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My example is a pretty good one, by which I mean bad, by which I mean—you’re not going to find a lot of what I’m about to say reassuring. At first. I hope you’ll get there in the end, just as I have.
My first novel is getting published this year after working on it, off and on, for ten years.
But wait a minute, you’re thinking. You’re looking at my name or maybe my bio. Maybe they put my book covers on this page. Wait a minute.
Let’s unpack the phrase “first novel.” The first novel I ever wrote is my first novel, but it is also my third.
How did it happen that I got this first book published? It took a little while to get it right.
Back in 2007 I was in a master of fine arts program in creative writing at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I wrote short stories. Sure, I wanted to write a novel someday, but that was someday, not now. During the holiday break that year, my goal was to write a new short story. No lightning bolts of ideas were offering themselves up, so I went to the library and poked around in the stacks for interesting topics. On a display, facing out, was a book about handwriting analysis. That’ll do, pig.
I read the book, wrote a short story, went back to school. But when my professor gave me feedback on that story, she gave me one of those thunder bolts I’d been looking for: Keep writing, she said. This is not a short story. This is a novel.
Easy for her to say. I wasn’t writing a novel right then, thank you. But over the course of the next two years, I did write it. My novel. It became the thing I pinned my hopes to, even as I wrote another novel-length thesis, a collection of short stories, and went back to work full-time. That novel, my novel, would be the thing that would turn me from writer to author.
But it wasn’t.
No matter what I did to that manuscript draft, it was flawed. It would not heal itself. At a certain point, I had to admit that the problem wasn’t just the manuscript. It was me. I wasn’t a good enough writer to fulfill the promise of this story.
During this time, I won a short story contest that put me in front of a few agents. Here comes the Cinderella story—nope, sorry. I wasn’t ready. The manuscript wasn’t ready. I put it in the drawer. (There’s a folder on my laptop called “The Drawer.”)
A lot of what makes a successful writer, I believe, is being able to look at your own work critically. It’s not easy, is it? We don’t call them “darlings” for nothing. Even though it pained me to put away the novel I’d been working on for two years—a piece that quite a few people were enthusiastic about—I knew it wasn’t good enough. Putting it away meant I was setting myself up for another two years or so of drafting and revising. And if I could get to the end of one draft and abandon it, why couldn’t that happen again? And again. It could. You can’t know. I didn’t know. But I thought maybe, if I started something new, I might be better this time around. I might be better, and so the book might be better.
I started something new. The new thing became The Black Hour, which was published in 2014. There were eventful “how it happened” moments during that process, but they happened just as you hear they happen. I wrote query letters; I got rejections; I got an agent. The agent pitched the book. The book got rejections. The book was sold. The book was published. All very textbook stuff. With that book sold, I went back to drafting, as we are all told to do. The second book, Little Pretty Things, sold to the same publisher with the help of the same agent.
The whole time, that first novel draft lay in hibernation. Nothing about it changed while I wrote and published two novels, but I did. I changed. When I took the abandoned manuscript out of the drawer in 2015, I was testing the waters. It was worth saving, but could I fix it? Could I even tell what needed fixing?
I could. I rewrote that novel from the beginning, thinking some pretty uncharitable thoughts about the writer who had left this mess for me to clean up. But she didn’t know what she was doing. She was only feeling her way through a first attempt at something you can only learn to do by doing. I still write that way. I still feel my way through a story. I still get led down blind alleys. I still leave messes that a later version of myself will have to fix in revision. I’m grateful to that fledgling writer now for finishing the draft at all, for putting it away instead of beating it into pulp, and for saving it, like a time capsule.
My first novel will be published in April. And just like any debut author, I can’t wait to hold it in my hands. I can’t wait to see it on the shelf. I started it ten years ago. It is a symbol of both my failure and of my success as a writer. It’s also, finally, a story I’m proud to share.
Lori Rader-Day, author of The Day I Died (forthcoming 2017), The Black Hour, and Little Pretty Things, is the recipient of the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award and the 2015 Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Lori’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Good Housekeeping, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she teaches mystery writing at StoryStudio Chicago and is the president of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter.
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