How It Happened by Lori Rader-Day

(Ed. Note: Leave a comment below for your chance to win an ARC of Lori Rader-Day’s newest novel, THE DAY I DIED!)

How it happens isn’t always exactly how you hope.

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.

Remember to leave a comment  for your chance to win an ARC of Lori Rader-Day’s newest novel, THE DAY I DIED! To learn more about her novel, click on the cover below:



  1. Lynn Meidam

    Enjoyed the first two books and I am looking forward to reading Lori’s latest.

  2. Judy Penz Sheluk

    This is a great story of validation and the journey we travel as authors. Thanks for sharing it with us. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  3. Shelley

    Lori – this gives me hopes for my first novel. (Because I’m now working on the second. The first one is hibernating for a bit. 🙂 But I still love it.) Thanks for sharing!

  4. Jessica

    Lori, You don’t know how much I needed to hear this story today! *Puts down first ms to work on second ms.* Thanks for an honest and uplifting post. -Jessica

  5. Jill Orr

    Great article – gives those of us with drawer novels hope! And of course, I love any piece of writing that quotes the movie Babe!
    PS: I’m posting my comment HERE, not THERE, even though SOMEONE who shared this on FB was kinda unclear in his directions… 😉

  6. Christina Hoag

    I’m going through a similar thing! After publishing two novels, I recently un-drawered my “first” novel, giving it yet another go. I feel (I hope!) I have it nailed this time around. I feel I’ve put too much work into this book so far to abandon it altogether, but it still requires more work to salvage it. sigh…

  7. Lori Rader-Day

    Thanks everyone! Glad you enjoyed today’s post. Though if you want to talk about perseverance, let’s find the link to Jenny Milchman’s “how it happened.” THAT is a story.

  8. Sharon Fisher

    I enjoyed your previous books and look forward to reading your “first” novel. I admire you for continually writing but never giving up on the starter book!

  9. Jennifer Soosar

    Always interesting to hear the (often long!) road novels take to publication. Congratulations, Lori, it sounds great!

  10. Cheri Hartwick

    Can’t wait to read this! Congratulations Lori on your success!

  11. Frank Cook

    Key sentence: “I wasn’t a good enough writer to fulfill the promise of this story.” Can’t tell you how long that fear bounced around my own mind. Glad to see it typed by someone other than me. Fine fine article.

  12. Pingback: Writing Awards: Judging, Being a Nominee, and Winning | The Thrill Begins

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