My first novel, Ten Girls to Watch, comes out July 31. The last few months I worked on it were heavenly. I spent my days fixing sentences and making tiny plot tweaks, swapping thoughts and revisions with my wonderful editor, Sarah Cantin. She seemed to like my every change almost as much as I liked hers, and even the smallest of our adjustments felt like vast improvements. The book got so much better. We reveled in it. But that was then, and now, instead of the end, I’m back at the beginning, starting novel number two. How exciting! How terrible.
It’s thrilling that I get to do this at all. Believe me, I know. I also know that the pool of people who will have any pity for my position is small. But to them (to you), I still have something to whisper: holy smokes, this is terrifying.
One reason I wake up scared these days is that I know things now that I didn’t know my first time around. Back when I started my first novel, I remember actually saying out loud to other people, “I think I can finish the book in about six months.” Oh, the cute naïveté. In fact, it took me about a year and a half to finish a first draft, almost zero words of which appear in the finished book, and several more long years of rewrites and revisions after that. When my publication date finally arrives, it will have been five full years since I proclaimed myself mere months away from completion.
But it’s not really the time or effort that has me quaking. Of course I worry, as sane people often do in the face of significant challenges, that I may not be good enough or dedicated enough for the task before me. But then again, I’m not really a sane person. I’m a writer. I’m going to screw my delusion to the sticking place and proceed. What unsettles me more than the work ahead are all the choices I have to make before I can really get to actually writing the book.
At the beginning of a novel there are hundreds of decisions to be made. Not just the sort of decisions that never go away—what word goes next, say—but the sort of decisions that do indeed fade from view a dozen chapters in. First person or third? Past tense? How far past are we talking? What’s my tone? Breezy? Arch? And, of course, the biggest of all: who are these people? Each choice seems easy enough on its own, but put them all together and it’s like one of those scenes where the defendant is hounded by camera flashes and microphones on the courthouse steps.
And there’s also the very real likelihood that almost all the choices I’m making now are wrong. They’re wrong, and I won’t know it for hundreds of pages. That’s how it went with my first book. But wrong though they may be, if I stop, thinking I can fix them now, I’ll never get past these first awkward chapters. I’ll never get far enough into this thing to have any perspective. I’ll be stuck here forever, dithering.
It takes a certain determination to move forward with your wrong choices. To trust that there are some right choices in with all the wrong ones. And to trust that only time and pages will tell you which are which. To trust that even if you make 100 wrong decisions now, someday you’ll be able to go back and make them right.
I am yearning to get back to revisions, to tweaking and smoothing, and to the company of others reading and working on this text. I can’t wait to interact with my agent and my editor, and look forward to all the help they can give me. And I am determined to make this next novel better, maybe even good. But right now, there’s no work for anyone else to do. It’s just me, alone, writing. Screwing more things up with every word and trying to believe that somehow, eventually, I’ll unscrew them. How terrible. How exciting.
Charity Shumway received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Oregon State University and a B.A. in English from Harvard University. Ten Girls to Watch is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.