Writing a novel in ten simple years – Francie Arenson Dickman

By  |  1 Comment

By Francie Arenson Dickman

Et voila. Here it is. My book. Ten years in the making, yet when the galleys arrived at my doorstep, when I lifted them out of the box and held them up for my children and friends on Facebook to see, I couldn’t remember all the work that went into creating my story. Some might suggest that the toil faded away, like it does for new mothers, blotted out by the thrill of holding a finished product.♥

I, however, suspect that the process of writing my novel simply grew fuzzy in my mind over time. That’s what happens when you take a decade to write a book. When I began, my kids, who now drive a car, were in kindergarten. George Bush was president. Facebook did not exist, neither did smart phones.

My memory isn’t served, either, by the fact that I waited until relatively later in life to start writing the book. By now, I can barely remember where I’m supposed to be in twenty minutes let alone what the nitty-gritty of my creative process ten years back looked like.

But I can recall with specificity the first day in 2005 that I sat down to write. It was summer and my daughters were at day camp for the first time. The one with separation anxiety had cried that morning as she would cry every morning that summer before the bus came. Likewise, my nerves were fried that morning as they would be every morning that summer by the time the bus came.

I understand now that I took myself to Starbucks and sent myself back in time to my childhood in Florida to escape. To calm down. To adjust perspective. To laugh. Writing, for me, was and always has been akin to meditation or running. Less about a final product — whether a story, an essay or a chapter of a book — than about the mental clarity and emotional contentment that comes from showing up and finding my flow.

So, I showed up five days-a-week to a two-seater table near the window in the back of a Starbucks a suburb away, with my blue composition book, a grande black coffee, a pen and an idea to set a story in the 1970s, in my grandparent’s North Miami Beach condominium building. By 2005, my grandparents were long dead. I hadn’t been to Winston Towers, to their tiny apartment in the massive building, for decades. But my father, the king of nostalgia (and hater of the gated-community that housed my parents’ newly acquired detached, snow-bird home), had recently been recounting the charm of those days and lamenting the loss of communal living as a way of life.

From my father’s reminiscing came my original first sentence. “If this was a movie, it might be one of those that starts with a tight lens, narrowly focused on a window (though the audience would not be sure what they were looking at).” I wrote that sentence and thought to myself, That’s interesting, a movie.

I didn’t plan the movie thing. I didn’t think, I’ll have my main character write a movie. The only decision I made on any conscious level, other than to write the book itself, was to return to Starbucks the next day and to not leave before I made something happen. “It doesn’t matter how small,” I told myself, “but when you pick up your pen and pack up to go home, some sort of goings-on had to develop on your page so that your story is in a different place than when you sat down.”

Other than the decision to set my story in my grandparent’s apartment building, my process was a creative adventure. The story of David Melman and his film-writing teacher, Laurel, presented itself to me. (Although Laurel originally presented herself as Gretchen.) As did the book’s format – the movie about David’s childhood embedded within the story of his present day life.  I certainly didn’t set out to write parallel plot lines. I never said to myself, “Gee, this novel writing business isn’t hard enough, let’s give yourself an extra challenge.”

Looking back, it seems the first draft came to be in the same way one makes dinner when they are too disorganized to locate a recipe or too lazy to go to the store — by tossing everything in the fridge into a pot and hoping that with the help of artistic inspiration and luck, it turns out. How about a little first person narration? That sounds good. With a chunk of childhood for flavor. Maybe add a love interest and some witty dialogue, who doesn’t love a dash of romantic comedy? And hey, how about a male protagonist? Sure, a male protagonist and a female author aren’t typically paired, but you never know! I’d never written a book before. I didn’t know what I was doing. And I didn’t care. I just kept drinking coffee, chuckling at my characters, and pressing on until I had a draft.

I’m a “pantser” according to a book I’m reading now called Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Story Genius is supposed to help a writer figure out her story before she sets to work. The book is filled with all kinds of assignments and questions that must be answered, with the assumption that if you do the work upfront, you’ll trim years off your process. It’s not outlining, but it’s also not flying by the seat of your pants either (hence, “pantser”), which is, for the most part, exactly what I do. Not just in my novel, but in my life. I hate planning. Obligations give me anxiety. I like to have an out.

Nonetheless, I’m going to attempt the Story Genius process for my next novel. While I wrote my original draft in only six months, it took me nine years to turn that story into the book that now sits at my doorstep. And somewhere in between the first six months and the next nine years the details of my daily writing practice began to blur. Older, for sure, and hopefully wiser, I see that putting in a little more work upfront might be worth shaving off time in the end.

Besides, as my mother tells me, I can’t afford to take a decade to write the next book, she doesn’t have that kind of time left. So, I’ll try a bit of pre-planning, but who knows? I may very well change my mind. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks and I am, compared to most debut authors, an old dog. So perhaps I will, in the end, resort to my same old process. If only I could remember what it was.

Francie Arenson Dickman has been using her family as the source of writing material her whole life. Her personal essays have appeared in publications such as The Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Today Parents, Motherwell Magazine, and Brain, Child Magazine, among others. She lives in the same suburb of Chicago in which she grew up, with her husband, twin daughters, and dog, Pickles. She received her BA from the University of Michigan and her JD from The George Washington University School of Law. Chuckerman Makes a Movie is out now.



1 Comment

  1. Belle Brett

    November 6, 2018 at 3:26 am

    Great post describing how your novel evolved. But ten years sounds like a short time to me. I started mine in 2002, and published the same time as you!! That first draft is just a starting point, isn’t it? Can’t wait to see the next novel. Chuckerman was a wonderful read!

Leave a Reply