I’ve signed a book contract.

I’ve done it, people. I signed a book contract with Pen and Sword Books (UK) for my upcoming memoir, Saber 27. I kind of can’t believe it.

I kind of can’t believe it because publishing a book – not just writing one – has been on my bucket list since my teens. Not to get too full of myself, but I was convinced the world needed to hear my story since I was at least 18. After 9/11 and four years of college, I imagined my future Marine Corps career in aviation, probably in helicopters and probably involving a combat deployment, would make a good book. In my head, there were only successes, because who imagines failing? Did my subconscious drive to live a good plot line affect my output along the way? Maybe. I might have been vain enough to tell myself during the challenging flights and hard nights and many failures that I’d better step up. The book can’t end this early. Self-motivation has never been a problem for me.

But, I tell a lie: I have published a book before. Two, in fact. The first was in sixth grade, with Mrs. Steinhaus (was that her name?), as a picture book assignment. I spent ages drawing my characters. It was an epic fantasy, inspired by many books over my formative years: The Hobbit; the Redwall series; Alice in Wonderland; The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I titled it, Chipper and Gordak the Dragon, about a boy who seeks a dragon to fight and ultimately befriends it. Although the plot was simple and I spent too much time world-building, I was proud of that book. I was even more proud that my idea for a publishing house was chosen by my classmates: S4 Publishing. Something to do with Steinhaus, our class, and the number of alliterative words included. I even wrote an author bio, complete with nerdy school picture of me wearing oversized tortoiseshell glasses.

My second success came the next year. I was into Jack London, having been encouraged by my parents to find a new book from their classics collection in our formal dining room-stroke-library. I had never seen a book with pages so thin: onionskin. Inspired by White Fang, I wrote the sequel, cleverly named White Fang 2. I must have had an urge to include peculiar details, because my wolfy protagonist spoke with a lisp, though that didn’t hinder his ability to fight. And there were a lot of bloody fights in my book. My parents should have twigged then that I was Marine Corps material. Yes, even at the tender age of eleven.

Creative writing isn’t a natural fit with the Marine Corps. We’re not StoryCorps or The Moth or The New Yorker, and the closest we get to creating content is with the career branch formerly known as Public Affairs. You know, the men and women in uniform who interact with the media, the actual media? The ones interviewed after a crash or a high-profile court case or on behalf of a particularly interesting Marine. My chosen path, attack helicopter pilot, didn’t offer me much of a chance to hone my writing skills, though perhaps the argument could be made for award write-ups, all-hands emails, and squadron orders. And there was the time I wrote the letter of instruction for our upcoming kangaroo court… As the saying goes, all writing is creative writing. But you know what I mean. Creative-creative.

Fast-forward. It’s 2015 and I’m wondering what I want to do when I grow up. I’ve already determined Active Duty isn’t for me anymore – I’m feeling burned out and I want more of my time back – and I know I’ll be living in England for a while. I’m engaged, no kids on the horizon, and I’ve got my Post-9/11 GI Bill burning up in my pocket. All my research stated explicitly that paying for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing was not worth it. Not unless it was paid for, you had twenty grand lying around, or you were the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. But, lucky me, I could get my masters paid for by Uncle Sam. I pounced. Two years and one accepted-at-the-last-minute thesis later, I’ve got MFA in hand. But how do I use it? More importantly, how do I make money?

Kids, the Reserves, Covid, and moving house sucked up my free time. But I knew that if I wanted to write, anything, I needed to write. Sure, emails counted, as did my revived blog (yes, this one), but in order to really think of myself as A Writer and not just Someone Who Writes, I needed to be published. A book, yes, that was the goal, but anything published would do. And not by me. I know self-publishing is a way into publishing, but it just felt so… vain. Easy. Fake. Not to say my friends who’ve self-published are any of those things, but it wasn’t what counted in my book. I wanted a traditional publisher to take a chance on me and my writing. And I wanted to hold my writing in my hand, a physical copy, too hard to delete or forget about. But I knew I had to start small.

I had had luck in graduate school with being published. In a book. With my fellow students. Of various genres. There was an application process and peer vetting and feedback and rejection, but I knew the pool was small and my chances were good. I liked seeing my name in print and my words on the page. But still, it didn’t count somehow. After I graduated, I submitted work online, hoping to be chosen. I made an Excel spreadsheet documenting my submission attempts. Most of the “Status” column turned red: rejected. (It’s still mostly red.) But the onesies here and there that turned yellow, then green, ah, that gave me inspiration. A tickle of excitement. Hope. I kept writing and submitting, slower than I wanted, but still. Submit and forget.

It took a few years to build up a base of even a few “worthy” publications, most of them online. Each acceptance stoked the desire to publish more, take a chance on myself. When one of my Marine Corps friends pointed me in the direction of a paid gig, I nearly fainted. Writers love writing, but it’s pretty damn hard to make a living at it. The pay wasn’t exactly making a living, and there was still the arduous submission process, but I could write what I wanted and pitch whatever ideas came to me. When my first $300 check hit my bank account, I beamed. An actual paycheck. For writing. I was, and still am, so grateful for The War Horse for taking a chance on me and, you know, paying me for my words.

But Anne, you ask, how did you break into the book world?

It was a fluke.

Last year around October, something in me decided I wasn’t trying hard enough in my quest to become A Writer. Yes, I was writing. Yes, I had won a grant to help me write. Yes, I had been previously published. But I wasn’t “putting myself out there” enough. Because social media is so exquisite for this type of networking, and maybe because I had shunned it in the name of operational security for the Marine Corps for so long, I had to consciously push myself into the Internet of Things. The easiest way to do this was to sign up to a bunch of writer groups on Facebook. So, I did.

After being accepted into a few, I did the ol’ blurb about myself, my life, and my writing. Within a day of posting onto a nonfiction group, I received a reply from someone claiming to be a commissioning editor for a military-specific publishing house. She wanted me to direct message her with more information, if I was interested. I was ecstatic. For years, I’d been looking for an agent, editor, or publisher. After the initial wave of book deals and dollar signs flashed before my eyes, I felt cynical. Skeptical. There was no way it was this easy. Had to be a scam. I hadn’t even finished writing my book. She hadn’t even read one word! Still, when she asked for a book proposal, I figured what the hell. I hadn’t exchanged any money, there was no actual evidence of this being a fraudulent company, and I knew that if this was real, I’d be kicking myself if I passed up this chance.

The book proposal went out in November. By Christmas, I had been offered an initial book contract. By mid-January, I had sent my counteroffer. And on March 8th, I had my final contract in-hand, signed by both parties. Oh my god, this is happening.

I’m not the best with good news. I think, 1) it’s either too good to be true, or 2) I don’t deserve it. It’s easier to be pessimistic about a goal, because if you don’t reach it, you’ve already prepared for disappointment. But to daydream, to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open and hopeful, that takes courage. For one bright, shining second – after I signed in ink, but before the publishing house sealed the deal – my suppressed butterflies swarmed upward from my stomach. They fluttered into my ribcage, tickled my throat, and touched my eyes so lightly I might have cried. For that brief moment, I allowed myself to be happy: I had achieved one massive step toward a lifelong dream. Of course, stress surged back into my body when I realized I had 80,000 words to write – edited, polished, finalized – before the end of July. On top of my Reserve day job, keeping two kids alive, staying in shape, walking the dog, cleaning the house, maintaining a marriage, and a thousand other micro-tasks that eat into my writing time.

Don’t get me wrong – I feel behind. I don’t have a book in front of me, only an outline and a start. I’m writing the shitty first draft and I know it. But I also know I need to plow through, get to the end, and then edit the lump of clay into a printed masterpiece that reflects the story in my head. It’s hard. I may not make it. But I also know I can ask for an extension. I set a tight deadline because I wanted to force myself to spill the beans, to write my damn book. I’ve only officially been writing for a few months, but it’s been decades in the making. I know this story.

It’s March 23rd now. I’ve written over 20,000 words in one month, twenty thousand meaningful words that follow a meticulously outlined nonfiction story: a memoir of my time from boot pilot to veteran Marine. I’ve been writing my ass off, letting housework, running, even watching the kids, go a little more lax than usual. I’ve been waking up early and going to bed late. I’ve taken my laptop to my daughter’s swimming lessons for six weeks straight. I brought it on my romantic weekend to Paris with my husband. I brought it to a Marine meeting in London, twice, and wrote on the train. I’ve learned to type something up in five minutes, even just one sentence. I’ve learned to watch writing videos while practicing my plank for my upcoming physical fitness test. I’ve read 17 memoirs in the past six months. And I guess this is it, the life of a writer.

I hope you join me for the ride.

One thought on “Signed

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