Writing a novel in a month is one thing….

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbAs the more than gazillion National Novel Writing Month writers prepare to knock out another 40,000 novels next month, here are some words of advice: follow your muse, but don’t worry if you decide you don’t get along after all.

My debut novel, Washed Up, was produced in the 2009 NaNoWriMo.  I revised it over the next year, and it was published in 2011 by North Star Press, receiving a “smashing debut” review by the esteemed Library Journal.

It was not, however, the first novel I ever wrote.  And, since publishing Washed Up, I’ve written four more novels. So far, two of those are complete — they are follow-ups in the mystery series and they have been published.  Two are in progress.

Then there are the other novels I don’t talk about, both completed and uncompleted works. For all of these, my muse and I started out inspired and with high hopes, but the books languished, I lost interest, and I expect never to return to them.  These are novels where my muse and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. And frankly Muse got a bit pissed off that I paid no attention to his ideas (my Muse is a he), and called me a lazy hack more than once.

Since then we’ve reached an understanding and are on speaking terms, most of the time. Here’s the understanding: some novels die an early death, and many will never to see the light of day on a book shelf or in an eReader. Others get finished, but author lacks the interest or ability to go back and do the necessary revision that will get them where they need to be.

It’s hard, at first, for a new novelist to understand the difference between a first draft that can grow up to be a real novel, and one that has nothing but high hopes of greatness. New novelists may develop wonderful characters, but have them do nothing. Some may come up with a great plot idea, but develop flat, boring characters that can do nothing with the great story they are given. My problem is generally a great love of place and poetry, that shines through, but interesting people and stories live elsewhere and no one comes to visit.

I learned a lot from writing my novels, especially the ones that never got finished or will never be published. The real lesson was that sometimes I just needed to let the unfinished project remain unfinished. There’s no point in beating yourself up over a book that refuses to be a book, and basically letting that stagnation keep you from writing anything. Take what you’ve learned from it and move on to the next one. Trust me, the next book will be better. The next one after will be even better. And maybe you’ll publish the fourth one, like I did and it may even happen to be a NaNoWriMo novel.

The important thing is to do the work. If NaNoWriMo helps that work happen for you, wonderful. I’m wishing all gazillion 2013 novelists the best of luck.

✭✩✩✩✩Stinky Yes, But Not From the Cheese

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Just joining our story?  It starts here . Or you can begin with this installment and hear what some readers think of the Big Cheesy Novel. Starting with this back cover blurb. You can always trust back cover blurbs, right? 

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Praise for the Big Cheesy Novel

Beautiful, lush, and a tour- de-force, the Big Cheesy Novel is the late 20th century’s Vanity Fair. Bonnie Huber is a modern Becky Sharp: a plucky, likeable heroine climbing the American social ladder of the late 1970’s. Rich, poignant, and at times hilarious, this novel sets the standard for THE American novel.

Bob Burdicker, best-selling and award-winning author of the Lucky Hands and Winning Streak.

First Online Review for the Big Cheesy Novel

✭✩✩✩✩Complete Waste of Time – The Big Cheesy Novel is a Big, Gooey Mess.

By Ann Amison-Reader

The Big Cheesy Novel is appalling, ludicrous, superficial, and a complete waste of the time it took to write this sentence. Still, I wanted to warn readers out there who might believe the false advertising on the book cover and attempt to read this thing. There are so many things wrong with this book I don’t even know where to begin.

First, do we really care about another college girl’s trip to Paris and its ripple effect through the rest of her boring life? That premise might have been okay if a more interesting character undertook the journey. But Bonnie Huber is as lame as the name sounds, with a lackluster physique to match her late-1970’s era fashion sense, though of course she’s perfect for THAT lamentable era of smock tops, bellbottoms, and earth shoes. She is as bland as stale toast on a cloudy, midwestern day.

Don’t believe what the book title advertises; it’s marketing drivel, but I guess that’s how they sell books. I was expecting delicious, gooey cheese, and lots of it, and while there is a lot of SOMETHING in this novel that stinks, it’s not cheese, not even flavorless, cellophane-wrapped American cheese which would have been at least SOMETHING.

I am insulted by the blurbs on the back cover, like the one from the so-called famous author Bob Burdicker. Never heard of Burdicker. Based on how this novel is going, I won’t be checking him out soon.

The fact is that a wimpy, unsexy girl with a bad haircut cannot sustain even a small, “serious” novel, and certainly not a big cheesy one. Take my advice, avoid reader’s indigestion, and walk away now from the Big Cheesy Novel.

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Bonnie considered Tom’s plea. It was going to be tough enough for him to survive in Paris without any knowledge of French, but no money and no passport could have some severe consequences. Sure, he might be able to eventually find his way to the American Embassy with help from some passerby, but here she was, capable, someone he knew, someone who already knew her way around Paris. How could she turn him down? It would be cruel.

Still, turning him down was her first thought. Her only thought.

He’d needed her before. He’d needed lots of people. But his needs were driven simply by an arrogant laziness; everyone knew that, including Tom. He was smart enough to know that the easiest, surest path to success was to have others lined up eager to do his bidding. And people seemed to fall all over themselves to do just that. Bonnie wasn’t one of those people, but it wasn’t because she’d always had the guts to say ‘no’ to him. He’d rarely asked her for anything. He didn’t have to. There were already plenty of people falling all over themselves to do whatever he wanted.

They guy had charisma, whether he was hung over or not. He lit up a room, and she could see that had not changed.

They were in the land of the Louis XIV, the 16th century monarch who’d ruled France at the height of its powers. Regarded as a miracle at his birth, he was also known as le Roi Soleil – the Sun King. The Louvre, now the world’s richest museum, had been his palace.

Tom was the Sun King of Sunray Lake High.

He had, however, been less than sunny the last time he’d asked something of her. They had been taking a calculus exam, one that counted for half of their final grade. Even though it was nearing eleven a.m., Tom was still wearing the rumpled overcoat of a hangover, and he leaned close enough for her to smell the alcohol on his breath. He nodded towards her nearly complete test paper, giving her what he probably thought was a charming look. She immediately dismissed him, shocked that he was actually insisting that she help him cheat. Bonnie had been willing to share a few homework answers here and there, but letting Tom copy an entire test was something else.

The flash of annoyance that crossed his face when it was clear she had rejected his request made it clear how he felt. No one turned down the Sun King of Sunray Lake High! For the rest of the year, whenever they passed in the hall — him with a half dozen friends, her alone —she could see that she didn’t seem to register in his face at all. He’d forgotten her the moment she turned him down and quickly moved on to more accommodating subjects.

And that was fine with her.

“So you will help me out?” he asked. “Right?”

“Sure,” she said. What else could she say? “After the Louvre.” She was not going to have him messing up her plans. She didn’t have a year to bum around Europe like he did, she had just two more weeks.

“The Louvre, huh. They serve wine there?”

She knew he knew exactly what the Louvre was. And how he would have preferred to spend the afternoon. The guy had lost everything, and still the only thing that mattered to him was where his next drink was. So she shrugged and gave the same response she’d given when he’d asked her to cheat on the final calculus exam.

“Suit yourself,” she said, turning away to and continuing on her way across the Tuilleries.

“Still a hard-ass,” he said, instantly at her shoulder again, “taking everything so seriously. Not everything’s a final exam.”

She kept walking, feeling the blood rush to her face. So he had remembered.

“Look, once I get things straightened out, I’ll take you to dinner. I’ll owe you,” he said.

Bonnie gave him another look and tried hard to detect even the smallest amount of sincerity. And while it was still the face of the Sun King that beamed back at her, she thought she might have seen the slightest dimming of his damnably blue eyes. Perhaps she had convinced him that dorky Bonnie Huber still had the guts to turn him down. But she would have to decide without knowing for sure, suspecting that she was seeing what she wanted to see in those blue eyes, and not the truth.

“I said I’d help you,” she snapped, “– after the Louvre.”

— Want more cheese? Head right this way —-

1994 to 2011: A Novel Grows Up

One of the things people ask when they hear my first novel is being published is: “how long did it take you to write it?”

It depends on what your definition of ‘it’ is.

They also ask if I’ve written any other books.

Yes. Three or four. Depending upon what you count.

Washed Up began as a novel called Capa City.   The year was 1994. That first novel grew from a few emails I shared with a coworker, to novella length (around 100 pages). Versions of it were reworked during my early M.F.A. years at Hamline. A good chunk was written when my daughter was a baby, during the stretch of leisure time in 1996 more commonly known as a maternity leave.

I stopped working on Capa City when one M.F.A. class came to an end, somewhere around 1997 or 1998. My instructor told me that the novel contained beautiful descriptions. So did the Minnesota State Arts Board, which passed it through one grant round but didn’t send it to the final round.

People loved my lovely descriptions of landscape. However, not much happened either in the book or to that book. I was never sure what to do with my main character, so I killed her off around page 100. I began part 2 without her, and, well, that’s sort of the end of that story. You see, there’s this little thing called a plot….

I began another novel that I named Sleepwalking the Seals. It’s an odd title I know, and I can’t tell you what it means because I don’t know, I just thought it sounded quirky and interesting, two attributes the book didn’t end up having. That book was about a woman working in an office tower who spent a lot of time looking out the window. The main character, Lyra, is wandering through life unable to make decisions. She drives around aimlessly and takes up with a handsome slacker named Martin. Um. That’s about it. This is what we call not much of a plot, and to be honest, it’s semi-autobiographical and pretty boring.  I stopped writing it.

Then I began another book, Mr. Unbelievable, somewhere at the end of the 90’s. This book is about a pathological liar. It’s the genesis for another book I’m started writing late last year –Albert Park: A Memoir in Lies. Neither is finished, but Albert Park is now 100 pages long and I think it’s a promising book. I’ll get back to it again.

In 2002 I began the novel that would become my master’s thesis, Lucid. Set in western Minnesota it weaves together four particular and interconnected journeys through grief.  Told through alternating points of view, Lucid immerses readers in a deeply felt story that challenges them to look unflinchingly at the high cost of oppressed desire and intense sorrow. (Yes, those last few sentences come directly from my unsuccessful query letters.)

The book was nominated for Outstanding Prose Thesis the year I graduated from Hamline’s M.F.A. program (2004). Judith Guest, the outside reviewer of the nominated works, called Lucid “beautiful and spare”.  It didn’t win, and after multiple submissions to agents and publishers, it has not yet been accepted for publication. I’m not sure I’m interested in sending it anywhere anymore.

Are you keeping track? It’s 2004. Ten years writing novels (Capa City, Sleepwalking the Seals, Mr. Unbelievable, Lucid) and there is one complete novel, a novella, and starts on other several works. Some might call this persistence. Or insanity. It’s a little of both. Budding novelists perform solo, often to an audience of none. You have to be crazy to do that.

Four years later, writing group friends suggest we participate in National Novel Writing Month, an annual event challenging participants to complete a 50,000 word novel in a month. I’m game. A few months earlier I wrote my first mystery short story , featuring a detective named Arvo Thorson. I think of Capa City and decide maybe I can build on it – it’s a mystery after all, starts with a murder. Arvo becomes the main character, not right away, but gradually he takes over. The book gets a new name. Riverbaby.

NaNoWriMo in progress

I finish my 50,000 words, but not the whole book, at the end of November 2008. I spend the next year revising the book, with the help of my writing pals. By 2009 it has a new name. Washed Up. I submit it, off and on, as my enthusiasm comes and goes. By the middle of 2010 I’m frustrated and completely depressed about writing. After a writing weekend in the country with Lindsay, Anika and Melissa, I’m ready to throw in the towel. The piece I write during that time is about my failure as a writer.

I’m tired of being rejected. All this work that goes into a novel, years and years and years of work, and I have nothing to show for it but a lot of manuscripts scattered in boxes and across several computers. I think maybe I just don’t get it. I’m no good.  No one cares.

Sometime in the fall of 2010 I read of new releases from a Minnesota publisher, North Star Press. They specialize in books set in Minnesota and have a particular interest in Finnish-Americans. Hm. My book is set in Minnesota and has a Finnish-American detective in it. Well. Maybe.

I sent it off late in 2010. I’m so used to rejection that I basically forget about it. In the meantime, I start writing — you guessed it — another novel. I’m determined to just write as I please and in a tear I write the first 100 pages of Albert Park. Chapter One gets accepted in a literary journal.

Then, in March of 2011, that email finally arrives. The one that comes from a publisher and says, “I’d like to talk to you about publishing your book. Call me.”

What a whirlwind that phone call set into motion.

Now I look ahead to September 1, only a few short weeks from now. I can’t quite believe it’s finally almost here, the day when I will hold in my hands a book I wrote, that others can read. I’m so happy that writers I respect have good things to say about it, a Library Journal review is imminent, and a major chain is carrying it.

Wow.

There’s still so much more to do, after the book launches. I’m prepping for some major regional publishing events, planning talks for the library, and scheduling events at bookstores.

Onto the next phase. The one where I pitch, pitch, pitch Washed Up, go all out and finish the follow up book, maybe get back to Albert Park. What’s beyond that I don’t know. My only goal is to write the best books I can, and give readers something they enjoy.

So how long did it take to write Washed Up? Somewhere between one month (November, 2008) and 17 years. How many novels have I written? Two. Plus or minus three. But who’s really counting. Not me!

Admit One to “the Network of Literary Genius”

I stumbled across this description of my blog, made by a person completely unknown to me.

Hello Rhea Zwiebach. You are a college sophmore, apparently studying the interwebs this past spring when you came across my blog completely by accident.

And there under a description of someone far more prominent than me, you explained that my wit and charm make me beyond intriguing and added me to your “network of literary genius.”

Well thank you for that. I love everything you said and I hope I live up to it.

I love my new bio and I think I may use it on future occasions.

Susan is a published author, with works of fiction, memoirs and poetry prominent in her repetoir of successful literary accomplishments. She also maintains a blog online, and is wildly popular, though not necessarily mainstream. Her very light sarcasm, wit and charm make her beyond intriguing. She is currently working on her very first mystery, to be published on a future date.

“Wildly Popular, Though Not Necessarily Mainstream”

I stumbled across this description of my blog, made by a person completely unknown to me.

Hello Rhea Zwiebach. You are a college sophmore, apparently studying the interwebs this past spring when you came across my blog completely by accident.

And there under a description of someone far more prominent than me, you explained that my wit and charm make me beyond intriguing and added me to your “network of literary genius.”

Well thank you for that. I love everything you said and I hope I live up to it.

I love my new bio and I think I may use it on future occasions.

Susan is a published author, with works of fiction, memoirs and poetry prominent in her repetoir of successful literary accomplishments. She also maintains a blog online, and is wildly popular, though not necessarily mainstream. Her very light sarcasm, wit and charm make her beyond intriguing. She is currently working on her very first mystery, to be published on a future date.