Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ssssssh! Novelist at Work!

In November of last year, I gritted my teeth and jumped into National Novel Writing Month with both feet. It was my first attempt at a novel, and I wrote it in eighteen days. All fifty thousand words of it, which is the goal of NaNoWriMo. It was an interesting, informative, sometimes frightening experience.

I worked without a net. I've never been able to plot out a story beforehand, though God knows I've tried .It just doesn't work for me. So I worked out a very general idea for the story, then on November 1st I sat down and started writing. Within a day or two I'd changed the names of my characters (and thereby their personalities) because what I'd started with wasn't working. Fortunately, that was a quick and easy search-and-replace task. I also changed the setting of the first scene, but only in the sense that I made a note to myself to change it upon revision and thereafter wrote as if I'd written it that way all along.*

Some days I thought I doing pretty well. Some days I thought I was writing crap. But I kept plugging along because, after all, it doesn't have to be good. It just has to be 50,000 words long. I placated my Ego (which wanted to spare me itself the pain of failure and rejection by giving up ahead of time) with that mantra. Some days were a struggle, but I did it. I wrote a 50,000 word novel and I finished it in eighteen days.

Then I promptly saved it and swore that it would never see the light of day again. I was convinced that it was awful. It was my first attempt at anything longer than a short story. How could it be anything but awful?

But my writing gurus, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rusch, have repeatedly told me (and anyone else who'll listen) that a writer is not the best judge of his own work, and especially while he's writing it. They have over a hundred novels and hundreds of short stories published between them, and they still wrestle with that tiny voice that says "this is crap." It's such a common and predictable reaction, usually coming about a third of the way into the novel, that when one of them tells the other that the latest novel isn't working and they may have to start over, the other asks, "How far into it are you?" At which point, the other turns and goes back into his or her office to continue writing.

So I thought, I really ought to listen to them. Plus, my spouse (and trusted first reader) gently nudged me to reconsider. So I grudgingly pulled it up on the monitor and started reading it again in January. And it wasn't half bad. In fact, some of it I liked a lot. So I let my spouse read it, and got a rave review.

Okay, Spouse also had a few criticisms. I couldn't argue with them, either. So I decided, what the hell, I'll polish it up and send it out. Let some actual editors tell me if they thought it was worth buying or not.**

There was a problem, though. The minimum length for a publishable novel (with rare exceptions) is 70,000 words, but my novel was only 50,000 words long. So I had to revise and extend it, as Congressmen so often do their speeches in the Congressional Record. I've spent the last month or so doing just that.

It was slow, tedious work. In part, that was because my Ego gibbered and capered and jumped up and down, screeching and flinging poo, in a Herculean attempt to make me give up. Change is scary and difficult, even when it might be a good change. Writing and revising (and ultimately trying to sell) a novel meant changing my self-image. It meant thinking of myself as a novelist. It meant risking rejection (almost certainly repeated rejection, even if the novel eventually sells). My Ego hates that, so it tried hard to stop me, clinging to my ankle and crying piteously as I dragged myself (and my Ego) toward the finish line.

Some days, I confess, it succeeded. On other days, forcing myself to ignore that voice was difficult. On rare days, I successfully throttled it and managed to write several thousand words. But I'd set a goal of getting the novel finished and out the door by the end of February.

And today I finished the revisions. The novel weighs in at about 72,000 words. Shorter than I'd have liked, but as long as it's gonna get. This evening I scoured Publishers Marketplace for editors and publishers to whom I could send it, looking for editors who'd bought books in the same genre. I have a list of five I intend to start with.

Tomorrow...I'm taking the day off to celebrate finishing the novel. Friday, I'll write the cover letters and the synopsis, and get everything ready to mail. Saturday, the queries will go into the mail. I'm going to meet my deadline, and I'm very pleased by that. In March, I'm planning to work on some short stories, but in the not too distant future, I'll be starting another novel. My goal for this year is to have at least three novels written and circulating. More would be better, but three is the absolute minimum.

Look at me. I'm a novelist!

*A technique I learned from the Book In A Month workbook, and one I highly recommend.

**Robert Heinlein's fourth and fifth rules for writers:
4. You must mail your story to someone who will buy it.
5. You must keep it in the mail until someone buys it.


  1. Sounds like a lot of worthwhile work! Good luck with your new book.

  2. Wow! Awesome Gail! Can't wait to see who picks it up and all the great fan fare I'm sure it'll get ;;)