My manuscript is done. It’s a thrilling thing to say—not only that I finished a draft, but that all 100,000 words are what I want them to be (for now, until I revise with an agent and editor) and ready to send off. You’d think I’d be shouting this to the hilltops!
But I worry that after ten years no one will believe me. Even my poor husband probably says “That’s great!” just to humor me. Other people ask, “Wait, is this still your Peter Pan novel?” Still.
I’ve wondered myself why it took so long. I wrote my first full novel during grad school in only a year; how did a second novel take ten? True, that first novel was not so great and has deservedly stayed on a shelf, but come on: Nikki, what in all the vast cosmos have you been doing for the past decade? So I dug into old files and blog posts, looking for word counts and date stamps that would piece together the mystery.
2008 — began the first draft while also caring for my second baby, born Aug 2007, and teaching
2009 — finished the first draft at 75,000 words (almost 300 pages) that bounced between two first-person points of view (Wendy and the fairy); finished the second draft at 82,000 words that included blog posts written by the guy friends; started this website so I could learn about blogging for both the novel and my intermediate students; discovered I loved blogging
2010 — revised drafts three and four, at 88,000 and 92,000 words, that now included seven viewpoint characters (fairy, Wendy, and her five friends) told in third person, before having my third baby
2011 — managed three babies, age 0, 3 and 6, along with postpartum depression and major diet changes and teaching and blogging (seriously? I wrote that many posts that year?)
2012 — finished draft five at 115,000 words with eight points of view (universe as narrator) and queried agents; took a research trip down the west coast to gather extra setting details; received feedback from an agent who told me the second half of the novel didn’t match the first half and she had no idea how I could fix it
2013 — had a surprise fourth baby, then decided to build a house, still teaching; set both writing and blogging aside
2014 — moved into the new house and worked on adding setting and character details to the sixth draft (incorporating what I’d learned about personalities and astrology since having a fourth baby)
2015 — trimmed the sixth draft down to 102,000 words; got feedback from beta readers; taught a novel-writing class; wondered how to make both halves of the plot go together
2016 — spent months filling a notebook with all the background details of the story; discovered the 9 basic plots that spelled out why my two halves didn’t work (the first half was a QUEST story while the second half was a REBIRTH plot); finished seventh draft at 106,000 words without new info yet; renovated our home office
2017 — wrote three articles for SLCC; reshaped the novel with big additions from the notebook that would make the REBIRTH plot line gel from the beginning; finished eighth draft at 119,000 words; did back-and-forth edits with an editing intern former student; hired some great freelance editors to evaluate the manuscript and help with the query letter
January/February 2018 — cut 19,000 words at the editors’ suggestion; finalized query letter and synopsis and prepped list of agents with editors’ help
Laid out in a timeline, it’s easier to see the interruptions of babies (so glad that stage of life is over!) and also the learning curve of a complex novel. Not only did I have the usual dilemmas of plotting, pacing, characterization, and setting description, but I also had to balance eight viewpoints across 400 pages, giving each one fair stage time while being sure that every scene accomplished multiple purposes within the story.
I wanted to cry for joy when I read this part of the freelance editor’s letter validating my intuition and effort:
Your characters are all engaging and unique. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew them as well as my own friends, and I was very satisfied by their individual character arcs all coming to fulfilling conclusions by the end. Giving the reader the story told in all of their points of view was an ambitious undertaking, but you did it well. They each have very distinct ways of viewing the world. It really rounds out the story and feels natural with this group of characters for them to each contribute to the story. Somehow you managed to write from several points of view while still firmly keeping Wendy as the main character. That’s not easy to do.
Nope. Not easy at all, I can confirm.
And the even larger aspiration of the novel had been even more difficult to attempt. I had once read an anniversary copy of Peter Pan that included a lackluster foreword: the person assigned to celebrate the enchantment of J. M. Barrie’s story had failed to convey what made it so cherished for a century. I didn’t want that disappointing result with my retelling; I wanted to harness the magic of Never Land.
I hadn’t told the freelance editor these concerns. She evaluated my novel cold. And that made her description all the more amazing:
You truly captured the sense of magic that we all wish we could have retained from our childhoods. More than that, you captured what everyone loves about the original Peter Pan. Modern retellings tend to give fairy tales a darker, less positive twist, but you made something new while staying true to the original feel, and while tapping into that storytelling magic that made the original so strong.
Success! Ten years in the making, but still sweet.
Partly I wonder if I had to get to the 10,000-hour threshold Malcolm Gladwell famously described in Outliers. Another author, Cal Newport, clarifies that success also requires deliberate, push-yourself-to-your-limits practice, not just 10,000 hours of doing what you’ve always done. This novel stretched me as a writer and forced me to learn more and more. I understand the process 100x better than I did a decade ago.
Will my next novel take another ten years? NO. No more babies, no more waiting six drafts to establish backstory and basic plot line. I’m excited to send this book into the world and craft the new one that’s interfering with my sleep. It’s anxious to be written, and I’m anxious to see where it leads—faster.