Here’s an essay I wrote about plowing forward after a failed manuscript.
I couldn’t believe it was a first novel.
Rules of Civility, Amor Towles’s very New York tale about class, chance encounters and pre-war sensibilities, is engaging, poignant and funny. But it’s his language that got me. He described one character who “looked like a kid without a ticket who’s been waved through the turnstiles on opening day” and a secretary who “sutured split infinitives and hoisted dangling modifiers and wore out the seat of [her] best flannel skirt.” A train “rattled into the station like it was coming from another century” and an “old woman had this evening’s lox wrapped in yesterday’s news.” Images like these struck me as so clever and lovely that I sometimes had to put the book down to recover from my awe and jealousy.
As I often do after finishing a book I love, I Googled Amor Towles to learn his back story and, possibly, to follow him on Twitter. (To me, he’s the kind of person from whom I want to hear mundane daily details.) In my research, I discovered an interview in which Towles revealed a startling fact: Rules of Civility wasn’t his first novel. It was his first published novel. Before Rules, Towles had spent no fewer than seven years on a story set in the farmlands of Stalinist Russia that, he said, was “ultimately stuck in a drawer.”
This buoyed me.
I recently spent six months – beginning with a first draft hammered out during NaNoWriMo – working on my next novel. Tentatively titled Fly Girl, it was an homage to aging. The story centered around Heather, a divorced mom with a gay ex-husband, a fear of flying that threatened to derail a hard-fought career in management consulting, an age-inappropriate addiction to Gossip Girl, a secret and shameful reliance on baseball strategy in her business dealings, and a long-suppressed love of art. With a little been-there-sister humor and some San Francisco color, my goal was to take the monopoly on mid-life crises away from men and write a chick lit-ish book for the grey-covering set. I loved the premise and I hoped to match or maybe even surpass the positive experience I enjoyed with my first novel.
I showed the Fly Girl manuscript to two friends. Within a few days, I received comments like “I might have completely missed what you were trying to do,” “Heather is an ordinary person in an ordinary situation,” and “There’s a rawness and sadness that doesn’t get tapped into.” Bottom line: not enough tension.
After sulking for a few days, I realized they were right. I rolled up my sleeves and dug back into the story. From there, I spent countless hours over several months working to fix those problems. I rearranged, reworded and, I hoped, revitalized Heather’s inner struggles.
I shared the revised manuscript with two more friends. Their comments included statements like: “I wonder if Heather’s life isn’t too much like all of our own” and “Many of the things about which Heather stresses didn’t seem sources of stress at all,” and, worst of all, “Can you make Heather’s crisis more dramatic?”
Frustrated and defeated, I promptly shoved the manuscript in the proverbial drawer and lamented six lost months. Worst of all, I feared I was just a one-hit wonder when it came to novel writing.
Around that same time, I discovered that best-selling YA author Sarah Dessen (whom I avidly follow on Twitter, so much so that I’ve also made a project of going backwards through her hundreds of blog posts) once had to do the same thing. On her blog, she explained, “I wrote one novel a couple of years back that nobody liked but me, so I had to put it away. But when I was writing The Truth About Forever, and needed a name for someone…I decided to use one of my main characters from that book. So when or if you read it, and there’s a mention of Amy Richmond, who is ‘no good at this Shakespeare crap,’ and puts her head down on her backpack, falling asleep, know this: I have a whole book about Amy. A whole life for her! And while I agree it probably wasn’t my best book, I still thought she should get something.”
With that, I got busy. I checked out of the library every book I could find on enhancing conflict and tension in a story. Struck by an off-hand remark I’d read in Rob Lowe’s memoir – “Don’t leave before the miracle” – I decided that while it was no doubt time to leave Heather and Fly Girl behind like Dessen had done with Amy, chances are I could still do this novel-writing thing. After all, The Truth About Forever, with its offhand reference to a ditched protagonist, is one of Dessen’s most popular.
During that time, I took a morning walk and was hit with the memory of something someone once told me about a friend of hers. Having saturated my brain with concepts like character longing and hero journeys, I immediately thought, “Wait, what if…?” And in that moment, I discovered a story idea whose very premise was fraught with conflict.
A writer by day, I’m a knitter at night. More than once, I’ve spent weeks knitting up a sweater that, once seamed and blocked, ended up ill-fitting – and in the Goodwill pile. But somehow I never regretted making those sweaters. After all, I figured, I learned new skills along the way – perhaps a new cable technique or cast-on method. While hours of work were certainly lost, I also understood that my next sweater would undoubtedly be better because of that botched one.
After stumbling onto my new story idea followed soon after by learning of Amor Towles’s own dumped manuscript, seven years in the making, I now regard the failed Fly Girl the way I do those too-big hand-knit sweaters. Now, seeing the masterpiece that Towles wrote after scrapping his Russian tome, I’ve got a renewed enthusiasm for my next story, which I’ll write with strict attention to conflict and tension, while also striving to turn phrases as beautifully as Towles. Taking a cue from Sarah Dessen, perhaps I’ll bring Heather back in my new story or another one – a winky reminder to myself not to leave before the miracle.