My phone rang while we were in the car. My daughter was behind the wheel, learning how to drive, slowing to a corner. Because I was a little stressed and a lot concentrating on helping her maneuver into a proper parking space, I let the call go to voicemail. Later, once we’d parked, I checked the message. The Pacific Northwest Writers Association had called to tell me my novel, The Dark Petals of Provence, was a finalist for the 2020 book contest.
I listened to the message three times. It sounded like the person had said “Providence,” not “Provence.” The caller’s name came through garbled in the static of a poor connection. Also, she seemed to mention needing a photo and short bio for the website announcement. I was mystified. Surely, they had the wrong person. Still, I couldn’t mistake the words. They were clear: “You’re a finalist.”
A Summer Project
The Dark Petals of Provence had started as a summer project in 2018. My intention was to have fun by reading a bunch of books about Provence and write a literary mystery in the tradition of The Water of the Hills by Marcel Pagnol. Provence had always fascinated me with its unique agriculture and rugged landscapes. So I outlined a plot about a village hiding a dark secret and launched into writing. The intrigue of the characters and their ways pleased me. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with the novel once finished. I considered self-publishing it as a freebie for my newsletter subscribers and considered shopping it around to publishers. Regardless, I worked on, enjoying the warm dream of the French countryside.
By September, I completed the draft, right before The Forgetting Flower was accepted for publication. In my joy of receiving an offer for that book, I spent the next year editing, publishing, and promoting it. Then finally in late 2019, I returned to Dark Petals, editing and polishing through fall and winter. I liked the book a lot. It was a compelling story that captured Provence’s atmosphere and featured a sweet, special needs character loosely based on my daughter.
Then things changed. I won’t go into too much detail but in sharing it with other folks, I received not-so-great feedback. While one reader liked the story, a couple others didn’t. They said it was too literary. Another said the main character was too insecure. One reader made sharp fun of it. The last wasn’t engaged enough to finish reading. I was heartbroken.
When You Least Expect It…
Meanwhile, a close writer friend urged me to submit the book to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual book award contest. But I was skeptical. When I’d entered the contest two previous times, I’d never placed. And one of the books I’d entered had been The Forgetting Flower, which I thought was the strongest story I’d ever written.
Regardless, I submitted my entry on a whim, then moved on psychologically. I told myself no one wanted it and put it in a metaphorical drawer, condemning it to manuscript purgatory. Oh well, I thought, another shot that missed a target.
So you can imagine how perplexed I was when I got a phone call telling me I was a finalist in a contest I’d entered eight months earlier with a book I thought most readers didn’t care for. Apparently not so. Not only did the judges not think it was a poor story, they actually thought it was one of the best. Weird. Then, in an even stranger turn of events, at the online ceremony in late September, it won third prize! Wow.
A Steady Perspective
Now in retrospect, I wonder, why did I beat myself up so hard? When I think about it, the people I gave the book to didn’t know me or my work well. But as other artists know, these experiences and feelings are all part of the process. Sometimes we judge ourselves too harshly. We take others’ opinions too seriously. We get shot down by rejection and can’t get back up. Most of all, we don’t believe in ourselves enough.
Weeks after winning the prize, another odd thing happened. Once my publisher got wind that I’d completed another book, they encouraged me to send in the manuscript. As I’d already submitted the follow up to TFF, I didn’t give the invitation much thought. But I sent it. And now, to my grateful delight, Dark Petals will be published in 2022.
The lessons I learned from this experience were 1) just get feedback from my closest critique partner, my dear friend who knows me and my work well, and 2) trust my instincts and keep the faith. Though the book didn’t match some people’s taste, it matched others’. You never know. We artists need to focus and keep creating the work. If we keep driving the car, eventually we’ll find the right place to park it.