Vivid memories from writing NAMELESS QUEEN
Here are several vivid memories from writing, revising, selling, and publishing my first novel, NAMELESS QUEEN. It also has some memories from my writing journey that preceded it.
1 - Thinking of the ending
I'm at my eldest sister's house, talking about the new book I'm writing. I have a binder filled with thoughts, plans, questions, character notes. I've been trying to flow-chart the ending, but I haven't figured out the perfect way to close the story yet.
It hits me. The perfect ending. It's resonant, lyrical, satisfying and frustrating in the best ways, brings the themes together beautifully, and I know exactly how to write it.
I don't have a pen. I scramble. I search my brother-in-law's desk and find a brick-red crayon. Good enough. I start writing on a blank piece of paper, and I feel my eldest sister's eyes watching my every move. She asks what I'm doing and I can't answer—I'm too focused. Can't lose my thoughts. She's watching me write, and so I start writing in symbols that represents who and when and what. I write without words.
My sister frowns and smiles at the same time; she's confused and intrigued, amused and ever-so-slightly annoyed. I ignore her. I write. I scribble. I draw.
I finish and breathe a sigh of relief. The ending is just as important as the beginning, and I've been puzzling over it for weeks. I'm 70% through writing the book, and this—the brick-red crayon scribbling on this page—is the light at the end of the tunnel. A tension in my chest releases and I know that I will finish writing this book, and I know it'll be good.
2 - Jumping Across Roofs in a Basement
I'm in the basement of a corporate building. They've put four interns and a supervisor in a windowless room to do a four-month project, and I love every minute of it. You want to know who doesn't yell at you for yelling about formatting issues? Basement folk. Want to know who is cool if you spend ten minutes kicking a stress ball up and down a hallway? Basement folk. Play loud Christmas music and complain about not seeing sunlight in the dead of winter? Office work is immeasurably improved by the ability to yell about it. Everything is chill in the basement.
Want to know what else was chill? Spending a lunch break pressed flat against a basement wall and seeing how far you can jump without a running start and seeing how hard it is to turn 180 degrees with only four inches of carpet. String and tape get involved.
I was writing a now-absent scene in NAMELESS QUEEN and it was incredibly important at the time to know what a reasonable jumping distance is from a small ledge to a nearby roof. But how nearby is too nearby? How far is too far?
Cue me and my coworker (now a best friend) leaping and measuring distances from a white-painted cinderblock wall in a windowless basement room. Ah, the good old days. I work near windows now. There is significantly less yelling, less chill, but more sunlight.
3 - Dawn, two days before high school graduation
I'm seventeen. It's 5AM. I know I'm going to finish writing this book, my FIRST book (not NAMELESS QUEEN, but the book I wrote four books before that one). I'm so close. I'm writing in a fervor, tapping away at a laptop.
It's 6 AM. The sun is starting to rise. In the house, asleep, is my eldest sister's family. At some point, I turned off the TV, and I've been working in silence for hours. Birds are starting to sing.
It's 7:10 AM and I type the last keystroke. I wonder if it's too cheesy to write "THE END" at the end, because I know there are miles to go and days of revision and hundreds more hours of work ahead. I don't remember if I do or don't.
I remember closing my laptop. Staring out at the haze of light outside the closed blinds. Blinking at the green-yellow numbers on the DVD player and guessing how many hours of sleep I'll get. I wonder if I should wake the whole house up so that I can shout with them that I have finished writing a book. I have finished it. I am not done, but I have finished it.
I decide against it. I know they, a house of night owls, won't wake for hours. I know that if I fall asleep now, I'll sleep until 11 and might still wake up before them. But even if I don't, I know that I've been on their couch for the umpteenth night in a row, and if they wake before me, they'll do their best to stay quiet. Sleep as long as you want, they'll say. Help yourself to whatever is in the fridge, they'll say.
Your brother-in-law is in the house. Asleep. You can't tell if it's him or your sister who is snoring, but it's loud even with their door shut. He might cook breakfast in the morning. He might go out to the garage in the early spring weather and work on a bike or a motor or an RC car. You don't remember. You wish you could remember.
A year later, you'll be visiting again while he's at a dialysis appointment. Your sister will get a phone call from the hospital, then she will get a flat tire and a ride from another sister. Hours later, she will come home with the life drained from her face because her husband has died. You'll stay until morning. You'll be there when your nephew wakes up and comes to his mother's door and asks where his dad is. Later that year, when you're in your second year of college, you'll write another book—your third at this point—and it's a sequel to your first book, even though you know you shouldn't write a sequel until the first one is sold. But sometimes you write the book that speaks to you, even if you wish you could write something else.
You'll get overwhelmed one night and sit on piano bench. You will press idly at the keys. You've never learned to play the piano, but that doesn't stop you from making music. You'll think of your family. You'll remember the long nights you spent at your sister's house. You'll remember that you watched a TV show while your nephew slept in his room and your sister drove to the hospital, and when each episode started, you couldn't remember how the previous one ended. But it still ended, and so you kept watching, experiencing it without internalizing it. You'll realize again that sometimes you are done with something, but you're not finished yet. And sometimes you're done before you ever have the chance to finish.
But for now, you are done with your first book and everyone is alive. You smile. You fall asleep on the couch beside his desk. The couch has an iron-shaped burn and a half-arranged top sheet, and you know that the sun is rising through the dusty, off-white blinds and the day is starting. Your first book might not be done, but it exists. And how wonderful is it to have something you love just exist.
In two days, you'll walk at your high school graduation. You'll consider singing the words to a French song to your friend who sits three seats away because her last name starts with L and yours starts with M, and she's close enough to hear the words of that silly song you learned in French club together, even though she's the only one who was learning French. Two years before, you made a joke that you would have this song stuck in your head until graduation, and you'd burst into song in the middle of the ceremony. And all the words are still there and playing in your head, but you know there's a difference between a joke with good timing and an ill-timed joke. You're about to celebrate your graduation from high school. You'll walk with your head held high. You will not burst into song. It will occur to you that you should be happier than you currently are. High school may not be the biggest thing you'll accomplish in your life, but it's one of the biggest things you've accomplished so far. You can't stop gauging your current accomplishments against the future you haven't lived yet.
You finished a book recently and even that isn't the pinnacle of the achievements that you'll see in your life. You want to write more books. Get published. Keep publishing. You have to remind yourself to enjoy the moment in its current context, in comparison to what has already happened and not in comparison to what you think may happen someday. You are graduating high school, and you haven't even started college. You've written your first book, and you don't know what you'll write next. You are celebrating with people you love, and you don't know when you'll lose them. It's okay to have perspective on your life, but it's also important to cherish it as it occurs. This moment in your life is just a percentage of the life you will live and have already lived. Cherish it for all that it's worth, even if it has a backdrop of a single line of French music that only you can hear.
In four years, you'll return to their house. You'll have a great idea for your most recent project, NAMELESS QUEEN, and you'll frantically search your late brother-in-law's desk for something to write with. You'll find a brick-red crayon that your nephew is too old to draw with anymore. You'll draw and write without words and you will contemplate how and when and why things end.
4 - Getting accepted into Pitch Wars
I apply to a mentorship program that I didn't think I'd get into. If I don't get accepted, I'll dive into my own round of revisions and then start querying. I will cherish the help if I get it, but I won't let losing out on a good opportunity stop me from moving forward.
They're going to announce the accepted mentees on Twitter at 9 PM. I've been following the mentors I submitted to for days, trying to decipher their tweets to know if they've picked me or someone else. It's 9 PM. I'm too nervous to check, but I refresh the page anyway. The server for the website crashes. I shut my laptop and lay down in bed, which at the time was a mattress pad folded in half on top of a tri-fold camping cot that sat on the floor in the center of my teal-carpeted bedroom. I ignore my phone and tell myself I can handle waking up to bad news better than falling asleep to bad news.
I start getting dozens of notifications on Twitter, all saying 'Congratulations!' and I know the outcome even if I don't know the details. I load the app on my phone. I click the links. I see a screenshot someone has posted of the list on Twitter. I see my name. My heart leaps.
I shout my roommate's name and am about to dash out to tell him the good news, but I realize I'm already in my pajamas and I'm wearing a transparent, hole-filled shirt because we don't have air conditioning in our post-college apartment. He shouts back, asking what's up. I know it's awfully impolite to involve your boobs in a book celebration they weren't invited to, and so I cover my own mouth to stop from laughing at this particular absurdity and I frantically find a shirt to put on.
Then, like a proper lady, I sprint into the living room and run around hyperventilating while I try to explain what the mentorship program is. I explain the math of how many people submitted, how many mentors there are, and how you only get to submit to a couple of them. I need him to understand the math, because I need him to understand how unlikely and therefore lucky and brilliant and life-changing this is. He is probably excited for me, but I mostly remember trying to handle all the energy pouring out of me. I think I juggle at some point. I start messaging my mentor who will help me revise the book that will then get me an agent and book deal in a matter of days once the mentorship is over. I am made of joy and adrenaline. I know I am going to do grueling work over the next months, and I am ecstatic for it.
Somehow, I fall asleep.
5 - Coin's Diary
During the mentorship, my mentor wants my story to have more oomph. She wants more insight into my main character, more depth, and so she asks me to write a diary entry about how the character is feeling during this chapter of the book. It sounds like an exercise I would have done in a college fiction workshop, and I can't help but worry because I was never able to keep a diary myself. I like the idea, though, and I promise to try.
I go somewhere else. I inhabit the character in all the ways that I had poured myself into her, and I reach for the private impossibly-eloquent and simple thoughts that she would only say to herself if she knew no one was listening. I put aside the idea that someone will read this, I put aside the thought that I need to make the character relatable and marketable. I put aside the fear that what I will write will seem cheesy or authorial and won't have the right Voice. I put aside Me, for a little while. I write in a diary.
I send it to my mentor and she immediately demands I put it verbatim in the book. This becomes the end of Chapter 11. It makes it into the final draft that gets published.
I wonder to myself if I should try keeping a diary, one that doesn't start with "Dear Diary, here's a log of my daily activities," but rather a place where I can be shamelessly and needlessly eloquent, where I don't have to imagine an audience that thinks I'm being pretentious instead of wise. I consider it. Instead, I write more books.
6 - Refresh Refresh Refresh
I'm at work (Floor 2 and with windows nearby, if you can believe it), hardly working, because I keep refreshing the Pitch Wars web page that has my entry on it. I keep getting more requests. I'm texting my mentor who keeps bombarding me with texts that say ANOTHER ONE! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? THIS IS INSANE. Except imagine some well-placed cuss words.
We get over 20 requests, and in the next days I get multiple offers from literary agents.
I tell my then-friend (now best-friend) about the numbers. How many comments I got compared to other people, and how many mentors and mentees and agents there are. I tell her how long it take to get an agent and how many hours between sending the book and getting an offer.
I want her to understand the math so she knows how lucky I am and how amazing this is.
7 - Car Alarms and Literary Agent Calls
I don't remember why I titled this section 'car alarms.' I don't remember car alarms. I remember velociraptors and being IN a car, but that doesn't feel like the same thing.
I got an email asking for a phone call. The Call. An offer of representation from a literary agent. I schedule the call when I think I should be arriving home. That was a mistake, of course. I should have scheduled the call for a half hour after I KNEW I would be home. But schedules are finicky and so is driving a car.
I attend a training session for the job that I am starting to learn. My hiring manager wanted to let me go after four months now that "the writing is done" (he didn't understand, I think, that the writing is never really done). My supervisor understood the work, understood my value and potential, and asked if I wanted to learn another area of work in order to keep my job. I loved the idea of having a job next month, so I said yes. Fortunately, the work sounded fun, too.
The training lasted all day and ended at 2. I stayed after to ask some questions and learn as much as I could, and I got home late. In my early emails with my editor, I had said, "I will be home and free for a call at 3 PM, unless something drastic happens like I am released late from my job or velociraptors attack my car."
"Talk to you at 3," he said, "and do your best to avoid velociraptors."
Sometimes I want to come off as quirky and relatable, but instead I come off as cheesy or pretentious. But I want to be upfront about my personality so that people know a.) I have a personality, and b.) I will swerve between a professional personality and "I like to think I'm pretty funny" personality at regular intervals. As far as professional relationships go, I don't know that I recommend this method. Every time I think I'm being funny, I look back six months later and cringe. Thankfully, my agent doesn't hold this against me.
I email him as I leave training. "I'm being attacked by velociraptors (I've been let out of training late)." He says that's okay—velociraptors must be attended to, and he understands. We push the meeting back by a reasonable chunk of time.
Despite my unwieldy references to dinosaurs, he signs me as a client.
Velociraptors becomes code for questions or issues that arise. I send him a list of velociraptors. After a year of working together (or maybe a month; memory and time are fickle), I send him a small toy velociraptor as a present. It sits in his office, and he named it "Nameless." When he switches agencies, I follow him and remain his client and send an email titled "You are My Chris Pratt" in which I reference Jurassic Park and tell him I'll be following him to Park Literary agency.
Thankfully, he doesn't disown me. I might actually be a menace with a terrible sense of humor. If that's true, don't tell my agent because he seems to have tolerated me thus far and I don't like to jinx these kinds of things.
8 - How many people does it take to convince Rebecca to change her mind?
I've been told we're having a Professional Phone Call to discuss edits on my book. We've been doing them for what feels like EONS, and there's a bit of friction. My editor wants me to delete a thing that I like. Deleting the thing would require me to do massive rewrites. My editor says the same thing my professors said in college: you can do anything if it works.
This feels like good advice, but it is actually also a challenge. Sometimes you meet the challenge and make it work, and sometimes you don't.
The phone call is a Professional Phone Call to inform me that it does not in fact work.
The phone call consists of myself, my agent, my agent's assistant, my editor, my editor's assistant, and another editor. My only recollection is of my editor, her assistant, and my agent speaking. Maybe they were witnesses in case I went off The Deep End. I stay in the shallow end. I listen to the conversation about why the thing needs to be deleted. I listen to some other thoughts. Everyone is on the same page and wants me to also be on the same page. This is not the kind of phone call where you can be on a different page.
I try to listen carefully instead of fixating on the fact that there are a lot of people listening to me listen. When I speak, I try to speak articulately instead of fixating on the fact that they can probably hear me breathe. I forget how to breathe. I talk at the top of my register and without enough air, and so after I've spoken so much that I need a breath, my lungs are somehow still full and yet don't have enough oxygen in them. I'm certain they can hear the weirdness in my voice.
I agree to that the thing probably needs to get deleted. I agree to write an outline of the book without the thing. (I am not convinced the thing needs to get deleted.) I stand my ground on a few other unrelated suggestions that I disagree with, and I nod a lot even though they can't see me.
I vanish for two weeks and write a new outline. In the outline, I make a few unexpected changes but I am surprised that I do, in fact, like the story a lot more now that the thing has been deleted. I self-reflect and wonder what the difference is between stubbornness and strength, self-advocation and self-centeredness. I decide it's probably fine. I hope it's fine.
The book gets way WAY better, as it always does, when I take the advice of people who are experts in their field.
9 - Seeing the cover for the first time
I didn't know the title would be gold. In the early versions of the cover art, it was red and then a lovely white-marbled texture. I get a box of Advanced Reader Copies (one of which I will send on a tour to writer friends who will write lovely notes inside, and the rest of which I will mail to strangers in promotional giveaways on Twitter and Instagram (mostly Twitter)).
I open the box and I'm taken aback. I thought I knew what it would look like, but they made additional and wonderful changes. I make sure they spell my name correctly. I find a typo on the back cover. I giggle with excitement. I smell the pages. I pet the spine.
When I saw the first cover design, the red title was so very bold that it felt like a video game cover. The white title fit with the color scheme better, but still felt bold. The final title that was filled with gold felt elegant and powerful in ways I didn't expect. I take pictures and share them with my friends and family. Some of my friends are graphic designers and I'm a little more nervous showing it to them. Some of my family gets more emotional than I did at seeing the design, and I'm a little self-conscious about how emotional I'm not being.
Where's the emotional energy I felt when I got into Pitch Wars? Getting an agent, an editor, a book deal, the ARCs... it has all been spectacular, but it has all been to some extent a reasonable expectation. Each milestone seems to cascade from the last, and I wonder to myself if I spent all of my excitement in one go, if I let the bar get set too high. Does the expectation of something lessen its joy? I wonder if I should stop trying to rank my emotional reactions to important events and instead be content with my experience no matter what it is.
When I have the ARCs, I take one into my office job and proudly display it on my desk. No one gets a chance to see it proudly displayed though, because I take it into my hands the moment a new face walks by and I put it in theirs.
Look—you can hold it. It's real. It's nearly finished. It's really real.
10 - Lyle Cries and I Lose My Coffee
When I was still revising NAMELESS QUEEN on my own before Pitch Wars and before getting an agent and then editor, I print it off and put it in a binder. I take it camping, and bring highlighters and pens. I know how to camp.
I skip a tubing trip to finish my handwritten edits and my cousin asks to read it. My cousin's name is Lyle, and I share it with them gleefully. I'm in that stage where I know it's not done but I also know it's good. Good enough to share, at least, even if it's not good enough to publish yet.
Lyle spends most of the day reading it. I remember seeing them hold it by the firelight. I thought, is this what it will be like when it's published? Knowing people hold something precious of mine? Watching them consume something in hours that took me years to create?
The math doesn't seem right. I spent hundreds of hours on something that gets read in a fraction of the time. In a way, that was kind of perfect, though. We might spend hours cooking a meal that is eaten in minutes. We spend minutes building a card house that goes down in a single second. On that merit alone, the work of creating consumable art will always require more effort to build than to consume. I think there's a law about entropy that agrees with me.
In fact, if enough people spend a few days reading my book, then they'll have spent months or years inhabiting a story I created. I did some bad math quickly. If I spent 3 full years on something, and the average person spends 8 hours reading the book, then the readers will outpace me in hours spent on the book after 3285 of them read it. (Don't check my math.)
But it isn't about the math. I can calculate the odds and tabulate the time as much as I want, but it was all worth it in a single evening to see my wonderful cousin spend their time enjoying something I created. I can explain to my roommate why he should be excited about my first unexpected victory, but he can see the energy pouring from me as I race around our apartment and screech with joy.
January 2020. I host a book launch event at a local book store. I invite friends and family and coworkers. Some people show up that I didn't even think to invite. Family who work late hours but took a day off to drive a hundred miles to see me. A neighbor who brings flowers. Students at the local high school who are already writing their first books. And Lyle.
I talk about my writing. I read from the book. I lose my coffee in a ten-foot-radius twice because I am at Maximum Energy Levels. I tell a joke and they laugh. I'm certain my face is cherry-red and that my voice has that high-register weirdness. I sit down to sign the books they've bought from the bookstore. The first person to walk up to me is Lyle. They're crying. They tell me this is as emotional as when they got a book signed by a bestselling author. I give them a hug. I sign their book and focus on not spelling my name incorrectly.
I marvel at the unlikelihood of everything, and I refuse to do the math.