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A True And Mortifying Story Of Writing That First Novel, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:25am

After ten years of blogging, 54 years of writing (yes I still have my 3rd grade storybook), and 57 years of nigh-on obsessive reading, here’s what I discovered about writing a novel. There are requirements. I thought I’d deconstruct a few for those who feel that the endeavor must be impossible. It’s not.

(Here I should tell you what my book is about. The genre is what’s known as “women’s fiction,” so unsurprisingly, it’s about two women. One is older, one younger, one professional and reserved, one open and enthusiastic, they work together on a project in the tech industry, with elements of a workplace suspense plot including harassment and mystery sabotage, and learn from each other in ways that allow them both to ask for what they need in their personal lives.)

Some aspects of this process have been OK. For example:

  1. Self-discipline. The process seems to work best, as the greats say, if you set up a time and place to write and do it every day. High WASPs win gold medals in self-discipline, every morning early I sit with laptop and tea, every morning later I rise with words of one sort or another having been laid down. Tiling a mosaic.
  2. Musical language. Ten years of blogging etc. has made me comfortable with my ability to write a nice enough sentence, to balance those sentences in a paragraph, and wedge those paragraphs together into 200-1000 words. This is by no means to say I think my writing is consistently spectacular, only that I’ve developed a voice.

Some parts of writing a novel have been trickier.

  1. It’s fiction. Ha. Duh. By which I mean you have to invent and imagine an entire world. Even if that world reflects your lived experience, you still have to reinvent it on the pages.
    1. Which means you need a plot. The series of events have to hang together, and they need to flow in such a way as to support the emotional rhythm a reader requires. You can’t bore people, but nor can you jerk them around. Like life, except, as above, you gotta imagine it.
    2. Which means you need characters to live your plot. Ha. More duh. The characters, like the plot, have to exhibit some kind of structural integrity, and, like the plot, they need some kind of authentic movement through your story. Which, again, imagined.
    3. So, as you can see, all that imagination also has to Make Sense. Ha. No duh.

And, as you will have guessed from my rising cadence, some parts of writing a novel have been very hard for me.

  1. Not knowing whether it’s any good but writing anyway.
    1. How to hold an entire book–all that story and characters and language–in your mind at once, when you yourself wrote it? When reading it feels like crawling around the floor of a totally dark room covered in toys, a room you’ve seen in the daytime a million times but is wholly different without light? And yes, that’s the best I can do to describe the experience. Familiar but monstrous.
    2. Note to myself. I created this problem by for the large part asking people I know and love to be my readers. They have all said they liked it very much, I struggle to believe them because they love me back.
    3. The one stranger who read it told me it needed to get more exciting more quickly. To be fair, I’d told her it’s a thriller which it is not. It’s suspense, and women’s fiction suspense at that. But also to be fair, and to always, always, learn, I am working on it. But I really need feedback from someone who doesn’t love me, whose judgment I trust.
  2. Some of the stuff I have to do to try and sell the thing.
    1. Short pitches. 240 characters? 50 words? Three paragraphs? Brutal.
    2. Writing a plot synopsis of 1000 words. Less brutal, still difficult.

Finally, and along comes the High WASP with her stingalingaling, engaging in group pitch events and the resultant profound embarrassment of failure. Oof. I don’t mind failing, so much, but I sure mind being seen to fail. I sure as heck mind having people know how much this matters to me. And by people, I also mean you guys. Here I’ve mostly written about what I know, style, gardening, career, etc., or about those things no one can know and all that matters is words with a little beauty. This is different.

Maybe I’m turning on the light in that aforementioned dark room, only I don’t get to now stand up and pick my way carefully to the door. Just gotta crawl around with small pieces of primary-colored plastic digging into my knees until I make progress.

Which brings us back to what else I can do because I’ve done it before many times. I can set goals. I can persevere. I can take feedback. I haven’t yet done any direct queries to agents – where if I fail it’s private. I can keep excitening (just made up a word) my first chapter.

And, as an optimistic soul, I can find the personal good here. I can tell myself I’m lucky to be old enough to see my own defenses and justifications, to able to talk myself through them to learning.

Which I’m doing as we speak. Have a wonderful weekend.

45 Responses

  1. Lisa, boy, do I know that particular flavor of failure. One book I can highly recommend is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. There’s also a workbook that you can by separately. I just back from a ten-day writing workshop, and he was one of the key speakers. Light bulbs went off in my brain so fast that I was also snow blinded. Highly recommend him. The query process is, literally, the hardest thing I have ever done, and that includes writing a novel. Keep at it. The one thing I have learned is that so much of this business is about being in the right place at the right time.

    1. @Claire Johnson, Thank you for the reference! I see he recommends larger-than-life characters. Perhaps my next book will be about the Style Archtypes;). I do agree about right place, right time. I see that a book and an agent have to suit each other, there’s no universal standard for what’s good.

  2. OK – I wasn’t expecting a thriller (even an alt-thriller)! Very cool. But let me say this – my opinion about whether you have failed or succeeded doesn’t matter one bit. Like, for shit. It’s sad to admit (given how awesome I consider myself to be) – but unequivocally true. And I completely understand your concern cuz, um, it’s totally reasonable. Still…

    1. @K-Line, Understood. Thank you. I should be clear, I see real failure really only as giving up. There are simply small failing events that I have to redefine for myself and my goals as steps forward. The key for me has been coming to understand the degree to which shame holds me back, even when as of yet I have nothing to be ashamed of.

  3. Lisa, I am so impressed that you are writing a novel—whether or not it is successful (meaning commercially published). And, I like that you are writing about what you know. I would love to see some of the archetypes in your book.

    I’ve thought about writing a novel myself (even though I seldom read them, preferring nonfiction) and even know something about the chapter headings I would have. But alas, I am a person who lacks discipline–which is why it is so important that I’ve read what you wrote above.

    While on our Kobe to Vancouver cruise this summer, I met a fellow passenger who has written three novels now. Women’s fiction and self published and available on Amazon. I ordered and read the first in her series. While not particularly impressed with her writing or the story, I did manage to finish it—and still applaud the fact that she is doing this. In fact, I love it!

    1. @Susan D., Thank you very much. I think the key is to know yourself. I for example cannot do handwork to save my life, precision makes it 100 times worse. People tell me they find peace in cleaning, knitting, baking, I do not.

      And thank you for supporting your fellow passenger. That is never wrong, no matter the ship we’re referencing;).

  4. Bravo you for persevering. I have been “point man” (so to speak) for a former colleague who is writing YA fiction since he retired from teaching. Mostly I’ve been helping him with his query letters. He found a website where an agent clearly lays out how to do this very painful task. He sent me the guidelines and then his letter, and asked that I be vicious. Like you he was only getting non-helpful, but encouraging responses from his erudite, but soft-hearted loved ones. I was brutal… even though I like him very much. All those years wielding the red pen have made me nasty:) It helped that I hadn’t read the book. Writing something that introduces something that you know very, very well to someone who knows nothing about it… can be hell.
    So, carry on carrying on, my friend. We’re all applauding you. Especially those of us who don’t have the guts to venture into fiction.

    1. @Sue Burpee, Your colleague is lucky to have you.

      I asked my friends and family to be brutal. They assure me they have told me the truth. I am not one as I have said before to believe praise. So, definitely time to expand my reader pool. You do know now I’m going to feel free to ask you, right? You should also feel perfectly free to refuse;).

      Also, venturing into fiction for me was just a question of deciding not to be embarrassed by failure. Something I have to continue to decide, it seems, over and over.

  5. Writing a book is really amazing,congratulations!
    And what is to be (or not to be :-)) successful?
    I agree with K-Line
    “feedback from someone who doesn’t love me,whose judgment I trust”…difficult to find indeed,I guess. And would I trust the judgment of someone who doesn’t like me,hmmm?
    (Just kidding,I know you mean someone who is neither friend nor relative…but still…)

    1. @Dottoressa, I think I shall simply follow you here and spend the rest of the day recongratulating myself for having written this at all:). Thank you.

  6. Hi Lisa,
    Each Saturday when your blog comes I am amazed at how you are able to write and divulge bits of information about your life.
    I try to open up but it’s very difficult. You are afraid of failure yet, you have already succeeded.
    I understand that this book is different for you but perhaps, you should view it like running for President of the United States. In other words, your in a very elite group. (Disregarding Donald Trump of course!)
    I turned my back on my book which is non-fiction for many of the reasons you describe. I did have it professionally edited which I found very helpful. Sometime after that I put it in the closet and only periodically think of it. I think people have a very difficult time criticizing writing. I know I don’t really know you but many of things you are involved on are right on Wasp or no wasp.


    1. @luci, I didn’t remember (know?) that you had written a book. Congratulations. And I do think congratulations are in order for simply finishing.

      I divulge because I’m terrible at secrets. It’s the truth. I try to write well enough that you all do me the courtesy of listening.

  7. If you ever sort out how to not mind if people think you care about something (like this), please, please post about that.

    I mind failing in public in some directions, and mind failing in private in other directions, but there’s less congruence than I would expect between the traits/skills I care about other people thinking I have [and thus don’t wish to fail – or appear to fail – in public regarding] vs. the traits/skills I most value having [and thus feel badly about failing in private]. I mean, there is a great deal of overlap, but less than I would expect? But I suppose that’s what people-pleasers get: a disparity between prioritizing their internal values vs. other peoples’ values and a great deal of being boxed in.

    (also: a thriller: phooey. I can’t do thrillers [stress-responsive chronic illness] and I really wanted to read your book!)

    1. @KC, This is so interesting, the difference between failing in public vs. failing in private. I’m going to have to think more about it. I hadn’t ever considered whether the sets are different, but surely they are. I wonder if I care about failing in private about something that I don’t care about in the public domain.

      Thank you for the thought-provoking comment.

      And it’s not a thriller. It has elements of a workplace suspense plot. At two or three points, however, you might feel stress. I do apologize.

    2. @KC,
      I am not 100% sure whether there are any things that I hate failing at privately which I would *not* also dislike failing at publicly – but I think when failing at something in public, there are enough things going on that one’s emotions specifically about that failure-of-a-private-value are not as scalpel-tipped as they can be when one is alone and undistracted? Not sure.

      Well, I can add reading your book to “things I will do if/when I get better” – honestly, I’d want to read basically any book you write, but I’d also be interested in reading a book of that description by an author I’d never read anything from (perhaps more accurately, I’d be interested in at least tasting any book with that description – some people can’t write worth beans even just on a sentence level, let alone managing larger structure, and an externally-intriguing premise can’t pull *all* the weight of a book).

  8. I would love to read a novel about the Style Archetypes (as you joked about in one of your comment replies above). I think that would be wonderful!

  9. One very successful thriller that I thought took too long to get thrilling was “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I read if b/c it was so popular, and eventually it picked up, but I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t had to go to book club and talk about it.

    Thriller or not, as long as your story grabs the reader in advance of the 50th page I think you’ll be fine. I stuck it out with TGWTDT quite a bit longer than that.

    1. @RoseAG, Oh gosh if you like workplace stuff it’s TOTALLY going to get you by the 50th page. It’s 500 words that I am going to have to work on. I always enjoy your dry and wholly unembellished perspective. Thank you.

  10. Hello Lisa, Every writer seems to have one main form at which he or she is best–although I imagine that the longer forms usually need more getting used to. Essays and short pieces are my favorite form of writing, and so many outstanding writers worked only in this genre–Robert Benchley, Agnes Repplier, Dorothy Parker–the list goes on and on. The important thing is to write in the form that best suits you, and then you can experiment with other genres.

    1. @Parnassus, This is surely true.

      I have also read that one should write what one reads. I cannot for the life of me read short stories or poems for that matter, I always feel that by truncating the storyline or the language the writer is somehow cheating.

      Weird but also true.

  11. I’m incredibly impressed that you’ve written a novel at all, and knowing how well you write your blog I start from the assumption that it’s well-written. Good luck in finding a dispassionate editor who can help you get the book to where you want it to be.

  12. Bravo for you for writing the book. I applaud your dedication and drive…hope that I (we, your long time followers) get a chance to read it.
    I have toyed with the idea of writing a book but really have such an abstract tangential habit that I would be deadheading our roses, cooking and walking in between chapters and it might never happen!

    1. Leslie – that’s how I paint..exactly. I moved from an outside studio to one in my home because I like those domestic type “breaks” in between, and I actually find them very relaxing and I go back into the studio “fresh”.

    2. @Leslie Lord, And yes, exactly – some people even encourage you to write in 20 minute bursts with 10 minute breaks. For me it sometimes go, write, deadhead, write, clean the kitchen, write, water the fuchsias.

  13. Well, you know what I think . . . There’s excitement and there’s excitement, and for me, the way you begin to reveal your protagonist’s character, background, immediate goals, etc. in those first few pages is enough to engage me, especially because I thought you left me room as a reader to fill the sketch in from just the right array of concrete details. I don’t mind admitting that I like you, so might be biased, but your manuscript deserves pitching. Go. Now. xo

  14. As ever, you write something that makes me think hard. First off, though I knew you were writing, I did not know your genre and now you have said it that is EXACTLY what I want to read more of, so bravo. Secondly, I have had a book in my head for a decade so I am encouraged that you actually put pen to paper and did it (I keep reading advice on just getting the word count in). Thirdly, thanks to your commentators for their helpful advice which is going to help me actually get my act together. I am happy to be a ruthless reader as I hope someone will do the same for me one day. My good friend’s friend, refers witheringly to certain fiction as typing and I often worry that is all I can do!

    1. @Amanda, I would be glad to do the same for you one day. I highly recommend the process of writing that book you’ve always meant to write, no matter what happens. Despite any bumps in this road, my embarrassment or disappointment, I am so glad I did this and so proud of myself for just getting the word count in, as you say.

  15. Don’t dwell on your “group pitch” exercise as a “failure” – recognize it as a learning experience you needed in order to move on to the next step. We all have those.

    That said, I’m surprised you seem to be having so much trouble developing a “pitch.” Granted, a successful pitch rewards the glib -and you are one of the least glib people I have ever come across – so maybe your own integrity is getting in your way?

    Try thinking of your book less as an expression of your imagination and more as an artifact built through your imagination – ie, as a structure separate from your self that you can question and play with. Rather like Legos …

    But here’s a loosening-up idea: try writing a “pitch” for a couple of Great Novels, like Madame Bovary or Portrait of a Lady. Should give you a laugh or two, if nothing else!

    1. @Victoire, I am doing exactly as you say, recasting this experience as incredible luck in being able to learn so much in such a short time;). And to be fair, it’s not over yet. Another week to go, who knows, perhaps an agent will yet find me and know my book is for them? I was kind of narrating the blow-by-blow, AKA blurting.

      It’s hard to write a short pitch because I’ve always had trouble with “marketing” writing. The summary I gave here isn’t what I had to write for the event, that’s much more sales-y, and I struggled.

      I do wonder what the query letter looked like for Lincoln in the Bardo…

  16. Congratulations on just doing it ! I went back to my first love, art, about 4 years ago by taking a series of collage/mixed media classes with a professional artist and I have profited from this enrichment exponentially…I have displayed my pieces in art exhibits, and even recently sold a mixed media piece, my first to sell.

    I have learned that each piece I execute is not precious for I have an unlimited source of creativity and can now dismantle some older pieces, or even put them aside, half finished and work on something else.

    I can’t wait to return to a class after taking time off for a hip replacement. Go for it, we are all not getting any younger.

    1. @Joan, Congratulations to you! I have resisted taking classes but bit by bit am opening up to learning from others.

  17. It’s a great accomplishment all by itself. I struggle with some silmilar things with painting, and actually “resigned” from my gallery yesterday, as I felt my relationship with them was getting in the way of my own creativity.

    I was also once in a “critique” group with other painters (who I didn’t really know) and despised it. I do ask people who I feel aligned with for critiques at times.

    Congratulations again, and I would love to read it. I just hope that your feeling of having it be published, whether it is or isn’t, won’t take away any feelings of accomplishment you have at writing a novel.

    1. @KSL, Good for you. I admire your capacity to stay true to yourself. And I am trying to preserve the feelings of accomplishment at having written it – having always been someone to push forward to new goals it’s hard to stay in a state of self-acceptance.

  18. i’m reminded of a piece i read the other day about how people who’d walked across live coals, broken glass, AND lego bricks reported that the toys were the most painful.

  19. Bravo! Writing this book is an accomplishment all by itself. Congratulations. The fact that you are thinking about a second book speaks well. Authorship seems to agree with you.

  20. Bravo! Good luck with all the “excitening”–that’s the primary task ahead for what I hope is one of the last drafts of my novel. I’ve found querying in person to be a real boost, so maybe consider a writing conference in your near future?

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