This week I pressed send on a novel that I started, on contract, in December.
It was the most fun I’ve had writing a novel in, well, forever.
It was not the novel of my heart, though it has—I think—heart in it. I didn’t choose the age of my protagonist, or the fact that she was immersed in a real-life event from the Vietnam Era. But it had realistic characters, conflict, an emotional resolution, and was historically accurate. I had to keep the novel under 13K words, which sounds like it wasn’t a novel at all.
Which is what I thought when I contemplated writing this as part of a historical fiction series published by an educational media company. The constraints, the length, and the deadline intimidated me. But I thought I might learn something about writing quicker and cleaner, so I took the job.
They don’t tell you when you are doing your MFA that writing and selling a novel may take years, or decades. When you graduate you think your journey to a finished book on the shelf will be short and satisfying. For some, that’s true. But for most, it’s a long, slow slog that threatens to choke the life out of you before you ever see that ISBN number on the back cover of your very own book.
Enter Writing for Hire, a way many writers get books out quickly and with relatively less pain. I imagine that every contract is different, but mine was specific in some areas but open in others. The length was predetermined, as was the final trim size, the possible eras in which I could set my story, and the age of the protagonist. I had to include actual history—so I had to do research to maintain accuracy. I had a strict deadline. I had to write back matter so the book could be used in a classroom. Otherwise, I was free to make the plot up, provided it moved quickly.
After coming up with a possible plot and some characters, I read other books of that (short) length to see how to organize my chapters. I knew how often I needed beats and chapter endings. When I started drafting, I set the margins way in on my computer so that I could see how small the page would be. This led to the realization that everything had to be smaller. Like the builders of those tiny homes, I had to construct an efficient story. The sentences needed to be short, the dialog frequent. It would need brief, laden scenes with little description. I had to show and never tell. I had to move the characters through their difficulties quickly, with natural consequences coming up as rapidly as bumps in a freeway lane.
Operating within constraints worked for me. I felt happier, lighter and more motivated because I made fewer decisions. I felt no pressure to make it perfect, no need to explore every nuance or every possible motivation. I didn’t have the time to consider and reconsider. I just told myself to write quickly, stick to my outline (which I changed twice) and meet the deadline. Admittedly, there are not very many layers in my story, and there’s pretty much no set up for a sequel. I get a single payment but no royalties. My name is on the cover and so is my bio. I don’t have to promote the book, so I am free to move on to other things.
Within a year, kids in classrooms across the country will read this book, and that makes me very happy.
Best of all, I didn’t have time to build up doubt, that great crippler of writers. I hope that I can transfer that lightness, that optimism, as I return to my own works in progress.