The never-ending novel that won’t let go
Do all writers have one of those books? The one they can’t stop writing? The one they started decades ago that has grown and changed along with them over the years? The one they probably should have given up on when their editor wanted to publish it 20 years ago but they couldn’t get past chapter six, and then, when they finally did get to the end it had morphed into something their editor didn’t like, but that didn’t matter because their editor had abruptly left the business anyway so there was no longer anyone to send it to?
Well, this book I’m revising now is that book. A few years ago, I thought it was done. Again. At last. For real this time. A well-established writer friend read it and suggested I send it to her agent. I did, and he loved it. He was only going to send it to top editors, he said. He was sure it would be snapped right up. He was wrong. It was not snapped up. And for good reason, it turns out. It wasn’t done. I took it back and rewrote it again. Surely it was done now! But no.
Recently I won an opportunity to talk with one of my dream editors. She would read 25 pages of my novel and talk to me about it. We chatted for nearly an hour. There is nothing like the insight a really good editor can bring to a manuscript. She’d read only the beginning of this 350-page novel, and she pointed to all the weaknesses I’d been pretending weren’t there. You know the kind? The ones you really don’t want to tackle because it would mean undoing large chunks of your manuscript. It would mean rethinking major plot points. It would mean deleting lines of brilliant prose and scenes that you can’t believe you wrote–lines that don’t actually get your novel where it needs to go, but, you know, they’re brilliant!
How did she do that? How did she know? Well, for one thing, I imagine she’s read a lot of beginnings. And it could be that she didn’t know. Not really. It could be that her talent lies in asking the questions that make a writer realize the truth–or face it. The writing is good, she said. She compared it to one of the writers who give me brain envy! The writing is good, but the story is not good enough. And talking with her, I realized why.
It is an exciting thing to realize where you’ve gone wrong in a piece of writing. Here is your chance to get it right!
But it is also a terrifying thing. Because, here is your chance to get it right! What if you can’t do it? Knowing what needs to be done isn’t the same as doing it. What if you fail?
“What is it about this book that’s kept you working on it for 32 years?” The editor wanted to know. It’s a good question, isn’t it? I suppose there have been different reasons as the years have gone by and as the story has evolved.
When I started the book it was a time-travel adventure story. If it was about anything, it was a little girl dealing with the break-up of her family. A decade later, that was the story my editor liked. But my mentor at Vermont College, where I went to earn my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, told me it was boring. She was right. Could be why I couldn’t get beyond chapter 6!
And so a new version was born. The setting was the same, and it was still a time-travel novel, but that was about it. I was excited about the change. So was my mentor. But my editor not so much. By the time I graduated, I was well on my way to what would be the first time I finished the novel. By then, my editor had left the business. Then my life took some abrupt twists and turns and, for a while, my novel was lost. Literally. No digital or print copies. Nothing. Then one day a paper copy turned up tucked away in a box and I began typing retyping it during my lunch hours at work, revising as I went. Two years later, I reached The End again.
By now I had realized the book was about identity. Not surprising given that, during the writing of it mine had changed drastically.
But a few attempts to market the novel made me realize it wasn’t done yet. I began to delve more deeply into the political turmoil that caused the protagonist to be thrown back in time in the first place. It was, it turned out, a book about freedom and democracy. It was about each generation’s responsibility to fight for the promise of this nation’s founding. My protagonist still needed to figure out who she was and how she was going to fight her fight, but the context was a rebellion in her own time caused by a fascist take-over of the government.
I typed The End again about a week before the last presidential election–a week when I thought we were going to see the country’s first female president.
And then my novel suddenly became really relevant. And so I persist. And every time I think I should put the novel away and let it go, I hear something on the news that sends me back to the keyboard.
My novel won’t change the world. But speaking up is important. Speaking out is important. Ideas–words–are powerful weapons. As one of my characters says:
I have battled with muskets and I have battled with words, and the latter are by far the stronger weapon. Muskets beget death, but words beget hope.
And that’s why I keep writing.