The Road Less Traveled to Publication

Originally posted on Seekerville

Because I took the twists and turns of a road less traveled to publication, I thought you might like to stroll down memory lane with me. Heaven knows that writers love uncharted paths, and from my strange meandering, you might discover a new trek for your own journey.

Let’s begin at the beginning—or nearly. I was five-years-old when I discovered, at my grandmother’s knee, that the stories caught between the covers of books did not appear by magic, but were, in fact, penned by real people! In that lightning bolt moment I determined that whatever else I did in life, I would grow up to become one of those “magic-making” people.

But it wasn’t until my children entered school that I began to write in earnest. What I quickly discovered was that I had lots of imagination, and little knowledge of the craft of stories. I knew how to begin a story, how to give my characters all kinds of trouble and heartbreak, but helping them resolve their issues or defining or maintaining a premise was beyond me. I needed education in the craft of writing. Returning to school full time was out of the question for me or for my family.

So, I did what God told Moses to do when He spoke to him from the burning bush on Mt. Horeb—I used the thing He’d placed in my hand—the opportunities in front of me.

Over several years I joined a creative writing class through continuing education at a local college and took a course through a neighboring university, joined critique groups, attended a few writers’ and literature conferences, read books in general and books on the craft, took correspondence courses through The Institute for Children’s Literature and Writer’s Digest, learned the art of feature writing by trial and error, wrote features and occasional news stories for local newspapers, wrote short stories (one was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Annual Short Story Contest), and essays—three were published in anthologies (Chicken Soup for the Single’s Soul and My Turn To Care).

Essays and poems were published in small periodicals, as I read poetry and short stories at open-mic coffee houses and bookstores. I wrote plays and skits that were produced on local stages (schools, libraries, restaurants, church). During those years I was either working at a private school as the children’s librarian and director of a home-grown theatre group committed to promoting literacy (The Mom Street Players), at a high school coaching drama, or at my church directing children’s and education ministries.

Somewhere between my work as a school librarian and a high school drama coach, I picked up the threads of that Underground Railroad novel I’d always wanted to write and employed the things I’d learned. It was a long, grassroots journey. But that was okay—I had a lot to learn and I’d never expected the road to be easy.

As meandering as that path sounds, each of those steps in my journey taught me something essential. I learned to write on deadline and respect a word count when I wrote for newspapers. I learned the beauty and economy of language when I wrote poetry. While writing and directing plays I learned that dialogue must be natural, sharp, and move a story forward, that a story must be well rounded with a definite “stage presence,” that there is a definite beginning, middle and end, that each character has an arc, and that the actions of everyone on stage must be accounted for. As a librarian I learned what inspires readers—even young ones.

By reading at open mics I learned to gauge the connection of an audience to a story.

I learned, when working in Christian education ministries that I love serving the church and working hard to help bring spiritual meat to those eager to grow in Christ. I also learned, ironically, that no matter how good and important a work is, if we’re not called to do that work, then we need to sit quietly, wait, and ask the Lord to make Himself clear to us through His Holy Spirit.

I couldn’t understand how it was that I was working in the church I love, serving those I love, and my heart was breaking. But my uncle, a devout Christian man, helped me see when he said, “You know you’re working in the will of God when your yoke is easy and your burden light.” He asked me to tell him what gave me joy.

The answer was clearly writing—doing the thing God planted in my heart from the time He knit me together in my mother’s womb—the thing He revealed to me at my grandmother’s knee.

That’s when I began to see my long and unique journey in a new light. Suddenly, I had not only permission to do what gave me joy, but the assurance of God’s blessing. I felt like the Olympic runner Eric Liddel, who felt God’s pleasure when he ran, only for me, it was, “When I write, I feel God’s pleasure!”

So, I completed that novel—learning to trust my Father’s guiding hand when the way got rough. And I sent it out. First to 23 publishers in the ABA because my heart was filled with a desire to help young people make good choices. Even though the book had strong spiritual threads, I thought that was the best way to reach them—I was thinking libraries and schools. I got a few bites, but no contracts. One publisher asked me to rewrite the book for younger children. I tried, but it wasn’t a story that could be written for younger children. One editor wanted it, but said his publishing house had just bought an Underground Railroad story and didn’t think their market could bear another.

By the time most of my query letters had been answered with rejections, I decided to try the CBA. Not having an agent, and unable to afford a Christian writers conference, I emailed The Writer’s Edge, an on-line magazine that sends monthly listings of accepted books to Christian publishing houses. Details of my manuscript were listed in the magazine. The idea was that if an editor saw something that piqued his/her interest, they would contact the author, requesting the complete manuscript.

Three editors contacted me, and after I showed myself willing and able to revise the manuscript, a contract was offered. Once the book (William Henry is a Fine Name) was published, the publisher asked for a second (I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires). Both won Christy Awards, and the second book won the Carol Award and was picked by Library Journal as one of the Best Books of 2008. I was sure all of that constituted a double fluke.

Promise Me This by Author Cathy GohlkeMy third book, Promise Me This (a Titanic through WWI novel), targets an older audience, though young adults will certainly enjoy it. This is my favorite book so far. It captures not only my fascination with Titanic—its passengers, crew, and those left behind, and embodies a strong love story, but it does so while portraying a picture of Christ’s love for us and our response to that unmerited gift of grace. It contains all the things I hold dear, and is the fruition of this wonderfully convoluted journey, “this road less traveled”—both in life and in writing.

If I may encourage you in one thing in your writing journey, it is to embrace what God has given you, and the God who gave it. Take full advantage of the opportunities within your grasp—they are unique to you and are there for uniquely you. Work hard, read, write and humbly rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Learn from those who’ve gone before you on this path and from those who are willing to walk beside you. Share your writing, bless others with your gifts, and stay the course. Putting one foot in front of the other, surrender each day and each opportunity to Him, trusting, TRUSTING Him for the results.

I’ll be praying as you write, and look forward to meeting you on the journey. God’s blessings!

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