“How long did it take you to write your book?”
Without a doubt, that is the question I get asked most frequently when I tell people that my novel is being published.
I wish I could give them a straight answer, but the truth is I don’t really know how long it took. Some days it feels like I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing this book.
As a matter of fact, this book wasn’t even always this book.
I wrote two complete novels before getting to the third and final version that will be available in November, and in between each version I stopped writing for about a year at a time.
As a best estimate, I’d say that my journey toward publishing Next Year I’ll be Perfect started about ten years ago.
Version 1: Imperfect Harmony
I have always loved to write and still have boxes and boxes of old journals, short stories and unforgivably bad love poems stashed away in my spare bedroom closet, but about ten years ago I decided I wanted to tackle something larger. I was going to write a novel!
After all, how hard could that be?
First, I needed to create some characters, and here is the interesting part of the story. The characters I created for this first novel are the same people you will meet in Next Year I’ll be Perfect. Hopefully they are deeper and richer versions of the ones I first created, but with every change and iteration in the story, the characters and their general relationship to one another have remained the same. The only differences are two of the names. Sarah’s Uncle Jack became Uncle Jeremy and her co-worker Murphy became Morgan. (Both reasons for the name changes are interesting stories in themselves that I will save for another time.)
Second, I needed a story and boy, did I create a doozy. Every character had enough backstory to fill the pages of Moby Dick and the convoluted plot I created was filled with drama, angst, pain and just enough humor and romance to keep you off anti-depressants as you turned each page. I decided that if I was going to write a book, it was going to be very important literature.
I mailed each chapter to my friend in Boston who was a saint to read and provide me with feedback as she returned them. When I finished writing my story, I anxiously sent query letters out to agents and publishers, sure they would jump at the chance to put my book into print. Sure, it needed some editing, but I was confident a publisher would see the raw talent and help me file away the rough edges.
Not only was I wrong, but looking back, I am ashamed of my arrogance. After a few months of sending query letters that were met with form rejections, I put my novel in a desk drawer for more than a year while I focused on other things.
Version 2: Untitled
The problem with writing is that if you love it, you must do it. Discouraged though I was, I found myself unable to stop writing. I continued to write in my journal every Saturday morning at Panera and once wrote an episode of a TV show in the margins of my Vanity Fair magazine during a flight delay.
I had it bad.
It was only a matter of time before I revisited the idea of writing a novel. This time, though, I decided to take the advice from my family and friends who for some strange reason actually consider me funny. “Write humor,” they urged. So I did.
I kept what I liked (the characters) and shook away the more dramatic, life-changing angst. I refocused on romance and family and fun. It took me more than a year write this version, after which I once more sat down and started the process of querying agents. And this time I was more successful.
I got a call from an agent! A literary agent from Los Angeles actually called me!
I was sure that she had Ron Howard on the other line ready to buy the movie rights.
Alas, she didn’t.
Instead, she told me that she liked my book very much, but didn’t think it was quite ready to be published. She loved my characters, but in replacing the angst with humor, I had apparently removed all of the dramatic tension which is always necessary regardless of genre. I had written a very pleasant book about a group of very likeable people who just meandered around with no story arc.
Point taken, and humbled that someone had taken the time to help me through this difficult writing process who had absolutely no reason to do so, I went back to the drawing board.
Version 3: Next Year I’ll be Perfect
So that brings us to the novel that I completed and am very proud of. It took the original characters I created, added the humorous voice I am most comfortable writing with and placed it all within a structured plot with a story arc that has a beginning, middle and end. It took a long time to get to the point where I knew I was ready to be published, but this time I had corroborating evidence. I had learned something from the conversation with the LA agent – I needed other writers to provide me with criticism and help me improve my writing. I made friends with some wonderful writers, asked for help and accepted criticism.
This time, I knew I was ready to publish and once again, I quickly found a literary agent who was interested in my book. He signed me to his agency in May and gave me some suggestions to edit the first chapter almost immediately. I was thrilled as I sat back and waited for him to contact me with news. And I waited. And I waited. A reputable agent, I followed him on Twitter and through his blogs and watched as he made deals for other authors in his stable while the e-mails I sent him went without response or with a condescending “be patient, you’re next” sentence. For six months I waited, contractually obligated to do nothing but sit back and hope the agent would pay me some attention.
One day I came to the realization that if this was the way I was being treated, I probably did not want this man to represent me to the public as my agent. I had read many stories of the close bond between writers and their agents, and as much as I wanted to be published, I knew this person was not going to be my advocate or my partner. After much reflection and more than a little self-doubt, I chose to sever my contract with the literary agent.
While I didn’t know it at the time, I think there was a large part of me that gave up on the dream of being published in the act of leaving that agency. I stopped sending out query letters and once more put my novel in a desk drawer for a very long time.
This time, however, I did not give up on writing altogether. I put aside the idea of being a novelist and instead focused on the joy I had always found in writing. I started a blog. I attended the Stonecoast Writers Conference in Maine and the Grub Street Writers Conference in Boston. I started entering online writing contests for fun.
Which is where this story truly begins.
About a year ago I entered an essay contest that became Write for the Fight: A Collection of Seasonal Essays and won! My essays were published in an anthology by the wonderful people at Booktrope Publishing who (shockingly, given my prior experience) provided their authors with updated information, kept the publication on schedule and responded to every question I had thoroughly and timely.
Part of the prize for winning the contest was that Booktrope would read a manuscript or book proposal and consider it for publication. No promises, of course, but this was the first bit of encouragement I’d received in a long time.
Spoiler alert: They liked the book, offered me a contract and my novel is going to be published on November 1!
So now you can probably see why I don’t really know how to respond when people ask how long it took me to write my novel. It probably took a year to revise Next Year I’ll be Perfect into its final format, but it also took two prior versions and vast periods of writers block in between before we got to the end of the road.
And is it the end of the road, really? I still love these characters and think they have more to say before I’m completely through with them. Also, I still really love the title of the original book, Imperfect Harmony… perhaps that will be the name of the sequel?
Man – I better get started!!