Novel Writing Is a Lot Like Convincing a Toddler to Take a Nap

I’ve recently taken up running (your protagonists can inspire you that way). Last week, as I was making my way around Prospect Park, I started to think that writing a novel was a lot like training for a race. My next thought was that that analogy has been made often enough. But having just started on my next project, the process of creating a first draft—of filling in blank pages with words I know will be recast, cut, and moved around—was at the fore of my mind. And that’s when it came to me:

Writing a novel is also a whole lot like convincing a toddler to take a nap.

Sometimes, everything goes according to plan: you have a schedule, and you stick to it. The child sleeps as long as you expect, you have some quiet in your day, and life goes on swimmingly for the rest of the day. In other words, you increase your word count, you’re happy with where the story is going, and you know what you need to accomplish in your next session.

When you deviate from the schedule, it’s hit or miss. Sometimes the child gets so sleepy, he sleeps twice as long as you expect. Translation: You find a different time or space to write in and you are struck with a bolt of inspiration that adds layers, texture, and empathy to your piece.

Schedule or not, a child is human, and sometimes a nap just doesn’t happen at all. You look and look for just a few minutes to put pen to paper, but you don’t know where you left off and can’t concentrate long enough to figure it out. On either side of the analogy, you may find yourself wondering if you will accomplish anything more than a quick email check in the next five years.

What I’ve learned from both novel writing and caring for a toddler is that you make the best of the day you have. Control over one’s life is an illusion; there are too many other factors in the world to make any kind of guarantee.

Your kid could get sick. You could have another deadline to meet.

He might not want to eat lunch, so he’s too hungry to sleep. You might have exhausted your current creative streak and may need something else to occupy your mind until it’s rejuvenated.

A busy weekend could result in a super-long Monday nap. You could find that the story is just flowing out of you, as if of its own volition.

Whatever your writing situation is today, make the most of it. And remember that tomorrow is another shot at something extraordinary.

Starting Over

With my revised manuscript with my agent, I’m launching into my first draft of my next novel. I’ve had some ideas about this one for a while, but only started writing a couple of chapters last month, when my turn came around in my writers’ group.

 

On one hand, this was a great way to encourage me to get the words on paper. I received almost instant feedback, and thank goodness the premise and direction got good marks.

 

On the other hand, it was terrifying to have someone—seven someones—look at something that rough. I’ve only been involved in the group for a few months, and everything else they’d seen from me was from my first novel and had been reworked a couple of times already. It was a good opportunity, and I’m glad I swallowed my pride to take it. Because they knew what my more polished work looked like, they knew where I was capable of taking this one and where I’d need help.

 

Starting all over is tough. For a year I’ve been working on a 300-page document, and now I’m back to zero. I’ve been editing the same characters, getting to know them better and better at every turn, and here I am creating something entirely new. It can be overwhelming when I think of how far this project has to go!

 

But then, I know I’ve been there. I know I’ve done it once, and I hope I can do it better this time around.

 

Already I can see that I’m tending toward some things that turned out to be mistakes last time. I’m recognizing them and pushing myself to fix them before they get out of hand.

 

For example, I tend to write a lot of backstory up front, while I work out the characters’ personalities. With my first novel, I was afraid I was writing a screenplay, not a novel with so much dialogue and I held back. Time and again, I was told to show a conversation, introduce the characters with the way they speak and behave. I’m doing that now, and it already feels stronger, like I’m getting to know the characters more quickly.

 

I also know that I struggled with where to start my first novel. I rewrote the first chapter from three different moments in my protagonist’s day. I’m open to that this time, and more willing to throw something away to get it right.

 

One of the best lessons I learned in writing my first novel is how important bold editing can be. As I wrote my first draft, I feared it would end up shorter than I wanted it to be. I threw in a couple of scenes just to add to word count. (Dumb, I know, but I was hoping a reader would see something more worthwhile in those pages than I did. They did not.) Even with those scenes, it was short. Over the course of my edits, I added something like thirty pages, then a few more, then stayed about the same, then dropped ten.

 

It took going all the way through my process to start to understand my process. First I need to spit out as much as I can, then fill in some gaps, maybe say the same thing four times, then go back and decide on the best way to present everything I need to include.

 

When I worked in the editorial department at Atheneum and McElderry, I was surprised when I’d see an author add in a couple of lines here and there, once the book was already set and copyedited. How were they sure they were saying things just right? Did they pore over each word that far along in the process as much as they did at the beginning?

 

What I’ve come to find, at least for my own work, is that those first drafts were when I was finding my voice. I wrote things I knew would be deleted, because it got me to the next stage. Eventually, I could make additions confidently, because I had a strong enough sense of my own style. There was no substitute for time and practice on that learning curve.

 

Some of that confidence is present in writing this novel, but each one is quite literally a different story. Even though I am the same author, I’m writing this one differently than I did the last. On a superficial level, the first was third-person, past tense. This one, so far, is first-person, present tense. They are the same genre, but every time I sit down to write, I am coming from a different place, hopefully a stronger place.

 

So I’m starting over, but not completely. I have a long way to go, but, even without being published, I have proof that the journey is worthwhile.

The How-I-Landed-My-Agent Story

Before I was a freelancer, I worked in the editorial department of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division, for two imprints, Margaret K. McElderry Books and Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Down the hall, a woman named Alexandra Penfold worked for Paula Wiseman Books in a similar capacity (and also shared delicious cakes she made).

 

Alex and I were both pregnant with our first children at the same time. During the time between her maternity leave and mine—which I didn’t come back from—we met up a few times and talked about work, motherhood, books, and food. After I left S&S, Alex and I stayed in touch. When our boys were old enough, we started getting together semi-regularly for our kids to play.

 

At one point, I mentioned I’d been working on a novel. At another point, Alex offered to read it. Free professional editorial feedback? Yes, please! From the recognition her books had received, I knew she was a good editor, but to see her editing first-hand—she’s brilliant. Totally opened up doors I couldn’t even see existed.

 

Fast-forward, and Alex tells me she’s leaving S&S to become a literary agent. In the middle of the playground, she said I could submit to her, if I wanted to. I’d already worked up a list of agents to submit to and drafted a query letter, but now these seemed gloriously unnecessary. I said that would be great, and then tried to maintain composure for the rest of the morning. I was so excited later that I couldn’t write a thing for something like three days.

 

I tried to remind myself that she’d offered to have me submit to her, not to officially represent my novel. I continued editing, and a few weeks later, asked if she was serious or if it was just an offhand comment. I didn’t want to take advantage of a friendship or read too much into anything . . . but why in the world would she suggest I submit to her if she wouldn’t be willing to take my manuscript on? She had read the whole thing before I even knew she was crossing over to agenting.

 

Turns out, she was serious. The papers have all been signed, and I am officially represented by Alexandra Penfold of Upstart Crow Literary (an agency on my shortlist to start with!).

 

Yes, having worked in the industry did give me a serious advantage in landing an agent. I won’t deny that. But I think there are some lessons here that just about anyone can apply:

 

  1. Take advantage of situations that present themselves to you, but don’t force anything. Alex offered to read my book, then she offered to represent me. I never put her on the spot (good for her) and I know her interest is genuine (good for me).
  2. Don’t stop working on your writing while you’re figuring out the next steps. Apart from the three days I was so excited I could barely breathe, I kept editing and editing and getting perspectives from other readers and my writers’ group. Success still comes down to a solid manuscript.
  3. Finally, and this is the most important, in my book, but I guess it won’t apply to everyone: Life does NOT stop once you have kids. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first son that I started writing regularly (youngmarriedmom.com). It wasn’t until I lost a child in miscarriage that my husband and I carved out Saturday mornings in our family’s life as my writing time. And it wasn’t until I was pregnant with another child that I pushed myself to finish and edit this manuscript. To top it all off, those playdates with Alex and her son helped us keep in touch, and I think played a crucial role in landing me where I am now.

 

My story is a little out of the ordinary, but I was prepared to play the game the typical way. I polished my manuscript as best I could. I researched agents. I wrote a query letter. Life took me in another direction. Something good came of it because I took my time, didn’t rush into anything, and was ready for whatever happened next.

Putting Advice into Practice

Yesterday I handed my latest revision to my agent. Because I got it to her two weeks later than expected, hitting “send” wasn’t as thrilling as I’d expected it to be. Still, I think I did a good job of it, and I know I am a better writer and editor because of it.

 

In the course of my edit, two quotations served as guiding lights.

 

The first, from Richard Peck: “The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.”

 

When he’s done writing a first draft, Peck throws the first chapter away without rereading it, and writes what needs to go at the beginning as the very last thing. I didn’t take such a bold tack, but I did take his words to heart.

 

At one point in my process, my husband asked me whether it was normal to spend so much time on the first few chapters. Normal? I don’t know, but I sure needed it. I rewrote my first chapter three times, trying to find just the right moment to launch into my story. Once I did, I eventually realized the next nine chapters were in the wrong order.  The first third of the book underwent an overhaul, and I think it’s made a big difference in the state it’s in now.

 

Moral of the story: Don’t be afraid of bold moves when editing!

 

And the second quote, from Hemingway:

 

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

 

This balance is extremely difficult to strike. It’s why having strong readers is important and why it’s crucial to take a considerable chunk of time off between one edit and the next.

 

I spent a lot of time on the first third, knowing how important it is to capture the reader up front. But what’s the point, if there’s nothing worthwhile to follow up with?

 

In the first couple drafts of my manuscript, I definitely had “hollow places” where I didn’t know a character well enough or didn’t want to bother writing out a scene. I tried to fight it and push through, but I couldn’t always see where I needed more.

 

As I worked through it and through it, I filled in (most of) those holes. When I went through this last time in hard copy, I found a whole lot of instances—especially in the last third—where I landed on the other side of the spectrum and said a good deal more than I needed to. For example, too often characters paused in the middle of dialogue or thought “for a moment” before taking action. CTRL + F was my best friend in this stage of the edit.

 

Initially, I thought this revision was largely about typos and making sure the plot shifts I’d made in the first hundred pages aligned with the rest of the story. It turns out, there was a lot of adding and deleting to do, to remedy the problems suggested in Hemingway’s advice. I think I’ve got the balance of information closer to where it needs to be. At the end of it all, the manuscript is ten pages shorter, and the writing that much tighter.

Ready? Ready.

I am this close to sending my manuscript to my agent, and if she agrees, having her send it out to publishers. Can I get an OMG?

 

It took about a year for me to write my novel. It took another year for me to edit it. So how in the world did I know I was done?

 

A manuscript ready to send to agents is not the same as one ready for publication. An agent may ask for edits. Then an interested editor may ask for more. Once a book is signed up, there are certain to be even more edits, both in broader terms and in the little stuff. Even after a book is published, changes are sometimes made in reprints (usually typos that slipped through the cracks, not content). This perspective—that a book is never totally “done”—is critical to understanding when a manuscript is ready to see the next stage of the publication process.

 

This is not to say that an author can expect someone else to solve the problems she already knows exist in the manuscript. Nor does this exempt an author from doing everything in her power to identify the issues she can’t see herself. Rather, the humility (remember how important that is?) it takes to receive critical feedback over and over and over again is what’s going to make a writer able to see when a manuscript is as solid as it should be to be submitted.

 

So what’s the secret? When do you know?

 

You know you—and your manuscript—are ready for submission when you can edit your own work effectively.

 

More cryptic than you were hoping for, I know, but run with me here. I made three editorial passes that I thought were pretty thorough, each after getting feedback from a different reader or having my own revelation. I made changes as dramatic as I could manage, knowing that a “big” change in the artist’s eyes is often not as significant as it seems. If I thought something felt off, I pursued it. I didn’t want feedback from an editor later, asking to fix something even I knew needed work. After each pass I thought I’d done it. Maybe.

 

This time through, I reorganized the first ten chapters almost completely. In the last third, I’ve been cutting sections of extraneous exposition on every other page. I’m starting to get the same feeling I did in high school and college when a research paper was almost complete. The pieces are clicking into place. The image of the “finished” product is getting clearer with every editing session. With time and effort, trial and error, I’ve been able to get enough distance, enough perspective to know exactly what I want each line to do and to identify which lines aren’t doing it. I’m detached from the scenes and bits of dialogue I thought were funny or endearing and I’m concerned with what will get my story told.

 

This time, I know it’s not perfect—it never will be—but it’s tight, strong, and true to what I’ve been trying to create all along.

Ready Yet?

Figuring out what to do next with your novel—when to do something “next”—is perhaps even tougher than getting the whole thing down on paper. There have been more than a few times when I’ve been tempted to just get my manuscript out of my hands already. For example:

 

  1. Before it was finished.
  2. Before I’d reread it.
  3. Before I’d edited it once.
  4. After I’d edited it once.
  5. Before anyone else had read it.
  6. After I’d edited it twice.
  7. Before I’d done a thorough copyedit/proofread.
  8. When there were still a few plot points I didn’t feel lined up quite right (maybe an agent could fix that for me).
  9. When I knew one of the secondary characters wasn’t complex enough yet.
  10. When I’d read through the first six chapters so many times I couldn’t see straight anymore, and had no idea if they actually made sense.
  11. When I was feeling too impatient to take the step away that would remedy #10.
  12. When I thought the whole thing might be a lost cause, but it would be better to have someone else tell me that—on the off chance that I was totally wrong.
  13. When someone else I knew was published in one way or another and I felt like I was falling behind.

 

The list goes on.

 

Talking about writing a novel and writing a novel are two very different things. The phrase “easier said than done” comes to mind.

 

If you’ve experienced any of the above, stay tuned for how I knew that my manuscript and I were, in fact, ready.