For much of my life, I heard stories from my mother about her family and their house on Boston’s South Shore. One story, about the death of one of her three sisters, caught and held my attention. Not wanting simply to retell my mother’s story, I began to write a novel about two estranged sisters who reunite in their childhood home. For this story my primary question was: What would drive sisters apart? And then, what might bring them back together? My theme was forgiveness.
I hadn’t the slightest idea how to write a novel when I started (nor, by the way, do I have any sisters), but I wrote character studies, backstory, and dozens of disconnected scenes; I drew floor plans of the house and diagrams of the yard; I covered index cards with birthdates, anniversaries, and other important demographics. I was greedy and impatient. I wanted not only to write, but to publish, a novel.
My characters talked quite freely, venting their resentments, explaining their side of the rift, detailing what they did, and did not, approve of in their sibling. And, would, if I did not visit them for long periods of time, turn those invectives on me. But, while my characters would talk and muse endlessly, what they would not do was get up off the couch and leave the house. I had reams of material, very little of it forward moving. It was not a cohesive whole. I was missing the plot.
After a few years I lost faith, abandoned the project, sighed deeply, put the manuscript in a drawer, got married, built a house, pursued my career, bought a dog. But the story refused to lie dormant in that drawer. So when I had an opportunity to enroll in a Master’s program with a concentration in creative writing, I took it. Perhaps, I thought, someone will teach me how to write a novel. That was just over ten years ago.
I took fiction, and wrote a story about a hairdresser. My professor asked if I’d ever been one. I have not. He said, “Write something else,” and gave me a B. I decided that I was not destined to be a fiction writer and took screenwriting, although I’d never read a screenplay and couldn’t name even one prominent screenwriter. Our assignment was to write a 120-page script. We had ten weeks. I thought immediately of my two sisters, languishing in the bottom drawer of my desk, searching for a reason to leave the house. Screenplays require action, dialogue, and a minimum of description. They have no vehicle for interior monologue. Just what my two chatty, thoughtful ladies, ensconced on the sofa, in their rambling childhood home, needed. My professor loved it. And I had uncovered my plot.
Meanwhile, I had written another novel. When I thought the manuscript was ready, I sent it out to a half a dozen agents. One by one I filed their rejection letters (often hand-written on my query letter) took a deep breath, and sent the manuscript out to six more. One agent finally agreed to take me on. I reached for a paper bag into which I could breathe, so as not to pass out from hyperventilating.
She started sending my manuscript out to editors at publishing houses, and I held my breath, awaiting their replies. They came in, rejections, five at a time, and my agent would send it out to another five. Twenty-five editors eventually rejected it.
We were at around rejection number twenty-three when I completed HER SISTER’S SHADOW and sent it to my agent. The third editor who received it, liked it, but wanted the characters younger and one of them nicer. I took deep, centering breaths, made those revisions, and we had an offer. Again the hyperventilating. I'd done it!
The book sold reasonably well (the new phenomenal, says my editor), well enough that she wanted to see another. So I wrote one. Quickly, impatiently, greedily, confident that I now knew how, and sent it to my agent in February, my breath held, waiting for her glowing report. She finally read it in April, by which time I had nearly passed out. (See past blog entry, "Waiting.")
I exhaled, took a deep breath, and began the revisions she recommended. I made them at a dead sprint, breathing hard, not wanting to delay the process, and she sent it on to my editor. According to our contract, the editor had 30 days to read it. Again I waited, breath held. At day #29.5 she got back to us. "Liked it a lot," she said, but wanted me to tell the story from a different character's point-of-view. "Could you revise, say, the first 100 pages, and resubmit?" she asked.
“Sure,” I said, after a few calming breaths, “No problem.” The word submission, beginning to take on an altogether more sinister meaning.
I made the changes; she bought the book.
I am ecstatic. But, here's the thing, publishing a novel is like granting strangers custody of your child while you retain only visitation rights. With luck, your child's new custodians will be loving, but no one will ever love your book, or your characters, the way you do.
So, if your dream is to publish a book, as mine was, then pursue that dream with gusto and prepare for a ride that is alternately exciting, frustrating, heady, and discouraging, and will, at times, take your breath away. Take the time, now, to appreciate your characters, while they are still all yours. Wake up each morning eager to see what pranks they've been up to overnight, and what new adventures they will take you on. Love the writing part and keep writing as you wait, patiently and without expectation, for agents and editors to get back to you. And, through it all, don't forget to breathe.