The Story Behind the Story

If you start counting from the day I enrolled in Russian 601 at the University of Texas at Austin, my first book took me eleven years to write. That includes three years for language study, four years for traveling and research, and four years for writing and selling the manuscript. Because many of my readers are aspiring writers, I thought I’d share the saga of my first publishing experience, in hopes it might be of use:

I officially began writing Around The Bloc in Austin, Texas, on January 8, 1999 — three days after the love of my life dumped me. I was 24 years old, had zero contacts in the publishing industry, and hadn’t a clue as to what I was getting myself into. I did, however, have a lot of discipline, and soon adopted a writing schedule of 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on weekdays, an hour or two of editing weekday evenings, and a four or five-hour block of writing on weekends.

By the time my contract with the Associated Press and apartment lease were up that August, I had completed several dozen travel vignettes and sold an essay on wanderlust to Latina Magazine — a clip that proved invaluable later down the road. I had also queried my first two rounds of agents. All 10 rejected me, but one gave me invaluable advice: narrow the terrain of the book so that it focused only on communist/post-communist nations, rather than everywhere I’d ever been. (My first draft — tentatively titled Ramble On — included some 20 countries!)

When a planned trip to India fell through, I decided to give myself one calendar year to complete the book while living rent and utilities-free with my parents in my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. It was a tough year: having neither a car nor a “day job,” I essentially locked myself into a very small bedroom and wrote, researched, and edited between 8 and 12 hours a day. Yet it proved immensely productive: I completed a 450-page travelogue of 12 Communist nations called Seeing Red, wrote five versions of a book proposal, flew out to New York City and Washington DC to meet with agents and signed with one, and read every book and Web site on publishing that I could find. In June 2000, my agent sent the book proposal to 18 publishers. My parents and I took a roadtrip to Mexico and lit velas at every church we passed along the way.

By August, however, every last publisher had rejected it. The day I received my rejection letters in a thick manila envelope, I drank an entire bottle of wine and cried. Had I just wasted a whole year of my life?

Crushed, I did the best thing a travel writer could do in such a situation: hit the road again. Between August 2000 – May 2001, I drove some 45,000 miles across the nation in a beat-up Honda, documenting US history for a Web site for K-12 students as a national correspondent for The Odyssey. I took Seeing Red along for the ride and had the strange but wonderful experience of listening to my colleagues read it as we drove down the highways and byways of America. I also thought a great deal about why the proposal didn’t sell, and how I could write one that would.

After that adventure ended, I spent three months performing major reconstructive surgery on my 103-page book proposal so that it read more like a memoir than a travelogue. Then I moved to New York City with the vow that I would give myself one year to sell it — or else, I’d go to Kinko’s, crank out a bunch of copies to sell to family and friends, and move on. Amazingly, Villard/Random House bought it in April 2002. I spent the next year completely rewriting the manuscript while holding a full-time job as the spokeswoman of the Free Expression Policy Project and the coordinator of the Youth Free Expression Network. I generally wrote between 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. to midnight on weekdays and logged in at least 15 hours on the weekend. I also did a two-week residency at the beautiful Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, where I wrote and edited 12 hours a day. The book was christened Around the Bloc soon after I handed it in on May 1, 2003. It was published on March 9, 2004.

The first time I held my book in my hands, I literally dropped to my knees and cried. Later that night, after consuming copious amounts of Soviet Champagne on Brighton Beach with a friend, I experienced the most blissful inner peace of my life.

Final Toll: nine versions of the book proposal, four complete manuscript rewrites, 33 agents and 31 publishers queried, and countless edits, revisions, split ends, and nervous breakdowns over a four year period. I lost two good friends, most of my savings, and any concept of “free time” in the process.

The rewards, however, have been immeasurable.


Are you contemplating a book project? See my tips on everything from finding an agent to writing a book proposal to landing a free stay at an artist’s residency. Note that I also offer 10-week, private, online memoir-writing classes. Gracias!