An Installment in the Saga of DRAWER NO MORE!
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Where did Our Orbit come from?
I may be relatively new to self-publishing, but I’ve been writing for a long time: It was 29 years ago that I started writing fiction, not counting childhood pastimes (or a few embarrassing attempts right after college).
The fiction bug bit hard when I was employed as a foreign-language instructor and should have been working on my dissertation on Russian literature. It was pure procrastination, but nothing brought me so much joy as a couple of stolen hours with a legal pad and half a dozen needle-sharp pencils.
The short stories and novellas I produced in those early years were mostly unreadable. Steeped in academic language, I struggled to choose words of less than 4 syllables and keep my sentences down to 5 clauses, max.
So in the early 90s, after leaving the ivory tower once and for all, I concentrated on improving my style. I read Alice Munro and began to grasp how to shape a sentence, read Carolyn Chute and sensed the chemistry between characters, read Marquez and grappled with the dream that is an enthralling narrative. Small vignettes and short-shorts proved a good starting place, several of which I was able to publish—to my terrific gratification.
The short story form remained my nemesis. To this day, I consider it a lofty pinnacle of prose artistry. I have often said I hope to never write another.
But ideas swarmed my mind. I labored to shape them in words. I longed to tell stories that would make readers pause and see fellow humans in a new way, if only for a moment. For most of us, I think, people are the most important thing in our lives. They make us crazy with anger, love, hysteria, amazement, and all the other emotions! I longed to present characters in a way that would help readers recognize their fellows—our fellows—with a bit more compassion than before.
One of my short stories at this time went by the cumbersome name “Gravitation of the Spheres.” No doubt a throwback to the academic career. I tried other titles, all equally bad. In one draft, I expanded the plot with numerous twists. Then I cut every expendable word to shorten things up. This was when “leaner and meaner” was supposed to be better and better, but I wound up revising the story so many times, my head began to spin. I had no idea which version might be better than another.
At some point, my story acquired the name “Our Orbit.” Subconsciously, I was determined to stick with cosmic imagery, although I’ve gotten criticism for misleading readers to expect a sci-fi tale.
Realizing I needed professional help, in the summer of 1997, I applied to the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop. It was to be my 1st class in creative writing.
Kenyon College had the advantage of being located within a 2-hour drive of my town. More importantly, this is the home of the prestigious literary magazine that launched work by such luminaries as Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, and many others. If Ohio has a literary Mecca, I reasoned, this must be it!
I found myself in a group of 12 acolytes studying with Nancy Zafris. Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction, Nancy was a formidable presence. She forced us to realize the power of each word while becoming attached to none (Kill those darlin’s). I was so awed by Nancy’s skill with tone and structure that I felt no one could better advise me how to transform my troublesome story into the brilliant narrative I meant it to be.
Nancy graciously agreed to read “Gravitation of the Spheres.” She convinced me it needed a new title and gave some pointers for focusing the plot. But it was her parting comment that helped me keep faith with this story for years to come: Simply, “Brush it up and send it out.”
So my strange little story was in the ballpark of publishable material!
My 4800-word opus acquired the name “Our Orbit.” Subconsciously, I must’ve been determined to stick with cosmic imagery, although this theme is not central to the plot. I’ve gotten a bit of criticism on this title (even if it is a great improvement on previous ones). A widely published author told me 1st person (“Our…”) is inappropriate, given that the story is written in 3rd. And a couple of readers said they were misled to expect a sci-fi tale.
I hoped my eventual readers would accept the metaphoric sense of an “orbit.” Then I stumbled upon this same small phrase in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, used to describe Scout and Jem going about their daily routine of play and exploration. This is not a major passage in the classic book, but it seemed so resonant with my story, I wasn’t about to give up my title from then on.
As for sending it out—first, I tried journals at the top of my wish list: Pleiades, Five Points, Prairie Schooner, Agni… Then I tried a slightly humbler tier: Ascent, Spindrift, The Green Hills Literary Lantern… When discouragement set in, I would revise again and try again. Over the next nine years, I sent the story to at least 50 different magazines, several of them more than once.
During this time, I succeeded in publishing other stories—even one at the Kenyon Review! So what was the problem with “Our Orbit”?
I had never received as many comments from editors as I did on this story. One apologized for keeping “Our Orbit” on his desk for 8 months; he felt it wasn’t “ripe for acceptance” but couldn’t quite bear to reject it either. He found his mind circling back to it.
At least 3 other editors sent notes in my SASE saying that the story was interesting but needed further development. Independently, all agreed that it could—even should—be expanded.
It had the makings of a fine novel.
This was the last thing I wanted to hear. Already at work on a novel, I had gained insight on the time and effort involved in that project. I wanted “Our Orbit” to be finished already. Something to grace my publication list, not a sinkhole for endless tinkering. Not a baby bird demanding food so it could grow.
But art is like a higher power. It “disposes,” regardless of what we humans propose.
Soon enough, I had finished two other novels. Unable to find either agent or publisher, I became discouraged. Fiction was a hard master. I tried writing essays and poetry: anything to keep up my skill with words. When my husband was invited to apply for a job in the Northwest, an opportunity opened for me to enter an MFA program in creative writing. I saw it as a way to keep working, to stop myself from giving up.
In August 2005, we were preparing to relocate across country. In our Ohio backyard one warm night, I looked up to the sky, hopeful for a new beginning, a new phase of life. I didn’t really focus on the stars until I realized that they were falling. Of course—it was the Perseiad meteor shower that comes every year in late summer.
Beautiful lines of light streaked the sky.
My first thought was, “This is a perfect scene for ‘Our Orbit…'” I saw the family in my story hurry outside to watch meteors. The children ask questions, and parents try to explain so their little ones can understand.
So many falling stars—is it an omen, or a fact of nature? Does anyone know the difference?
Right there, I knew this was a scene for Our Orbit the novel. Same plot as the story, but with more people, more fully fleshed characters, interacting in more complex ways. It became my thesis in the MFA program at the University of Idaho. It would take 5 years to create a complete draft. It would swell to 150K words; get cut back to 115K. I would be convinced it was my first mainstream, publishable novel. For 2 years, I would search for an agent—would give up, try again, and give up again.
All the while, Miriam, Rachelle, and Josh kept speaking in my ears like living people.
Our Orbit will be self-published in the summer of 2014.