The official bio: Jessica McCann, a professional freelance writer and novelist, lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. Her nonfiction work has been published in Business Week, The Writer and Phoenix magazines, among others. All Different Kinds of Free (Bell Bridge Books, April 2011) is her award-winning debut novel.
The unofficial bio: I'm a research nerd. I love to write, and the research I do fuels my ideas for both fiction and nonfiction. Shopping at the grocery store annoys me (perhaps because I worked in one when I was younger), so I get my groceries delivered whenever possible. I love being outdoors. I only eat cottage cheese if it has green olives in it.
The following essay originally appeared on The Bird Sisters blog (by fellow debut novelist Rebecca Rasmussen) the day of my novel debut.
Hold On for the Ride (or How to Write a Novel)
by Jessica McCann
Writing your first novel is like a walk in the park. Really, you say, it’s that easy? Before you rush to judgment, allow me to share a story about one particular walk in the park with my dogs.
My rescue pup, a super-loveable German Sheppard mix, has some “issues” around other dogs when she’s on leash. Maybe she's protective of me. Maybe it's a doggy dominance thing. But a few years ago, during a hike in one of our many Phoenix desert preserves, we happened to cross paths with a rambunctious golden retriever and its owner. Both dogs pulled at their leashes, lunging toward one another with noisy growls and flying saliva. It was unclear if they wanted to play or fight, but we weren’t about to risk finding out.
As I struggled to gain control of my unruly pup, I stumbled over a large rock in the trail and went sprawling into the dirt. She continued to pull at her leash, and I continued to hold on. She dragged me about four or five feet, my legs flailing behind me, through the rocks and desert grit. The retriever finally passed us, its owner shouting horrified apologies back over his shoulder, and my dog finally eased up. I took a deep breath and pulled myself to my feet. My knees were shaking. My shins were bloodied. My husband came rushing to me, apologizing that he had been unable to assist, since he had our other large dog on a leash and needed to stay out of the fray.
“Well, that was embarrassing,” I finally managed to say, looking around for witnesses, my voice breaking, tears welling in my eyes.
“No,” my husband said with a huge grin. “That was awesome! I’m so proud of you. You held on.”
Had I let go, we might have had a dog fight on our hands. Had I let go, our girl might have run away into the desert. Rattle snakes, dehydration and the busy highway were just a few of the dangers she would have faced. I had no choice but to hold on.
Writing a novel is like that walk in the park. Or, at least, it was for me. I had to risk a little embarrassment, risk getting a little bloodied, to get the job done. I had a story I desperately wanted to share, and so I had to hold on.
We’ve been through a lot of dog training classes since that fateful day on the desert trail. But my girl can still be unruly at times. Sure, we could have taken her to back to the rescue shelter, given up on her in favor of an “easier” dog, one more manageable. But she’s part of the family. When she drops her tattered sock-toy in my lap and patiently waits for me to throw it -- her helicopter tail whirling, her big brown eyes dancing -- I can’t imagine the heartache I’d feel if we had given up on her.
I’ve been through a lot "training" myself since I started writing my first novel, despite my previous experience and success writing nonfiction. Multiples drafts, critiques, revisions, queries and rejections were part of the long process leading to a polished manuscript and a publishing contract.
My debut novel, All Different Kinds of Free, was inspired by actual events. It tells the story of Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color in 1830s America whose perfect life was shattered when she was kidnapped and forced into slavery. It was a challenging, emotional, sometimes painful story to research and write. Sure, I could have put it in a drawer, given it up in favor of something easier to write. But the gratification of telling Margaret's story in a way that might touch or inspire those who read the book has made all the hard work worthwhile. When the UPS truck pulls up to my house with a box full of books -- fresh from the printer, with crisp pages and All Different Kinds of Free emblazoned on the glossy cover -- I can’t imagine the heartache I’d feel if I had given up my quest to tell Margaret’s story.
Whether you dream of writing a novel or of some other goal, my advice is to go for a walk in the park and hold on for the ride. Life is only half-lived if you haven’t bloodied your knees at least a couple times.