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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  • Carie Juettner

    I love this! It gave me chills! I want to bookmark it and read it once a week. (And I might do just that.) I love that you had the presence of mind and maturity to know not to start with this novel and I love how serendipitously it all turned out in the end. And I’m shocked (!!!) that it’s not horror, but that doesn’t put a dent in how much I want to read it someday. Thank you for sharing this and for reminding me that some things are worth the wait. Congratulations. 🙂

    • That makes me feel amazing! Thank you so much, Carie. <3 I knew some people would be surprised I do non-horror too. I always list literary fiction in my genres of choice, but I don't talk about those projects nearly as much, so I figured people probably tend to forget I do that too. 🙂

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Annie– Yay! I raise my virtual glass to you. What a wonderful story of patience and gut-level instinct. SO important. I’ve now been working on my own ambitious project for close to three years, and when I start to feel antsy about it still not being done, I stop. Because I realize something you mentioned in your post as well: the incubation and allowing myself this time are the two things that are guiding this work into something much deeper, artistic, and BETTER.

    I’m WAY excited about your book and look forward to when we will have the honor of reading it … Literary fiction with magical realism. Yummy! You go, girl! You’re an inspiration.

    • Thanks, Melissa! That means a lot to me. And yes, I know you’re working on a biggie too. I have no doubt that you’ll come through with something that you feel wonderful about — and I do hope it takes slightly less than nine years! :)~

  • Sometimes book ideas take a long time to brew. I started thinking about my soon-to-be-released book over 4 years ago, but just couldn’t come up with a workable plot. It took about 2 years of trying different ideas before I had an epiphany about my heroine, and things began to fall into place. I have two book ideas now, and I have to say I’m planning #1, but it’s not going very well (I need a believable weird factor and it hasn’t happened yet). Perhaps I should jump ahead and try #2… I’m glad you waited for your gut instinct. I’m so happy for you!!

    • Thanks, Lexa! Yeah, 4 years is quite a haul. I hope your next two come a bit easier and that you get unstuck soon!

  • Lisa Bubert

    Annie — You continue to be one of the coolest, hardest-workin’, most badass people I’ve ever known. You have a level of integrity not seen too often in others and it has always been what I admire most about you. I’m so glad you waited to work on this when it felt right and I cannot wait (but I will wait, patiently) for the day we can all read and enjoy it. It’s gonna be a good one, I just know it. Love, Lisa.

    • This actually made me cry it’s so sweet. Lisa, your encouragement and support mean the world to me. Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. <3

  • I love this! Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Cynthia R.

    I’m a BIG fan of books that have taken a long time to write, Annie. Congrats on finishing your draft – what an accomplishment! 🙂

    • That’s an oddly cute thing to be a fan of. 🙂 (But I think I know what you mean!) Thanks so much, Cynthia!

  • KelsNotChels

    I am so, so proud of you, and I’m so happy that tiny cabin played even the tiniest role in this epic journey. Love you so!

    • Thank you! More than a tiny role; you’ve played a big role in me pushing through that barrier. Love you too!

  • I have something but no time for it yet. When it’s ready, I will be. Thanks for the encouragement!!

  • Julia Munroe Martin

    I can really relate to this. One of my ideas came to me over eight years ago, and I’ve been working on it in one form or another ever since. I love that your novel came out as a summer book as you always envisioned, and I love that you won’t give details. Here’s to new fall projects. Way to go, Annie!!

    • Maybe yours will be a nine year novel too! Thanks so much, Julia. 🙂

  • ronda hale

    Yay YOU! So beautiful to be able to share in your joy and excitement. I am thrilled to be executing a book with progress I never dreamed I could capture. I have to say stumbling across your blog was a monumental inspiration. Thanks and Cheers!

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad to hear that. I with you the best of luck with your continued progress. <3

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  • So inspiring! I’m going to share this with my writing group.

  • Wow. This is just awesome, Annie. How everything fell in line as soon as you waited for your gut to say yes. That, in and of itself, takes guts 😉 I understand this feeling of having an idea bigger you think you’re capable of executing with a ‘well-thought and intentional’ first draft. I had a literary horror idea that I was overwhelmed with excitement over, but I didn’t wait to write it. I started it on NaNoWriMo. And though that wild month probably helped me to finish something that would otherwise be unfinished still, I definitely was not ready. It had not incubated long enough, I hadn’t done enough research, etc.. I am happy for the draft that I have to work from but also a little disappointed that I will never be able to rediscover those words on the page with a mind and hand that was ready for the bigness of the idea. I love when you share about your process, Annie. Especially big moments like this. <3

    • Thank you so much, Ashley. <3 I'm intrigued by your 'big idea' story. For what it's worth, I don't think the draft was wasted, and I don't think it's too late to write that novel with the intention and thoughtfulness you envision. I actually just listened to some writing advice that fascinated me. One author apparently writes their whole first draft as fast as possible, prints it, and then re-writes it entirely from beginning to end using the first draft only as a template to go from, allowing the story to change as much as it wants along the way. It sounds like that might be a good manuscript for you to try that method out on, when you feel ready. Who knows? It could turn out even better!

      • What a great idea! I think I will try it with that. I actually did something very similar with my first novel I ever wrote (I will never trunk that novel *crosses arms and stomps foot*), and the rewrite–well, the like 12th rewrite–was so much better than I ever could have imagined. It made me cry when I reread it 2 years later. I didn’t think I’d be able to do that without just copying everything on the first draft print out, but it really did evolve as I let myself change things I had been previously uncomfortable with or had little nagging feelings about. So in that situation, it did turn out better. I never thought to do that for my ‘big idea’ lit horror. I will. When I’m ready. 🙂

        • Yay! Definitely when you’re ready. I’d love to hear all about it someday. And how cool that you saved your first novel! I love that.