by Susan Conley
When I went out into the publishing market four years ago, I had a newfound agent and two book manuscripts for sale: a China memoir about the years my young boys and husband and I lived in Beijing, and a novel manuscript about a woman finding love in Paris. I’d had the good luck to sign an agent who believed in both my books. Not every agent who was interested in my memoir was interested in my novel. One agent was keen on the novel and not so much on the memoir. But I believed in both books. Deeply. I couldn’t forego one at the expense of the other. So I needed to trust myself to find an agent who would stand behind both projects. I kept talking to agents—I reached out to a dozen and talked to a half-dozen and then I found the fit—a woman who understood both my book projects and was behind them entirely.
The memoir had to be tinkered with after we sold it. But the novel was inchoate. There was a plot, yes sort of, and some characters, but it was unclear what anyone was really doing or what their motives were, or how I could create a rich story out of the material I’d put on the page. In short, I’d sold a book I hadn’t finished yet. The China memoir had almost written itself, its scenes arrived in my head fully formed every day, and all I had to do was transcribe them to the page. Not so much the novel.
The novel had to be conceived and reconceived. Selling it before it was done began to feel like I was walking a tightrope between my most ambitious hopes for the novel and the hard, cold reality that I had to finish the thing. And soon. I was so grateful to have sold it. But I felt building pressure to complete it. And could I finish it anywhere near on time? Could I even finish it? Friends in the publishing business—writers— kept saying, it doesn’t matter whether you hit your deadline or not. What matters is that you write the best book you can. I listened and nodded at them and then continued my long, steady panic. Could I handle the pressure of not knowing how the novel would end or even where it was headed? Maybe I could just call the whole thing off.
What happened is that I didn’t hit any of my deadlines. They passed. Then they passed again. But I trusted my editor. She believed in the book and what I was really trying to do with it. And I slowly learned to trust myself and this idea that I’d know when the book was really ready, which is what finally happened last fall. It’s a reminder to me to be stubborn about my writing. To stay the course and get to the desk and put the time in. It’s a reminder to all of us perhaps to believe in our projects and find people who believe in them. Even if that takes months or years.
Sometimes I subtitle the writing workshops I teach, “Seminars in Stubbornness.” I really believe that getting to the desk and working through the mess that is any first draft, has a great deal to do with being stubborn. It’s much more about stubbornness than talent. Once you have material (for me it was that wobbly first draft of my novel) there’s some comfort. Because you’ve got something to work off of or against on the page. Even if you ditch the whole first draft, it’s because you are in conversation with the material and have reached the realization that there’s a better way than that first way you tried. I always believe it’s better to be talking to the words on the page than to have no words to talk to.
There were many better ways to tell the stories of my novel than the angles that I started out with. I did a lot of the structural tap dancing you hear about: changing the novel from present tense to past and then back. Moving from a third person limited point of view to a first-person narrator. I got to know the novel through its iterations. I got to know my editor. And she got to understand what I really most hoped and wanted for the novel.
Do I recommend trying to sell a novel before it’s done? I’m not sure I can vouch for your mental sanity if you do it. But what I can attest to is the power of the process of writing a book. Any book—whether you self-publish or put it in a desk for a couple years to get some space from it or sell it in a country like Macedonia where you do not speak the language. The trick is to stay true to the impetus behind the book—the reasons you wrote it in the first place. Because when we strip away the plot and characters, what we are left with is the heart of the thing—the whole emotional underpinnings of the book. If we stay true to this notion of heart—of emotional connection—then maybe we can remain stubborn and stand up for our books and for our creative process out there in the noisy world that is publishing these days.
Susan Conley is the author of the novel Paris Was the Place, (Knopf, August 2013) and the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011). She’s written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and is a contributing writer at Maine Magazine. You can follow Susan on Facebook and Twitter and at her website.