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I’ve ended my book three times. The first in March 2008 after Austin’s Broviac line was removed and the first time he was declared “cancer-free.” Then again in April 2009, after what we now call “the almost relapse.” And finally — or what I thought was finally — in August 2010.
I’m going to share them all here … as long as you promise to still buy the book! (I don’t exactly think I’ll be giving anything away.) But they are informative in their way. Ironic, especially the last one, but hopeful. And hope is what we’ve got right now.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008 1:29 pm
It is not lost on me that tomorrow is the first day of spring. We started this journey in the dog days of summer: a swelteringly humid August in Cleveland. Walking around the air-conditioned hospital in a hoody sweatshirt zipped right up under my neck, hands stuffed into my pockets, not aware of whether it was night or day let alone warm or cool. And then I’d have a chance to walk outside, through that revolving door, into another world complete with its own climate. Lose the sweatshirt, search for sunglasses, wander past the innocent guy selling hotdogs and university employees preparing for the onslaught of new students and their families in the weeks ahead.
Then on through the fall, a vibrant college campus, glorious autumn colors, young people blissfully unaware of the horrors that go on inside that huge building looming over their campus. Our toughest days. Dark, dark days. But it was still warm and we tried to make up for what we’d lost of summer, strolling Austin from the hospital around the pond at the Art Museum, tossing coins in every fountain we passed, wishing, always wishing.
Into winter, the holidays alive with hope and possibility. Twinkling lights and happy wishes reminding us constantly of all we have to be thankful for, of all that others have lost. The final chapter of this story dragging on much like Cleveland winters do. Learning that the Broviac would stay in for extra weeks and possibly months felt like Groundhog Day with a poor outcome—how much more (winter, cancer) can we take? How much more (snow, sickness) will come our way?
But spring is coming, at least according to the calendar. New life, rebirth, blossoming. Austin is going to sprout up like a weed in the months to come, I have no doubt. He will finally outgrow the onesies he’s been wearing since last summer, will learn to swim, will experience the freedom of running naked, will begin to forget.
We have come full circle, through the seasons of the year. We hope beyond hope that our cycle is over. But Mark and I will never forget.
Today was easy. We arrived in pre-op around 8:30 and spent a good stretch of morning just waiting (so much of this has been about just waiting). Austin was a little grouchy because he hadn’t been allowed to eat breakfast, but we managed to distract him with toys and tickles. When we changed him into the hospital gown and removed that carefully wrapped ace bandage from his chest, he nearly pulled the Broviac out all by himself! Then the docs used it one last time to administer propofol making him gleefully oblivious as masked strangers wheeled away from us. We were back in post-op holding him a mere forty minutes later, nothing like the eight-hour surgeries we’re all used to. He sports a regular little band-aid over a tiny hole, no stitches, not much of a scar. Just like that, whoosh—all better.
And then we walked together down that hall leading away from Pediatric Surgery one last time. Feeling lighter, satisfied, content. We stood at the elevator, waiting for our chariot to arrive and whisk us far far away. The elevator stopped, door opened, another family got off as we got on. We didn’t know them and yet we knew them all too well. For one it ends and for another it begins, this cancer roller coaster does not stop for long. Mark shot me a knowing glance and we squeezed hands and vowed once again to never forget:
We were, we are, and we will remain the luckiest.
And then, one year and thirty pages later, this ending:
Mark and I step out on to the back porch and see the boys on the swingset. Braedan is pumping ever higher on the swing, feet reaching for the treetops. Austin is trying yet again to master climbing up the rockwall. He secures one foot and makes it a few inches up, only to lose his balance and slip back down again. But he doesn’t quit, doesn’t give up. He just brushes the wood chips off his hands and tries again. Nothing will keep this kid down.
He climbs, one small step after another, and I start to head in that direction, fearful he may fall too far and get hurt, but Mark pulls me gently by my sleeve. “Let him do it,” he whispers. And he’s right. We’ve held him this far. Let him do it.
And he does. Of course. He makes it to the top, scrambles to his feet and sees us watching. “Awtin do it all by de-self!” he shouts with pride.
So we clap, like normal parents do when their normal kids achieve some normal new skill.
I start again across the yard and Austin zooms down the slide, skidding to stop at the bottom before picking himself back up and bounding through the grass, little feet trying to keep up with his smiling face and head lunging forward, and he dives into my arms.
I swing him around, holding him tight while he laughs. And on one spin, I see Mark, my solid steadfast partner, watching us happily. And on another spin, I see Braedan, my capable, confident child, swinging happily.
We are a family of four. We are alive, intact, together.
And we will be okay.
And finally — I still hope, finally — this one:
I’ve ended this book twice already. Once with the words, “We are the luckiest,” and once with, “We will be okay.” I don’t suppose I can repeat with any credibility that we’re the luckiest. We’re lucky, I’ll give you that, definitely lucky. With all the horribly unlucky things that have happened to us, we’ve once again come out the other side. We have avoided the worst fate. And the second worst fate, kidney failure, which falls quite a few rungs down on the ladder-of-the-unbearable from the first worst fate. I’m optimistic, always hopeful. But not stupid. We’re not the luckiest.
But we will be okay. I know that. We’re not done, I know that too; the future holds many perils yet. His cancer could return, in his kidney or liver or lungs. Next week, next month or next year. Or a secondary cancer could catch us off guard ten years down the road when we’re more worried about our boys, suddenly young men, driving too fast or drinking too much than about shadows and lesions. And then there’s that kidney. We’d always believed he’d lose it during the years of puberty. Now that seems a luxury. It will not last forever, that would be too much to ask, but I do hope he can avoid dialysis entirely, move straight from kidney failure to transplant, only allowed if he’s two years cancer free. That’s the hope I’ll hold onto.
So it’s not over. Maybe we’ll get one good year, maybe five, maybe more. And then we’ll be driving right back down that hill, searching again for a parking spot, surely there’ll be more construction, maybe even a new parking garage? Faces will have changed, more wrinkles, graying hair. People will peer at us and wonder where they’ve seen us before. “Austin Gallagher, bilateral Wilms,” that’s how I’ll introduce us. “We were here back in the 00’s” (is that what we’ll call them?). Somehow that most unnatural thing—a sick child—will become our normal again. But for every moment until that moment, we will live. We will live and we will laugh and we will love a whole heck of a lot. And when that moment arrives, we’ll hunker down and come together and rise up and we’ll get through it. Again.
Because we will be okay.
Well, that was fast. I’ve already received rejections from three of the six agents who offered to review my work following the Pitch Slam. Don’t worry, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. (It’s not great, mind you, but also not too awful.)
First of all, if I was forced to rank those six agents, I would say that two were my favorites, two were in the middle, and two were at the bottom (one because I just wasn’t excited about her and the other because the work she typically represents didn’t align with mine — as you’ll see below). The first rejection came from one of those bottom two. Following the conference, when I would think through the agents I had met, I would consistently forget her. Like, “Wait,…weren’t there six? Now who was that sixth?” Her rejection came quickly, within a few days of my submission, and was completely generic. The most generic rejection I’ve ever gotten. It addressed me by my full name (Krissy Dietrich Gallagher) as if it had simply been cut and pasted from the submission form. She then went on to say she was not the best agent for “the memoir” (I’ve never not had an agent mention the title of my work) in part because she doesn’t have the time to take on any new clients right now. Really? Then why did she go to a pitch slam where she’d meet some 400 eager new writers? My mom got the exact same rejection from her on the exact same day (except her’s referred to “the young adult fiction”). Huh, oh well on that one.
The next rejection came from one of my middle ground agents, a very friendly woman who I enjoyed speaking to quite a bit. Her’s was at least nice (and she mentioned the actual title of my book!), saying that she read my pages “with great interest and enjoyed my honest admissions and engaging narrative style.” But ultimately, she didn’t “fall in love” with the project as much as she had hoped. So that one was definitely a disappointment.
And the third, … oh now this one is classic. First, let me give you some background of how this industry works. Memoir falls into a category somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. It is, of course, non-fiction because it is actually true (at least it’s supposed to be true — just ask James Frey!). But agents want it submitted like fiction. Not submitted as if it were fiction, but submitted in the same manner that one submits fiction. Here’s the deal: If you’re a fiction writer, you need to complete your entire work before submitting it. An agency and publishing house will represent you if the story and the writing are good, so they need to actually read the manuscript. Non-fiction adheres to a completely different set of rules. If I wanted to write a book on how women should invest their money, I would write a non-fiction proposal before writing an actual book, and that proposal would describe my outline, my credentials (I better know something about investing … and women!), my platform (hopefully I have some articles printed in boring money magazines or I’ve been interviewed on this topic for the news), etc etc. Same thing if I want to write a book on the history of wine production in France. I need to present to an agent and publisher why I’m the best person to write that book (and it can’t just be because I like wine … and France!), especially if I expect them to pay me to go there and “research” for a year.
So, anyway, even though memoir is technically non-fiction, most agents want it submitted like fiction: Write the book first, make sure it’s really good and then send out sample pages. The idea is that it’s the writing and the story that will sell that book, not the credentials or platform of the author. So, this one agent I pitched to in New York, who mostly reps non-fiction, asked me send in a non-fiction book proposal. Of course, I’ve never written a book proposal before. So, after putting it off as long as I could, I finally pounded one out, including market data on cancer memoirs versus mommy memoirs (“momoirs”), hunting down website statistics for St. Baldrick’s and Carepages, listing the speeches I’ve given over the years to various organizations about Austin’s cancer. I finally sent it in yesterday only to find this message in my inbox this morning: “Krissy (my name again)…It was lovely to meet you and I appreciate the chance to read this. I have, however, decided to stop representing memoirs as I just couldn’t land them. I wish you all the best …”
But, hey, I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal, so at least I have three agents left. And my top two among them. Plus, now I have a non-fiction proposal in case anyone ever wants one!
For the two weeks following my return from the writing conference, I spent every day revising my book (you know, when I wasn’t busy planning one major event or another … or another). I read through the entire thing, revising word by word and page by page. I was feeling pretty good about it and was easily able to submit the first fifty pages to four of the agents who requested that particular amount. Because I had one agent who wanted the entire manuscript, I kept on, digging deep into the later sections of the book. I had a few moments when I’d come across a page or a section and would pause and wonder why I hadn’t already changed that part. There were a few scenes and pages that I thought I had drastically revised, only to find they were the same as they’d been more than a year ago.
But I carried on, making small tweaks and sweeping changes, … until last Wednesday night at 11:15 when I scrolled to page 223 and realized, with a sickening drop in my stomach: This was not my finished book. These were notes. Literally, notes to myself, things like “Add Dec 14 surgery here; rounds with the docs, plans to remove kidney — include Nurse Shannon.” Notes, shorthand, to myself! But I had already finished my book. I knew I had finished it, I had blogged about it, for crying out loud, and that definitely makes it true. I had even printed up a hard copy for my mom and she’d read the whole thing … I remember. But this version, saved on my trusty little Store n Go device, was not it.
It was really time for me to go to bed, but after a few minutes lying there I got back up to check our other computer. I found a slightly newer version and, after quickly scrolled through the final forty or so pages, discovered that it was better than the one I’d been working on, but still not done. This was still not it. I finally went to bed, worried but absolutely convinced that I had another verison, another more complete version. I had to have another version.
The next day, I searched around for a hard copy but knew that I’d probably used it as scrap paper (no blank white side is safe in this house). Finally, I conducted a full search of my computer and … whaddya know? It appeared in an auto-recovery file … from the trash. Holy crap, at some point, nearly a year ago, I failed to save my damn book. But there it was. Thank god computers never really throw anything away.
I quickly cut and paste the last forty-five pages onto the version I’d been poring over and, upon rereading it, was more relieved than ever to have found it. It is good. And good in a way that would have been very hard to recreate. My opening pages I could recite verbatim, I’ve read them so many damn times. But the ending was new to me, the words were fresh, the emotion was raw — I cried all over again as that kidney slowly began to heal itself. It was good good good. And it was finished.
So, after going through to make sure there weren’t other revisions in the one verison that were better than my more recent revisions in the other version, I attached the whole darn thing, all 84, 212 words of it and sent it off through cyber space.
And now we wait.
I’m sure many of you heard the quick clip on NPR the other morning about Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)’s road to publication. It was, for me, extremely timely and another example of being in the right place at the right time.
Dr Seuss had finished his manuscript for And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street about a little boy imagining what he would tell his father about his disappointingly uneventful walk home. He had submitted it to twenty-seven publishing houses, all of whom had summarily rejected it. He was walking down the street in New York City, ready to toss the manuscript and try his hand at another career, when he happened to bump into an old acquaintance who happened to work in publishing who agreed, probably out of a weary sense of obligation, to look at the work. And, well, the rest is history.
Just think for a moment of a world without Dr. Seuss. Sure, you could say he’s just another talented children’s author, but he was also quite revolutionary. He tackled issues of racism (The Sneetches) and environmentalism (The Lorax) long before it was popular to do so. The Lorax, for one, has stood the test of time; as relevant a creed for anti-consumerism and environmental protection today as it was forty years ago. He made reading cool (I Can Read With My Eyes Shut) and gave students everywhere something to reach for and dream of (Oh, The Places You’ll Go!).
So, I imagine that boy, the one from Mulberry Street, standing instead on the same street where some unknown named Theodor Geisel stood chatting with some other unknown, two boring men in suits engaged in a brief conversation. And that little boy would have looked away, searching for something more exciting, more remarkable to witness, never realizing the magic of what was happening right before his eyes.
Our weekend was fabulous. I could save myself some time and just repost last year’s description, which we pretty much repeated, down to the walking, shopping and eating.
But I’ll grant you a few minutes and go through the details of the actual conference.
First of all, my mom and I were both heartened to discover so many repeat attendees from last year. I think we’d both been a little worried that going back again meant we had somehow failed: we were the losers that ended up being rejected by the agents after all that hard work and here we were, groveling at their feet yet again. But right away at the first session, we started to see people we recognized and several mentioned as they asked their questions to the panels that this was their second visit. (And of course, the conference organizers announced proudly that four conference attendees from the past few years have found representation thanks to the Pitch Slam. FOUR. From the last SEVERAL YEARS. Well. Not sure whether to feel relieved that I wasn’t the only one not picked up or completely discouraged that we’d spent all that money and invested all that hope in something that won’t likely lead anywhere.)
But, it is still so rejuvenating to be there, thinking and listening and talking about nothing but writing. I loved it. It had a few ups and downs though. Friday evening, at the end of the last “Perfecting Your Pitch” session, the moderator asked for brave souls to present their pitch for a very public critique. Well, I was feeling very confident and somehow imagined that I could wow him (this man whose entire job is critiquing pitches–critiquing as in criticizing), so I quickly got in line and stepped up on stage to repeat my memorized lines into the microphone in front of 400-plus people. And he just … well, he just didn’t feel it. He wasn’t harsh or anything, but gave me some generic suggestions that certainly didn’t come across as the praise I’d been imagining in my head. Within a mere eight minutes of my moment in the spotlight, the whole session was over and my mom and I rushed out to meet a friend for dinner, never hearing any feedback from the assembled crowd.
And I was completely deflated, suddenly unsure of what I would say the next day or how to present my work with the same pride I’d had in it a half hour prior. (I know, I need a thick skin for this industry, I know.) I tossed and turned through the night, finally sitting up at 3am to announce to no one and everyone that I’d figured it out. I had a new ending in mind that I liked and was again ready to go.
And as soon as I walked into the first session of Saturday morning, I was met by strangers complimenting me on my story, asking how Austin was, saying they’d teared up and thought it was wonderful. I said to one that I was discouraged by the moderator’s response, even though I knew he wasn’t my target audience (he did say in his critique, “Well, I don’t have any kids, so I don’t know what that feels like”) and she said that she was sitting right in front of him and thought he had gotten emotional after hearing me and covered up his discomfort by being extra unemotional. Now, I’m not sure that’s exactly what happened but it did feel good to have the praise of my colleagues.
So we sat through several morning sessions, all interesting but still only a prelude to the big event of the afternoon. Finally two o’clock rolled around and we formed our long and jittery lines outside the various ballrooms for the equally dreaded and coveted Pitch Slam. And again, just like last year, it was fantastic. I loved my pitch, loved it (I gotta admit, he did nudge me along to improvements I may not have otherwise made). But I stood in some very long lines and saw only seven agents, the exact same number as last year even though it was an entire hour longer! (My mom, by comparison, saw eleven agents over the six she saw last year.) They all asked for my work except one, who was very complimentary but she’s repping a writer whose memoir about his son’s death from cancer is due out soon and she didn’t feel it would be fair to him to take on such a similar project.
One asked for my entire manuscript (the one I’d referred to last week and the one whose line was so damn slow) and another asked for my strongest six pages (NO ONE does that; they all ask for the beginning of the book, either ten or thirty or fifty pages, no one allows you to choose which pages so that ought to be fun).
Of course, as an experienced Pitch Slammer I know that this doesn’t guarantee anything except a read (which is pretty big on its own) but I really felt like I connected with the agents. And like I said last week, it only has to work once. I only need one single agent to like it. So I’ve been furiously revising yet again (I swear, I thought it was done) and plan to send stuff out by the end of the week.
First of all, we are pretty set for St. Baldrick’s. I have three fabulous Registrars — somehow that job was a lot more appealing to people than the Treasurer position. Mark has agreed to serve as Lead Treasurer and I think I have a back-up, but will gladly accept more help in that department. I need to have my letter to schools approved by St. Baldrick’s and I will start emailing them out next week, so please let me know if you cam bring materials to your child’s school and drum up some interest. And of course, we now need shavees and donations. Team Braedan is here and Team Austin here. The sooner people sign up, the more money you’ll raise.
Shifting gears (something I do at least ten times a day): A repost from last January, as I was preparing for my first Writer’s Digest Conference, and always a good reminder:
Alright, let’s see if I’m ready.
Cape, tights, superpowers? Check. (Thank you, Chris, for reminding me to pack those.)
Well-worded oral pitch that clocks in at 87 seconds (thanks to some careful revisions) and that makes me giddy with pride? Check.
Well-researched list of agents, ranked according to best match for my work? Check.
Carefully chosen outfits that are both comfortable enough to wear all day and yet appropriately stylish? (Hey, you gotta look good.) Check.
Three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams? Che….
Wait a minute. The product of my three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams (and blood, sweat and tears) is staying behind. It’s here, this family, this house, this home. Two mostly healthy, mostly happy, remarkably normal children and one super-strong marriage.
My mom and I are going back to the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City this weekend!
It was sort of a last minute decision that started two weeks ago when Mark asked me if we were planning to go again. “Oh, no, “I said, “Not again.” Why not, he asked. “Oh, people don’t do that twice . . .” Why not, he asked again. “Weeeell, uuummm, I don’t know.”
So, after checking to make sure he wouldn’t mind being the sole parent all weekend (“I wouldn’t have suggested you go if I minded, honey”), I brought it up to my mom and, over the course of one conversation, we got so increasingly excited about the possibility of going back again that we couldn’t even imagine not going.
This is the conference, of course, with the much-coveted Pitch Slam, for which we were so nervous last year. This time, with the great benefit of experience, we are able to strategize in much smarter ways. I’ve been carefully studying the agents who will be there (there are only a few repeats, so that’s not a worry) and have focused my attention on those with more years of experience in the industry. Over the past year, I’ve heard from several young, new agents who’ve told me my work is compelling and well written, but because they lack experience and are still forming relationships with publishers, my type of memoir would simply be too hard for them to sell. It’s not hard for an agent to pitch a young adult paranormal vampire romance to an editor, but it is hard to say, “I know, another cancer memoir . . . but trust me, this one is good,” unless they’re pitching to someone who actually does trust them. So I’ve found a few women with twenty-plus years in agenting, one of whom said in response to a question about the most frustrating aspect of her job, “Those rare moments when you find a book that’s absolutely amazing and editors agree that it is, but feel that the market for it is too limited for the book to be commercially viable in the current economy! Argh! Then I just keep my head down and keep plowing until I find someone willing to take the risk. As I mentioned earlier, those books often turn out to be successes far beyond what anyone expected.” Now that’s the kind of agent I need!
I’m also going to pitch to at least one male agent (who said, “Voice and story can carry a memoir, even if the author doesn’t have a platform”), which I haven’t done in the past. I tend to think of the target audience for my book as mostly female, but I’ve had some of my positive reviews from men, one an editor at Writer’s Digest, one a published novelist and university English professor, and a few other early readers and critiquers.
Having gone through the Pitch Slam last year (and having survived!), I think we’ll also have a completely different — and more realistic — set of expectations. I remember being so afraid that no one would ask to read my work and then thrilled when the first agent invited me to send her ten pages. I thought I’d struck gold! It was only in the hallways and elevators afterwards that we discovered that everyone had been asked to send in their work by almost every agent. This is how the Pitch Slam works — they simply say yes . . . only to say no later. So this time, I’ll have a more level head. I’ll see this is an excellent way to get my foot in the door and then will hope, that with a combination of good writing and the right agent, this will actually happen.
It only has to happen once, after all.