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.
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.
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?