Monday, September 21, 2015

How My Breakout Book Is Changing My World

The other day a friend who was visiting for the first time in several years asked my daughter what she thought about my writing. (The friend is a riding friend, and doesn't know my books at all.) My daughter replied brightly, "Well--she's getting better!" which sounded like faint praise. You know, the kind that damns. I knew my daughter didn't mean it that way. I laughed.

But on the other hand it's true.

The War That Saved My Life is my 16th published book. It's also my first big book. Biggish, anyhow. It remains to be seen how big. It's not on the New York Times bestseller list, but it was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. It's already sold more hardcovers than any of my previous books, many of which were quite well-reviewed and some of which stayed in print for years.

The praise is very nice. It's also--and I mean this truly, I'm not just saying it--unimportant.

The important part was the writing.

For many years I wrote a novel a year. Then came Jefferson's Sons, a four-year odyssey of research and revision, during which I learned a lot about patience, nuance, and voice.

Then after four years wrestling with a plot that mostly really happened (and thus was something I didn't have to invent) I sat down to make sense of a small girl with a clubfoot and a fierce heart, at war with her circumstances, and a lonely, depressed woman in an old brick house, and a bright yellow pony. The first part of the first draft made my editor say, "This isn't really your next book, is it?"

Anytime before Jefferson's Sons that might have convinced me to set the story aside, but I had written Jefferson's Sons. So I said, "This is absolutely my next book," and I trashed the first part and rewrote it. Six times. And then I had Ada's voice, but not her story--we went through several more drafts to find that. It was a ton of work, far more work than I'd ever done on a manuscript, and it was glorious. I loved the work; doing it changed who I am as a writer. I'm writing on the sequel now. The first draft was mostly dreck, a rough outline of the time span of the novel, with a few key plot elements loosely hung together. The second draft cut back on the navel-gazing and added some substance. But the third draft! The third draft is starting to tell a story--a real one, another story about loss and love and hope in hard circumstances. The third draft may be where the magic is.

Or not. There's always a fourth draft, after all.

Twenty years ago I poured out a lot of difficult stuff in a manuscript that I sent to my then-editor, Lauri Hornik (She's now President of Penguin BFYR, so my current editor's boss, but still and always a true friend.) Lauri sent it back to me and said, "You're not ready to tell this story yet. Maybe in five years, or ten."

It took twenty. If you read that old manuscript--which you won't, I'm not even sure I have a copy, and I know I'd wince to read it--you wouldn't see the connection to TWTSML, but I do. I know it's there. I became the writer who could tell the story well.  Whatever else happens with this book, writing it has made me better. For always. It's such a joy.