Twenty Things I Want to Tell You about the Novel I Started Ten Years Ago

Dear Class:

1. I get the idea for this novel in 2002. I spend over six months reading and researching. Another six writing a book proposal/synopsis. And then my agent sends me an email: Variety has announced that they are making a movie about Cole Porter called De-Lovely. The plot of the movie is basically the plot of my book. “Stop working on it,” the agent says. “I’ll never be able to sell it right now. Go back to the circus book and finish that.”

2. When I submit The Circus in Winter to an editor, I also send her the proposal/synopsis for the Cole Porter book, to see if she is interested. As my agent predicted, she isn’t interested.

3. I gather up all my Cole Porter stuff, put everything in a box, and don’t look at it again for seven years.

4. So much changes in seven years. I have become an entirely different person. I live in a different state (#6), have a different job (#3), and I have just gotten married (#1). I’ve written Book #2 and needed to get cracking on Book #3. I go back to the Cole Porter box and open it up, re-read the synopsis.

5. I realize I am no longer interested in writing a book about Cole Porter. Instead, I want to write a book about his wife, Linda. This feels right. And who is to say that this is not the book I was supposed to write in the first place?

6. To keep job #3, I need to apply for a research grant and demonstrate that I am working on a book, so I write the grant and remind myself that I always find the focus of a book project while in the act of researching it.

7. I get the grant and go to the archive to do the research, and boom, I find the focus of the book project while in the act of researching it.

8. I write the first 40 pages of the novel. It is now 2010.

9. I apply for and am offered the job at Ball State. Now, the way I typically make life decisions is to ask myself: What will be better for my writing life and the book I’m trying to write? The answer–in the short term–will be to stay in Pittsburgh and keep writing with no major life disruptions. But the answer for my long-term happiness is to suck up the major life disruption and switch jobs, even if it means that it will take longer to finish the book. Sigh.

10. Around this time, someone important hears that I am working on a book about Mrs. Cole Porter and will I let her see it? I tell her no. I want to write the whole book first. I don’t want anyone to think they are buying a different book than the book I intend to write. Plus I’m getting ready to move and I don’t have time to give it to her. I wonder if I am making a huge mistake taking this new job, because, honestly, if I hadn’t taken the job, I would have said yes, here is my book, what do you think? I begin to wonder if I’ve made the right decision.

11. I quit my job. Sell my house. Buy another house. Move my shit across the country. My cat dies. My whole life changes. I don’t write a word of my novel for five months.

12. October 2010, I’m teaching ENG 407 and I tell myself I am going to write 50,000 words of this damn novel. I am going to take the 40 pages I started with, which are in 3rd person, and I’m going to rewrite the whole thing in first person. Yes! I begin. About 20,000 words in, I realize that the novel probably won’t work in first person, so I switch to third. I don’t go back and change anything. I just keep going.

13. Nov. 30, 2010, I have a 50,000 word draft. It’s just a rough sketch of what’s going to happen. No actual usable pages. But I know what’s going to happen now and I know what’s going on in my character’s head. This feels like progress, even though if you asked me to show you my novel, you wouldn’t be able to make sense of it.

14. Dec. 2010. I apply for another grant for Book #4. Which is pretty stupid thing to do when you aren’t done with Book #3 yet.

15. Jan 2011-June 2011, I am not noveling anymore, #amediting. I take the sketched chapters I banged out during Oct and Nov of 2010 and polish them smooth. I get about 175 good pages done. It’s back in third person.

16. Somehow, I actually get the grant I applied in for in #14, which means I have to go out of state for a month and work on Book #4. I only write one chapter of Book #3 that month. Instead, I start getting excited about Book #4.

17. August 2011: I’m getting ready for my classes. My shoulder gets impinged and I have to get a cortisone injection. My grandparents have to be moved to assisted living. Book #1 is being made into a musical. I have to start thinking about applying for promotion. Still, I try to find time to edit Book #3,

18. September 2011, I try to come up with 3,333 edited words each week, just like you. Most weeks, I manage to accomplish this.

19. I realize my novel needs a frame. I start writing the outer frame. The 15 page introduction that I wrote in #8 above is now somewhere before Part III. Will this work? Anyway, I have another 10,000 words for my novel. I’m past p. 200.

20. Yesterday, I found some time to work on my novel while I was sitting in my mom’s hospital room. My whole family was in the room, plus a nurse, and there was a football game on the TV. It was nuts. Everyone kept talking, asking me questions about Mom’s test results and what did I want for Christmas? What are you doing? they asked. I said, I’m working on my novel. They said, When will you finally be done with that book? And I said, I’m shooting for Sept. 1, 2012, ten years since I got the idea, and many hundreds of pages and hours later. Good, they say. Hurry up. What’s taking you so long? 

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5 Comments on “Twenty Things I Want to Tell You about the Novel I Started Ten Years Ago”

  1. Preach it! (this is great)

  2. Cathy Day says:

    Thanks, John! This blog is normally a place for my students to talk to each other, but last night, I felt like talking to them, too.

  3. Anne Sanow says:

    Thanks for this, Cathy—boy do I ever relate! I've had my Book #2 in progress for about this long too, with similar detours. And now characters for Book #3 are beginning to make themselves known, and they are beginning to get distinct and louder, and they, too, are telling me to hurry up already and finish Book #2 so they can have my undivided attention. We'll see how that goes!

  4. Love this story. And once again you are inspiring me to persevere in my own writing goals.

  5. […] years ago, I wrote this post for my novel-writing students about my progress on my book about Linda Porter. At that point it had […]


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