The Books in the Drawer (or Why Some Stories Take Longer than Others)

Relaxed Author

The Books in the Drawer (or Why Some Stories Take Longer than Others)

I rarely mention my own fiction writing (under pen name Phoebe Fox) in this blog—editing is my first love, my heart and soul, and for the most part I like to keep my focus on other authors and their work.

But I recently shared this video on Instagram (also here on Facebook) talking about the publication journey of my just-released sixth novel The Way We Weren’t, after I got a lot of comments in an unboxing video where I’d mentioned this book took 15 years from inception to publication.

In the video I tongue-in-cheek offer my tips for how to write a novel in 15 years: Take on a very ambitious story on your first time at bat writing full-length fiction; flounder to find the soul of the story; fail to get an agent and put the manuscript in a drawer. Fish it out after you write a second manuscript; realize you still can’t quite nail this story.

Revise. Rewrite.

Repeat. A lot.

That Book May Not Be Ready to Be Written

When I say it took me 15 years to write this story, I don’t mean that I worked constantly on it all that time.

  • In between revised drafts of this story, I wrote and published five other novels, honing my own writing skills by writing hundreds of thousands of words, learning what made a story work, developing my voice and my confidence and ability as a writer.
  • I continued my work as an editor on other authors’ novels, steadily honing my craft knowledge and skill by deeply analyzing hundreds of stories, by teaching those skills to other authors in workshops and webinars, by writing a book of my own about the subject, Intuitive Editing.
  • I gained life experiences I had to have before I could write about a happy long-term marriage that implodes when a crisis puts a couple on opposite sides of a foundational issue in their relationship: I fell in love, got married, learned more about love and relationships than I could ever have known before I had a long-term, deeply intimate, intensely committed one of my own.
  • I garnered 15 more years of emotional intelligence and depth to understand and be able to develop this story’s themes: how easy it can be to get lost in regret and resentment and lose sight of the people you love and what connects you. How being happy and content with your life is a choice you make, day after day after day.
  • I learned how to take breaks when I needed to on a story I had become so overfamiliar with—and how to continue to come back to it again and again and again with fresh eyes and continue to try to excavate out the heart of it (a question I wrote about in this post).
  • I learned to believe in myself and my ability to tell a story I very much wanted to tell—despite years of falling short of that goal.
  • I learned how to kill so many darlings.
  • I learned how to fail…and not give up.

When I say this book took 15 years to come to full fruition, what I really mean is that I did. I needed to live 15 more years of life and all the experiences it brought me, on a craft level and on a mental and emotional level, to be able to write it.

“When I say this book took 15 years to come to full fruition, what I really mean is that I did.”

None of those years nor all that effort was wasted. In many ways this is the book that taught me how to write a novel, and taught me what it takes to have a successful writing career.

But even more important, it’s the story that helped me understand what success was to me.

[I wrote about how to define your own writing success in this post and this one.]

Let’s face it: Taking 15 years to fully hone a story just isn’t that efficient, especially in a publishing market that often touts the book-or-more-a-year pace that some authors feel they must achieve.

If my main goal were to attain that increasingly common view of what it takes to be a working author, then I failed spectacularly.

But that’s not my main goal. As agonizing as it sometimes was to struggle to develop this story, it was one I felt a strong pull to tell. And I allowed myself the freedom and space to do that, despite that it didn’t necessarily serve the business model that’s often held up to authors as what creates a successful writing career.

[Why some stories take longer, and how to let them grow, in this post.]

The fact that I couldn’t seem to leave this one in a drawer and move on to the next more marketable or expedient project taught me what matters to me as a writer. It was the work itself—the writing, the story, the craft—that I loved.

The Way We Weren’t released this week, and while I obviously would love for it to be a huge success, and reading reviews and reader notes about how the story affected people is a thrill, honestly the pride and gratification I feel just knowing that after all these years and all that effort it’s about to come into the world feels like reward enough.

I already had the experiences in writing it that made it meaningful to me. Everything else is gravy.

[For a laugh, you can check out my video of Me Now interviewing Baby Writer Me from 15 years ago on Facebook and Instagram.]

Authors, do you have that “book in a drawer” you can’t quite seem to give up on? What compels you about it? Why did you put it aside? Have you clearly defined for yourself what success as a writer means for you, or are you unconsciously accepting external definitions of what it means?

12 Comments. Leave new

  • Maria Bogen Oskwarek
    November 11, 2021 1:18 pm

    Thank you so much for this. I relate to every point you make here, and it’s truly helpful to see my own experience reflected in your words.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      November 11, 2021 5:26 pm

      That’s lovely to hear, Maria–thanks. I think we all have at least of those “books in a drawer,” don’t we? Some of them just don’t want to let go of our imaginations. Thanks for dropping by.

      Reply
  • Nancy Kay Bowden
    November 11, 2021 1:46 pm

    Thank you for covering this topic with your own experience and wise words. Even Neil Gaiman, last time where he was in Austin in 2017, said he wasn’t ready to write The Graveyard Book when he thought of it and set it aside until he was. That and what you’ve said in this post give me hope for the book I’ve been swirling around for years. I finally wrote a first draft—the pandemic was good for something—and now I’m revising. Your book Intuitive Editing is very helpful!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      November 11, 2021 5:28 pm

      Oh, good for you, Nancy–congrats on finishing your first draft! That’s a big accomplishment. I’m thrilled to hear Intuitive Editing is useful.

      Interesting about Gaiman–but I’m not surprised. I think most authors have struggled with a manuscript at one time or another. Each one takes what it takes. I’ve also written one in six months before, so I guess for me the answer to “how long does it take to write a novel?” is anywhere between six months and fifteen years. 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  • As always… perfect timing. My current situation and this blog. Thank you.

    Reply
  • It’s so fascinating to hear about a book’s journey from the author because I think so many writers find themselves in this exact situation. I have more than a few manuscripts “in the drawer”, but there is one I wrote in 2017 that won’t let me go. I think about it every day, and know I will return to it, but I gave up on it because I thought it would be a tough sell for a first-time author.

    I struggle with the success thing. I know it’s like a rainbow, and it keeps moving and changing as you take steps toward it, so I try to find success in the fact that I am actually well and able to write, that I have the means and the time, and have found immense support in online and local writers. Finding gratitude in the process and getting thousands of words on the page each week is my definition of success at this moment in my journey.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      November 12, 2021 6:47 pm

      I love that you have one of those too, Cate. Well, more than one, but the one that doesn’t let go…I so relate to that. For what it’s worth, I think those are almost always worth coming back to–even if it takes a while, or more than one revisitation of the story, to get it where you want to go. There’s a reason those stories hang on to us so tightly.

      Yeah, success as an author…that’s such a squishy concept. Even when we achieve it–whatever “it” is for us–the goalposts move. I remember when I first attempted a full-length manuscript, I thought, “If I can just finish it, that would be enough.” And then I did, and it wasn’t. And next it was, “If I could just get an agent…” and then “If I could just get published…” “If I could just reach X many readers…” That was when I finally realized I needed to find success within myself rather than from external “carrots,” or I’d never actually be happy. I agree with you–for me, my enjoyment and success became the process, the community, my own growth, etc., as it sounds like it has for you too.

      Recently in an author discussion group around this topic, one writer said that if someone took up, say, piano out of love for the art form, they likely wouldn’t be pinning all their hopes on playing Carnegie Hall. They just want to make music. I loved that a lot.

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments. I’m always happy to see you here.

      Reply
  • suzanne trauth
    November 12, 2021 6:13 pm

    Thanks for this great post. So fitting that I read it…I am (finally!) finishing/editing a book that has been 24 years in the making. But like others note, I could not let go of it. It would not let go of me. So I appreciate your encouragement.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      November 12, 2021 6:50 pm

      Wow, Suzanne, congrats! That’s huge. Good for you for coming back to it and seeing it to the finish line. I think those stories haunt us till they’re finally allowed out into the world. 🙂 I hope you enjoy finally sharing it with readers. Finishing is its own reward, but there’s nothing like people finally sharing the vision that’s been in your head for so long. Congratulations–thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  • I have poking at my “work in progress” since 2017. I wrote a full draft last year. Hate it. lol. And have been trying to edit it again right now. It’s so hard. But I can’t let it go! I am trying to work on another one simultaneously, but you know, it really is hard for me to move on when I feel this one also has some legs. I’m in a love triangle! Thanks for your post, helps plod me along.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      November 17, 2021 2:27 am

      Sometimes I think you have to just step away for a while–but yeah, I know how it is when they won’t let go of you. I think some of them just need to incubate longer than others. Hope you’re able to finish it one of these days, Cindy. Thanks for your comment!

      Reply

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