So, as previously mentioned, I wrote a novel. The writing of this novel happened some time ago, and it really was one of those magical experiences where the words just flowed out of me. Little did I know that this experience was both magical and rare.
The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters was sold as a series of three books. I’ve always seen it as a larger story in three acts, so I’m thrilled that Abrams is ready and willing to come along for the ride. But just a few months after selling the series, I had to buckle up (and buckle down) to write the second book. And I only had a few months to do it, after spending a month or so doing tons of research. I’d never written a book “under duress” before, let alone in such a narrow timeframe. But I am all about facing challenges (especially creative challenges) head-on.
You guys, it was SO HARD. Part of the difficulty was that I had very little time to write; my son is currently in preschool three days a week from 9-12, but I have to drop him off and pick him up. This leaves about 2 hours of writing time. But, I figured most people don’t even have that, so I sucked it up and made a plan for myself — two months (25 2-hour writing sessions) to draft 20K words, with the final month reserved for revision. It started off well, until things like doctor’s appointments and snow days and a verrrry unwelcome stomach bug ate into my schedule. That’s when my husband agreed to take our son for a few hours one morning a weekend, so I could log in some extra writing time.
But aside from the time constraints, the drafting was hard for me. With the first book, the whole thing just came out like Athena from Zeus’ head (though I did a little polishing and fleshing out after sharing it with others). I just don’t write like that anymore. I can’t write like that anymore — I don’t have the time to just write and write and write continuously, until I reach The End. I’m a different writer and a different person than I was when I wrote Book One. Now, I give myself time to play, to make rough sentences and lots of mistakes. Of course, this is fine, but now I was writing with the knowledge that a publisher was depending on me, and an actual (and hopefully wide) audience would be reading my work. Every bad sentence (and there were so, so many) was painful — and it could have been downright excruciating, if I allowed myself to think about it. I decided not to allow myself to think about it. I bought myself a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC and read a chapter after each writing session. I took her advice and allowed fear along for the ride — but I refused to let it drive.
So, the time constraints were hard, and the process of drafting was hard. And then there was avoiding the Curse of the Second Book. No one wants to be the author of a trilogy that sags in the middle, or — gasp! — never lives up to the promise of Book One. I was/am determined to make sure that the second story was as good, if not better, than the first. Honestly, I am not sure if I’ve succeeded (at least, not at this stage), but I think I’ve given it my best shot. At the end of each writing session, after comforting myself with a chapter of BIG MAGIC, I wrote in my writing journal. That’s where I allowed myself to voice my fears and concerns, though I made sure to begin each entry with my word count, so I could chart my progress and note how my creative angst changed throughout the process. Also, I wanted a record of my angst-to-page-count trajectory for the NEXT time I go through this, so I know what to expect from myself — and so I can comfort myself that I’ve been here before and have made it through.
And then, finally, by March 1, I had a draft (thank goodness for this year’s Leap Day). It made me feel a sense of accomplishment, but also a sense of dread. Because, people, the draft was a HOT MESS. The characters were undeveloped, the plot was a big ole slice of Swiss cheese, and worst of all, it was NOT FUNNY. How was I possibly going to turn this gargoyle into a beautiful baby? My writing journal was filled with scribbles of doubt and insecurity. But then I convinced myself to print the whole thing out, and forced myself to read the whole stinking thing (and oh my, did it stink to high heaven). And then I took it one chapter at a time, and channeled Anne Lamott — “Bird by bird, baby. Just take it bird by bird.”
March was a cruel month. The story improved incrementally, but as my deadline loomed, I started to panic. I began to write in the evenings, too, after we put our son to bed, and those writing sessions lasted into the wee hours. In the mornings, I barely recognized what I’d written the night before. I barely recognized myself; my eyes were bloodshot with dark circles beneath them, all I wore were sweatpants (and often the same sweatpants, way too many days in a row), my personal hygiene went out the window, and I seemed to gain ten pounds from all the crappy food I was mainlining during my writing frenzy. Thank god those sweatpants were stretchy. One morning, I realized I’d reached a breaking point; I confessed to my husband that my story and I were going off the rails (an apt metaphor since the book takes place on a train). I’d lost all perspective and could no longer tell if I was harming or helping things. I felt hopeless. And then, as I was waiting to drop off my son at preschool, trying to maintain a low profile in my funky sweatpants and sunglasses, I remembered something. I was not alone. I had trusted readers, i.e. my writing group, who could give me the fresh perspective I no longer had.
I know that turning to my critique partners seems like a “DUH” moment rather than an “A-HA” moment, but I was seriously that lost (and sleep-deprived). I reached out to my friends that morning, and even though both of them were dealing with challenges of their own, they agreed to read my latest draft — and within 24 hours, both had responded with constructive comments and encouraging words. (Shout-out to Jamie and Anika, goddesses both.) Honestly, just knowing that they’d be reading the story, just knowing they had my back, gave me an extra burst of creative energy. I ended up having an epiphany, that four characters had to be cut — and once I made that decision, the whole story seemed to open up again. I printed out their feedback and over the last two weeks, I went through it, point by point.
Then, in the final week, I added the frosting. I found ways to infuse the text with more humor. I added funny little chapter heads, a trademark of the first story I hope to continue throughout the series. I found ways to close some nagging plot holes. Each night, I’d print out the manuscript, and each morning (or while my son napped in the afternoon, if he wasn’t in preschool that day) I’d read the whole thing through and make tweaks. At that point, it was just tweaks! I was still writing in my journal, and the entries started sounding more hopeful — buoyant, even. I was ALMOST DONE.
The night before my actual deadline, I’d finished my latest round of tweaking, and all of a sudden, I stopped typing. Slowly, I removed my ear buds. I turned to my husband, who was watching TV on the nearby couch.
“Hon?” I said, blinking at the screen.
“Yeah?” he said, still focused on whatever he was watching (probably basketball).
“I…think I’m done.”
And that’s how it happened. In the most anti-climactic way possible, I finished revising. I DID IT. And one day early (and nearly 2500 words over my quota), to boot.
I didn’t print out the manuscript that night. I went to bed — a little too late, as I was still on my night owl schedule. In the morning, I sent the story to my editor and cc’d my agent. I took my son to preschool. And then I slept. (Eventually, I showered, and changed out of those sweatpants. Hallelujah.)
Don’t get me wrong — the story was/is not perfectly perfect. I know it needs more help. But it needs fresh eyes now, the eyes of a smart and thoughtful and caring editor, which I am thankful I have. And then it will need more revision, for which I will be rested and showered and ready…and even eager. Now, having written Book Two, I feel as if I can do anything.