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.