Hello, friends. This is the week in which I come clean and try to explain why it took me so very long to write The Agency: Rivals in the City. This is going to be a difficult post to write. I hate thinking about how many times I missed my deadline, and the (literally) hundreds of hours I spent tearing my hair out in front of the computer. But I think it’s useful to analyze failures, and figure out what worked in the end. And with any luck, someone else might find my experience instructive. Perhaps we can think of it as a how-not-to guide to writing a novel!
My original plan for writing Rivals coalesced in January 2011. I expected to give birth to my second child in May 2011 and knew that I wanted a six-month maternity leave after her birth. (This sounds like an exquisite luxury to you American readers, right? In Canada, most women are entitled to 12 months of paid maternity leave.) So I negotiated a deadline of May 2012. My plan was to write a significant portion of the book while pregnant, take 6 months completely off, and still have six months to finish the book in early 2012.
Optimistic outlook: I knew Mary Quinn’s world so well. I would be starting at an advantage because I didn’t have as much research to do at the outset. This was the fourth and last book in the series, and hopefully that momentum would carry me through.
Problems: I am a slow writer under the best of conditions, and I did not have the best of conditions: I was exhausted throughout the pregnancy and unable to work effectively. The new baby and I had an ongoing (not immediately life-threatening but distressing) medical problem during her first few months of life. By spring 2012, I was only just beginning to get my head together.
Solution: I requested a deadline extension, to October 2012.
My new deadline was rapidly approaching. I had committed to a particular setting and given my editor a detailed description (so the designer could start work on the cover). I thought I had made a grave error in my choice. I also felt entirely remote from the early research and plotting I had done on the book, over a year ago. It was stale.
Every time I sat down to work on the book, I felt completely paralyzed. I had lost my grip on Mary Quinn (how would she react, in a given situation? What was her emotional state, when confronted by another character?). I didn’t know what to do with the newly humbled James Easton. This was classic writer’s block: I wasn’t frittering away my life on Pinterest and Facebook, but each time I sat down to write, I came away more panicked and lost than the last time. Every time I thought about the book, I felt sick and cold and fraudulent.
Optimistic outlook: I couldn’t think of one. But I’m a very private person, so I talked about this only with my husband and a dear friend. I didn’t say anything to my editor or my agent, and simply hoped desperately that I could work through this.
Solution: I admitted that I was never going to write even a hideously rough draft of Rivals in the City in just two months. I begged for a further deadline extension, to March 2013. I hoped that by then, I would know whether I could write the blasted book or whether I would have to return my publisher’s advance.
For the past six months, I had been working, steadily and grimly, with various degrees of despair and faint optimism, on the book. I tried writing Mary in different scenes, from different angles. I re-wrote scenes at several different emotional pitches, trying to figure out which one rang true. I wrote one scene in which Mary doubted her vocation as a detective, and soon after realized that I was writing about my own fears as a stalled novelist. I despised my own weakness and equivocation. I found no pleasure or satisfaction in the act of writing. Worst of all, I still had only the beginning of a book – nothing that remotely resembled an ending – and the book was due the following month.
Optimistic outlook: One day, as I contemplated the mess I’d made of this book, and possibly my writing career, I had two painful and extremely useful realizations.
1. I failed to put writing first. As a person, I was busier than ever, and I wasn’t enjoying writing. So I spent too much time on other stuff: volunteer work, domestic labour, things I call “life admin”. I was spending the best hours of my day doing things other than writing, and in doing so, I was cheating myself.
2. My Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) had returned. For the past four years, I’d simply been too frantically busy to notice the winter darkness; I was sprinting just to stay in place. But now that things were calmer – I had enough childcare, and time in which to write – I was, quite simply, low.
Solutions: I negotiated the very last deadline extension – June 2013. I started using a SAD lamp, religiously. And I began putting the book first. I ignored the dozens of other things pulling at me, and wrote using the best hours of my day and the best part of my brain.
I wrote over 100,000 words in four months. I re-established my grip on Mary’s voice and character. I figured out what to do about that pesky James Easton. I remembered why I love writing. And on June 30, after eighteen months of fear, frustration, gritted teeth, and plain, unglamorous slogging, I sent the full manuscript of Rivals in the City to my editor, Mara Bergman at Walker Books.
I am so relieved. And I know myself to be extremely well loved and supported. My husband, Nick, was an uncomplaining single parent for each weekend of the spring, and he stayed up long and late critiquing my drafts. (He also said, pointedly, “Have you used the SAD lamp? I really think you should try the SAD lamp again.”) My parents came to stay for the last two weeks of June, taking over the housework and playing with the children so I could focus fully on the book. And my editor, the extraordinarily patient and generous Mara Bergman, said yes and yes and yes again to my wild requests for more time.
I am far luckier than I deserve. And I can only hope the book I wrote is worthwhile.