How Not to Write a Novel

October 26, 2015

  1. Get an idea–an idea so captivating is keeps you awake at night more than your newborn. Research the idea until the idea expands: everything you see, everything you hear, becomes related to this idea. It grows until you can’t keep it all in your mind and you must write it down. Put the baby down for a nap and write.
  2. The baby wakes, but you recognize that this is your window. This is your time: from noon to two on Thursdays and Fridays, you will write. No coffee. No internet research. Only genesis.
  3.  Decide this is a book for kids. Buy Roald Dahl. Buy Harry Potter. Start reading fiction again for the first time since your first child was born. Read Disgrace and Enduring Love and Looking for Alaska. Take notes. Annotate. Try to decode the elements of mastery erstwhile falling in lust with McEwan and Coetzee. Consider a hajj to Adelaide where the South African luminary resides.
  4. Read Twilight, Fifty Shades of Gray, and James Patterson’s Cross Fire. Think to yourself, well I can do that. I can certainly do better than that.
  5.  Someone gives you a subscription to Writer’s Digest and you find all the articles somehow relate to your life. Where has this publication been?
  6. Write and write and write. Get beta readers, like your dad, and continue to write and revise. Your kids ask what you are always working on: you say you are writing a book. You realize is it now your life’s dream. Your son goes outside, and he wishes on a star “I hope mom’s book becomes the best book in the whole world.” For the next three years, he makes the same wish even though you know he really wants those Angry Bird Telepods. It makes your heart sing that you and he wish for the same thing.
  7.  You finish up just shy of 45,000 words and start researching agents. Make a list of your top ten–your Ivy League. Fire off some sassy, but clever, queries. Get two full requests. Pat yourself on the back. Hard work and persistence pays off. You’re good. You always knew you were.
  8.  A friend puts you in touch with another alumnus who published her trilogy a year ago. She gives you the nitty gritty: her first book sold for $2500 on the condition that she write two more for $2500 each. She got $7500 for a trilogy and her books are on the shelves at Safeway. You read her book, but can’t get past the first chapter. That, you think, will never happen to me.
  9. The agents have had your manuscript for months. Then, one morning, you wake up to feedback in your inbox. It’s starts off “so many things I liked here,” and “it’s a really great idea.” Close your eyes. Swallow. Open your eyes again. Read it. “It doesn’t fit my list at this time.”
  10. Feel like the first time you got dumped. Feel like you’ve just gorged yourself on a giant cotton ball. Sick. Raw. Defeated. But that’s just one, you tell yourself. It’s still in the hands of another agent.
  11. When your friends inquire, you tell them about the rejection but are surprisingly upbeat. You still have hope. You know deep down you can do this. You were born to do this.
  12. A week later, you wake up to an email in your inbox. It is the one. You open it like a kid on Christmas–full of awe and wonder. “Sorry I held this so long.” You take a breath. “I love the way you write, but…” The agent give you a list of concerns. Some of which include your choice to have talking animals. You cringe. You know she’s right. You ask, if maybe you can resubmit once you’ve rewritten without the animals. She says yes.
  13. You get back to work until you realize the Sydney Writer’s Festival is this weekend. You drop everything and go. You are the first one in line (you are excessively punctual at all times) for a panel discussion about writing blockbusters. There someone mentions Save the Cat.
  14. You read it. It was the missing piece. You adjust your manuscript to hit the beat sheet. It is much tighter. Pacing requires more research. You see someone online thinks a book called Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain is good. The Kindle is getting full with impulse buys.
  15. Someone gives you a book called List Your Self: Listmaking as the Way to Self Discovery. You decide this is a great device to illuminate character traits and incorporate lists into your manuscript.
  16. Dwight Swain, while markedly dated in his style, is very helpful.  You rewrite and rewrite according to the gurus you have read. You appeal to your friends who know agents. This version is the one, you think. It is so much stronger than the last. Finally, you are holding your masterpiece and it is only a matter of time before it hits the shelves. You send it back to the first agent, she immediately agrees to read it again.
  17. The holiday season comes and goes and still you hear nothing. It has been four months. No. Five. You submit to your friend’s friends who are legit agents. Nope and nope. But you didn’t really want to work with those guys anyway. You’re waiting to hear from her. She is the one, somehow, you think, she understands you, she believes in your ability.
  18. She finally replies. It is another soul-kicking rejection. She enumerates some of her hesitations, but says, “I’m sure someone will snatch this up and this time it will find its home.” She is one of the best in the business. You believe her.
  19. You make a querying spreadsheet and proceed to create a list of fifty agents. You fire off a query a day, probably forty-seven all told, but who’s counting? You get not even one nibble. Form rejection after form rejection flows through your inbox each taking with it a small piece of your heretofore largely intact confidence. You hit up very tertiary friends for personal introductions to agents and continue to get rejected by all.
  20. With the manuscript in limbo, you actually have time, so you pick up Writer’s Digest for the first time in months. It says it everywhere in BIG LETTERS: Build your platform. Yes, you say to yourself, this will help.
  21. You start building your platform–join Twitter, join Facebook groups. You get so excited by Twitter contests and all the cool people who are entering them. You realize you are not alone. But inside, think smugly to yourself: these poor folks don’t know what they’re up against. You’re a professional after all. You talk your eighty-five year old father into submitting to #PitchWars realizing he’s been in this game a lot longer than you have and all he has to show for it is a daughter who idolizes him.
  22. You pick up a copy of one of John Green’s novels and check out Eleanor and Park. Both are using the list device. Your work seems derivative and every agent/editor who sees it is going to think you got your list idea from them. But you didn’t, and you love your lists. And isn’t everything derivative because the whole point is to have a cultural conversation? Lightbulb moment: remember to give your audience a chance to speak.
  23. Get rejected from Twitter contests. #neverthoughtIwasthatbad.
  24. Then you realize: you’re not bad, but they, they are damn good. Feel uplifted by others battling Twitter rejection. You see others are down in the dumps, so you try to mentor them. You are still a good writer, you know that for sure. If there’s one thing you’ve learned by now it’s that these things are subjective.
  25. Hire a Twitter personality to critique your work. She not only tears it to shreds, she tells you to learn how to use a comma and an apostrophe. She calls your MC a pervert, and you paid $260 for the pleasure.
  26. You read her bio, and find out she is bible-thumper. She was never the right reader for your work. You don’t suck. She does. Go to bed thinking that your book wasn’t written for her. She’s not your target market. You pick yourself up and stand up for your favorite lines even if that blogger thinks you stink.
  27. You wait a week and look at her edits again. She wasn’t wrong; you were. Bible-thumper or otherwise, that new intro was forced–like trying to jam jokes into the first page so the old homecoming king would like you. He doesn’t and he probably never will.
  28. Dad promises to leave you his unpublished manuscripts when he dies. You wonder if your kids would feel as blessed, if you promised them the same.
  29. Send more queries. Enter more contests. Accumulate more rejections. Begin to wonder if you’re good enough to remain at your day job as a copywriter.
  30. $2500 for four years of your life is starting to sound kind of good.
  31. Get one more rejection from an agent who is a friend of a friend: “the nebulous truth is: I liked it, but I didn’t love it.” Hit molten-core-of-the-earth rock bottom. Breakdown at breakfast. Your seven-year-old asks what’s wrong. You explain as calmly as you can, between broken breaths, that your dream has been crushed, and you need a moment to mourn it. It has been four years during which time you could have been doing anything else other than painstakingly dedicating your time and energy to creating something that no one except for your unfortunate beta readers will ever read. But you realize this should be a teaching moment, so you allow him to see you in defeat, and then you make sure he’s watching when you pick yourself up and go back to the manuscript. Once he leaves the house, you throw yourself an epic pity party full of throat-burning screams that your toddler would be proud of.
  32. Why didn’t anyone warn you that this was a fool’s errand? You have friends who are published: not one, not two, but more than ten friends you can think of who have published books or articles or something. It didn’t look that hard at the outset. Jealousy takes hold of you. You become stingy with your time, your love, your talents. The failure of your manuscript is like a mirror of your whole life. You no longer see yourself sitting on Jimmy Fallon’s couch next to Matthew McConaughey engaging in witty banter about how awesome you are. You see yourself as plumper, dryer, and more wrinkled than you were when you started this thing. You’re too old to be a ‘young and notable’ author now.
  33. You burn dinner. Your kid pushes his best friend to the floor. You decide you have the opposite of the Midas touch, you have the Sadim touch: wherein everything turns to crap. The word for it is ‘woe’.
  34. Your seven-year-old kid comes home after his own birthday party and says, “Mom, I’m just not cool.” Me neither, you say, knowing that you need him right now even more than he needs you.
  35. You put on your running shoes and run–it is the only thing that makes you feel worthy.
  36. Writer’s Digest arrives. You thumb through it, but you know everything about everything they are discussing. From themes to platforms, to pacing, to dialogue, you know it all. Somewhere along the way, you have learned enough that you cannot be taught anymore. So there’s that.
  37. You cancel your subscription.
  38. People have stopped asking about the book. It is perpetually bad news–like enquiring after a sick parent. It’s probably not that they don’t care, but that they can see you becoming unhinged. A tertiary friend asks about the book–you tell her, flatly, that it’s been four years and you are nowhere, but you say (for her benefit) you can’t just give up. She agrees. BTW, she says, you look great.
  39.  It is all too clear that no one is going to give you the praise that you thirst for. You must find it for yourself–like that time when the blogger told you that your book sucked and you, in your own mind, momentarily, told her to go to hell.
  40. You attend a workshop on raising resilient kids and find yourself making your own resilience doughnut. Beyond all other adversity you’ve faced, this continual rejection of your distilled soul surpasses everything. You wish you lived closer to home, because your doughnut has proven that your parents have always been your pillars.
  41. You know what you have to do: somewhere amongst this misery, you must find the finesse to put the final polish on this rock. It is exactly like Coetzee said, you need strength for world building. Authors are Atlas. You give it one more shot, but in the back of your mind, you know that this is not your last trip up the mountain.
  42. You do not stop to rest. You try another route up the mountain. You will get there, because there is no other alternative.
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One Response to “How Not to Write a Novel”

  1. cindydorminy said

    Are we living parallel lives?

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