Writing Past No

by Gwyneth Atlee

 

 

The carcasses of a lot of sane and well-adjusted women litter the road to success, including all the good girls who learned to take no for an answer. The path to publication, in particular, chews them up and spits them out. The survivors grind toward their dreams year after year, collecting nothing for their efforts but enough rejection slips to wallpaper the average condo. If ninety-nine editors dismiss a manuscript, the aspiring writer has to believe in herself enough to shove it into the hundredth envelope and stick that sucker in the mail again. Persevering against long odds takes a combination of guts, stubbornness, and plain old moxie. For new novelist Julie Ortolon, author of USA Today bestseller Drive Me Wild, it required a double dose.

Until she was twenty, severe dyslexia prevented Julie, of Austin, Texas, from reading an article, filling out a job application, or even keeping a checking account. “I hated school,” she says, “hated it with a passion I cannot begin to describe. I felt awkward, stupid, and completely inept, socially, and scholastically.” She squeaked by high school English on sympathy Cs, but college was out of the question for the illiterate graduate.

Capitalizing on her talents, Julie became an artist — mostly because no writing was required. She has owned her own gallery and frame shop, done animation work, designed a line of T-shirts, and worked in advertising layout and design.

In spite of the fulfillment art gave her, Julie continued her lifelong habit of creating stories in her mind. They were just for fun, she told herself, for she could barely fill out a check at the grocery store, much less type the words that danced in her head and squiggled before her eyes. But everything changed for her the summer when she and her cousin, Marita, lived together in West Hollywood, and Marita, an avid reader, handed her a copy of the Kathleen Woodiwiss romance classic, The Flame and the Flower.

Painstakingly, Julie struggled through the opening pages, interrupting Marita again and again to identify word after word. But in doing this, she stumbled upon a system that would serve her well. Point at the word, listen to someone pronounce it, look at every letter carefully, and memorize. Captured by the story, Julie, with Marita’s help, found the patience to slowly teach herself to read. That was the beginning.

The next step in her journey came when Julie’s husband came home with a Mac SE computer. After installing some software, he introduced her to the spell check.

“I remember staring at that computer and feeling all my hair stand on end,” Julie says. “It was as if someone had just handed me a magic box filled with possibilities, a way to free all the stories in my head that were clamoring to get out.”

Her first effort, a single-spaced, seven hundred-page gush of words (four hundred double-spaced pages is the average for a novel), taught her there was a lot more to know about writing than how to fix spelling. She found a critique partner with the patience to teach her some of the English basics she’d missed in school and an organization, the Romance Writers of America, to help her learn the ins and outs of the industry. She wrote a second novel and then a third before landing an agent who agreed to market her work.

In the world of the aspiring writer, getting an agent is a big deal, but it’s only a means to an end. Still, Ortolon’s historical romance manuscripts weren’t selling to the publishers.

By this time, most people would have grown discouraged. “I once heard writers described as quivering blobs of insecurity inside towering shells of ego,” she notes. But she explains, “I'm stubborn. And I mean really, really stubborn. Once I decide to do something, I'm like a torpedo with a homing device that's locked on target.”

In other words, Julie determined to keep writing until she passed “No” — regardless of how many tries or how many years it might take to sell her work. With that in mind, she girded her loins to write another novel and one more. The fifth book was something very different, a witty contemporary romance called Drive Me Wild. The story of a woman with the courage to go after a dream and the strength to demand it on her own terms, this one sold to Dell Books and was published in the spring of 2000.

By any measure, Drive Me Wild has met with success. It was selected as a featured alternate by Doubleday Book Club and graced USA Today’s bestseller list, both rare feats for an author’s first effort. Romantic Times magazine gave it a glowing four-star review, and ten days after the book hit the stands, it had already gone back for a second printing, which was soon followed by a third.

Within weeks of the book’s release, Julie’s agent called to share more good news. St. Martin’s Press had purchased her second novel, Dear Cupid, the story of a disillusioned advice columnist who rediscovers her faith in romance when she meets a marriage-minded movie animator. The subject of this book is a real woman rather than an anorexic clothes hanger with a beautiful pout and a great recipe for meatloaf, like some of the insipid romance heroines of years past.

So what was it that drove a young woman who could barely write a sentence to attempt breaking into the brutally challenging world of fiction? And what allowed her to succeed when so many others succumb to piles of rejection letters? Some might call it courage while others might say it’s insanity that drives a woman to struggle past all the years of “No.” But the way Julie Ortolon sees it, some people spend their lives sitting around whining about their fates while others fight toward a future on their own terms.

She’d just as soon go down as a proud member of the latter group.

Gwyneth Atlee, of The Woodlands, Texas, is the author of Touched by Fire and Night Winds, historical romance novels for Zebra Books. Julie's second book, Dear Cupid, hit the USA Today Bestseller list in the first week of its release this July. If you’d like to learn more about Julie Ortolon and her books, visit her on the web at www.ortolon.com.


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