Becoming a Novelist in Midlife: Orly’s Story
A health scare, long hours at work, and the birth of her son would be the catalysts that propelled Orly into a new creative outlet: Writing fiction. Her first novel, The Distance Home, has recently been released and her second novel is on its way.
Tell us a little about your background…
If I had to describe my background in one word, it would be “ordinary.” I come from a loving family with parents who are about to celebrate 52 years together. I had every opportunity growing up, from ballet and music lessons to a pony and horse shows. We had pets and family vacations and a lovely house. I had and still have a great relationship with my parents (okay, a few rocky periods during my teens but that’s pretty normal, right?). Ordinary, normal, no traumas, no drama.
Now for the longer version.
I was born in Israel and, except for my parents, most of my family still lives there. When I was four, we moved to England for three years, then back to Israel before moving again to the United States. That last move wasn’t a whole bucket of fun, though. We moved to the Midwest and fitting in wasn’t the easiest for me. I had a very British accent and kids made fun of me. For a few years I schemed how to get back to Israel and, when it became clear that wasn’t an option, I did whatever I could to become like everyone else. There were a handful of years when I refused to speak Hebrew, didn’t want to celebrate the Jewish holidays, and made sure my British accent was buried deep.
My first couple of years in college were rather unsettled. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what I wanted to study. I went in as an art history major and switched several times before finally graduating with a major in English and no idea what I wanted to do with it. Well, not exactly. I had a fascination with the publishing industry and applied for jobs in New York publishing houses (I was living on Long Island at the time) but quickly realized that my entry-level salary wouldn’t come close to covering a Manhattan apartment that would allow my mother to sleep quietly at night.
That meant graduate school. While applying for publishing jobs, I’d also submitted applications to law school. Not that I had a burning interest in the law but it seemed the right path at the time. When the time to commit came about, I aborted the idea of law school and applied to journalism programs instead. That brought me to the University of Maryland and, after graduating, a job as an editor at a monthly trade publication for the satellite industry.
I’d always been a space junkie – I watched every shuttle launch and read everything I could about the space industry – so it was pretty exciting to get to be part of that world, even if my slice of that world was on the other side of the industry. After a couple of years, I joined the corporate communications department of an up and coming satellite communications company. Several years and a couple of job hops into different industries, I went to work for my dream company – a satellite launch company. Rockets, baby. I worked crazy hours and loved it—most of the time.
At some point, I started loving it a bit less. My husband and I had been married 10 years by then and, at 37, I was at the ticking end of my biological clock. I loved being in the corporate world and never had strong maternal instincts (except for animals—show me a puppy or kitty and I melt). But at some point, I started noticing the kids as much as the family pets.
Then life took a slight detour. I had a health scare that, coupled with some pretty unhappy times at work, made me realize that crazy long hours just weren’t what life was meant to be about. Somehow, out of that mess of doctor visits and hours crying on the bathroom floor and more visits, I came out with a clean bill of health and a positive pregnancy test.
As cliché as this sounds, from the moment my son was born, I was a different person. Priorities changed. Wants changed.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
After my son was born, I quickly realized that I no longer fit into the skin of the “me” I’d cultivated all those years in the corporate world. Part of it was struggling with postpartum depression, even though I never acknowledged that at the time. Part of it was an unpleasant shift in family dynamics.
And part of it had to do with my new role working from home. I’d started freelancing while on maternity leave and when my son was a bit over a year old, I made the switch to full time freelancing. It wasn’t that I missed the work environment. I actually found that I was perfectly happy in my cave, working at my own pace. I had great clients, mostly in the space industry. But at some point, the work itself stopped tugging at my creativity.
A friend recommended writing essays for various parenting magazines but the idea of putting my thoughts and feelings down for strangers to read made me queasy. When I mentioned to my husband that I needed a new creative outlet and was considering going back for my Ph.D., he suggested that I give writing a shot. If I wasn’t up for essays, then maybe fiction. I had nothing to lose; that same day, I signed up for a fiction workshop. By the time I finished that first workshop, I had a completed draft and a new passion.
What is your next act?
I am the author of The Distance Home, which I published with Forge Books in May 2017, at the age of 50. Here’s the official blurb:
Sixteen years ago, a tragic accident cost Emma Metz her two best friends—one human and one equine. Now her father’s dead too, and she’s forced to return to the hometown she’d fled. She uncovers a history of lies tying her broken family to the one place she thought she could never face again—the stable that held her secrets and her grief. But to exorcise the ghosts of her past, she’ll have to release the guilt, embrace the uncertainty of a future she’d buried, and trust again in the healing power of horses.
The Distance Home is a story about fitting in and the lengths we’ll go to in order to be accepted and feel loved.
My sophomore book, Carousel Beach, will be released from Forge on May 8, 2018. Here’s a bit about the book: A mysterious inscription carved on the belly of a historic carousel horse and a cryptic letter left on her grandmother’s grave lead an art restorer on a quest for the truth buried within family secrets. I have a couple more manuscripts in the works and a notebook full of other ideas.
I joke that writing is cheaper than therapy. There’s more truth than joke in that. I’m not a talker. I think better through my fingers. But while I’ve always loved reading, I never had the pull for writing fiction. What I found, though, is that fiction gave me the outlet for the emotions and feelings and thoughts that I’d trapped inside. My characters are able to sort through emotional upheaval. They can confront the people who hurt them. They can change their lives in 300 pages.
My characters can do all the things I can’t always do. Through them, I can release the pressure building inside me. The characters I write about don’t speak for me and they don’t deal with the issues I’m going through at that period in my life. But through their emotional journeys, I can release my own fears and heartaches and dreams.
My stories are the family and friends I can’t always open up to. Through them, I can spread my wings. The stories don’t reflect who I am or what I do. But through them, I can explore new ways of becoming whole again.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was terrifying. I worked hard to get to where I was in my professional life and that was the only professional life I imagined. When I got pregnant, the idea of not working wasn’t something I remotely entertained.
Granted, I eased into it to some extent—first switching to full-time freelancing then slowly cutting back on clients. But the day I sat with my husband and said, “I want to see if I can make a go of getting published,” was palm-sweaty, heart-banging scary.
We worked out a budget. Sacrifices were made. The hardest for me, though, was reminding myself that I was still “working.” I may not be clocking in at an office and I wasn’t responsible to clients anymore, but I chose to make writing my new career and I was now accountable to myself.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband was very supportive. Even with the financial concerns, he assured me we’d make it work if that’s what I really wanted to do. He doesn’t read my work or pat me on the back or even commiserate with the frustrations of the publishing process, but he’s the first to remind me to say no when I overextend myself with other commitments and give me the weekend to work when I have a deadline. And he gave me the very best advice I’ve gotten… If I don’t take myself and my writing seriously, why should others? That was the kick in the pants I needed to become more protective of my time and when I stopped tip-toeing around the question, “So, Orly, what do you do?”
My parents have been very encouraging, even if slightly hesitant at the beginning. My mother, especially, was concerned about me giving up the corporate job. But they’ve since gotten fully on board and are interested in every step of the process.
My biggest supporter, however, is my son. He tells everyone that I’m a writer. I went to pick him up early from school one day and the lady at the front office, who I’d never met, said, “Oh, you’re the author. I’ve heard all about your book. I can’t wait to read it.” I actually looked behind me to see if there was someone else there. He’s dubbed himself my “manager.”
What challenges did you encounter?
One of the biggest challenges I came across was finding a writing support group. In that early workshop, the instructor had recommended several writers’ associations. I joined one but it was for a genre I didn’t write, although they did have a few specialty chapters including one for women’s fiction. And while that chapter was great and I met many wonderful writers in my genre, the majority of the resources out of that parent group weren’t helpful to me personally.
Then at the end of 2012, that parent association made the executive decision to tighten their mission. It made complete sense for them but left our genre homeless. A handful of us came together and founded the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA). We made a wish list of the things we wanted from a professional association and set out to make it happen.
The connections and support from WFWA were a major part of my road to success. In the three years I was the founding president, I learned that I could step beyond my comfort zone and not only survive, but thrive.
With respect to finding a publisher, like most aspiring writers, I worked my way through the trenches. I queried and gathered a box-full of rejections. Scrapped one manuscript, wrote another, and queried again. More rejections. With each manuscript, I pushed myself harder to strengthen my craft. I followed agents on Twitter, read every relevant blog, took more workshops, and kept my eyes on the end goal—an agent and a publishing deal.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Giving up was never an option. I didn’t always believe that it would happen, but it never crossed my mind to stop. I had – still have – a core group of writing buddies who keep me grounded and focused. They’re my daily sanity savers in what can be a lonely and rather neurotic business.
And there’s really nothing else I’d like to do. I love writing. I get twitchy when I’m between projects or have to be away from a project for a length of time because of other commitments.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I have way more patience than I ever gave myself credit for. My lack of patience is a great source of amusement in our house. Even my son, when he was younger, used to tease me. You know you have a problem when your 8-year old tells you to relax. The path from aspiring author to published author is bumpy with lots of turns and detours and hurry-up-and-waits. There were queries that I sent to agents that didn’t receive responses for months. One actually came over a year after the original query.
I also learned that I have more staying power than I thought. Rejection stings, no way around that. But I very quickly accepted that the rejections were not personal. Writing may be deeply personal, but publishing is a business. The agents weren’t rejecting me; they didn’t think the work I was presenting to them was ready. I used each rejection to fuel forward momentum. And despite a dizzying amount of rejections, I kept at it.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Yes and no.
I would have been more patient. And yes, I get the irony of saying that after my response to the previous question. I was quick with the trigger finger several times and sent manuscripts out before they were really ready. Then again, I didn’t know they weren’t ready until the rejections came in. The personalized rejections were the most valuable critiques I could have gotten and each one helped shape my writing in a positive way. So yes, because I wish I’d taken more time with those early manuscripts but no, because those early manuscripts taught me so much.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Trust yourself. It’s incredibly easy to fall into a spiral of doubt. Those nagging questions of “why did I think I could do this” and “what if I fail” can paralyze your creativity and motivation. We expect to go through rejection early in our careers but going back to square one is harder after you’ve already pushed that box aside and thought you were past that phase in your life.
While I’m incredibly proud of my accomplishments in my early career, this time around feels so much more rewarding. This time, I went into it with the knowledge of what failure could mean. When you’re in your 20s, the future is forever away. There’s time to explore and time to detour. When you’re closing in on 50, it feels a little closer. Failure now doesn’t guarantee a second chance.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing fiction?
Find your tribe. Writing can be incredibly lonely and frustrating at times. You spend hours upon hours alone with people you’ve created in worlds that exist only in your head. Sounds a bit crazy, doesn’t it? As supportive as family and friends are, they rarely understand the depths of what goes into writing and publishing.
When I’m in a story, those characters are real to me. They’re part of my world and at times, I find myself expecting them to sit down for dinner with us or I fret about something a character has done or needs to do just as I would any other member of my family. I’ve been known to get lost in the middle of washing dishes and blurt out, “that’s what I was missing,” then continue to talk out the missing piece of the story while my family gawks behind me. Other writers get this. We can talk to each other about people who don’t exist without feeling self-conscious.
Other writers get the pain of rejection or a negative review. They understand the agony over first person or third person point-of-view. They share experiences and knowledge. And they get the exhausted excitement over typing “the end,” even if it’s only the end of the first draft and there are at least five more to come.
What writing resources do you recommend?
There are a lot of amazing resources for writers, both “live” and online.
My work time was limited to when my son was at school so the online resources were a godsend. Facebook communities are a great place for connecting with other writers. I belong to way more than I have time for, but there are a few that I “visit” every day. The Motivated Writer is a must for me. We do regular check-ins, announcing our weekly goals on Monday then following up on Friday with progress. It’s a wonderful, supportive group and everyone is ready with advice or a pat on the back or a woo hoo.
Writer Unboxed is another fabulous online community and it’s connected to a great blog for writers. Another amazing blog with articles for every stage of the writing career is Writers in the Storm. I also love Thinking Through Our Fingers for the variety and helpfulness of their articles.
Another favorite online hangout is BLOOM. It’s a great group of book lovers—both writers and readers. The group is hosted by the Tall Poppy Writers and it’s become my go-to to connect with readers and my daily happy stop.
Writer’s Digest is one of the best overall resources for writers of any genre. I devour the magazine the moment it arrives in my mailbox. There are online articles and a whole host of reference tools through the website. There’s a bookstore with a brilliant selection of books to help writers at every stage of their writing process and career growth. I’ve also found their online workshops incredibly helpful.
There are numerous writing associations out there. I suggest every author find the one that fits their genre or, if they’re straddling genres or not yet sure what genre best fits for what they write, then test join a few until you find the right fit. For me, it’s obviously the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. But pretty much every genre has its own group.
One resource I found particularly helpful when I was querying agents, and to be honest, still find helpful when I’m developing new projects, is the twitter hashtag #MSWL. MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List. Periodically, agents and editors will post the types of projects they’re most interested in seeing to twitter. But there’s also a handy website that makes finding the information easier for those of us with Twitter issues.
What’s next for you?
Next up? More edits on the novel I recently turned into my editor, finish another manuscript that I’ve been working on, and get another underway. I’ve also been tinkering with a middle-grade manuscript that I’m hoping to finally finish. And dig my house out of the mess that’s resulted from months on deadline.