by Tess Adair
Once upon a time, I wrote a book.
I remember distinctly the moment that I first started writing it, though I can’t give you an exact date. I was a sophomore in college, and I think it was late winter or early spring. I was walking downhill on Church Street, either headed home or going to Vespers - a weekly non-religious, meditative gathering on campus that provided a free vegetarian meal at the end of every meeting. (Vespers really ignited my love of Indian food.) If I was going to Vespers, then it was a Wednesday.
I was in an unusually good mood, which means that I was slightly less depressed than normal. I’d been kicking around an idea in my head, and as I walked, the idea began to take shape. Where before there had been two vague blobs, there were now two distinct characters, with names and family backgrounds. And I had an idea where I wanted them to end up.
Originally, it was just a love story. Two little misfits trapped in a poor southern town finding some kind of escape in each other. (At one point, one of them was trans, until I decided I didn’t know nearly enough about trans lives to do them justice.) But as I rumbled down Church, taking in the feel of crisp clear weather and allowing it to fill me with a little piece of contentment, I realized I’d get bored telling just a love story.
I needed to add in a little something extra. I’d recently made friends for pretty much the first time since coming to college, and that meant that I now also had something of an extended social circle. There was a girl in that circle whom I didn’t like as a person at all (still don’t; repeat cheese theft offender) but who intrigued me nonetheless. She had a reputation for being either a small-time weed dealer herself, or possibly just for having the best drug connections at school. Accounts were disputed.
I didn’t like her, but I knew her. I knew her well enough to make her into plot-fodder, at least. And with that, the narrator of my novel became a drug dealer.
I can recall this chain of thought so well because as soon as that idea crystallized, the next thought in the chain was: Remember this moment. This is the moment you began to write your first novel.
And so it was.
For the rest of my college experience, I didn’t get very far in the writing process. But the novel burned in the back of my mind, an obsession so intangible it was hard to explain. A lot of the time, I yearned for my middle school years, when I wrote fanfiction and posted it online and got instant feedback (mostly quite positive.) I had felt so connected then, even though I’d known that writing fanfiction was about as productive as playing video games. They weren’t your characters so you could never publish whatever you put out. Besides, even 14-year-old me knew that no one would pay for my drivel. But I missed that feedback dearly. It had once been the highlight of my week to log into my email and find that my new chapter had gone up, people had read it, a few had reviewed it. It made me feel like a real writer.
Now I felt like a real writer in a different way. I felt obsessed with my project and completely unable to share it with anyone--it was still too nascent, too entangled in my brain. Letting someone read anything I’d written on it would have been like giving them access to all my innermost thoughts. I could barely even summarize it for anyone without feeling the sting of vulnerability and embarrassment.
Of course, eventually I graduated from college. By then, I had one Word doc of 15 consecutive pages--the beginning of the novel--and another Word document that was about 30 pages long and was full of disconnect paragraphs, free-write sessions, fragments of plot, shards of character development. In short, everything I’d ever scribbled down about the novel over the previous two years.
When I graduated, my mother made a very generous deal with me. I could take a year to figure out what I was going to do next--a year of living back home, not paying rent, not having to find a job--provided I was doing something constructive with that time (also, chores.) We decided that some of that time would be spent looking for jobs or researching career paths, but for the most part, I would be committed to two specific goals: losing at least 50 pounds, and finishing the novel.
If you’re curious about the weight loss, I’ve written a bit about it here, and I’m sure I’ll write more in the future. (In summary: I lost 50 pounds and then some. And then some more.)
I finished the novel, too. It took a while. I think I finished it in May 2012, then I edited it for a few more months. I sent it out to other people to read in September 2012. By that point, I’d just moved to Seattle.
Oh yeah, I did one more thing that year--I got started figuring out the rest of my life. I took a job at Target in February, mainly so I could save up money to move away from St. Louis, but also to break up the monotony of my days a little bit. And around that time, my best friend from college contacted me to say she’d be moving back to the US to get a PHD, and to ask if I had any interest in moving with her, wherever she might end up. I think I said yes before she even got the sentence out. I know I said yes long before we knew where we were going.
So, in September, I’d just moved to a new city. I sent my precious novel out into the internet ether, to be weighed and judged by friends and family. I took their criticism as best I could, and I made a few more rounds of edits. (Looking back, I can see that I was still way too close to it to be any good at editing it. Ah well.)
Then I started sending it out to agents. I also sent it to a few contests.
Meanwhile, I was still working at Target, and sharing the world’s darkest studio apartment with my bestie. Our building had no parking, so I had to pay an extra $200 a month to park my car at a garage about 5 blocks away. Every time I went grocery shopping, I’d walk to my car, drive to get what I needed, drive back to the apartment and stop briefly in the loading/unloading zone to drop off the bags, then drive it back to the lot and slog home on foot. I cannot remember a single time that I did this when it was not raining. And we were so poor (I made $9.50 an hour and never wrangled more than 35 hours a week; bestie made grad school money [niente]) we practically had to ration our own food. (I was still dieting heavily, too, so I used calorie counting as a way to limit my spending sometimes.) We each bought $2 dressers at Goodwill and $60-$70 mattresses at Salvation Army. My big splurge that year was a $20 desk from Ikea. Sometimes, when I felt particularly stressed and absurdist, I would sit in my car in the spot I paid for and wonder what it would be like if we sold everything, gave up the apartment, and lived in the Cube.
There’s almost nothing about this time of my life that I regret. Yes, it was incredibly hard. A lot of the time, I felt deeply lonely--bestie and I were very close, but we also made absolutely no other friends the whole time we lived together (which ended up being about 6 months.) I didn’t have the money to visit home, and in fact, Target refused to give me any time off for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. I worked nights a lot, our apartment got zero direct sunlight, and Seattle winters are dark. I think I went solid weeks without seeing the sun--maybe a month.
But I had never felt so sure of myself in my life. I loved and do love Seattle--from day one, I thought it was the most beautiful city I’d ever seen. I wanted to do anything to stay here. (I think about a month in, I realized that my love of Seattle had edged out whatever leftover ambition I had to move to LA. Thank god.) And despite the fact that I couldn’t seem to do any better than a minimum wage job, I felt more proud of myself than I ever had. I hadn’t just struck out on my own--I’d moved to a completely new city, a completely new coast, with no backup plan and very little support in place, and I was making it work.
But there is one regret. While I was doing all these great things--exploring new worlds, learning how to be a grown up, (eventually) making a whole bunch of friends, dealing with an overpowering addiction to The Vampire Diaries--I was also, slowly but surely, giving up on my novel.
It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up one day and decide I wasn’t going to send it off anymore. It happened slowly, almost without me noticing.
First, I had to move. Bestie’s PHD program didn’t work out for her at all, and over Christmas, she decided she wouldn’t be completing it. When she got back from visiting her family, she dropped out. At first, she tried to find part-time jobs that would allow her to stay for a while--like me, she’d fallen in love with this city, despite everything. But we both had to make up our minds before our lease was up at the end of February, and she didn’t hear back from anyone in time. Besides, in the long run, it had always been her plan to move back to DC to work. Why delay the inevitable?
So I had to find somewhere else to live, since I couldn’t afford our place by myself. I happened to run into an incredible stroke of luck and found somewhere to live through tumblr; I still live there now. (Fortunately for me, the apartment came with roommates and a large extended network of friends who welcomed me warmly.)
Once I had a new place to live, I knew I had to find a new job. I couldn’t spend much time sending out agent queries when I had job applications to fill and a poverty line to rise above.
And once I found a better job, I had a bit of an adjustment period to that. Suddenly I was working at least 40 hours a week, often more, plus a 30-to-60-minute commute each way. I was too tired and stressed out to spend my time after work doing yet more work, and I’d gone so long without a real social life that the lure of my new friends (and, uh, dance clubs) was hard to ignore.
So, bit by bit, I stopped. In total, I think I only sent the novel out to 25, maybe 30 agents. That might sound like a lot if you’ve never tried to shop around a novel, but most advice guides on finding an agent say you have to send out hundreds to have any chance of response.
I sent it into a few contests, too. It made it past the first round of an Amazon contest before meeting rejection. And...it won an award.
It’s called the Soul Making Keats Literary Competition. My novel came in first for 2012. In the spring of 2013, I drove myself down to San Francisco to read an excerpt from it. I’d used a gender-neutral version of my name on it, and when one of the women running the event saw me, she noted my waist-length hair and informed me they’d been debating whether I’d turn out to be male or female. (I’m guessing the boobs gave me away, too.)
Even so...over time, I stopped looking for agents. I convinced myself that my novel was just too strange--that I should wait until I had a more commercially viable idea, then expend my energy on that one.
Eventually, I stopped thinking about the novel at all. Until about a week ago.
Maybe it had been on my subconscious for a while, I’m not sure. But this week, I found myself stuck on a somewhat unpleasant work retreat, staying in a rented house full of books. I picked one up and started to read it.
I think I chose it because the description on the back reminded me of my own novel. It takes place in middle-of-nowhere Kentucky and it’s about a wild-hearted girl and family intrigue and some romance.
And it is absolutely terrible. Just awful. It’s written from the point of view of several characters, and every single one of them has an IQ of about 2 and a stupid accent written out phonetically way more often than necessary.
I was maybe 20 pages in when I realized how terrible it was. And all I could think was...my novel was better than this. And this was published.
So, this past weekend, instead of writing this blog post, I pulled up my novel to edit it all over again. I’m about halfway through the second chapter. When I’m done, I’ll start sending it out to agents again--at least one query every weekend for the foreseeable future.
It’s never pleasant to go back and look at your old writing. It’s like looking at old diary entries. You can’t quite experience it like a separate person might--you’re too busy navel-gazing, amazed at your own self-indulgence or self-pity.
I can’t tell you if the novel is any good. It isn’t exactly what I wanted it to be, but I don’t think it’s as bad as I was afraid it would be.
It’s the first novel I ever wrote. That’s enough for now.