I spent the better part of a decade writing two novels that did not sell. The first, The Accident, was about a bratty preteen who evacuates Kiev, Ukraine, after the Chernobyl disaster, falls in love with her best friend’s grandfather, and moves to America while the disaster, the grandpa-love, and her best friend’s tragic fall down the stairs continue to haunt her—admittedly, a hard sell. And yet, about four years in, I managed to sign with a literary agent. For two years, I spent mornings revising the book and afternoons and evenings working a series of soul-crushing, writing-adjacent jobs.
When my agent dumped me, I could see the end of my twenties looming on the horizon like a radioactive cloud, and had nothing to show for them besides the ill-fated book. I was sure my life was over, a sentiment confirmed by the fact that I couldn’t get another agent to even read the book. When I related my tragic situation to my husband’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, he just shrugged and said, “If they don’t like your first book, write another book.” So when I got bored by all the self-pity, I plugged on. I landed a prestigious position as an “editorial fellow” at wikiHow, writing how-to articles for sixteen dollars an hour while writing my new novel by hand every morning.
Father Fatherland was a ten-character-point-of-view 700-page comic novel about a spoiled Ukrainian immigrant—noticing a theme?—named Masha whose life is ruined when her agent gives up on her historical novel. Masha returns to Kiev to solve a family mystery involving her father’s former rock band. In this subtle work, the budding author girl’s dad sicks his Russian mobsters on her literary agent, who is unfazed as they pin her against the wall. “There’s nothing more I can do for the girl,” she says coolly. Later, Masha holds a funeral for her book (“RIP MY F*CKING NOVEL” reads a banner inside her kitchen), and accidentally sets her apartment on fire when she tries to burn her pages. In the end, it will surprise no one to learn that this project did not find a home, either.
Onward and upward! I abandoned my cutting-edge work on “How to Be a Cougar” and entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, I wrote a coming-of-age immigrant novel called Oksana, Behave! and a historical novel called Something Unbelievable, which is about an actress putting on a play about her grandmother’s World War II story in Ukraine. Miraculously, I sold both books together, erasing the memory of my other two ill-fated novels—or so I thought. When I toured for Oksana, Behave!, I found it impossible not to mention the first two, which hovered in my consciousness like sexy ex-boyfriends I could not stop dreaming about. All the toiling taught me things about writing and life I never would have learned otherwise. Unlike my poorly-researched how-to articles, I hope these lessons may be of use to someone.
1. You have to love your characters, even if your readers don’t.
In my first novel, the main character, Ivanna, was bratty but had heart, but I couldn’t quite forgive her for her childhood mistakes. In my second, while Masha’s feeling that getting dumped by her agent was a tragedy was kind of hilarious, I should have given her more room to grieve. When I kept hearing that my protagonists were “too unlikeable,” I bristled against what I felt was an anti-feminist sentiment—male characters could be as badly behaved as they wanted, couldn’t they? But I think what people were getting at was the real problem—I didn’t like my characters, either, which made for an unpleasant read. I stole this idea from the writer Anna Bruno, who shared it with me when I interviewed her for Guernica.
2. Use your life experience only when it serves the story.
My teacher Pam Houston spoke of the importance of “glimmers”—of making lists of interesting things from your life and exploring them in fiction. I took this too literally with my first novel, which started with a bang with Chernobyl, and ended in a whimper as it dutifully followed the protagonist through every minor incident in her life. “In fourth grade, I was in a mandatory talent show,” a chapter began. “In eighth grade, I was invited to my first sleepover,” started another. “By sophomore year, I was getting pretty good at tennis,” began a third. Who cared about the talent show and tennis? This was a book about Chernobyl! At the time, though, I felt compelled to write down every little thing that happened to me because I felt that otherwise, the character wouldn’t feel fully embodied.
3. Know that you don’t really kill your darlings—you just set them aside for later.
Ten years later, some of the ill-placed autobiographical stuff from my Chernobyl book came in handy in Oksana, a book that gave shape to each incident in my childhood. And I used the fifty-page opening sequence of my Chernobyl character evacuating Kiev as a model for my new war novel’s protagonist evacuating Kiev, scene by scene—and I don’t plan on suing myself for plagiarism. Even old Reginald, the self-fellating cat from Father Fatherland, made an appearance in my second novel. I knew I would never be able to let him go.
4. You can have as many characters as you want—as long as you clearly position them on stage.
Since I write big, messy novels with many generations and time periods at play, my first two books were what my patient classmates called “crowded” or “overstuffed” with so many people that it was hard to know who mattered. My teacher Lynn Freed talked about positioning characters in the headlights or the footlights of a stage. I learned to demonstrate a hierarchy of characters, giving each one the page space and storylines they needed without dwelling on minor characters. While writing Something Unbelievable, which features eight (!) generations of women, having the stage in mind helped me give my readers—and myself—clarity about who really mattered.
5. Find the axis that your novel turns around.
You can have as many plots and subplots as you want, as long as there’s a clear focal point. In my first book, I lost track of the fact that it was about how Chernobyl affected my narrator—every scene, whether it was her love for her friend’s grandpa, or the friend’s accident, should have revolved around that. When I lost track of Chernobyl, my narrator was aimless. In Father Fatherland, the real axis was failed ambition—Masha was facing the failure of her novel, but her dad was also facing the failure of the band of his youth, and her friend, Natasha was failing as an actress. The book got muddled when it departed from this theme, with too many flashbacks and irrelevant characters, feline and human. If you have a strong plot, you can hang your beautiful images and philosophical pining and clever dialogue around it without wearying the reader—or yourself.
6. Every single scene, whether it’s in the past or present, has to move the story forward.
The writer Laura Van Den Berg gave a talk about keeping an eye on your “rate of revelation”—that every scene has to tell the reader something new. In my first book, I had many scenes of the protagonist engaging in bad behavior in school, for example—but each chapter was just saying the same thing in different ways. In my forthcoming novel, I ran into a trap with this as well, with seventy-five pages of scenes of the narrator struggling in the war. Each scene hit the same note, showing how cold and hungry she was; ultimately, I condensed those scenes to the few pages that advanced the reader’s knowledge of the character.
7. When you enter a scene, don’t spend too much time clearing your throat.
My teacher Ethan Canin often stressed the importance of good “scene hygiene.” This means getting into a scene as late as possible and getting out as soon as you’re done making your point. I learned that I didn’t need a page of backstory and clever remarks to introduce a scene, or to stay on for a page to explain to readers why what happened was important.
8. Every sentence has to pass the audience read-aloud test—especially the funny ones.
When my book tour began, I learned that there were some things that suddenly felt too boring or irrelevant or not funny enough when I thought of myself reading them to an audience. I ended up ruthlessly editing my published novel before I read from it. Though I had read my work aloud before, picturing an audience hearing it added an urgency that made me even more of a perfectionist and made my sentences ten percent better.
9. Connections and credentials do make a difference.
After my Chernobyl agent dumped me, I spent two years trying to lure another agent and couldn’t even get a response, let alone a read. So when I got into Iowa, I did a cynical experiment where I emailed three dream agents while mentioning Iowa, and asked if they’d read my book, and all three said yes that same day—two within the first hour. In the end, they all passed on the book, because it wasn’t very good, but this showed me the power of credentials. Editors and agents are busy people, and knowing that a place like Iowa vetted their potential clients puts them at ease. Is this fair, given that many do not have the privilege of applying to an MFA program? Of course not. Are there other ways to gain connections, like working in publishing, having fancy publications, going to conferences, and networking online? Of course. I’d love to say that art is exalted and beyond the networking culture of what I imagine goes on at, say, Harvard Business School, but that’s just not the case.
10. Living a little doesn’t hurt.
When I wrote my first novel, I had a passion for writing, an obsession with Chernobyl, and a colorful immigrant childhood. But that only took me so far. By the time I wrote Oksana, I had worked for six years, gone to grad school, had some health complications, got married and pregnant, and lost my grandmother, all of which gave me more perspective. So while I am always impressed by the 25-year-old who writes a damn good novel, I’m happy to have taken my time.
11. Don’t compare yourself to non-writer friends or your writer friends.
After college, all my friends started lives with a clear trajectory as they went to law or med school, got jobs, promotions, and later, perks like maternity leave and something called “vacation days.” The trajectory of the writing life is far less consistent; some years you’ll publish a lot and others you’ll be staring into the void. And even if you publish a book, there will always be writers who sell more books, win more awards, and have more followers than you. Just remember why you fell in love with words in the first place. Likely, it was not so you could tweet a link to your newly published story.
12. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider getting a stable job.
I got extremely lucky patching things together until I sold my books—and getting a job as a professor from that. But many who spent their twenties similarly don’t have that luck and continue into their thirties and forties being adjuncts, or patching together five other side gigs. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have found a real job earlier, while still making writing a regular, albeit smaller, part of my life. Not only would this have given me security, but it wouldn’t have felt so tragic when my first two books didn’t get published.
13. Don’t underestimate the power of timing and luck.
I do believe that the book I published first was the best book I wrote, but timing and luck played a role too. The books that did get sold got in the hands of the right agent and editor at the right time, when they were looking for a particular type of book. Who knows what would have happened if I had tried to sell my Chernobyl novel four years ago, when, thanks to HBO and the BBC, Chernobyl was all the rage?
14. If you’re not sure about being a writer, don’t do it.
If you can’t really commit to the (even if part-time) writing life, then don’t bother. Honestly, it’s too much work and heartache and uncertainty and often doesn’t pay off even if you do give it everything you’ve got. That said, the worst option is being sure about wanting to be a writer but doing something more practical instead. I’ve found that the friends of mine who stopped writing without really wanting to have more regret than the struggling writers I know, even if they have stable jobs, a happy family life, and everything else they ever wanted.
15. Have gratitude—really.
Though “have gratitude” was a line I used to add filler at the end of my how-to articles back in the day, I mean it, this time. I’ve learned how hard it is to publish a novel, both through my own experiences and from talented friends who have spent far more than a decade working tirelessly without rewards. Whether your book is a prizewinning bestseller or sold fifty copies, it’s a privilege to have your work out in the world, to have it read by anyone who does not know you personally. The 25-year-old girl who spent every morning in a coffee shop toiling over nuclear fallout would marvel at how lucky she would be one day. Most days, I still marvel at it.
Maria Kuznetsova’s Something Unbelievable is available now via Random House.