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A Trip to Portland; or, The Long and Convoluted Story of How My Novel Came to Be: Part Five

I finished my novel in the fall of 2010 — at least, I wrote through to the end of the story and even wrote those magical words, "The End." Then I waited a few months before I sent it to agents. I wanted to get feedback from a few friends, but I also wanted to cool off so I could evaluate the novel myself.

I learned with my first novel that it is entirely possible for me to write something and not see what is wrong with it. Before that, I thought I was fairly self-critical, a pretty good judge of my own writing. But what I realized is that the flush of happiness that often follows in the wake of finishing a big piece of writing is a wonderful high, but it can also be blindingthe flush of happiness that often follows in the wake of finishing a big piece of writing is a wonderful high, but it can also be blinding. And when you are in that state and you try to read your own work, you read not only your words as they appear on the page but your words suffused with your own emotion, with all these associations and colors that you bring to it. In my experience, you need — at least I need — a much cooler head to really see the thing: to see only the words on the page. And only then can you begin to wrestle with what you have.

So for a few months, I wrote book reviews. I tutored. I cooked. I read a lot. I sent the novel to some friends and awaited their reactions. I tried not to think obsessively about my novel and what would happen when I sent it to agents. I obsessed anyway.

I finished the novel at the end of October, but I didn't send it to agents until March. I signed with one several weeks later.

I thought that was pretty much it. I imagined my agent would send it to publishers shortly after. She and I had talked about some revisions, but I was so enthusiastic, so willing to work hard and fast, that I assumed I could whip those out in a few weeks. It took a year.

That year was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I will never stop being grateful to my agent for it, for the year I didn't know I needed. Even if no one ever saw the novel but me, even if it never sold and lived only in a drawer in my desk, next to my first one, I'd always know that I had a much better novel at the end of that year than I'd had beforehand.

The plot didn't change — and remarkably almost all the scenes that I wrote during my six-week manic phase remain in place, albeit in highly edited format and with some new material added in the interstices. Yet the novel was a different novel afterward than it was before. A lot of different things went on that year. I went through the novel from the perspective of each of the side characters. I tried to flesh each of them out, to be as fair to them as possible, to think about what they would say or do knowing that in their minds they had to see themselves as protagonists of their own lives, not side characters in someone else's stories. I also began to see more and more places where I felt like I was trying too hard with the writing, trying to prove my cleverness, sacrificing the integrity of the character's voice in my effort to assert something about me, Adelle. I expanded a section that I'd come to think was compressed and eliminated bits that I was attached to for one reason or another but were thematically repetitive.

Some of the changes I made were suggested by my agent, but most were not, not directly. She's a terrific reader and great at pointing to sections that weren't working that well, noting where the writing could be tighter. But a lot of what I'm talking about couldn't have come from anyone but me. I just had to be with the thing for a year. What she did was hold me to a high standard, push me to make it better — not give me a step-by-step guide as to how to accomplish that. I don't think anyone can really do that for anyone else. A novel is too personal, too much one's own.

My life that year consisted of… tutoring, and day after day of sitting at the computer, of countless nights pacing around my apartment, of frustrated tears and funks when I'd finally isolated something that could be better — and had no idea how to fix it. It was the year when I came to appreciate marathon reading — I mean, reading and rereading the thing again and again and again, reaching to the point where I never wanted to hear the names Nate and Hannah ever again and then forcing myself to keep going, read it one more time.

Here's a box of drafts that I marked up (keep in mind this is one box of several, and that for every marked-up draft I kept, there are more that I threw away):

Marked-up drafts

I will never be able to say to people who don't like the book — at least not with any shred of honesty — "Oh, well, it's just something I dashed off!"

But I don't regret a second of it. Writing this was by far the most intense and thrilling intellectual experiences of my life. I once thought getting published was the point of writing a novel. And it is certainly important, financially and in terms of feeling justified in the eyes of the world — I don't want to be Pollyanna-ish about it — but on a deeper level, I do think the best part of writing a novel is writing the novel. That's reason enough to do it.

Not that the other stuff doesn't matter. Not that I don't care about whether people read the book. If you are reading this, and if you read the book, I certainly hope you like it.

Read Parts One, Two, Three, and Four of "A Trip to Portland; or, The Long and Convoluted Story of How My Novel Came to Be" by Adelle Waldman

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Adelle Waldman is the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's journalism school, she is a freelance journalist and book reviewer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Books mentioned in this post

Adelle Waldman is the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

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