring the country would regain some sense of normalcy by then.
Well, we all know what has unfurled. And now my book is part of these bizarre and uncertain times. I’m in the midst of navigating this hurdle, too. Hey, at least people are still reading.
Elizabeth H. McGowan’s adventure memoir, Outpedaling “The Big C”: My Healing Cycle Across America, was released in September 2020 by Bancroft Press in Baltimore. She won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013 for her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of,” as a staff writer for InsideClimate News. That narrative also won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. McGowan is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has served as a Washington correspondent for several news outlets. Her freelance news reports are featured in the Energy News Network, Yale Environment 360, Grist, Blue Ridge Outdoors and other publications. She has lived in Washington, D.C. since 2001. Learn more at her website.