Finishing your novel

Photo by Alyssa Scott

You may know Linda Howard Urbach (right) as the creator and group leader of the MoMoirs Workshops, “writing workshops for & about moms,” one of which recently ended its run at the Library. I know her as a colleague at an Autumn 2007 four-day writers’ retreat on Cape Cod, where we both were working on novels.

Four years later, hers—Madame Bovary’s Daughter—is slated for summer publication in trade paperback by Bantam, part of Random House. Linda is now hard at work on her next book. I met with her recently to talk about writing, workshops, and her successful journey with Madame Bovary’s Daughter from the retreat to impending publication.

I asked Linda why aspiring writers often have difficulty finishing a novel.

“That’s a really good question,” she said. “Because the point is, if you don’t finish, you’re not going to publish. The only difference between your manuscript and a book that’s out there in the bookstores is that person’s perseverance. That person stuck with it to finish it, stuck with it to get an agent, stuck with it to get a publisher. All you need is one agent. All you need is one publisher. There are a lot of those around.”

Is there a secret, though?

“The trick to finishing the book? My sense was that I always knew there was going to be somebody there to read it. And if I didn’t have an agent, and I didn’t have a publisher, I was going to make a commitment to a writers’ group, or to another writer.

“Writing, per se, is very, very hard. You can have the world’s greatest idea in your head, but when you’re sitting at the computer, you’ve got to get something down. Once you’ve got something down, even if it’s gibberish, you can make something of it, and then you can re-make something of it. But do it every day.”

Linda did have one thing us first-time novelists don’t: experience. An award-winning advertising copywriter, a playwright, and a screenwriter, she published two novels, contemporary rather than historical fiction, in the early 1980s. Having collaborated on a screenplay that actually got made into a movie was critical when she tried a novel: “That experience of finishing something made me believe I would always finish.”

But it didn’t make things easy this time around. “In between my two novels that were published and Madame Bovary’s Daughter,” Linda said, “I had two fully completed novels—not necessarily polished—that didn’t get published.” Her original agent, the late Owen Laster, had retired and, “I couldn’t get arrested.”

At the time we attended the writers’ retreat, she had no representation. She found her current agent by sending out query letters. At the agent’s urging, she hired an independent editor to guide her through polishing the manuscript before it went out to a dozen publishers. “I got eleven rejections right off the bat,” Linda said. The twelfth bought the book. Then Linda’s in-house editor put it through even more vigorous revisions.

All the while, a key factor that kept Linda going was that imagined reader. “Just one,” she says. “Just one person saying, ‘This is terrific. It’s finished and it’s good.’ ”

—Alex McNab

PS. Next time, I’ll post more from my talk with Linda, including her advice on ways to recover when you get stuck in your story and her thoughts on writers’ groups from her dual perspective as participant and workshop leader.

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Published in: on March 23, 2011 at 7:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

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