Writing Rivals in the City

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!

January 2011

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.

August 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.

February 2013

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.

June 2013

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.


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27 Responses to “Writing Rivals in the City”

  1. Starstruck says:

    I thought it was only going to be a trilogy which was already concluded, so I’m thrilled to hear there will be more about Mary! Only selfish readers care about the wait.

    Sometimes it seems very much like children are an overpowering distraction in a variety of ways, and guilt can be all encompassing when we prioritize something else over them, especially if we are simultaneously getting feedback from outsiders who don’t consider writing to be work. But your children’s mother is a writer, so she must write.

    One of the themes of NaNoWriMo is to force the words out, as no one can tell the difference between the slogs and the inspirations after the lengthy editing process.I hope you will find that the ‘lost’ time and effort, though you hated it then, has made you a better writer in the end. No word is ever wasted, even if no one ever sees it but you.

  2. Annie says:

    Thank you for the status update and sharing this story. I have to admit that I’ve been checking your blog regularly since you originally announced the 4th book, eagerly hoping for information about it. I can only imagine how hard the last year must have been for you from this perspective, though, and as a fan, I just wanted to let you know that I’m sure it will be well worth the wait and I’m very excited to read it. I love Mary, James, and the world you created, so again, thank you. I can’t wait to order my copy!

  3. Ying says:

    Thank you so much, Starstruck and Annie! Starstruck, I couldn’t agree more: I have a real appreciation for the idea that no word is wasted, now. (I wondered, at times, if perhaps the first book came too easily and this one was my karmic payback.) And yes, it’s a brave person who admits, these days, that the children are not her first and most immediate priority, 24/7. Thanks for reading and commmenting! And Annie, I am so grateful and lucky to have readers like you. Thank you for your support, and I hope you find the wait worthwhile!

  4. Joanna says:

    When people read novels, I don’t think they fully comprehend the struggles with doubt, frustration, and other obligations that the author likely went through to put that novel on the shelf. This post perfectly illustrates what writing often is like- I can only imagine what it must have been to experience this first-hand! I am sure the effort you poured into this book will be more than worthwhile. I cannot wait to see what you’ve put together!

  5. Lena says:

    Thank you so much for this entry on your blog! I am a big fan of the Mary Quinn series and have been checking goodreads and your blog frequently since I finished the third book in just two days. I am so excited to hear that you finished writing Rivals in the City!

    I think readers will always be impatient and I have to admit that I myself sometimes forget how much work it is to write a book. As readers we are often very unforgiving – both about the wait and the quality of a book because we tend to forget that people just like us have struggled and worked really hard to create these books for us.

    No matter what happens in the next months with Rivals in the City, you should never forget that you accomplished to work your way through it. You did not give up but you have constantly sat down to write even though at least for a while it was the last thing you wanted to do. That is what makes you a writer and you can be proud of yourself.

    I am looking forward to reading Rivals! Thank you so much for reaching out and telling us the truth.

  6. Harriet says:

    I’m soo glad it’s out! The wait was so worthwhile – it must be so pleasing to know its done- or maybe disappointing to know that it’s the last Mary Quinn you will publish. Is it published or on the shelves yet? ( my never -ending optimism going a bit too far!) but anyway is there one for England ? I understand now why it took so long- one day I will hopefully discover for my self- as i would like to be a historical- detective writer!!☺;)

  7. Thanks for the update! I know the book will be worth the wait!

  8. MelodyJ says:

    Thank you for posting this. I admire writers so much. What they can accomplish seems superhuman at times. You create an entire world for us to get lost in. So, it’s refreshing to see just how human you you guys are. It’s wonderful that you have a solid support system. I know the book will be worth the wait.

  9. PreRaphHobbit says:

    Thanks for sharing this process and congratulations on conquering your blocks! I love hearing about the writing process and this really opened my eyes to the importance of pushing through problems and finishing what you begin. I think books are sometimes better if you have to struggle- then every word is a triumph.

    Congrats and can’t wait to read it!

  10. Goldie says:

    I’m a fan of The Agency series. I thank you for being so honest about what you went through to get the final book published. Hopefully you’re getting your well-deserved rest. Congratulations on the new baby (well, toddler by now) :)

  11. Ying says:

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Joanna, Lena, Harriet, Jennifer, MelodyJ, PreRaphHobbit and Goldie! I really didn’t want to write this blog post (much more confessional than my usual mode), but I’m so glad I did because of the warmth of your responses. I feel incredibly fortunate to have such patient and dedicated readers. Harriet, I’m afraid the book isn’t published yet: there’s quite a long editorial process to come (lots of back-and-forth revisions with my editors), so it’ll be several months yet. Thank you for hanging in there!

  12. Lena says:

    You do not have to thank us for hanging in there – we have to thank you! :) Especially with all the new technology life has gotten so much faster and people so much more impatient – we all feel it but we hardly ever acknowledge it. Thank you for not giving up on Mary and I’m sooooo excited to read Rivals!

  13. Ying says:

    That’s so kind of you, Lena. :)

  14. Resa says:

    Yippy! This is the best news ever! The Agency is my favorite book series and I have been checking your web site just waiting for news! Thanks for making my day and keep up the good work! You are such a great writer! God Bless!

  15. Ying says:

    Thank you for your very kind words, Resa, and for being so patient! I really hope you enjoy Rivals.

  16. Megan says:

    Thanks so much Ying, I am such a huge fan of these books! Do you have an approximate release date?

  17. Ying says:

    Hi Megan, and thanks for stopping by. There’s no release date yet, but it usually takes about 12 months from submission to publication. I’ll be sure to post as soon as I have a month & year!

  18. Lizzy says:

    I feel that as a reader I’m somewhat spoiled when I get one book in a series in a year. Seeing posts like this remind me of how much work/blood/sweat/tears/re-writes go into the final product, and I think it will make me appreciate the final book in this amazing series even more!

  19. Arry says:

    I remember dragging my brother to Waterstone’s, armed with our book vouchers, in an effort to make him read. He was 10 years old but he was still adamant that he wanted to read Horrid Henry. I shoved him off to the adventure section and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Eventually, I lost my patience and found him sprawled on the floor, rushing furiously through “A Spy in the House”. That was the first ever book, which consisted of more than 10 pages, that he actually enjoyed. And I enjoyed it as well! So thank you, for turning my brother away from the TV and towards literature and for providing me with a chance to sneak into his room every night and sit there with a torch in effort to read as much of your books as possible. We both can not wait until Rivals :)

  20. Ying says:

    Arry, I’m sorry for this slow reply – I only just noticed your comment. I love this story about your brother! Thank you so much for stopping by to tell me about it, and for modelling the love of reading for your brother. You’ve absolutely made my day.

  21. Sharn says:

    I am so sad to hear what you have had to put up with recently, and I now feel really bad about feeling impatient with news on this last book. This series is still one of my absolute favourite series and Mary and James are still my all time hands down favourite couple to read about. I am so happy to hear that the book will be out (hopefully) soon, and I know it will be bittersweet to finally finish this series – but I am looking forward to a beautiful end between Mary and James. You’re awesome and I can’t wait for this book. Stay well. xox

  22. Ying says:

    Sharni, I’m not sure how I missed your comment, but I did. So sorry! Thank you very much for the sympathy. I feel it’s undeserved, because writing novels is not like breaking stones or curing the common cold, but I’m so pleased and relieved to know that readers like you are hanging in there, waiting patiently. It’s a privilege to have such thoughtful readers. xo

  23. […] quite yet, as the author had some personal problems while writing about it which she super bravely talks about here. (I tell you what, if I ever had a baby, and I don’t plan on it, I don’t know if […]

  24. I just finished book 3 last night and am patiently awaiting book 4. I love the banter between Mary and James as I think that makes them such a great pair. It reminds me of the Tommy and Tuppence detective duo. You certainly have peaked my interest in the Victorian era.

  25. Ying says:

    Delighted to hear it, Caren with a C! And thanks for waiting so patiently for Rivals. I hope you find it worthwhile.

  26. LaKamiConK says:

    Hello. First of all I apologize if I am not well understood, my English is not very good. I am Kamila, of Uruguay. A fan of the agency. I have read the
    first 2 books in the series, but I could not read the traitor in the tunnel and it is not yet translated into Spanish.  translation comes out soon hopefully.
    Thanks for that honest and tell us what happened to your last book. That writing is not for everyone, and sometimes readers, myself included, we forget
    I would like to congratulate you did a great job and I greatly enjoyed the story of Mari, and I know about Victorian London, who knew almost nothing. .
    I’m sure it will be worth waiting

  27. Ying says:

    Hello LaKami, and thank you for commenting! I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed The Agency so far. I’m not sure when the third will be translated but I will announce it as soon as I do.

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