The long and the short of it – Meredith Jaffe

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By Meredith Jaffe

July 2017 marked the end of a nine-and-a-half year journey, from germination to publication. I began writing The Making of Christina when my son was four months old. Like many late bloomers, I knew that if I did not take advantage of my maternity leave to write a novel, I never would. The fact that I had no idea how to write a novel goes some way to explaining why it took so long. My published author friend talked about hierarchy of information and narrative arcs. Narrative arcs? Thank goodness for Doctor Google!♥

In between raising four children and casual work, I plodded on and eventually finished it. But the achievement felt hollow as I knew it was hopelessly flawed. No amount of tweaking the language or showing it at my writers group gave me any sense of how to fix it. Fortunately, I had a lucky break and began working as a literary editor for an online women’s magazine. I read two or three books a week, year in year out. Having to write about why those books did or did not work was a great way to learn about writing craft.

By good fortune, a publisher dropped me an email asking me if I was working on anything. In a blind panic, I contacted a literary agent who offered to look over it. Her reply email was long, detailed and basically gave me a wakeup call. There was nothing else for it but to throw the whole novel out and start again. Structurally, it was a disaster.

I rewrote the novel in four months. I had an agent a few months later. By early the following year, I had a two-book deal with Pan Macmillan. I was living the dream.

But just like a novel, there is a mid plot twist. My publisher loved Christina but felt it wasn’t the right first novel. Thank goodness my agent had had the foresight to insist I sent a synopsis of my next novel as part of the pitch. That novel, The Fence, was the one my publisher wanted to publish first. Who was I to tell them that I hadn’t actually written it? I had a 200-word synopsis, not a novel. They wanted it on their desk by 1 November. It was May.

There was nothing else for it but to glue my behind to a chair and write. Don’t worry, there were times I had the death wobbles. I googled, can I write a novel in a month? and discovered American author Nell Zink took just three weeks to write her first two novels. I finished my first draft in four. The Fence came out in Australia in August 2016. The journey to publication was a virtual sprint at fourteen months. And judging by the reviews and media coverage, it was pretty good.

This post is a chance for me to reflect on the two processes. Which is the better one? For my money, the shorter one. The great thing about drafting quickly is that you have no time to edit as you go. You have to get roughly 100,000 words on the page — and NOW! It is terrific for creating flow and rhythm. There’s a sense of accomplishment when it is done. After all, if you adhere to the credo that all writing is in the rewriting then here is the lump of clay ready to be moulded into something beautiful. Editing is the time to worry the details, refine the language and deepen the characters.

Coming back to Christina after two years away gave me a freshness only absence can achieve. It has benefited from the fact that there is another novel out there with my name on it. I have a better idea what to expect from the editorial process, the sales, marketing and publicity. There is less anxiety about releasing a new book into the world. Christina belongs to readers now. Readers who can love it, hate it, be moved by it, or not.

Is there a moral to this tale? Perhaps. Be brave for sure. Press on in the face of fears and self-doubt. Work hard and work long where needed. Forget about your so-called friend motivation and that fickle wench the muse. Instead, make allies with discipline. I’ve written a novel always sounds so much better than I’m working on a novel.

Meredith Jaffe is an author, presenter and facilitator. Her experience includes four years as the literary critic for the online women’s magazine, The Hoopla, writing the weekly column, The Bookshelf. Her first novel, The Fence, was published in 2016. Her second novel, The Making of Christina, is out now. Meredith regularly facilitates events at writers’ festivals, including Sydney, Newcastle and St Albans Writers Festival. She volunteers at The Footpath Library, running the annual EPIC! short story competition for school children.

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