At fifty eight, while my contemporaries were playing with their grandkids, rebalancing their retirement accounts, or contemplating face lifts, I wrote and published my first novel. Okay—it was published as a magazine serial but published is published. And that isn’t even the best part: What I’m really proud of is that I blasted through a fear of fiction that had silenced me for more years than I’d like to admit to.
For the record, my block wasn’t the classical sort of brain finger paralysis. I wrote and published prolifically, essays, feature stories, even a book of food history, but fiction terrified me. A novel? Me? Novelists were folks with superannuated brains agile enough to juggle the complexities of a fictional universe, and that wasn’t me.
I caught my fear at Barnard my alma mater, where novels were regarded as sacred texts and authors the high priests of an exclusive, esoteric religion. I was a born novelist, the kid who’d spent her entire childhood telling stories to my dolls, but at Barnard, I lost my nerve. Still, stories or parts of stories floated in my head, but I never wrote them down. Not only did I not write fiction, I almost stopped reading it for decades. Fear was in charge.
Then I stumbled upon Jhumpa Lahiri. Ironically, she’d also gone to Barnard too graduating ten years after I did—a fact which was I found both empowering and intimidating. What mattered was her prose—acutely and realistically rendered with characters so exquisitely drawn that they felt like people I knew. Her writing rekindled a fire in my brain. I couldn’t avoid it anymore—I had to write fiction.
Lahiri’s fictional world felt close to my own, her fractured community of Indian immigrants closely resembling my own Jewish immigrant milieu. If only I could convert her characters to Judaism, lighten their skin, replace their saris with designer dresses, show them eating knishes instead of curry, then I might be onto something. I placed my copy of The Namesake beside my computer and plunged into the job of copying and altering, but Lahiri’s writing was burglar proof. I couldn’t make it on my own so I put my fiction dreams back to sleep for another decade.
When my oldest son began searching for his bride, in 21st century Fiddler on the Roof style, I immediately recognized the story potential in his quest. By the time he stood under the huppa, I knew I had a plot with all the elements. Though I could have easily stuck to the facts, memoir was out of the question; I couldn’t violate my family’s privacy, so I decided to adapt his story into a novel and I signed up for NaNoWriMo.
The world needs your novel
I loved their slogan “the world needs your novel,” the concreteness of the goal—50,000 words in a month and the feeling of support. I was the only person on my street, in my neighborhood, and in my town pounding out a novel, but NaNoWriMo had my back.
To my surprise, I enjoyed my daily visits to a fantasy world of my own creation and I finished easily on November 28th, hitting the magic word count two days ahead of schedule. It wasn’t quite the peak experience I’d hoped for, but just the word “winner” in bold faced type flashing across my computer screen, like a Las Vegas slot machine, was victory. There was no official prize, other than a chance to purchase a NaNoWriMo winner t-shirt, which I declined. My hard drive contained the real trophy—a first draft.
My novel had come into the world, but like all newborns, it was a mess. In the words of an old writing teacher, I had the downdraft, I’d gotten the story down. What awaited was the updraft, fixing it all up.
Editing can be even more daunting than writing, and so I used the simplest strategy I knew: I copied my own work over. Since no writer can copy his own words without altering them, copying is a great way to trick yourself into editing.
While the NaNoWriMo experience ended in a flash, copying/editing was slow and choppy. Some days I coast along writing through paragraphs and pages and then I’d it a wall. Rather than banging my head against it I snapped my computer closed and took a walk or a nap—sometimes both. Inevitably, I’d return with a fresh ability to scale the wall or take it down.
Finding the right beta reader
When I typed THE END, I knew I was just beginning. What I needed now was feedback, a constructive critique from a smart person with a sharp, critical eye. Some people can get that from their spouses or best friends or hairdressers, but I didn’t know anyone with the free time or presence of mind to give my work that level of TLC. My beta reader would have to be a paid stranger, a fellow writer.
When you pay a stranger to read your work you risk hiring a sycophant. I made it my business to avoid that by giving clear instruction. No flattery, in fact no compliments at all unless they served the text. I sought out the literary equivalent of a personal trainer: someone who would push my writing muscles as far as they would go.
At it’s core, writing is about judgment, selecting words and ordering them. Reasoning that a writer who’d made good choices in her own prose could to help me with mine, I reached out to someone whose short story about a struggling single mom had blown my mind almost as much as Lahiri’s novel had.
A few years back we’d worked together and she’d helped me craft what turned out to be a prizewinning personal essay. Single mom writer (SMW) wasn’t cheap—her fees were on the high end of the pay scale and she was hardnosed, tough, stingy with praise and I trusted her too much it turned out.
Quickly we settled into a routine. Every month I sent her a new chapter while she returned the previous chapter marked up with her corrections. Working on two fronts simultaneously—writing the next chapter and revising the previous one as per her comments kept me very busy but I was happy. The writing was getting done. SMW could be harsh, even brutal especially when I slipped into the writer’s sand trap of leaning on weak verbs, but her rare praise floated my writerly spirit to heaven.
Sorry, my dog ate the manuscript…
Sadly, our relationship was not to last. Like an unraveling marriage, her abandonment was gradual. First her chapters began arriving late accompanied by increasingly lame excuses (her computer crashed, allergies, the holiday season, the dog ate the manuscript—that last one didn’t happen though it might have) until one day she vanished completely. I emailed her but received no response until several months later a note appeared in my inbox saying that she couldn’t work with me because I or someone with my name gay shamed in chatrooms.
I was bewildered. Gay shaming? Chatrooms? I never gay shamed anyone in my life, or straight shamed for that matter and I’d never been inside of a chatroom yet SMW wouldn’t or couldn’t believe me. I now attribute her bizarre behavior to alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness or a combination. To her credit, she refunded my money.
Still, she left me with an intriguing revision strategy which I immediately put to use—the backwards edit. It’s the writer’s version of a yogic headstand. You begin with the words THE END and revise until page one reading your sentences the right way around (otherwise it would be too confusing) What’s good about this technique is that it forces you to pay close attention to your sentences and word choices. Slightly heartbroken, I kept on moving forward but I knew that
Out of the mold
I needed a new beta reader. Not wanting to take any chances I turned to someone I knew in the real world, Anne, a writer and editor with whom I’d worked with before. While we’d collaborated successfully on non-fiction our approaches to fiction turned out to be radically and disturbingly different.
A sci fi writer, Anne was a planner, a writer of plot synopses, character sketches, and chapter summaries, while I was a “pantser”: spontaneous intuitive, writing by the seat of my pants, and yet I forced myself into her mold writing lengthy synopses and character sketches until I fell into such a deep funk that I couldn’t write at all.
For several gloomy weeks my novel lay fallow while I grieved my purported failure. Then I looked at my work again. It was flawed. My protagonist was lacking a sense of purpose my plot was overly contrived, but these were problems I could fix. I fired Anne, replacing her with someone I shall call “the author,” an accomplished novelist in my womens’ literary fiction, my own genre.
Insisting on a “perfect fit” between a writer and editor, ‘the author” asked to inspect my writing to determine that it was worthy of her efforts. I nervously sent her my first page checking my email obsessively for her response. Would my prose cut it with someone whose novels had graced the New York Times Bestseller list?
Within a day she responded with happy news—she loved my writing. I was thrilled. After Anne, “the author’s” praises were like a shot of B12.
Time to publish?
Quickly I sent her my manuscript. Two months later she returned it annotated with her comments and something else—a sample agent query letter. This was “the author’s” way of telling me that I was ready to consider publication. That was the goal. I wasn’t writing this novel for the drawer, but I could hardly read the letter. I didn’t feel ready, not yet and I feared that sending it out prematurely could ruin my chances for publication.
Instead, I embarked on yet another revision, this time reading my words aloud. While mouthing my own written prose felt strange even embarrassing, it combed the kinks from my tangled sentences. My novel was on its way but I still needed more help, another pair of professional eyes to bring me to completion. An ad in Poets and Writers led me to my final beta reader, another critically acclaimed novelist who did this as a side gig.
The novelist also praised my work but she recommended one more draft to be accomplished by recopying my words back onto the page—my old strategy yet again. After this, I told myself I would be done, ready to look for an agent.
I had completed the final copying draft and was deep into querying when I attended a fiction writing master class. After we’d completed an exercise on character development, the teacher offered us the chance to read from our own work. Thinking that I was next in line for the Pulitzer, my hand shot up. I read the first sentence. The teacher’s praises were effusive. “That first line could be in the Poets and Writers column where they feature first sentences,” she oozed but the sentences that followed didn’t inspire the same reaction
“Amatuerish,” was the word she used and I sank into my seat wishing the earth would swallow me up. Then I looked at my work. She was right. Right then I stopped my agent search and began what would be my final revision.
The novel is now in print, in Dickens style serial form in a Baltimore magazine with 8,000 circulation. I’m not expecting a movie deal, but I’m thrilled that it’s being read. What matters more is that I’m itching to start again—yes, another novel. The characters are rattling around my brain; I’ve got another story to tell. So, please excuse me while I go off to write.