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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

The Practice Novel

The time I spent writing (and revising, and re-revising) my first novel—my ‘practice novel,’ not Mary Modernwas a frustrating but very necessary period in my development. I’m a much better writer for it, and I couldn’t have written Mary Modern without it. I’ve long since let go of that manuscript, but I haven’t chucked all of the print-outs or any of the two dozen or so floppy disks I used for each new draft, and whenever I dig this stuff up again it makes me smile. Of course, I can say that now.

Part of my problem was trying to write a novel at twenty-one and twenty-two. I certainly don’t mean to say that someone so young can’t write a good novel (several writers have!), but I hadn’t had enough life experience yet to come up with something greater than the sum of my parts.  The manuscript does have its moments; there are a few passages I’m still a tiny bit proud of having written, and I still consider it an achievement.

I want to tell you a little bit about the timeline between ‘finishing’ the novel and giving up on it. Even when it looks to everyone else like a clear and easy path (people do tend to assume that when they hear you published your first book at 26), it almost never is.

1.  Worked on the manuscript my last year at NYU in 2002. Passed on several weekend trips while studying abroad in Florence to hole up and write. (Ehh…maybe I shouldn’t have done that.) Got a job as an editorial assistant at a nonfiction imprint at HarperCollins that summer, and kept writing.

2.  Fall 2002, sent 600 pages to a very nice agent, who told me it had promise.

3.  More revisions into 2003, and a few more rejections.

4.  Signed with a junior agent at a terrific boutique agency in the spring of 2003. Winnowed 600-page behemoth into an almost-as-bloated 475.

5.  Racked up loads of rejection letters that year, from two rounds of submissions. She has yet to master the concept of a plot.

[Snarky, maybe, but also a much-needed kick in the pants. Thinking back on that letter once I’d decided to shelve the practice novel, I thought, Next time I’m going to come up with a real plot, and it will be tight and exciting and build momentum on every page. Most useful rejection letter I’ve ever received.]

6.  Personal problems with agent #1 (which of course I won’t get into here). Realized in the spring of 2004 that we would probably have to part ways, and soon after we did.

[I learned a very important lesson there: always, always be professional. The messy details of your private lives have no place in the publishing process. You may meet up for a drink after work, but your agent is not your friend—at least not until you actually have a book deal and can relax a bit!]

7.  Signed with my current agent (whom I now consider a dear friend even though she is 100% professional at all times) in June 2004. Pared the manuscript down to 350 pages.

8.  More rejection letters through the end of 2004. Agent unfazed, said I had two choices: she could sell it to a small indie publisher for a $500 advance, and that would likely be the only money I’d ever see out of it; or I could throw myself into a new project. Naturally she wanted me to choose option #2, because if I settled for a $500 advance (if that) and a print run of a few hundred copies (if that) then I’d most likely never see the level of success I was hoping for.

When I set it down in points it doesn’t sound too tortuous a route, but I can tell you that I spent plenty of time crying, loathing myself and loathing my work and wondering what I could possibly do with my life if I couldn’t write a novel anyone would want to read. Thank goodness for my family—my parents said I should focus on when, not if, and that really helped me keep my chin up. I tried to let go of my ego, to get out of my own way so I could just tell the story already; and it was amazing how much easier the whole thing became when it was no longer about proving myself. That’s the thing I didn’t understand when I was twenty-two.

Anyway, I moved to Galway in September 2004, wrote Mary Modern, and handed it off to my agent. After a few rounds of revisions, she sent it to a bunch of editors in February 2006. It was a blessing that I’d gotten the Moon Ireland travel-writing gig, because life was busy and exciting enough on its own, and I didn’t have too much time to think things like ‘what if this novel doesn’t sell either?’ (I did think it, of course, but I couldn’t obsess over it when I had a 500-page guidebook to write.)

Guess which editor was the first to call my agent and say ‘I love this and I’m going to bid on it’? The same editor who said I didn’t know what a plot was! You can just imagine what a sweet moment that was for me.

I talk about my ‘juvenilia’ whenever I’m in the company of aspiring novelists. A practice novel is not a waste of time. You’re still learning your craft.  Heck, it’s not unheard of to have three or four or five (as I said, you’re in very good company). The tricky thing is knowing when to throw in the towel—because isn’t perseverance the key to success in publishing?  Yes, but I discovered there is also such a thing as revising a dead horse. So when do you know this novel isn’t going anywhere?

1. Enough agents have said no that when somebody asks you how many rejection letters you’ve racked up so far, you find you’ve lost count.

2.  You start to get a nagging feeling that this isn’t your very best, and it never will be.

Okay, you might lose track after only twenty or thirty, and I’m not saying you should give up at that point. Like I said, your agent has to fall head over heels for your work, and that’s a sort of chemistry it can take months and dozens of rejection letters to find. But if you’ve approached the agents (and/or their junior associates) who represent the authors you love (i.e., you’re writing in a similar vein), and you’re still only getting complimentary rejection letters, then it’s time to rethink. You may very well find that after multiple rounds of revisions and query letters, this manuscript doesn’t get you excited anymore. You’re tired of it. You read over the lines you thought were clever, and they’re not; you know you can do better now. What’s giving you that warm, shimmery feeling in your gut now is the prospect of a fresh start.

Having said all this, I do believe there are some writers with terrific first novels who will probably wind up publishing them after their ‘break-out’ novel. An amazing, publishable novel will eventually find the right home, even if it doesn’t happen quite the way you think it will. That may be the case with yours, but you still have to put it aside to give your new story the headspace it needs to grow.

Anyway, I hope this has been at least somewhat reassuring—do leave a comment with your own experiences, or any questions you might have!

3 Comments to The Practice Novel

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    March 9, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t remember (or was never told) the story of “She has yet to master the concept of a plot.” What irony–sweet, sweet irony!

  2. Kelly B's Gravatar Kelly B
    March 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Love this.

  3. Ang's Gravatar Ang
    March 12, 2011 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    I can’t believe you summed up the last 9 years in bullet points! Are you back stateside yet?!

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.