My foray into being a published novelist began as many do – with a rejection. It was the summer of 2010, and the assistant of a literary agent contacted me about a short story of mine that had recently appeared in a journal. The agent was interested in seeing more of my work, the assistant wrote. Did I have anything I might be able to send her to review?
At that point in time, I had just started working on what would become my first novel, God is an Astronaut, and all I had was twenty rough pages, nothing in good enough shape to show to a prospective agent. But I did have a recently completed collection of short stories that I was pleased with. So I e-mailed it off to the agent and kept my fingers crossed.
A week or two slowly passed. Then I received a reply. The agent had read my collection and … she had decided to pass on representing me. She liked the stories, she said, but she was more interested in a novel. When I had more of my novel written, she would be happy to take a look at it, but until that day it was thanks but no thanks.
That response – that the door was still open a crack – should have motivated me, but at the time it didn’t. It came at a time of several other setbacks; my optimism about my prospects as a writer was pretty much nonexistent. I continued to work fitfully on my novel, but without a lot of hope that it would ever see the light of day.
A little over a year passed. And then suddenly one day, I got an e-mail.
Dear Alyson, it began. I don’t know if you remember me…
It was the assistant of the agent who had read my short stories. She had left her position at the agency and was now working as an agent herself. She was looking for new clients and she remembered my work. I haven’t been able to get your stories out of my head, she said. Was I still looking for representation by any chance?
It seemed like an unbelievable plot twist, but it was real. I signed a contract with her and the following year, she sold my short story collection and the first 60 pages of God is an Astronaut to a publisher.
The publisher’s plan was to publish God is an Astronaut before the story collection, so completing a draft of the novel was the first order of business. I estimated the length of time I thought it would take me finish (not an easy task!) and set a deadline with my new editor.
And then I got to work. I have a fulltime job, which meant I needed to be smart about budgeting my time. The majority of my writing occurred on the weekends, when I would get up in the morning, chug down several cups of coffee and then settle down at my desk for the better part of the day. The weeknights were primarily reserved for tweaking what I had written the previous week.
To make sure I was staying on track for my deadline and pacing myself, I gave myself a weekly word count target. I also tried to put some time into thinking out the next section I was going to tackle, before I sat down at the keyboard. I used my daily commute as a time to plot out the next scenes I wanted to write – my train ride to work was no longer a waste of time! That way, when I began writing I was able to get started right away, and not waste time mulling over how I wanted to proceed.
This isn’t to say the process was painless. There were plenty of dead ends along the way. Scenes I had to toss. Plenty of backtracking and doubt. But I knew where I wanted my novel to end, and I kept that moment in the back of my head and worked my way toward it. And when I finished the draft in the spring, I felt exhausted, but also a profound sense of accomplishment.
Deadlines are your friends. They don’t seem like it, but they are. They keep you moving and prevent you from spending two weeks tinkering with sentences while you avoid tackling larger-scale problems. If you don’t have a deadline, try to make one for yourself. Say, I’m going to finish this chapter this month, I’m going to write this many words this weekend, etc.
Don’t be afraid to scrap things and go in a different direction. Don’t get so wedded to a plan that you can’t let go of something that’s not working. If you try and repeatedly fail to get a scene to work, you may need to pitch it so you can start from scratch and try something new. Like changing the setting or changing where the action takes the character. Or not including it at all. Since deleting work can be nerve-wracking, I always keep a “discard” file where I put bits I’ve cut, so I can refer back to them if I need to.
Enjoy yourself. Back when you started writing, it was for fun, right? Try not to lose that feeling. Writing isn’t easy, but there’s also a lot of joy to it. When that’s in your writing, your readers will feel it too and they’ll respond.
Alyson Foster grew up in Michigan and received her BA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, winning a Hopwood Award for her fiction. She received her MFA from George Mason University, where she was a Completion Fellow, and her short fiction has appeared in various publications. She lives in Washington DC, where she works for the National Geographic Society library. Follow her on Twitter at @alysonafoster