This weeks guest author, Michelle Hoover, tells a terrific story of persistence paying. She started her first novel, The Quickening … well, I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll let you read her post to see how long in the making this book was. But it’s earned a much-coveted Publisher’s Weekly star, in a review that calls the novel a “finely wrought and starkly atmospheric narrative.” Enjoy! – Meg
I’ve taught repeated courses for beginning novelists at Boston’s Grub Street, and one of the first things I do to smooth the brow of all those gaunt, anxious, near heart-broken souls is to tell them about the painfully long years it took to get my novel The Quickening published and on the bookshelves. I started the book when I was twenty-three. It’s being published now when I’m thirty-seven. Anyone say ouch?
First off, I’d like to say that twenty-three is far too young an age to begin a novel. I’d like to say that to anyone who isn’t twenty-three. I was entering graduate school at UMass-Amherst, and when I finally won my degree years later, I had a manuscript that resembled a torture device. I believe those pages are still crumbling away in the UMass library, a place with so many books that the building sheds bricks on poor innocents below. I’m afraid my “thesis” is only adding to the possibility of a tragic accident and wish someone would just set it on fire and be done with it.
In the years after I graduated, I gave up on the earlier manuscript, wrote another novel, gave up on it as well, and returned to my first book—like an abused woman begging her violent lover to forgiveness. But this time, I was old enough and fierce enough to make the necessary sacrifices. I’d somehow lured a magnificent agent—Esmond Harmsworth—at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. He’d seen me through revising that awful second novel and finally pulling the plug. I decided I wanted my first book to be The Quickening and nothing else. It held the promise, though promise only, of everything I wanted my writing to achieve.
So sacrifice: I cut five characters, two narrators, forty years in my timeline, and at least two hundred pages. I had about thirty pages left. I re-envisioned my plot, created another narrator, two more characters, and finally started in. My mother complained that she missed one particular young girl who I’d sent to the shredder. I told her the character was out for good, but mom said, “Can’t you just put her back in for a scene or two?” Mom’s a writer too. She knows better.
The years passed. Esmond’s agency is well-known for its editorial strengths, and so we went through repeated drafts until I simply had no energy left. “If it doesn’t sell the way it is, I’m done,” I told him and he actually listened. This kind of decision isn’t the best when it comes to novel writing. Creative exhaustion and completion are not equivalent. In any case, I crossed my fingers. Other Press picked up the book in the second round.
But revision doesn’t end when you sell a novel. I went through several more rounds with my editor, Corinna Barsan, though I now had the renewed stamina to do so. The book was heading somewhere. It was going to be published. That kind of “yes” makes earlier anguishes over the slightest change appear mere temper tantrums. Corinna allowed me to keep my vision for the work and merely make it brighter. That’s the sign of a great editor.
And then the craziest part: My publisher stepped in. Judith Gurewich is a rather famous Lacanian psychoanalyst, though now it seems she’s beginning to leave Lacan behind. Nonetheless, I received a call from her two days before I was to deliver the final manuscript to my editor. “Let’s have lunch,” she said. “And you can read the first chapter aloud to me.” I joined her for lunch at her home and we proceeded to read through several chapters. Over the next three weeks, I would lunch and dine in her home repeatedly, reading aloud for several hours each time, until we had gone through the novel twice. After the first few days, Judith remained mostly quiet. She trusted that I knew what needed to be done—easy cuts and simplifications of plot—and I did. It just took someone who was willing to listen, and my inner critique went into high gear. Though at the time, these reading sessions had me downing Kava Kava—having to stall much of my love life, friendships, and workload—I now think of them with great fondness. Such attention in publishing is nearly unprecedented (save for Other Press). And the generosity of all those wonderful meals and good company (Judith is also famous for her dinner guests) remains a great gift in my memory. When we turned the manuscript back over to Corinna, we made a few more adjustments and then it was ready. I was done revising at last.
I’ve sometimes thought of returning to that second novel, the one that gained Esmond’s interest in the first place and encouraged Samantha Chang to nominate me for PEN/New England’s Discovery Award following a reading at MacDowell. I had just enough encouragement and an award here and there to keep me going. There are dozens of writers with the same story. An extremely talented writing friend of mine has been working on her book for at least ten years. She was about to give up, to turn her full attentions to children and husband and imagine another life. Last month she received an MCC grant, just enough to keep her going. That one is going to be a great book when it’s done.
My novel is just out! I’m trying to keep my head. The inspiration behind the novel itself is another story, seeing as the discovery of a few pages of my great-grandmother’s journal sparked my writing. You can find that story, as well as family photographs and a copy of the journal, on my website. And if any of you out there are ready to give up, check out my blog post: “Encouraging the Late Bloomer.”– Michelle.