There is always a point, about 250 pages into writing a novel, where I want to set fire to it.
I have done that in the past. Twice. Thankfully, by now I’ve learned that the whole point of writing a first draft is to get it on the page so you can fix it.
Here’s what happens: I write a synopsis for each of my novels because my editor asks for one. A pitch is tough to write—even a Stephen King or Virginia Woolf novel would sound ridiculous and implausible, boiled down to ten pages—but, once I have it, I understand the point of the book. Then all I have to do is write it.
I keep thinking that this process should be easier for me now that I’ve written nine novels and am about to publish my fourth. (Yes, if you’re counting, I have scrapped five novels, two of them into blazing fires.) But it isn’t easier at all, and I can tell you why: even with a synopsis, you have to feel your way blindly through a book.
Sure, you know the characters and major plot points. But how do you get from one plot point to another? What do the characters’ voices sound like? How many points of view should you use? Those are all questions that take a while to answer.
A first draft feels—and often looks—like I’ve upchucked onto the page. (Sorry to all of you out there with delicate stomachs.) There are chunky adverbs and stringy sentences, unsavory images and chronological spills. Even worse, there are often entire chapters that you have to mop up and toss.
Take the novel I’m writing now. At first I had four points of view. Then, after 200 pages, I realized that I needed to scrap one of them because it was robbing the book of its tension. Just yesterday, I also saw that I have to restart the book at a different point, because the way I’ve begun it now is just plain boring.
Yep. I said “boring.” That’s where I came very close to setting the manuscript on fire.
And then, partly during a phone conversation with a friend, partly while I was walking the dog, and partly while I was standing in the shower, I thought of two new plot points AND a different way to start the book. I was practically rubbing my hands together with glee when I sat down to write this morning—only to discover that there was a reason I couldn’t use THAT beginning, because too much would be revealed too soon.
Crap. Back to the drawing board. See how much fun it is to write a novel?
I am telling you this because, when I began writing fiction, I eagerly waited as my agent sent my first novel to, oh, about twelve editors. All twelve rejected it, but three of those editors suggested a rewrite. And you know what?
I didn’t do the rewrite. Impatiently, I simply began another book. A better book, I thought. And maybe it was. But that novel, too, got rejected. So I started a third.
I should have rewritten that first novel, because the real magic in every book happens during revision. You need to get that messy first draft done so you can play with it, trim it, shape it, or even turn it inside out. And that can take as much time, or more, than blowing through that exhilarating first draft.
So take another look at that book you’re about to toss. Try it from another point of view. Start the book with a middle chapter instead of the one you’ve got now. Break up the chapters in a different way. Chop up the writing or expand it. Play, and let yourself be surprised.
You might have the book you want to write in front of you. You just can’t see it yet.
Long before I published my first novel, I tried to join a neighborhood fiction writing workshop, only to be told by one member, “Sorry, come back when you get published. We can’t accept novices.”
Yeah, that stung. So did the remarks by one of my first writing workshop teachers in my MFA program: “You write with the depth of a television commercial,” he said, to which I had a normal reaction: I cried.
Meanwhile, my short stories were getting rejected even by journals with subscriber lists smaller than my Christmas card list, and my brother said, “You’ve got to learn to pander to the tastes of housewives if you’re going to sell anything.”
Even after Random House published my first book, during those scary weeks when I had to pimp myself around for blurbs, I faced a few smack downs. Several writers said they were too busy to read it and blurb it. One writer said he thought it sounded like a stupid memoir. Ouch.
I’m confessing this to let you know that there are definitely a few haters in the writing community. You’re bound to meet some of them. However, as Taylor Swift’s new song “Shake It Off” goes, your best bet is to ignore them, “’Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play. And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
When you get smacked down, jump up and keep going. To succeed in publishing, you need a lot of cheerleaders and helping hands. You must keep looking until you find your community. Then keep growing it.
Eventually, I answered an ad in a bookstore for a writers’ group, and they were the perfect fit: people out of college, all of us parents with small children, all of us seriously trying to write our first novels. We were together for many years and the critiques and deadlines kept me going. That writing workshop teacher in my MFA program was a loser, but I also found Jay Neugeboren, a professor who gave 110 percent to every writer in his classes and mentored us not just in the craft of fiction, but in how to keep steamrolling ahead, submitting stories and novels until somebody out there said yes. He, along with my best friend from grad school, Susan Straight, led me to my current agent.
Along the way, in person and online, I have continued to meet wonderfully generous writers—both traditionally-published and indie—who have reached out not only when I asked for help, but often before, generously coaching me in everything from scene structure to how to blog.
There are nice writers out there with big hearts. You just have to find your people. Once you do, your community of writers will get you through the dark days, when you think you can’t possibly do another revision or query one more agent or, God help you, hear one more rejection from an editor. That community will be your safety net if you fail and will serve as your springboard to success, too, cheering on your book launches and helping you promote your work in person and online. You will do the same for them.
More and more, the key to success in any business is networking, and writing is no exception. Recently I have been teaming up with other fiction writers to do events, because it’s easier and more fun to gather an audience at a bookstore or library if you present with a partner or a panel. I’ve also joined a cross-genre panel called Nevertheless Writers—a group that consists of five different writers from five completely different genres, fiction and nonfiction—to speak at schools and libraries about writing and publishing.
Yes, those panels take place on weeknights when I’m tired. Yes, we often do them for free. And, yes, sometimes there might be only ten people in the audience. But we love building community and spreading the message that writing can be a solitary pursuit only some of the time. The rest of the time, writers need each other to perfect our craft and bolster our confidence at a time when it seems that art is the last thing in the world anyone is worrying about.
So find your community, join the fun, and ignore the haters. Shake it off.
Tomorrow I’m headed to Prince Edward Island for a long weekend. This is no easy feat. From my house in Massachusetts, it takes a full eleven hours to drive to PEI in the Canadian Maritimes, where my family owns a farmhouse built in 1900 that looks pretty much the same as it always has. It will be tough to go up for just a few days instead of several sun-drenched summer weeks, but this time my trip is all about researching a setting for a book.
Our house has the peaked roof and simple lines of most of the Victorian era farmhouses on Prince Edward Island, and it’s surrounded by potato fields that flower white in the summer. The road is edged with bright lupine in spring, in astonishing Disney purples and pinks. In the fall the fields are tinged in red and gold and the flowers are scarlet and orange.
The beach is just a mile away, down a red clay road like so many other red clay roads on PEI that lead to secret coves. The beaches on the south side of the eastern tip of the island are soft and white, while the beaches on the northern side are red. There are red cliffs on both sides, dropping in dramatic folds to the Northumberland Straight on the southern shore—across which you can see Cape Breton Island on a clear day—and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on the north. At the tip of the island, just a few miles from my house, the Gulf meets the Strait near a lighthouse with a decent cafe, and no morning is better than the ones that start with eggs and bacon and strong Northside tea as you watch the surf crash below those cliffs, with occasional seals bobbing about with the cormorants diving for fish.
This part of Prince Edward Island is far from the “crowds”–which, believe me, are nothing like you see on Cape Cod or even around Maine’s coastal towns in summer—who gather to worship at the shrine of Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables. That red-haired orphan is the subject of the longest-running musical on the island, and draws Japanese tourists by the busload, for some mysterious reason, mostly women, most of them donning hats with red braids attached to have their photos taken.
My house on PEI is an hour away from Charlottetown, too, the birthplace of Canada’s Confederation, a charming town of brick and cobblestones that boasts an astonishing array of restaurants, musical venues, and art galleries. But we see none of that where I go to write.
No, where we are, there are the potato fields in front of the house and to one side. Behind the house is another farm with sheep grazing in the fields. How could I help but make one of the characters in my next book, HAVEN LAKE (April 2015) be a shepherdess, after all of those hours of sitting on my deck and watching the sheep do their thing?
And now, after over twenty years of spending vacations on the island, I am writing a book that is set partly there, and partly in Massachusetts. I’m excited but terrified.
To me, settings are far more than just places in books. I view settings as essential components of every novel, because so often places convey the interior landscapes of the characters and deepen the reader’s experience. In my first novel, THE WISHING HILL, I set some of the action overlooking an old snuff mill where one of the characters worked long ago. The antique building’s Gothic lines, rusty water wheels and stained clapboards seemed like the perfect metaphor for an unrequited love. And in my second novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, I used Plum Island as the setting because a barrier island—battered as it is by wind and rain, snow and tides—changes shape constantly, just as our lives change shape according to the external forces we experience as parents and lovers, mourners and creatures who inhabit the earth only temporarily.
Now that I’m looking at Prince Edward Island not just as a sanctuary, but as a setting for my next novel, CHANCE HARBOR, this trip will take on a whole new meaning for me. I’ll be trying to view the island through the eyes of my characters—the colors and cliffs, the lobster fishing and Northeasters, the lighthouses and vast empty beaches will all have meaning, depending on the turmoil I decide to put my characters through. The eastern tip of this island, which really does feel like the end of the world, is the perfect setting for these characters, who are all reinventing themselves in some way, having to let go of their old lives and forgive the people who betrayed them as they move forward.
Should be fun, but daunting. I want to do this island justice, because this magical place is as much a part of my own inner landscape as it will be for my characters.
(Thanks to my friends Toby Neal and Susan Soule Shulins for their PEI photos!)
People who know me call me adventurous. I have climbed the Andes, hitchhiked around Spain and trekked the Himalaya through thigh-deep snow in March. But those people haven’t met my daughter. Compared to Taylor, I’m a TV-surfing couch potato.
I’ve encouraged and embraced Taylor’s adventures vicariously, from the year she learned to scuba dive in Indonesia to her work with the U.S. Forest Service on a remote Alaskan island. Nope, I didn’t like getting those emails reporting that she had nearly gotten the bends under water, or hearing about her close encounters with grizzly bears, but I always believed that Taylor was sensible and smart and would find her way home.
This, though, feels different. This past weekend, Taylor left as a Peace Corps Volunteer—part of her master’s degree program at Oregon State University—destined not for South America, where I thought they would surely send her because she speaks Spanish, but for Senegal, West Africa. As in, the part of Africa where the World Health Organization is predicting that there will be 21,000 people afflicted with the Ebola virus before it’s fully contained. (If, that is, they can contain it at all.) The Peace Corps pulled its volunteers from the three West African countries with the most cases—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—but, since Senegal has so far seen only one patient with the virus, the organization is continuing its work there.
Good for them. I just wish my daughter weren’t one of their volunteers.
Taylor, though, could not be dissuaded from going. She believes in promoting sustainable agriculture efforts worldwide and is invested in learning more about population ecology and agroforestry. Nothing could prepare her better for a career in that arena better than working on projects through the Peace Corps. Plus, everyone she knows who has been in the Peace Corps says the same thing: It will transform your life.
Good for her. But I just want her to come home.
Often, however, we mothers have to step aside and sweep our fears under the rug. I believe, with all my heart, that the Peace Corps is absolutely right to continue their projects in Senegal and other African countries. Those countries need international assistance now more than ever.
And I do know that Taylor will come home transformed, because her world perspective will be both broader and deeper. In return, perhaps the people she meets in Senegal will know more about people from the U.S.–an essential cultural exchange, since we are all sharing the same fragile planet and its limited resources.
I am proud, terrified, joyful and amazed by my daughter all at once, every day. I wish she would come home right now, but I hope she stays in West Africa. If she does, the Peace Corps and her work in Senegal will shape her into the person she is already becoming: a woman who not only wants to do well in life, but one who is committed to doing good in the world. A daughter who fills her mother’s heart with love.