A dear reader recently asked me:
“I wish you would write a post about the history of how ELIXIR was written / developed….I think most of us have no idea the amount of work that goes into writing a novel… I would find that very interesting.”
So today I’m going to be telling the story of how ELIXIR grew from “a cool idea” to “a published book,” with a few tips and tricks thrown in and perhaps some cautionary tales!
Of course, there are as many different writing processes as there are authors; the following is simply the road I took:
Someday is Now
ELIXIR was the first book I ever wrote, and it took me 7 years (By contrast, Book 2 in the Changeling P.I Series, which comes out this October, took 7 months. There’s a lot to be said for the motivational push of a deadline!) But anyway, back in 2009, I had only the vague notion that I think many people daydream of in passing, that I wanted to write a book “someday.”
And then it hit me that someday is now – or never.
So I decided I would take the plunge and write that book I kept thinking / dreaming / talking about.
Don’t ‘write what you know’; write what you love.
At this point, I didn’t even know what I wanted my book to be about, but I knew I wanted it to be in the Fantasy genre, specifically Urban Fantasy, because that was the genre I most loved to read.
I’ve always thought the adage “write what you know” is B.S that keeps newbie authors in their comfort zone. I prefer “write what you LOVE.”
I loved fantasy; I loved magic and magical creatures. I found the “literary fiction” I’d been trained to write in college to be stultifying, pretentious and boring – fantasy was the genre that brought me joy, and it was joy I ultimately wanted to spread through my writing.
I wanted to write about fairies, because they’d always been my favorite magical being, and particularly fairy changelings, because I find changeling folklore endlessly fascinating.
It’s important I realized later during the long hard slog of writing a novel to find your subject matter really fascinating – because even the shiniest initial idea will lose much of its shine as you slog through the rewrites – so it’s vital to start with something that makes you light up with glee just thinking about it (at least at first!)
The initial seed inspiration for ELIXIR actually originated in a bedtime story my dad told me when I was a child. As a kid, I was obsessed with fairies, and begged my dad to tell me stories about these mythological beings. My dad didn’t have much knowledge of fairies, but he was well versed in the 1960’s era Superman TV show plots of his youth. Thus “Super Fairy” was born, and he regaled me nightly with the adventures of a fairy who leaves her own kind to come live amongst humans, disguised as a human girl, but uses her fairy powers to help the town chief of police solve unsolvable crimes (if you’re seeing some parallels here – remember, as a product of Waldorf Schools, I grew up without TV and movies, thus I thought my dad had invented all these tropes!)
And then many years later, just before new years 2009, I had the idea for a novel: what happens when Super Fairy grows up? What if she becomes convinced that she’s nothing but human and that being a changeling was just a childhood game of make believe? And then what if the fairies show up to remind her of her destiny?
If you’ve read ELIXIR, you’ll note that this is NOT quite the story I actually wrote. This was only the seed idea, and stories can meander quite far from their initial inspiration.
But this was enough of a concept to start me writing
Learn whether you’re a plotter or a pantser…the hard way.
There’s an age old divide amongst writers between “the plotters” and “the pantser” (i.e. those who plot out their entire book before they start writing, and those who write ‘by the seat of their pants’ so to speak.)
I started off as a pantser, but only because no one had ever taught me how to plot. None of my college writing classes were of any help, because they all focused on short stories – and while writing short stories is an immensely challenging art form in its own right, it’s a totally different skillset then plotting a full length novel.
So I was on my own.
I decided I would complete a full length, 300 page ish, rough draft of a manuscript – just to see if I could do it (I’d never written anything that long before!)
I blocked out time in my schedule each day (or realistically about 5 days a week – life happens) to write, and set ‘writing goals’ with a good friend who was also starting her first novel. It is super important, I learned, to have a buddy when you set big goals for yourself, to check in on your progress and call you on your b.s.!
I realized I could either set my writing goals in time (i.e. hours spent writing) or in word count (i.e. amount of writing produced.) I found that setting word count goals was infinitely more productive. I might only have 30 minutes in a given busy day to write, but I could write for that half hour like my hair was on fire and produce a pretty decent word count equal to 3 hours of fretfully staring at the computer screen.
I defined my word count by how many words I could write in a sitting before my brain burned out and I had to go do something else. Encouragingly that word count number before I hit the wall has grown immensely over time; when I started my first novel, I could only manage about 700-750 words per writing session (about 2 paperback pages) Now I can write about 2,000-3,000 words (about 10 -15 pages) before mental exhaustion sets in.
Our culture accepts the idea that practice makes you improve in music, sports etc… but thinks that novels spring forth fully formed from the minds of writers like Athena from the head of Zeus. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writing is a skill, like anything else.
Which brings me to another point:
Your first draft will inevitably be a hot mess – that’s its job.
So, after a year of writing sessions, I had a completed rough draft of a novel, a thick stack of over 300 pages of which I was immensely proud.
And it was an unreadable mess.
A disjointed story that meandered all over the place, with subplots that dead-ended, and a POV that kept switching from 1st to 3rd person (because I couldn’t make up my mind!) simultaneously confusing and dull.
I am not being self-deprecating; it was horrible.
So I started afresh. I did some brainstorming about what story I really wanted to tell, identified a few key plot points, and then wrote another 300 pages over the course of another year. It was pretty awful too, but at least there was a story in there now that I could see, like an unfinished statue half-emerged from the rock.
But by that point I’d realized where part of the problem lay: being a “pantser” (see above) clearly did not work for me. I know authors who write wonderful, successful books without outlining, and I tip my hat to them, but I learned the hard way that this is not me.
I realized the only way I could avoid plot holes, and the frustration of having to throw out hundreds of pages of writing that was unusable (a waste of countless hours) was to meticulously plot out the whole story in advance.
Writing may be an art, but plotting is a craft – and I think it’s one anyone can learn. In this endeavor, I was aided immeasurably by the best writing ‘craft book’ I’ve found to date, Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley. I swear by Rock Your Plot, and once you’ve completed that, the follow up volume is invaluable as well: Rock Your Revisions
Revise, revise, revise – and get help doing it!
After writing another 300 pages, but this time with a plot outline, courtesy of the Rock Your Writing books, so I wouldn’t go completely off course, I realized I was much too close to this story to be able to evaluate it accurately anymore – I needed critique partners.
I currently have 2 critique partners I adore, but have some cautionary tales about critique partners too. Giving productive writing feedback is a talent, and not one every person or even every author possesses. I went through about 10 critique partners who weren’t at all helpful before I found two who are. (I wrote another post where I go into how to find, identify, and nurture a productive critique partnership – you can read that here.
I also joined professional writers organizations, namely RWA (Romance Writers of America) I don’t consider my writing to be “romance,” but I found them incredibly helpful for all kinds of genre fiction, including fantasy. They are hands down the most well-organized, professional, efficient, practically useful (and friendliest!) of any writing organization I’ve ever been a part of and I cannot recommend them highly enough!
You wrote a novel – now what?
Once I had revised my manuscript with my critique partners to be as polished as I could possibly make it, I decided it was time to take my baby book out into the world and try to get it published.
I queried about a dozen agents, got about a dozen rejection letters. (I also wrote another novel during that time, but that’s another story)
And I started pitching in person at writer’s conferences, starting with RWA Nationals.
If you’ve never pitched at a writer’s conference, this is what it’s like (at least at RWA): You are ushered into a huge ballroom full of little tables with 2 chairs, and a publishing professional (literary agent or editor) sitting in one of the chairs, with the hot seat for you – and then you get approximately 7 minutes to convince them that your book is the greatest thing ever and that they want to buy it. It’s basically like speed dating agents and editors (except you usually only get to meet two!)
It is stressful as hell – on both sides!
Now, I had been told by authors I knew that no one ever actually sells a book at one of these big ‘pitch sessions.’ Sales, I was told, typically happened by querying individual agents who then pitch their client’s book to the editors etc… and that is usually how it happens – but there are some exceptions, as you’ll see below.
The good thing about being told ‘your odds are almost zero’ is that it takes the pressure off. I wasn’t looking at these pitch sessions as the be all and end all of my publishing hopes and dreams. I just figured ‘here’s a chance to practice talking about my book without sounding like an idiot.’
During my second year of RWA Nationals pitch sessions, I met a delightful young editor and gave her my spiel. She seemed interested, asked me some very thoughtful questions about the story, and then asked me to email her the full manuscript. That showed interest, because often in pitches folks just asked for a partial (25 pages or so) or nothing at all.
I emailed her the manuscript as requested. (By the way, I heard a statistic recently that 90% of authors who are asked by an agent or editor at a conference to send them their manuscript NEVER actually send it! Guys, this person only asked because they were genuinely interested in your book – believe me, if they’re not interested, these pros have no problem saying no – send it to them!)
But anyway, I sent it in. Months went by, and I never heard anything so I interpreted silence as a no. I queried a few more people.
And then out of the blue one day while walking to my subway stop after work, I got an email from my phone from the editor with an offer for a two book deal.
Reader, I started squealing and crying and hyperventilating right on the sidewalk outside the 42nd st A/C/E (luckily in NYC, this reaction barely raises an eyebrow)
I will never forget that moment.
Once I stopped hysterically squealing, I jumped to work – I emailed the editor back expressing my enthusiasm, but (and this is SUPER IMPORTANT fellow authors!) I did NOT immediately accept the offer – I asked if I could have two weeks to secure representation with a literary agent.
I am so glad I did this. I am now represented by the amazing Jennifer Udden of Barry Goldblatt Literary, and I have learned first hand what an important role and agent plays and how much they really earn their 15%.
I realized from the moment I first read the offer email that I did not understand the contract terms at all (contracts are particularly byzantine legalese) and I needed professional help to know what I was agreeing to. Thank goodness I did, because let’s just say there was a line in there that could have had a far reaching implications, and I’m extremely grateful to my agent for structuring terms I felt very comfortable accepting.
(This is why I note to authors above, don’t “accept” a contract initially without an agent – if you’ve already agreed to the terms, there’s very little your agent can negotiate)
Now that you’re published, the real work begins
This is already a long post, so I’ll save the process I went through with my editor and the rest of the team at Harper for another post, but working with a professional editor has been truly a pleasure and a privilege. I’ll write another post about what happens from the time you get an offer through all the rounds of edits to seeing your book in print – but let’s just say I’ve never worked harder in my life and also I think grown more as an author in the past year than ever before.
I can’t wait to see where the journey goes from here.
So, that’s the not-so-short history of how ELIXIR came into being!
(Fun fact: the original title wasn’t ELIXIR. It was “The Reddest Stolen Cherries.” Yeah, I like Harper’s pick better too!)
Do you have any questions about the writing / publishing process I didn’t answer? Drop me a line in the comments? Or feel free to share how your journey has been! I’d love to hear!