Friday Speak Out!: The Long Haul

Friday, February 05, 2021
by Deborah K. Shepherd


“I like it…,” said the (very) young literary agent. I waited, with bated breath, for the “but.” Because it was most definitely coming.

“…but I don’t represent historical fiction.” 

It was my first in-person agent “pitch.” I’d submitted the first 20 pages of my novel, So Happy Together, to three agents. Two had passed. This one was my last best hope for a perfect match.

“But it covers the ’60s to the ’80s. That’s not historical.”

That’s my youth!

“It is in publishing,” she said gently, aware she was labeling me a relic, as well.

In 1987 I started writing a novel that was (very) loosely based on my student years in the ‘60s, and my experiences two decades later as a wife and mother in a troubled marriage. A year later, I submitted it to one publisher, who rejected it.

The End. It went into a cardboard carton which I shoved to the back of my closet. The carton followed me from the Hudson Valley (where my marriage broke up) to New Jersey (where I moved in with a new love) to Maine (where he and I married and found our dream house during the honeymoon). I never opened it. And there it sat, in the back of yet another closet, until I said to my husband:

“I think I’m writing a novel.”

“Why don’t you fish out that piece of juvenilia you wrote and see if there’s anything you can use in this book? Then you wouldn’t have to write so much.”

Exhumed after thirty years: It wasn’t great, but it was salvageable. I wrote another draft and found a developmental editor. She asked probing questions about my characters I often couldn’t answer. And she gave homework—lots of homework.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

Three drafts later: “Ta da! It’s done.”

She read the first chapter.

“Nope, not a novel yet. Where’s your inciting incident?”

“Inciting incident?”

She explained.

I whined.

“Well, I just read a novel without an inciting incident. It’s just this woman going through menopause, so she goes on a road trip.”

“And you don’t think menopause is an inciting incident?”

I went home and wrote a kick-ass inciting incident. Done! For real! Submitted to agents, went to that “pitch,” and then did the math: Even if I could find an interested agent, there was no guarantee she could sell it to a publisher, and it might take years.

I didn’t have the technological savvy to self-publish (I needed the assistance of my 12-year-old grandson to set up my Facebook author page), so I searched somewhere in the middle.

And I found hybrid publishing: a perfect match.

I was signed last year by She Writes Press and found a built-in community of knowledgeable and generous authors. All of them are women, many my age --or even older-- who are also publishing first novels.

I’ve found my happy ending. When So Happy Together is launched in April, I will be 74.

But not a relic.

* * *
photo by Henry Wyatt
DEBORAH K SHEPHERD was born in Cambridge, MA and spent much of her early life in the New York area. Before retiring in 2014, she was a social worker with a primary focus on the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault, and the provision of services to survivors. During an earlier career as a reporter, she wrote for Show Business in New York City and for the Roe Jan Independent, a weekly newspaper in Columbia County, New York. She also freelanced as a travel writer. She graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Michigan, and holds a BFA in drama from the University of Arizona and an MSW from the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service. Deborah lives with her husband and two rescue dogs in mid-coast Maine, where she gardens, cooks, swims, reads, entertains her grandsons, volunteers in her community, and tries to speak French. Find her online at

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"?
Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Deborah--Congratulations. Yes, there are many ways to birth a book these days. Have fun setting up author events at your local libraries and community groups, to talk about your journey as an author. Talk your bookstores into letting you set up a book signing. So many people dream of writing a book... they'd probably love to hear from someone who is NOT in their 20s or 30s finally achieving their dream.

And congrats again. Enjoy every minute of it.

Deborah Shepherd said...

Thank you for the encouragement, Sioux! Just launching into publicizing and marketing the book. I expect it to be a wild and interesting ride.

Deborah Shepherd said...

Thank you for the encouragement, Sioux! Just launching into publicizing and marketing the book. I expect it to be a wild and interesting ride.

Amber Polo said...

What an inspiring story!
Maybe the new genre "Thowback Fiction" will work.
I realized my 1980s through 2000 story, Laughing Dolphins: a novel of coincidence, was historical. Who knew?

Deborah Shepherd said...

"Throwback Fiction!" What a great idea, Amber. Or maybe "Retro Fiction?"

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Congratulations Deborah. Wishing you great success in your journey.

Joanell said...

I live this story. There’s many paths to sharing our stories.

Unknown said...

I just happened upon this and am so glad I did. In the early pandemic days I saw a woman in my mind. I knew where she would begin and where she would end. Three months later I had my first novel. My six year old looked at me, "you wrote a book, Mommy?" "Yes, I did." "How?" "Start small, dream big." Luckily I met an amazing well known writer who read it for me and the inevitable question, "why do you like this particular character? He seems forced. It's up to you but if you can't tell me exactly why he is there, you don't need him." Three weeks later, 50% of the book gone and re-written, he was so right. One more review and now onto agent hunting. You are an inspiration. Thank you! (From a mid-timer determined to publish and who will never leave another article or story hidden.)

Deborah Shepherd said...

Dear Jeanine, Joanell,, and "Unknown,"

Thank you so much for your support and good wishes. Yes, there are many paths to sharing our stories, and one of the great delights for me is meeting so many talented and gracious women on the path. And, yes, start small and dream big. Good luck to all of you in your writing life.

Claudine Wolk said...

Good for you, Deborah. I am off to read it!

Any advice for working with the hybrid publisher?

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