On June 1, my novel While You Were Gone, about three sisters navigating life and love in the “new” South, will be published by C&R Press. Even though While You Were Gone will be my fifth book, the writing does not get easier. Each new project comes with different problems and challenges.
Here is the synopsis for novel: As young adults growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the three Nash sisters are still haunted by their mother’s early death. Shannon, the middle sister, wants to be an investigative journalist. Paige, the youngest, wants to channel Bessie Smith, her mother’s favorite singer. Claire, the oldest, desires stability through family and career.
When their father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the sisters cope with the loss in different ways. Recovering from divorce and the collapsing journalism industry, Shannon manages a bottom-feeder rag and considers having a child for her cousin and his lover, an Army veteran. After Paige is kicked out of her band, she becomes obsessed with a reclusive songwriter she wants to make famous against his will. Claire’s family and career are threatened by her attraction to a new hire she supervises, an African American who ignites her passion for literature and the deeper questions it asks of her. But, when their family’s uncovered secrets threaten all they’ve known, the sisters will have to choose between lives they’ve dreamed of and those they love.
Inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters with echoes of King Lear, While You Were Gone traces the journeys of three sisters growing up in and returning to a hometown that, like them, seems to reflect a new South. But beneath the surface changes are secrets that run as deep as the Tennessee River. While You Were Gone explores how three sisters living in the American South in the twenty-first century deal when their own dreams collide with their own misconceptions about family, race, gender, and the larger world.
I began this novel just as my last novel Into This World was published in 2012, as I’d learned that starting a new project when a book is published kept me from obsessing over the sales of the published book. Even though experience told me otherwise, I planned to have a finished draft of the novel in a year or two tops. And, two years later, I did have a finished draft, which I sent to a few beta readers for feedback. While some parts were working, I could tell from the feedback that the last part of the novel needed dramatic revision. For the next three years, I declared the novel “finished”, only once again to revise major sections of it. I killed off characters in one version, then brought them back to life in the next. I extended the original timeline of the novel (1995 to 2011) to 2015, then deleted the 2015 events again. I revised plot points for the characters, changing their ultimate trajectories. I wrote about 5 different climaxes—some were too melodramatic, while others were too flat. Just like Goldilocks and her porridge, it was hard for me to write a final act that was “just right.” I don’t know if I finally arrived at an ending that I could live with or rather abandoned the project out of exhaustion.
There is no one right way to write a novel, and if you do it once, be prepared to abandon all you’ve learned when you start the next one. I guess what I’m getting at is I’ve learned that I’m the type of writer who drafts to discover what my novel is about, and with each revision I learn a bit more. I know some recursive writers who write and revise as they go, so that while they take much longer to write a draft, when they are finished, the draft it is polished and needs much less revision.
In my next post, I’ll discuss what I’ve learned about marketing your book with a small press (hint: not much!).