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Hubris

Volume XI, Issue Three | September 2016 My agent didn’t beat around the bush. “I don’t have good news,” she said one day last spring. I’d been working on the manuscript for 18 months. I’d rewritten it four or five times, and Danielle, my agent, had read each draft, critiquing it and making suggestions. I accepted her criticisms and each time, tried to reshape the story, tried to flesh out the characters, tried to deepen the tensions. As a reporter, I could be critical of my nonfiction writing. I knew when something didn’t work. But fiction is a different animal. I can’t judge my fiction. I write things I think are just short of brilliant and find out they stink. Other times, I think what I’ve written is shoddy only to discover I got it right. I hadn’t felt right about this manuscript, but I’d hoped I was being overly critical, that I had done a good job after all. No such luck.

My books are a collaborative effort. My agent and her two associates read the drafts and come back with ways to improve them. They don’t submit the manuscript to my editor until they’re satisfied. Usually Danielle calls and starts with, “Oh, Sandra, the writing is lovely…” And it’s not until a few minutes after she hangs up that I realize what she’s really saying is, “This sucks, and if you don’t shape it up, you’ll have to give up writing and learn to play golf.”

This time was different. She didn’t start by telling me how wonderful I was.

I’d written the book about an incident I’d dreamed up, and the fact was that while the incident was clever, there was no way to shape a book around it. Danielle has an unerring sense of what works, and the minute she said she didn’t have good news, I knew the book was dead. She was right. The characters didn’t grab you, and the story was contrived. Danielle said she would show the manuscript to my editor if I really wanted her to, but I didn’t. If my agent didn’t like it, my editor wouldn’t either. Besides, I didn’t want to publish a book that I knew wasn’t any good.

Unfortunately, the manuscript wasn’t something I could put aside and go back to in a year or two. I’d done that before. My agent didn’t like the first go-around of The Persian Pickle Club, for instance, and I dropped it, only to rewrite it a couple of years later. But this manuscript has a time element and would have to be published next year. Even if I made it work later on, it would be too late.

So that’s why I don’t have a book coming out this year. Or maybe next year. Or maybe ever again. That’s the fear of course—that the well has run dry. I’ve had a book a year for the past several years and thought I was on a roll. That’s when hubris kicks in, when the gods step up. Whom they would destroy, the gods first make successful authors. If that’s the case, well then, I can’t really complain. I’ve published 14 novels, two young adult novels and 10 nonfiction books. And I’ve won a few awards. If it ends now, it hasn’t been a bad run.

But of course, I don’t want it to end. And I’m working hard to not let it end. I’m a writer. Writers write. We write until we’re senile—and beyond, and we’ve all read those books. My first novel didn’t come out until I was 50. I didn’t make the New York Times best-seller list until I was 70. I’m not ready to give it up. That manuscript may be dead, but I’m at work on another. And there’s a young adult book in the works—two of them, in fact.

But I wanted you to know there won’t be a book this year. And maybe there won’t be one next year. But I’m working on it. The manuscript I worked on all those months may be dead, but I’m not.—SD

The Last Midwife is the winner of the 2016 Spur Award for Historical Fiction from the Western Writers of America. Sandra received the award at WWA’s annual convention in Cheyenne in June.

We’ve Come A Long Way, Ladies!

In my last issue of Piecework, I wrote about my life as a feminist and recalled the discrimination I encountered over the years. It turns out I wasn’t alone. I was gratified by the responses sent by readers. Here are a few excerpts:

  • I have gone through many of the same things you wrote about. Two in particular stand out in my mind. The first was when I was working for a large aerospace firm that gave raises once a year. The basic lowest raise was five cents an hour no matter what your work ethic or talents were. I happened to be pregnant with my second child. When I asked why I had received such a tiny raise, my male supervisor replied, “Because you are married and you’re going on maternity leave for your first child and you don’t need the money.” He knew nothing about me. My husband was in college, my first child was three-and-a-half. By the way, I was required to have a letter from my doctor stating my due date; then I was required to go out on leave at the end of my fifth month of pregnancy. The second standout happened about nine years later. I wanted to sell some stock that had been left to me when my grandmother passed away. I was required to have my husband’s permission in writing to sell my stock.

  • In 1954, I was teaching in San Diego, CA, when I was married. I had a Texaco credit card, which I had had for a couple of years. I wrote the company and asked…that my name be changed to my married name. The credit card was cancelled. I did have my small revenge. When I received the last bill from Texaco, I wrote “CANCELLED” on it and sent it back and never heard another word from them. To this day, I have never purchased one thing from Texaco.

  • J.C. Penney took away my charge account when I got married, and sent a new one in my husband’s name. We were living in LaJunta, Colo.,at the time, and Penney’s was THE department store. I was furious. It was a couple of decades before I stopped boycotting JCP.

  • I was raised by a single working mother who t