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

I love Portland. I do. But the truth is I've only been there once. For one night.

Still, the occasion was special. It was my honeymoon. My husband and I drove across the country, starting from Maine. We were about two-and-a-half weeks in when we reached Portland. After a couple of nights in Montana, including the hardest hike of our lives at Glacier, we were ready to do it up in a city that felt fun and cosmopolitan — and, as people who live in Brooklyn, sort of reminiscent of home, different but also familiar.

We had a terrific time. Here's a picture:

Adelle Waldman in Portland

But it's funny for me to think of that time now, three years later, when my novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., is about to be published.

When I got married, I had already been working on the novel for two years. I was only about halfway through. I had no publisher, I had no agent, and I had not published a word of fiction in my life, aside from in my high school literary magazine.

I worked as a tutor to high school kids, mostly for the SATs but also helping with English and history assignments. I worked odd hours — weekends, school nights, and over Thanksgiving break and other long weekends, when kids are typically loaded with assignments. The kids were nice, I like writing, and I like talking about books; it was a great side job for an aspiring novelist.

But it wasn't a career. My husband, on the other hand, had a contract from a publisher to write a nonfiction book. He'd turned in his first draft just weeks before our wedding. He was definitely a writer. But when people asked what it was I did, I didn't know what to saywhen people asked what it was I did, I didn't know what to say. I had once been a journalist, but that felt like a long time ago. My husband was a writer. I was an SAT tutor with a Microsoft Word document.

And I knew all too well that a Microsoft Word document doesn't always become a novel, not in any sense and certainly not in the published sense. Several years earlier, when I was 29, I had quit a gig as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal Online to write a novel. I sublet my New York City apartment and moved in with my parents in suburban Maryland for six months to do it. Never mind that in my previous attempts to write fiction, I had never before gotten farther than 50 pages.

But within five months, I'd produced something that could only be called a novel. It had a beginning, middle, and end. It was 500 pages, had a large cast of characters — it was told from the various perspectives of members of a middle-class Jewish family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — and had a clear plot, with the arrest of one of the daughters in Peru setting off a chain of reverberations for the whole lot of them.

When I finished I sent it off to agents. A bunch passed, but one said yes, and days after my 30th birthday, the agent sent the book to publishers.

At first, I waited eagerly. The first rejection came, but it was so nice it scarcely registered as a rejection. After a few weeks and several more rejections, I began to grow nervous. A few months later, I knew for sure that the novel wasn't going to sell.

As anyone who has ever tried and failed to publish a novel can attest, this was devastating...

Read Parts Two, Three, Four, and Five 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

  1. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Used Hardcover $17.50

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

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