I’m just thrilled this week to welcome Eleanor Brown, author of Weird Sisters, to 1st Books (and very excited we’ll be participating in the Gaithersburg Book Festival together). If you haven’t already heard about this wonderful novel, where have you been? It hit the New York Times Bestseller list in its first few weeks out. For good reason. As Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand author Helen Simonson says, “What a joy to read. What a VOICE. The Weird Sisters is family drama dissected by verbal scalpel. If wit and language could protect against growing old, these bewitching sisters might never have to grow up.” And you’re going to love Eleanor’s story about her “first” novel. – Meg
Every time something is written about The Weird Sisters that refers to it as my “first novel,” I cringe.
Here’s the thing: it’s not my first novel.
It’s my fifth.
And that’s only counting the ones I managed to finish – there are pages and pages of notes and drafts of novels that never got past the first few chapters.
Maybe I’m a late bloomer, but it took me a long, long time to learn how to write a novel, and even longer to write one that was any good.
Part of this is definitely my fault – I spent a lot of time trying to write in genres I thought would sell, trying to write stories I thought would sell, instead of writing the story I wanted to tell in the style my heart wanted it told in. But I can’t criticize myself too much for that – playing around with different voices and the rules of different genres was part of what helped me find my own voice.
Here was the hardest part of the whole process, though: recognizing they weren’t any good, but getting back up to do it all over again anyway.
Writing is hard, you know? And I think there’s a tendency, when we’re done, to rush right out and share it with the world – friends, family, the internet, agents, editors – just because the darn thing is finally finished.
I did that with one of my manuscripts – I knew it wasn’t as good as it could have been. I knew it had inconsistencies and plot holes big enough to drive a bus through and was in desperate need of a few months of lying fallow while I worked on something else and then came back to it with fresh eyes and an honest heart. But I had set some ridiculous deadline for myself, and I think I knew, deep down, that it was going to be hard, hard work to whip that baby into shape, and I just couldn’t face it.
I’m lucky that I only sent it to one person, and that one person rejected it (she would have been a fool not to), but took the time to read the entire thing, complimenting me on what I did right, and detailing what I did wrong.
It was a hugely embarrassing experience – I felt bad for having wasted her time, especially since she was so incredibly gracious about the whole thing.
But here’s what I did:
I read her comments carefully.
I wrote her a note thanking her for her time.
I sat down and started writing again.
And that time, I wrote the book I really wanted to write. That time, I listened to my heart, and thought about the things in my life I wanted to understand, and I didn’t think about whether or not the book would sell.
I just wrote.
And, ironically, that became The Weird Sisters – the novel that did sell.
I’m not alone in having my debut novel not being my first – it happens all the time, and there’s no shame in it. No one expects someone who has only watched other people play the piano to sit right down and knock off a few sonatas. That’s entertaining, but it’s not impressive.
What is impressive is watching the concert pianist who has been practicing hours and hours, every day, for years, who has raged and cried and threatened to give it all up, who has played the same measures over and over and over again until they were exactly right. That’s what makes a brilliant pianist.
That’s what makes a wonderful writer. – Eleanor