To bring up a novel – Barbara Solomon Josselsohn
Like children, books go through many developmental stages. Here’s how one writer, Barbara Solomon Josselsohn, recalls her novel’s surprising, frustrating and ultimately thrilling road to adulthood.♥
“Congratulations!” a writer friend of mine exclaims when I tell her my first novel is coming out this winter. “You must be so excited. You’re sending your baby out into the world!”
I’ve heard variations of this comment many times, as lots of authors refer to their books as their babies. Some liken the process of writing a book to giving birth, and some even say the letdown that can come after publication is a kind of postpartum depression. But funny enough, I don’t currently think of my book as a baby. I haven’t thought of it as a baby for a long, long time.
You see, to my mind my novel was a baby years ago, when it made its appearance as a vague, unformed speck of an idea. Small and helpless like any newborn, it was almost literally a blank page, just a few beginning sentences on a nearly empty computer screen. Back then it wasn’t much to speak of, but like any devoted parent, I was sure it had promise. I dreamed of the ways it could one day turn out: Romantic or wry? Carefree or serious? Intellectual or free-spirited? I didn’t know, but I loved it unconditionally, and I thrilled in watching it start to grow.
Time passed, and I was happily writing, when – boom! – my novel turned into a toddler. What a nightmare for an unsuspecting parent! Suddenly my book was kowtowing to its own whims, never doing what I asked or even paying attention to my requests. No, I told it, I didn’t want ten pages of backstory in Chapter One – but still that backstory inexplicably showed up. And yes, I explained, I wanted to write in present tense – so how come past-tense verbs kept popping up? Paragraphs were too long, chapters were too short, sentences ran on forever, and anecdotes threatened to overwhelm the main plot. My book was uncontrollable, refusing to be tamed. It constantly brought me to tears, as each day presented mounting frustrations…
But just when I thought I’d reached the end of my rope, thankfully the school-age years arrived. Now my book craved rules and routines, and it clung to basic, time-honored customs and conventions. Tenses became consistent, and sentences and paragraphs assumed manageable lengths. Pacing grew more regular, as backstory melded easily with the present, and anecdotes ably supported the plot. Dialogue and description played nicely together, and characters were neatly and thoroughly drawn. My writing life turned smooth and calm. It seemed like a parent’s dream come true.
And yet increasingly I sensed that something was wrong. Strangely, my book was too well behaved. It was the written equivalent of the class goody-goody, and nobody likes a goody-goody. My book threatened to become predictable – or worse yet, a crashing bore. It needed a spark of mischievousness, a few well-placed bent or broken rules, so I wondered if some sentence fragments or comma splices might help. But no, I realized, it needed something bigger – an unreliable narrator perhaps, or a good, old-fashioned, eye-popping plot twist…
That’s when my novel hit adolescence, and once again all hell broke loose. My book became mean and rude and capricious, no matter how much patience and kindness I showed. It demanded attention when I was away from my computer, and then refused to talk to me when I was ready to work. Sometimes it would get very dark, flirting with issues like divorce or betrayal, and I’d wonder: Where did that come from? Other times it would get silly, putting jokes in the mouths of characters who should have known better, and I’d scold: Come on now! Be serious! My novel lost its common sense; it was emotional and petulant, often self-centered and hard to understand.
Yes, it was a difficult stage – but then, to my great relief, my novel matured. It hung onto its questioning and curious spirit but left its teenage angst behind. Which brings us to today when it’s a full-fledged grown-up, independent and ready to make its debut. And as for me, I now wait in the wings, hoping the world will find my book a wonderful amalgam of its tumultuous past: poised but vulnerable, passionate but thoughtful, unexpected but apt, quirky but universal.
After all, that’s the novel I raised it to be.
Barbara Solomon Josselsohn began her career as a business reporter covering home furnishings for the trade magazine HFN. She went on to become a freelance magazine writer for a range of publications, including The New York Times, Consumers Digest, Parents, American Baby, Westchester Magazine, and numerous websites. She and her husband live in Westchester County, New York, and have three children and a lovable shih-poo. The Last Dreamer is her first novel.