Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Tale of Two Novelists

The comments trail for my previous posts about revisions led to today's "joint" post with Therese Fowler. So, join us as we each talk about what it's like to write what sometimes feels like that elusive second novel. Therese has her own compelling story to share, but here's mine . . .

When I sat on my front porch 8 years ago to write All the Numbers, I had absolutely no idea what direction my journey to publication would take. I suppose I had starry-eyed notions of a big advance, fancy book tour, and best-sellerdom (following, of course, that phone call from Oprah!), but I also had the freedom to take my time and craft the story only I could tell. The only deadline I had looming was the first day of school in late August when I'd have to pack away my ink pens and legal pads and turn back into "Mrs. Larsen, English Teacher." Those summer mornings of writing were a gift I gave myself. It didn't matter, at the heart of it all, if anyone else ever read my book. I was chasing a dream that had first sprouted when I was a skinny eight year-old devouring every book I could get my hands on. I received varied reactions from family and friends when I told them I was writing a novel (ranging from stunned to excited), but again, I was writing for myself. I'd promised myself I'd write a book before I was 40 and that's what I did.

I'm now 47, a published author (and yes, I still get a thrill out of saying that) and working on my next book. Almost before the ink was even dry on All the Numbers, people asked when the next one's coming out. My stock answer is, "Well, I need to write it first." In some ways, that's been easier said than done.

When I initially sat down to work on my second book, I worried that the "love" had gone out of it. I'd left my regular paycheck behind when I'd resigned from teaching. But, I didn't want to ever view being a novelist as just a job. Yes, it's what I put down in the blank for "occupation" on tax forms. But I was actually worried that I'd lose the joy of it, the creativity of it. If I didn't get my 1500 words in every day I felt like I was failing my family, my husband, myself. I didn't have a contract. I put pressure on myself, and at times began to think that maybe I'd had only the one story to tell and I was done. I would be a "one-hit wonder" with perhaps only a B-side single to show for it. I'd talk to other writers who were busy finishing manuscripts for their two-book deals and I'd think, "Oops. I'm screwed." I kept writing though, because by now, well, it was the only thing I knew how to do. (I mean even with a big family there's only so many loads of laundry I can do in a day.)

But then, the characters I was wrestling with started to take shape. I'd find myself with a good plot point and a snappy line of dialogue. I'd catch myself worrying about what I knew was looming ahead for one of my characters and my husband would see that distant look in my eyes and he'd know I was in the world of Unexpected Grace rather than in our kitchen. And I found that NOT having a contract with a firm deadline was incredibly freeing. I was back in the mindset of the summer of 1999 sitting on my front porch writing for the pure love of it, writing a story only I could tell.

I'm now well into the manuscript. I've given myself a deadline of July 31. This means I will probably go two years between books (but, please, please, please not more, I hope). And that's okay. I know now that being a novelist is both about the craft and the business--but right now, I get to be the artist. I have more confidence in my ability (except when I don't). I've been blessed with contacts and resources and some savvy to help me when I get stuck (and when it's time to become the businesswoman behind my book). No, my publisher is not obligated to make me an offer; they have right of first refusal, which means they get to see it first. And while it might be nice to have something on paper, something that binds us both, I like knowing that unless they love it, they won't take it. I don't want a lukewarm home for these characters I've come to care so much about. And if my publisher doesn't love it, I am confident that my agent and I will find someone who will (unless we don't).

My dear friend and fellow author, Bev Marshall, who's been a mentor extraordinaire, left this comment to my last post: " I felt enormous pressure on that third book because I had a delivery date and I didn't want to have to ask for more time. Book four is under consideration, but the one I'm enjoying writing the most is the one I'm writing now. The pressure is off no matter what happens with book four. I took a very long break before beginning this book, and I think that helped immensely. Most writers I know are far too hard on themselves, pushing beyond their limits, striving to produce and please others when sometimes we should just be kind to ourselves. I remember Dorothy Allison saying once how she hated to hear a reader ask, 'So when's your next book coming out?' I get that a lot, too, and now I just say 'Whenever someone publishes it.'" As always, Bev's wisdom shines through.

So for me, I'm writing for myself and for those readers who loved Ellen and her story and who I have a hunch will love Kate and Virginia too "whenever someone publishes it." I'm not writing to the terms of a contract or a due date. I now know more what to expect from myself as an author; I've learned how to be disciplined. (And yes, I think, should a multi-book contract ever make it's way to me, I'll learn how to write that way too.) And I've also learned that NOVELIST is the best job in the world. And it's my job for as long as I want it, no matter when the next book comes out.

p.s. Brief comment disclaimer--I promise to read and respond to all the comments you leave here--but not until Tuesday. Because for the next 36 hours, my husband and I are running away for an anniversary celebration. No kids, no computers. We can't wait.


JJ said...

I'm a bit behind with things because I've just got back from the UK, but I wanted to drop by and say hello.
I've been loving your stories and philosophies on writing - that's what's so great about the novel racers - all levels of writing, ideas and experience.
Best wishes

Kristy said...

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!! Have a great time :D

And I loved your post. As you well know, I'm there too, and I have the same self-imposed deadline, and it IS different. But I'm rolling with it. ANd I'm even finding that maybe this is a good way for me to write, God knows I am piling p the pages. Will they be good enough? We'll see. I'll keep you posted, and look forward to you doing the same.

ORION said...

Such an interesting outlook on the next stage of writing. All of you were fortunate to sell your first book -- I have other manuscripts that I am picking up and dusting off.
Trying to pick which one.
At what point to start next.
How to edit and where to polish...
Or start completely over?

Patry Francis said...

Writing can be so lonely--especially when you're working on a second book without a contract. How wonderful and consoling and just plain companionable it is to think of you piling up pages, and coaxing your characters out just like I am. Tonight the writing life feels a little less solitary.

Great post.

Larramie said...

You belong on your front porch, Judy, where you can visit with and write about your characters. And, whenever the book is published, we'll be treated to a tale of genuine warmth and truth.

Until then...Happy Anniversary!

Lisa said...

First, Happy Anniversary and have a wonderful break and second, thank you so much for sharing your story. I am glad to hear you mention being an artist first. Sometimes when I read posts from people with book deals, so much comes down to the nuts and bolts of business that the creativity and the art seem to get a little lost in the shuffle and I'm not so naive as to believe it isn't necessary. But first, it has to be about the art, doesn't it? After reading both your post and Therese's, I'd have to say that both situations have their pros and cons. I am so impressed at the progress you've made on your WIP. My big question is, did you know what you were going to write for your second book as soon as All The Numbers was picked up, or did it take you a while to develop your next story idea, plot it, etc.? Thanks again and have fun!

reality said...

Happy Anniversary,
Fun reading your and Therese's comments. Pros and cons both ways. I wouldn't know which way to sit if I were offered a multi book deal.

The Writers' Group said...

Yes, happy anniversary! Having read Therese's post and now yours, I must admit your path would appear more appealing to me. I tend to stroll, stopping to investigate whatever appeals to my curiousity along the way. Though for years, I was a reporter writing on deadline, I always knew the beginning, middle, and end of the story, all of the characters and what they said. With fiction, I wonder if I could write on a schedule. Very interesting, Judy.


Lisa said...

I'm with Amy. I work under time constraints all the time with my job, but I always know exactly what I need to do. I'm afraid I wouldn't do so well being creative with a deadline. I should have such problems!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Thanks for everyone's Happy Anniversary wishes. We had a great time, but had to come back to reality too soon. We've already vowed that next time, more hours away!

Thanks for stopping by, JJ. Good to be "racing" with you!

Hey Kristy, Of course your pages will be good enough. Can't wait when we can both celebrate on August 1!

Orion/Patty--Good to have you stopping by. I do know how lucky I am/was. And your questions about where to start and what to polish are good ones. Wish I had the answers.

Patry--That "community" of writers is so wonderful isn't it. Writing can seem so solitary (and sometimes that solitude is just what I need), but it's so nice to know I'm not alone in the toiling. What did writers do before blogs and e-mail?

Larramie--Thanks always for stopping by and your philosphy--now, back to my porch!

Lisa--The idea was percolating for awhile--just as now I'm already thinking (very generally) about what I might want to do on the next book. Sometimes, getting excited about what I'll get to write next propels my current writing. Let's hope so!

Reality--Thanks for stopping by!

Amy--I admit, I'd love to know what it's like to write for a contract sometime, especially given Therese's point about having an editor working with you the whole time you're writing. That's attractive! But, for now, I'm reveling in this particular journey.

kathryn magendie said...

I am asked, "Has your novel been published yet?" Oh, how I hate that question *laughing*

So happy when I hear a writer who has "made it" -- yeeehaw!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Kat, Thanks for popping over from our google group. Remember, we were all unpublished once!

liz fenwick said...

I love the image of writing on the front's been very helpful read both yours and Therese's paths. Thanks for sharing.

Pleased you had a wonderful break :-)

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

I think, for me, I really love the idea of a deadline now. Prior to being published, I was very internally motivated. I am now, still - but I also want to know there are other people, both readers and publishing people, wanting to know when I have the next one. To me, that means I've touched enough people with my previous books. That's important to me now, and a deadline is a tangible reminder.

But I also think it depends on the book. My sequel, which was a book I hadn't intended to write, was tough to write and having a real deadline, other people involved, was a big reason. So getting a contract for a book you hadn't planned - that's tough. Having a deadline and other people eagerly anticipating a book you have planned and dreamed of writing - that can be a good thing, at least for me.

And happy anniversary!

Therese said...

Judy, this was a great exercise, don't you think?

Some of what I read in my comments, and read here, is that some writers are fearful that creativity can/will be lost when one is writing under contract.

In my estimation, it's comes down to a matter of personal writing style/preference--and opportunity. The most important thing is to feel satisfied with wherever we are.

In my case, I've never needed great stretches of time to shape a story. The idea comes to me, and it's like catching a pass and running with it. I feel like I meander a lot--but then people hear how quickly I wrote and seem shocked!

So I say, look at Tish Cohen, for heaven's sake--a draft done in only two or three WEEKS!

Just like our stories, we are none of us the same. We have different ideas, different methods, different paths to forge. I wrote thoughtfully and without any idea of how well my story would be received...and will do the same again.

Glad your trip went well, and I hope you find July wonderful and productive!