Not Finishing My Novel Would Have Ruined My Life
Lisa Ko with Notes on the Long Game That is Writing
In the sixth year of writing my novel, I stood in the attic of a 16th-century Scottish castle, surrounded by a printout of the manuscript, and considered my choices. Either I scrapped the book or rewrote the whole thing. It was devastating to consider trashing something that had already consumed so many years. Had I wasted all this time? Was I wasting my life? What was I doing with my life, anyway? I went to my job, earned a paycheck, and turned down invitations to go out so I could stay home and write. I could have been going out more. It would have been more fun than writing.
A few weeks earlier, my father had laughed at me when I told him I was still working on my book.
“You? What have you done?” he said. “You’ve never written anything.”
Rejection has never been hard for me. It was success that felt challenging. Rejection was familiar, expected. It was also a dare: You think I’ve never done anything? I’ll show you. I set a goal to get 50 writing rejections in a year and created a spreadsheet to log the stories I sent out, the grants and residencies I applied to. By the end of the year, I had sent out 25 submissions and received four acceptances, more than I’d gotten in any other year. A story that had been rejected 27 times was finally published.
When I felt like giving up, which was often, I would read interviews with authors who had worked on their novels for five or more years, who had published their first books after 40, who worked full-time jobs and weren’t being financially supported by anyone else. They offered me hope.
I’ve been writing since I was five years old. Growing up, encouragement from teachers had made me think that talent was all it took. Discipline—and belief in myself—took far longer. In my twenties, I took writing classes after work and read voraciously, piecing together paragraphs like puzzles, trying to figure out how my favorite authors did it. I published a couple of stories. I sent away for MFA program catalogs and threw them out, because what kind of career was that? Instead, I got a master’s degree in library science while working full-time at a film production company. Still, I wrote. Stories with no plots and no endings, featuring a mildly depressed Chinese-American woman writer with commitment issues who drank too much. I accumulated hundreds of rejection letters.
When I enrolled in an MFA program in 2009, I was 34 and one of the older students, taking classes at night and working three day jobs—teaching, managing recording sessions in a music studio, and writing articles for a news show. After a story I wrote got published, I decided to turn it into a novel, though I had no clue how to write one.
By the end of the year, I had more than 100 pages and two main characters. I figured I’d finish the book in another year or so, and then I would send it to the agent whose business card I had held onto through nine apartments and two cross-country moves.
This plan quickly proved to be delusional, or maybe just wildly naïve. Three years into writing the novel, I stopped labeling Word documents with names like “novel-final.doc” and “novel-finalFINAL.doc” and “novel-FORFUCKSSAKEFINAL.doc.” I hadn’t expected how closely tied to myself the process of working on the book would be—or rather, how closely tied to getting over myself.
For instance: I researched obsessively, wanting to convince my readers that I’d gotten things right, down to the specific color of the buses in a Chinese city. “This reads like ethnography,” a guy in my MFA workshop said. I kind of hated him for saying it, but I also knew he had a point. You can’t write a novel out of wanting to be right. I had to delete enough details so it could breathe again.
Other writers who I shared chapters with told me my characters felt distant. That they needed to feel, not just think.
“But isn’t it obvious what they’re feeling?” I said. “I don’t want to hit readers over the head.”
“No, no, no,” my friends said.
I realized I’d given my characters my own intimacy issues. Ex-boyfriends, therapists, and various friends had told me I could be hard to read. It was textbook: Afraid of being vulnerable, I didn’t make demands or show myself easily. And now, my characters were the ones who were elusive and closed off.
I added what seemed like over-the-top, too-obvious lines that spelled out, very clearly, what my characters were feeling, thinking, and wanting. It seemed gross and a little dangerous, like I had overstepped a boundary. But I left them in.
By year four, I felt like I had been emerging for so long that I would never make it out of the womb. At an artists’ residency, the writers put their books on a table in the dining room. As the only one without a published book, I put a rock on the table and joked that it was my novel. While I was flattered to be there—the residency accepted one emerging writer each session—I also felt inadequate. I wondered if I would ever have something to show beyond that rock. The other writers told me not to worry, to keep working, but they had published their first books in their twenties and early thirties. I was long past that.
I read the manuscript out loud and stuck Post-Its on my wall to keep track of the scenes. A friend said, “Maybe the book is done and you just don’t think so?”
I was tired of editing. I wanted it to be done, to not be left behind. So I sent the manuscript to the agent whose card I’d been holding onto for what now had been 14 years. Several weeks later, her rejection arrived.
In year five of writing the novel, I quit coffee because I had to go to bed earlier to get up for a new full-time office job. I also quit drinking, so I was sober and tired all the time. The caffeine withdrawal after 20 years of coffee chugging left me with a headache that lasted for months. I barely wrote, but I thought of writing all the time.
I exchanged manuscripts with my writer friends. The verdict was that my novel’s story was there, but the structure wasn’t. It needed to be told differently, maybe even from another point of view. It needed an overhaul, a tighter plot, and a greater dramatic drive. The thought of rewriting it all again exhausted me, and for the hundredth time, I considered giving up.
Then an artist’s colony called and offered me a residency. Ten days in May; that was all the vacation time I could take from my job. On the first day, I read the manuscript for the first time in months.
The prognosis was grim. I’d written myself into a corner. The novel, in its current form, was doomed. I’d built it around the story I had written and published that first semester in my MFA program, which featured my character Polly on a bus. For years, that had been the novel’s first chapter. But many revisions later, it no longer made sense for the characters to do the things they did in that chapter. Polly in 2009 might have gotten on the bus, but the character she was in 2014 never would have.
I had written an entire novel that had been forced to fit that first chapter, and that chapter no longer fit. If I got rid of it, I would also have to get rid of the other chapters that had been written around it, the reasons she got on the bus, the results of that bus ride. It was like trying to untangle a ball of knotted yarn. Once you undid one knot, another one formed—then another, and another.
I couldn’t procrastinate by cooking and wasting time on the internet because my meals were made for me at the colony and there was no wifi. So I worked.
I erased the chapter, crying as I held down the delete button. Then I deleted more. And more. By the time I left, I’d deleted two years’ worth of work and most of the novel. I felt lighter. I felt distraught.
The following summer, using over a year’s worth of vacation days, I took a month off work to go to a residency at the Scottish castle. On the plane ride from New York to Edinburgh, I read Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves. In the author questionnaire, I learned that he had worked on his novel for ten years while also working as a high school English teacher. Of the experience, he said, “Not finishing the novel would have dealt my psyche a blow whose imagined pain was worse than the considerable frustrations of facing my limitations every day.”
I stopped and read it again. It was the truest thing I had ever read about trying to finish a book, and it fit my worldview perfectly—choosing the lesser of two negatives. Even if the thought of having to start from scratch and rewrite the novel felt impossible, I knew I would regret giving up more than having to plow through the work yet again.
I decided I would try, one last time. I copied Thomas’s quote onto an index card and taped it over my desk.
Living in a medieval castle lent a sense of diligence and austerity to my work. I spent a week creating a new scene-by-scene outline for the novel. Then, for eight hours a day, I wrote and rewrote, pumping up the tension, cutting down the fat. Entire chapters went into the garbage. In the afternoons I walked through the countryside, seeing only sheep and cows. My mind was so open, so decluttered, that it wasn’t just that ideas were coming more easily, but that I was able to notice them.
My goal was to rewrite one chapter a day. After three weeks, I had 20 chapters, including a new ending. When I got home, I printed out the draft and began another round of editing.
I turned 40. I didn’t know if the book would ever be published, but I was starting to believe that it could. When I sold it nearly six months later, it still didn’t seem real—not until I held a copy in my hands. I jumped up and down and screamed, and then I felt scared.
During the seven years it took me write to The Leavers, I wanted nothing more than to publish it, to turn it from a very long Word document into a physical book. Yet it was also terrifying to imagine publishing it. It would mean a kind of exposure, a vulnerability, that I had once tried so hard to protect myself from. Publishing the book doesn’t mean the anxieties have gone away, but it does mean that I believe I’ve done it for the right reasons. Not for validation, not because I needed to prove myself, but because I’ve written something that might be worth reading.