Novel, Inc.: The Ennui of the Incubee
I never expected that after the Novel Incubator ended I would find myself at a loss for words. I had a completed second draft, a circle of wonderful readers, folders of feedback piled high in my study, not to mention all the wisdom I’d acquired. Since I’d started in Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program almost a year ago, I’d taken my novel further than I’d dreamed possible, but as I tried to continue revision, I hit a wall.
After talking to classmates I discovered I was not alone in wrestling with post-incubator ennui, and we each had our own ways of dealing with it. Some of us had put our books aside for a while, but I’d grown too attached to the feeling of being in the middle of mine to do that. Some were working on other unfinished novels. I had a couple of novels in a drawer, but one look at them was enough to kill my enthusiasm. A few classmates had set tight deadlines to keep up the frenetic pace of the Novel Incubator, but I had no goals. How could I set a deadline?
During the past year I’d gone through my book in a frenzy, making changes on every page. I’d managed to tune out leaf blowers, lawn mowers, wild turkeys shrieking, and my husband’s innocent questions about lunch or dinner in order to concentrate on my novel. Now it was as if my book had closed in on itself and become an egg, or some strange alien sphere, smooth, self-contained and untouchable. It wasn’t done but I couldn’t shake the sense that it had passed from the stage where everything could be altered, to a far more precarious state where the slightest touch might ruin it.
It’s only words I told myself. I had countless saved revisions, endless changes tracked in each one. There was no change that could not be undone. And so I saved revision999999 as revision1000000, and began revising again. It wasn’t easy.
The low point of my summer was the three weeks I spent on one chapter. To help me get started I had comments from the Novel Incubator, and my own notes, but I struggled to reconnect with my story. I agonized over paragraphs for hours, while glancing frantically back and forth at the comments as if they could save me. When I was done the chapter was better, but I sensed it was time to put aside my folders of feedback, and tackle something entirely on my own.
An agent had suggested that my beginning was too quiet, and my own instincts told me the same thing. I tried writing a prologue from my killer’s point of view. That didn’t work. Neither did moving my first chapter from the sixties to the present day. Hoping the third time would be a charm, I tried opening my novel a few months prior to my current first chapter. Writing these new scenes was so much easier than the painstaking process of editing. I was exhilarated when I was done, and brought my new beginning to a meeting with my classmates, hoping they would reinforce my excitement.
They liked my old beginning better. Sure it was quiet, but it was a menacing quiet.
“But, but, but,” I said as I stared out over our host’s beautiful blue glass coffee table. “I need to change this.”
It’s funny, though I also got great suggestions regarding my new scenes, all I heard that night was that I needed to take another look at my original first chapter. When my nerves finally settled down, I was grateful to my classmates for reminding me of what was working in my book.
A lot has changed since those initial moments of revision panic I experienced when the Novel Incubator ended. As I continued writing throughout the summer and fall, my ennui mysteriously vanished, replaced by an eagerness to continue. I have new ideas for my book, and thanks to my wonderful readers, a renewed commitment to what I’ve already written. I’m excited to be working on it again. The Novel Incubator may be over, but it has given me the strength and confidence to get through my next revision, and any others I need after that.
The Novel Incubator is Grub Street’s year-long intensive course in the novel for writers with a completed novel manuscript, team-taught by Lisa Borders and Michelle Hoover. Deadline for applications is in February. For more information, go to www.grubstreet.org/index.php?id=1285.
Emily Ross recently completed Grub Street’s pilot year of the Novel Incubator Program and is revising her novel, The Way She Left Us. Her short fiction won second prize in The Smoking Poet’s annual fiction contest. You can find more of her work in Menda City Review. When not writing she works as a web developer.
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