The quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing.

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July 16 2010 1:27 PM

What Took You So Long?

The quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing.

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And what about the rest of them? These are the people—many of whom write beautifully—I wonder about. And I wonder about strangers in similar situations, artists of all ilks. I wonder if they wake in the night, their hearts racing, unable to feel anything but the fear and frustration and disappointment of the fact that they haven't finished anything in a month. I wonder if they're anything like me. My guess is that many of them are—and naturally I feel tremendous empathy. Having been there, I know there are no magic words of encouragement, no surefire tough-love tactic. I wish there were.

It could have gone either way for Stiltsville, which is a thought that gives me chills. But then a couple of years ago, three things happened that gave me the push I needed.

One, my close friend Jen referred to my work, not unkindly, as "the great American novel." It's not that I hadn't realized there was a certain epic and hopeless quality to the damn thing, but still it stirred something in me to hear it out loud.

Two, a writer friend ran into a former instructor, and he asked about me. He told my friend it was too bad I wasn't writing because I'd been good. It was probably just something he'd said to make conversation, but it buoyed me in the way unexpected compliments—even sad ones like this—can.

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Three, I woke one night in the midst of a minor panic attack. It wasn't unusual for me wake in the night, anxious and scared—and I always knew the source of the panic right away. But it was rare for my heavy-sleeping husband to wake at the same time. And instead of reassuring him and letting him get back to sleep, I told him the naked, humbling truth. I told him that if I didn't finish my novel, I thought my future happiness might be at risk. He wiped his eyes and yawned and said, "OK. Let's figure out how to make this happen."

It didn't happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. I dropped a few obligations and started getting up early to write for an hour or two before leaving the house. Of course I was sidetracked again—moving, pregnancy—but not for long. After I wrote the last sentence, I printed the whole mess and got out my red pen, and the relief of having a complete draft was overwhelming. I had more writing energy than I'd had in years. At this point, no matter that the sky was falling in publishing-land, I was certain that I would see my book in print.

In the end, I don't really believe it took me 10 years to finish Stiltsville. There's no exact start date (that first bit I wrote didn't make it into the completed novel, after all), so the math is pretty fuzzy. Here's how it works in my head: It took one year to write the first half, another year and a half to finish the rest, a few weeks to sell it, and 18 months for it to lumber through the publishing process.

But between the first half and the last, I cannot deny that there were four or five years when I failed to complete a single new chapter. One day at a time.

Everyone knows that the line between succeeding and failing can be pretty thin. But the fact that it took me so long haunts me less and less these days, and I find myself looking forward instead of back. After all, as every writer is aware, the ending of a story does most of the heavy lifting. It can make or break the whole thing.

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Susanna Daniel is the author of Stiltsville. Follow her on Twitter.