Patricia Wood‘s experience with her debut novel Lottery is the scenario most aspiring novelists can only dream about in quiet, self-indulgent moments.
After a three-month writing frenzy, she began querying agents and, within months, was witnessing a bidding war that ultimately netted her a six-figure deal.
And life has only gotten better. Not only was the book optioned for film by a well-known Hollywood actress; as of this week, it was short-listed for the coveted Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.
But like most “overnight successes”, Patricia brought a lifetime of personal experience and hard work to her craft. AuthorScoop chatted with her about her inspiration, the keys to her success and life after that first book deal.
AuthorScoop: First off, congratulations on the success of Lottery. Have you been surprised at the accolades it’s received, especially with it being your debut novel?
Patricia: Thank you. It’s interesting to me that I am not actually surprised — I’m more gratified and appreciative. I’ve always had the attitude that whatever happens… happens. Yes Lottery is my first published novel but it’s the third novel I’ve written so it’s still one of my children albeit the most precocious, successful one to date!
AuthorScoop: What was the inspiration for the book, and how long did you spend writing it?
Patricia: Many people assume that my father winning 6 million dollars in the lottery was the pivotal event but it was not. My brother in law Jeri who was profoundly affected by Down syndrome, my teaching, my work in disability studies — these things were markedly more inspiring. I will say that first and foremost, I am a writer and writers use all of their life experiences in their work — we thread them throughout both consciously and subconsciously. This is what creates that authentic feeling for the reader.
The first draft of Lottery took me two and a half months (I started it January 2006) and it ended up approx. 59,000 words. I did two- three more months of editing and revising and queried at 72,000 words at the end of May. I was offered representation in July and my agent and I “tweaked” it for anther three months until it was submitted to editors in November 2006 — at that time is was 89,000 words. The published novel is 87,000 words and was released August 2007.
AuthorScoop: How have your perceptions of the publishing industry changed since Lottery’s publication?
Patricia: They have changed dramatically. First of all I realize now more fully that agents and editors are people too and they deal with rejection on a DAILY basis in their work. They are on the writers’ side and are not adversarial. They WANT us to succeed.
Secondly: This is a business. Too many writers only perceive the creative artistry side and fail to realize a whole machine that is focused on getting books out to bookstores and into reader’s hands. I had no idea the importance of good relationships between the author’s work and the bookseller. I thought it was only the reader. It has been a sobering fact to realize how important distribution and placement in bookstores is to the success of a novel- especially a debut.
AuthorScoop: How has your life changed, both on a personal level and in the way in which you approach your work?
Patricia: My life has not changed. I learned that from my father. You cannot react to altered circumstances — you must bend them to your needs to be successful (I feel).
Is it easier to write? No. Do I have financial freedom? Not as much as I would like. Do I have more friends? Yes, but like my father I am never quite sure if it’s because of me or the success of my novel. We tend to think of publication as a goal and once you’ve achieved that goal you think you’ll just sit back and let it all happen but it’s far more complex. I have to think of my readers now, where I want to go with mycareer and I also have to spend time doing interviews!
AuthorScoop: What was your reaction to finding out you’d been short-listed for the Orange Prize?
Patricia: The authors find out a week ahead- the prize committee notifies the publisher so I got an email at 5 am from my publisher asking if I was available to fly to London as I had been short listed! and…not to say anything as it was confidential until April 15. After screaming and then crying (kind of at the same time) I called my husband who was driving to work. He had to pull over onto the shoulder of the road he was so moved. My NY agent called a few minutes later & we had a conference call with my UK agent and all of us went “SQEEEEE!!!!”
I am so profoundly grateful.
(It all would have been a phone call but as I am 6 hours earlier than NY and 11 hours earlier than London they emailed first so they didn’t wake me up… LOL)
AuthorScoop: That honor, combined with the recent film optioning of Lottery by Sarah Michelle Gellar has made 2008 quite a year for you, yes?
Patricia: Well, yes. I have to say that if you had told me what was to happen last year at this time (my book wasn’t even out yet) or two years ago (I had almost finished writing it) I would have been skeptical. I really am astounded and yet have such faith and love for my characters in Lottery that I see it as mostly their success rather than mine.
AuthorScoop: Given the success you’ve achieved thus far, what words of advice or encouragement would you offer young (and old) authors still trying to break into the business?
Patricia: Everybody’s path is different but there are some general similarities. The writers I know who are published treat it as a business and don’t get personal with rejection. I know it’s hard getting that “not for me” slip in our own SASE but it is a thousand times worse to read an unfavorable review in a publication with a circulation of a million plus…as a writer you have got to get a grip. I keep every one of my 70+ rejections just so I remember.
When you treat something as a business your whole view changes. Just as you invest in your career to go to college or be trained in some specialty you must do the same with your writing. Pay the $20 bucks a month to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace to understand the language and the way the business works. Go to the library and read Publishers Weekly, Start knowing the names of the agents, editors and houses who handle or publish your particular genre.
Be active online and get involved with Absolutewrite, Backspace and blogging. Read Read. Read. And read some more. Write EVERY SINGLE DAY. Write something. Give yourself deadlines because when you get published you have to get used to meeting them. Don’t quit your day job — make it part of your plan. Fulfilled people with varied experiences make better writers. It makes your work more authentic.
Go to conferences and retreats. Try to take workshops from successful writers. In 2005, after I had actually finished my first manuscript, I went to the Maui Writers Conference and Retreat. The Maui retreat is the best kept secret. You study and write with a successful author (I studied with NYT bestselling author Jackie Mitchard in 2005 and 2006 and with Karen Joy Fowler in 2007) I will be attending again in 2008. It’s critical to network in this business and to keep learning.
This year the Maui conference and retreat will be in Honolulu which gives greater flexibility for those on a budget. In 2006 I met several editors from Putnam at Maui and when my book was submitted I am certain that was one of the reasons for Putnam’s interest and eventual successful auction bid.
First and foremost you have to be absolutely certain you want to be a writer. Many people want to be authors. They are attracted to a perceived glamorous life style…It ain’t so. Ya gotta wanna write.
You have to have more than just one novel in you and you have to be willing to put in the time to write three or four manuscripts before you finally have something that is publishable. My first novel is in a drawer — someday I will take it out, dust it off and rework it…
And finally? Never give up. Never. If it is your dream then pursue it no matter what.
Lottery is currently available in hardcover
and will be out in paperback in June 2008.