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[SWP: Beind the Book] Kidnapped by a Muse
Contributor
Written by
Jennifer Dwight
December 2015
Contributor
Written by
Jennifer Dwight
December 2015

The first time I sat down to make notes about the book that had been churning around inside me, it was to be quick and casual. Maybe 45 minutes, I thought. I was still in my nightgown and robe, barefoot—an unsuspecting target.   

I wrote “Whatever It Takes” at the top of the page. The first phrases out of my pen sketched the sequence of events in the story. As I wrote, thinking changed to seeing and hearing: characters presented themselves. I wrote down their names, none of which I had thought about before. Soon I was hearing their voices. One was a smarmy Southerner, I discovered, with a pronounced drawl. Another had piercing blue eyes and reeked guile. Another was an incisive, skinny little girl named Germaine. I lost track of time.

I saw how the story should “work”: that it must be told with restraint through the senses of one person so the reader would experience her apprehension. I felt the pace of the story: that it would start off slowly, increase in tension, appearances belied by reality. Then calamity would send my heroine careening down a jagged slope. The second half of the book would be suspenseful and fast, increasing in surprises until the end.

My feet were suddenly cold and I had a headache. Something was funny about the light in the room. My stomach growled and I realized I was very thirsty. My hand hurt from writing. I looked over my shoulder at the clock on the stove and did a double-take. How was it possible for nearly seven hours to have passed? It was afternoon and I’d barely moved. There lay more than thirty pages containing the roadmap for a novel, the main action blocked out, primary characters named, with a key scene or two scribbled. I guzzled a big glass of water and headed for the shower, shaking out my hand. What had just happened to me?

I’d walked into another world, one which I hadn’t known existed, where I would spend many hours in the years to come. A book had come for me, insisting to be written, and on that day I became its servant, for good or ill.        

At that time I was a single parent of two, had a demanding full time job in a law firm and a nasty commute. It seemed logistically impossible that I could find time to write a novel, so I didn’t think about it. I thought about the story instead.

Life went on. We had deaths in the family, job changes, graduations and we moved several times. I had three hand surgeries. The kids went off to college. I remarried. I wrote when I could. I learned how to fall back into a scene very quickly, to reenter the point where I had left, and to write in noisy, sometimes disruptive, environments.  

The place where the story resided was a parallel reality to which I escaped whenever possible. I had dreams about the characters. I had flashes of insight at unexpected times when I wasn’t writing. The more inside the novel I lived, the more time I wanted to spend there. I got up earlier and earlier, to write before the day began. I wrote on the train to and from the office. I wrote on weekends, on vacations, late at night.

I finished the first draft, 665 pages, in the eighth year. I was ecstatic. It was out of me at last! I felt free…and was blissfully ignorant of how much work lay ahead.

I edited the manuscript down to 545 pages. I sent copies to a diverse group of people who had graciously agreed to read it. Their responses were transformative and enlightening. I incorporated nearly all of their suggestions over time, in many drafts. Then I researched literary agents and publishers and began sending out countless submissions.

My husband and I read the manuscript aloud. Stilted phraseology, overused or missing words that our eyes had failed to spot sang out to our ears.

I went to writers’ conferences two years in a row. I learned about the expanding avenues for getting one’s work published and about some of the pitfalls of the traditional model I’d been pursuing. I spoke with agents who told me the book was too long, or they didn’t represent debut novelists (even though I’ve been published before), but the story sounded intriguing and they liked my one-minute pitch. I was tired but not deterred. My book has a life of its own.

I found my long lost tribe there, though, and basked in its warmth. One writer said, “You should check out She Writes Press in Berkeley. I think you’d be a good fit.”  

 I studied The Chicago Manual of Style (another humbling experience) and plunged into the manuscript again, conforming style, usage, formatting and punctuation. This was my seventh rewrite.

In the ninth year, I hired a freelance editor who cut the book down by a quarter, to 406 pages, without altering plot, characters, story line or atmosphere. He edited it twice—once from front to back, and then from back to front.

In the tenth year, I hired a proofreader, a Latin scholar who edits books for a university press. When she returned the marked-up manuscript to me, I gasped. It was awash with red ink! How could there still be so much to correct? Yet as I input her edits, I felt profound gratitude for all the dedicated and skilled people who have helped me on this odyssey.

The following week I submitted The Tolling of Mercedes Bell to She Writes Press. One morning, soon after, I was sitting in my night gown and robe, barefoot, just as I had been in the beginning. I turned on the computer to check email, and when I read Brooke Warner’s buoyant words of acceptance, I burst into tears.

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Comments
  • Jennifer, I appreciate your thoughts about the investment of both time and money. Once you've invested so much time and heart and effort, why stop short?

  • Jennifer Dwight

    Bethany, you are in very warm company here on She Writes. Isn't that a wonderful feeling? Have faith in yourself and your motivations to write. If I can do it, so can you!

  • Jennifer Dwight

    Nan, I honestly didn't think about money. I have invested as things progressed and have placed my faith in the inspiration that started the whole process. Once She Writes Press accepted me, I knew I found the right home. In for anpenny, in for a pound. I knew I would not be satisfied if I did not do absolutely everything in my power to write the best book I possibly could, or to put the most beautiful book I could into others' hands. To do less would be a waste of all the time and effort invested. It's all happening for a reason. I may never know what that is for others, but the process has already rewarded me richly.

  • Bethany Reid

    It is a real gift to read this and THEN to see all the comments. It's a topic that obviously resonates. I'm not alone!

  • Jennifer, it sounds like you invested quite a bit financially in this project. If you don't mind my asking, did you set an upper spending limit beyond which you wouldn't go, or did you commit to investing whatever it took to get the book into print?

  • Jennifer Dwight

    Thank you, Nan, for your comments. Don't give up! That's the main thing. I am continually amazed by how many of us spend years and years to "get it right." You will too. The great things are to have discovered these capacities inside ourselves and the dimensions of creativity available to an opened mind. 

  • So good to read about how you stuck with it, the steps you went through and the happy ending to your long writing saga, Jennifer. I lost count, but I think it took me around 10 years to finish and revise (multiple times) my memoir. I could especially relate to your comment, "The place where the story resided was a parallel reality to which I escaped whenever possible." At times, my feelings about my story have felt like infatuation -- that can't-stop-thinking-about-it, want-to-be-with-it-all-the-time kind of obsession. Right now I'm exploring publication, and I do hope to have a happy ending, too.

  • Michelle Cox

    Agreed!

  • Jennifer Dwight

    Thank you, Michelle Cox and Linda Kass - I appreciate your kind remarks. It seems that tenacity is as important as having something to say, when it comes to writing a book, especially when you have a full time job elsewhere.

  • Michelle Cox

    What a great story, Jennifer!  One thing that seems like a common thread for all of us She Writers is that by the time we find our way to She Writes, we are nearly exhausted, forlorn and ready to give up.  So when we get that magic email from Brooke, it really is wonderful.  So excited to read your upcoming book!

  • Linda Kass

    Congratulations, Jennifer! Your essay conveys the extraordinary perseverance and commitment inherent in this road to publishing. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story!

  • Jennifer Dwight

    Hi Joyce - thank you for your comments. You sound very dedicated to what Hemmingway called "getting the words right." There is no shortcut!

  • Jennifer Dwight

    Thanks again, Irene. I had to keep at it - it would not let me rest! Good luck to you too!

  • Jennifer Dwight

    Thank you, Karen. I appreciate your comment. It was a long undertaking, but entirely worth it.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Congratulations and thank you for sharing your story with us, Jennifer!

  • Donna Drew Sawyer

    Your story is so much my story. It took eight years from my first 30 trance-written pages to a 325 page published novel. I made the same detours, full stops and restarts but writing a novel is an amazing journey, as your wonderful essay illustrates.

    Congratulations on having the courage, commitment, creativity and fortitude to get started and to finish. As the say, in publishing, The End, is just the beginning! Best of luck! 

  • Paula Wagner

    Thanks for a very moving piece! I'm in year 6 or 7 of my memoir and just can't seem to "finish." But hearing Isabel Allende say in a recent interview, "I never really finish a book - I just give up," has given endings mew meaning. If she can say it, so can I. Time to let go and move to the next phase, however imperfect my draft may be. Endings are merely beginnings in disguise.

  • Nancy Ellen Carroll

    Your determination and commitment is inspiring. Best of luck to you.  

  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith

    All sounds familiar...it took me 12 years to get my first book published. As with you, life got in the way. That's why I always laugh when someone asks that silly question: How long does it take to write a book? Ha, ha, ha. Sometimes it takes a few weeks and sometimes it takes 12 years. Grin. No, 44 years after I started that very first book I'm still writing and am on my 23rd book. I'm happy for you Jennifer. Good luck.

  • Iris Waichler

    Congratulations on your staying with it Jennifer. It really illustrates all the work and time and rework that goes into shaping a book. It sounds like there were many life events that could have pulled you out completely but you managed to stay with it. Getting published will be all the sweeter for you after so much time and effort.

  • Nancy Chadwick Writing

    Congratulations Jennifer on getting your book published . . . and published from SWP! And thanks for sharing its history of production and how you got it to the finish line. 

  • Bethany Reid

    Thank you so much for sharing this. My journey has been 14 years -- not that a lot else hasn't been going on. And the book has been "finished" at least twice! I landed an agent with one version! Can't believe it still isn't published, and it's so reassuring to hear that I'm not alone. 

  • Joyce Wycoff

    Thanks for your story and how I resonate with all the writing, rewriting, rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing ... I could go on. Fortunately, my first fiction piece is a novella so I'm only dealing with about 30,000 words.  Best wishes on your journey! joyce

  • Irene Allison

    Wow, Jennifer! I've been consumed by the muse, but never for a straight seven-hour stretch. That's fantastic. And exciting that you kept at it over the years and that the fruit of all your labour is about to be born. It sounds like such an interesting novel. Good luck!