Katharine Britton was by one measure fifty years to getting her debut novel, Her Sister’s Shadow, to print. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “touching debut,” saying “Britton seamlessly alternates between the two eras to unravel a tale of rivalry, tragedy, love, and the corruptibility of truth.” It was an NPR summer read, too. And like so many stories here on 1st Books, it was not as easy to get this novel published as it sometimes looks. – Meg
Someone once advised me, “If you get choose between smart and lucky, choose lucky.” I often tell people that it took me between two and fifty years to write Her Sister’s Shadow. For much of my life, I was lucky enough to hear stories from my mother about her family and their house on Boston’s South Shore. One story, about the death of one of her three sisters, caught and held my attention.
Not wanting to retell my mother’s story, I began to write a novel about two estranged sisters who reunite in their childhood home. I like to ask myself questions when I write. For this story my primary question was: What would drive sisters apart? And then, what might bring them back together? I hadn’t the slightest idea how to write a novel (nor, by the way, do I have any sisters), but I started writing character studies, backstory, and some disconnected scenes; I drew floor plans of the house and diagrams of the yard; I covered index cards with birthdates, anniversaries, and other important demographics. My characters talked quite freely, venting their resentments, explaining their side of the rift, detailing what they did, and did not, approve of in their sibling. What they would not do was leave the house. I had reams of material, very little of it forward moving. What was missing was the plot.
After a few years I abandoned the project, put the manuscript in a drawer and turned to other activities: got married, built a house, pursued my career, bought a dog. But the story refused to lie dormant in a drawer. When I had an opportunity to enroll in a Master’s program with a concentration in creative writing, I took it.
One of the courses offered was screenwriting. While I’d never read a screenplay and couldn’t name one prominent screenwriter, I did love movies. Our assignment was to write a 120-page script in ten weeks. Immediately, I thought of my two sisters, languishing in the bottom drawer of my desk, searching for a reason to leave the house. Screenplays offer little opportunity for mental musing. Screenplays require action, dialogue, and a minimum of description. What luck! That was just what my two chatty ladies, ensconced in their rambling childhood home, needed.
While I was completing the graduate program, I wrote another novel. When I thought the manuscript was ready, I sent it out to a dozen agents, and was lucky enough to find one willing to take it on. She started sending it out to editors. Twenty-five of them rejected it. It was during this rejection process that I began to turn my screenplay back into the novel I always thought it should be. It took me two years. We were at around rejection number twenty-three on the first manuscript, when I sent Her Sister’s Shadow to my agent. The third editor who received it, liked it, and – after some revisions on my part – made us an offer. (The four sweetest words an aspiring female writer is likely to hear, by the way, are not, “Will you marry me?” but “We have an offer.”)
I’ve been lucky in this process: lucky to have the resources to cut back my hours at work so I had more time to write, lucky to find an agent, lucky that she sent it to the right editor, lucky that I live in a small town with a couple of great bookstores. (Your book won’t sell if people can’t find it. These stores put me right out front with all the big names.)
The choice is quite simple, really. If you aspire, one day soon, to be writing a guest blog about how you came to be published: finish your manuscripts (I’m now on my third: they all count, even the ones that don’t sell), call on friends to proofread, send your manuscripts out, and keep on writing, despite the rejections. In other words, do your part, don’t give up, and you too will get lucky. – Katharine