The Nine-Year Novel

photo by Phil Dolby

“End of the Day” by Phil Dolby

I’ve just finished drafting a novel that’s been nine years in the making.

Man, that felt good to type.

Nine and a half years ago, shortly after graduating from college, I had a realization that felt so profound it knocked me on my metaphorical ass. It was a literal wake-up-with-a-jolt-and-write-a-poem moment. That poem, to this day, is one that I think of as some of my very best work, and it came out in near-perfect final form. It was the seed of a novel that would not come out anywhere near quickly, confidently, or in its final form.

After graduating two years early, I had decided that I would take a year “off” (ha, ha) after college and try to write a novel. Now, the logical decision would’ve been to write the novel centered on the idea that had struck me so powerfully, but that’s not what I did. I didn’t know a lot about what it was like to be a full-time writer or how hard it would be to write a book, but I did know enough to guess that I had a lot to learn. My idea felt so profound to me that I was terrified of starting with it. I didn’t feel ready, or skilled enough. I wanted an idea that I still loved but that wouldn’t break my heart if I butchered it. I wanted a practice book.

I wrote a practice book, which served its purpose and is now permanently trunked. I didn’t know it at the time, but saving that special idea was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made, because my gut was right; I was absolutely not ready to write that book yet.

I spent the next nine years wondering if I was ready and when I would be ready and how I would know. I wrote about a short story’s worth of prose on the idea and stalled out. Over the years I would randomly be struck by more inspiration and additions to the story and its characters, and I’d write a section here or there, make notes on plotting or themes. Once I decided that I must be ready and tried to force myself through. I gave up. (And if you know me, you know I’m a finisher.) I resisted the gentle and loving pressure of my writing friends and loved ones who told me I was ready, not to be scared, to just go for it.

This was a lesson in trusting my gut. No one knew when I was ready but me. No one knew when it was the right time but me. No one was writing this book but me.

This book has always been a summer book. It spans the length of one summer and sort of epitomizes summer for me, so I always imagined I would write it during the summer. I tried a few times to write it at other times of year and it just didn’t feel right. And until this year, the summer timing just never worked out for me. I was either already mid-project on something else, swamped by life, totally burned out, or what have you. In the meantime, I wrote five different novels, a couple of poetry manuscripts, several picture books, and a few books’ worth of short stories, but I never felt quite ready to tackle what was (and is) an incredibly ambitious project.

Suddenly, this year, everything fell into place. I had several more epiphanies that felt profound and tied in with my book’s themes. I finally felt ready skill-wise. I had the time. I had the energy.

I started this new WIP from scratch (I’d grown too much to want to salvage any of my old sections) on my annual writing retreat with one of my writing besties in mid-March, which, thanks to an unseasonably warm winter, felt exactly like the beginning of summer – and kind of was. (The day after I got back from that retreat and starting my WIP was the day I got an offer of representation from my agent, by the way, so talk about timing.)

I never stopped from there, drafting the slowest I’ve ever gone at roughly 1,000 words a workday (with the exception of my retreat head-start). Occasionally I’d go over, but not by much. I wanted it to be well-thought and intentional, so I resisted my natural inclination to fast-draft. It was still rough, but it wasn’t rushed. I wasn’t sure how long the draft would be, but it ended up timing out almost perfectly with the end of summer. Here I am about to head into September, which is my official start to fall, with everything all wrapped up.

Oh, and did I mention that my ‘lucky’ (read: favorite) number is 9? Nine years in the making and 99,000 words on the nose, finished on a Friday afternoon at the end of a season. Yeah, that’s satisfying.

If it seems like I’m intentionally keeping details about the project itself from you, it’s because I am. What can I say? It’s a writer’s prerogative, and it’ll be years before this thing sees public eyes. This is a decade-long baby, and I’m very protective of it. This, too, is a lesson I’m learning. I don’t have to tweet about the subject matter, or send this to my beta readers right now, or let anyone read it, or even read it myself. It waited nine years, and it can wait one or two more in the incubator until I feel ready to revise all of that heart and guts I spilled onto the page. All I’m really willing to say about it is that it’s literary fiction with a hint of magical realism and not a drop of horror (yeah, I do that every once in a while 😉 ), and it’s the ballsyiest thing I’ve ever written.

The biggest lesson I learned from this WIP is to trust my artistic instinct. I’m so, so glad I waited nine years to write this book. And I’m so, so glad I didn’t wait ten.

So where do I go from here? First, I celebrate. Then I take a week or two off from drafting fiction. (I’ll still be doing other work.) Then I start on something new.

Something new? Hmmm… after a nine-year-in-the-making project and three huge WIP overhauls in a row, that sounds pretty damn good right now. Blank slate, here I come.

How about you all? Writers and artists, do you have a Big Project you’ve been waiting to make? Is it fear or is it incubation, and how do you know? I’d love to hear about it!

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