I launched my first novel, Small Change, over the weekend, culminating a five-year journey. I don’t even know where to begin in sharing with my fellow writers what I learned on this journey. Instead of one of those obnoxious “buy my book, buy my book” posts, I am going to highlight some of the major lessons learned:
The book you start out to write may not be the book you end up writing. Small Change began as a short story I wanted to bring into my local critique group. The premise was the wonder a small child feels when he experiences his first family vacation. I was going for a Jean Shepherd-type story. Jean Shepherd was a writer, radio talk show host and raconteur whose book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, was the inspiration for the TBS classic, A Christmas Story. My main character was John Sykowski and his family was from the Chicago suburbs. As I began developing the characters and the boy’s family, I realized I needed another family for them to meet on their summer vacation at a lake resort in Wisconsin. This family would be the opposite of the main character’s family. That family became the Crandales, from rural Iowa, headed by a second-generation minister. As I began writing, I realized the story of these two families had more potential than I imagined.
Do outline, but don’t be afraid to make mid-course adjustments. After I abandoned the short story in favor of a full-blown novel, I prepared a bare-bones outline of about a dozen milestone scenes. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter when it comes to outlining. The first draft served as my outline. I made one major change during the first draft. The character Rebekka, the daughter of the minister, was originally envisioned as the classic “wild child” of a clergyman, who drank and got high and had promiscuous sex. The problem with that was that I already had such a character, her younger brother, Ben. I completely redrew Rebekka as a painfully shy child and I explored the possibility of a romantic relationship with the main character, John.
Your first draft is only the beginning. I completed about eighty percent of the first draft during a period of feverish inspiration and activity in the fall of 2007. By the summer of 2008, the first draft was done. I put it aside for four weeks and then began the revision process. I realized how far I was from a finished product. I began sharing selected sections with members of my critique group. In the spring of 2009, I sent the first 50 pages to two agents I had met at a writer’s conference. They were extremely helpful, but passed on the project. One agent told me I sounded like an adult trying to sound like a 10-year-old child. John was 10 when the original story began. After numerous attempts to fix that problem, I decided the story started in the wrong place. I wrote a new chapter that started the story when John was 14, an easier voice for me to write.
Don’t be concerned if the theme is not immediately apparent. I worried constantly during the writing of my first draft about the theme. The story didn’t seem to have a theme. It wasn’t until a comment made by John’s mother on her deathbed that the theme hit me in the face. The mother, Marge Sykowski, tells John that every family must have its secrets. It’s what keeps families together. It was an “ah-ha!” moment for me. Once I knew the theme I embellished it during the revision process.
Build in plenty of time for the editing and critique process, but set a schedule. This was where the project got way off track. I sent the manuscript out for review and then I just waited. I didn’t feel comfortable setting deadlines for my reviewers since they were graciously volunteering their time. I lost more than a year while I waited. In the meantime, I started and finished the first draft of another novel. I lost my focus on Small Change and it was difficult to get back into it.
Weigh your publishing options carefully. I really wanted to go the traditional publishing route. I believed strongly in this work and I was confident I could secure a publisher. However, all of my queries were met with polite rejections. In researching the publishing industry, it became apparent that first-time authors faced long odds in the current environment. In deciding to go the self-publishing route, I was heavily influenced by a guest blog post by Victorine Lieske on JA Konrath’s blog. A self-published author, Lieske said she initially queried a handful of agents for her novel, Not What She Seems, and was relieved when they rejected her work. She said she knew it could take five years for her to get published and she didn’t feel she had the time to wait. She also didn’t want to sacrifice her other responsibilities in the pursuit of traditional publishing. I felt the same way. As an author in my mid-50s I don’t have five years to wait. I want to get published and write more books. So I decided to publish through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.
Writing a novel is a team effort. You cannot do it alone. So many people helped me along this journey, from my local critique group, a friend who is a graphic designer, my family, my book editor, our state authors and publishers group, and many friends who offered encouragement along the way.
I will be sharing other lessons in future blog posts. If you do want to buy the book: