1.  Choose a horrific moment in history you know little about, in a country, Argentina, you know little about, but which seems to have troubling similarities to the here and now. Research for years. Images from the Dirty War sear into your mind.


2.  Learn that Hemingway wrote novels at the pace of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence if need be. You’re no Hemingway, but it seems pretty reasonable. Buy a marble composition notebook. Stare at the blank page. Treat yourself to a cheap book of Dover Art stickers. Stick a Chagall painting on a blank page. Stare. The painting makes a nice dent in the white space. A box to write around.


3.  Repeat this process every day for the next few years. Chagall, Modigliani, and Kandinsky speak to your project more than other painters, fueling your three main characters. You don’t know why, but whatever works, right?


4.  Worry the 300-word chunks aren’t quite stitching together. Someone in your writing group calls your protagonist a cipher. You’re afraid to ask if that is good or bad.


5.  Consider pursuing a doctorate in Discourse Analysis.


6.  Die of shame when sharing the outline of your novel in your first workshop.


7.  Balk when a posh visiting writer says you really ought to visit Argentina. With what money?


8.  Maybe you have no place writing this novel. No place at all. How dare you write about a place you’ve never been to?


9.  Find curiously cheap airline tickets. Over summer break, visit Argentina. Nearly get stranded:  the airline files for bankruptcy the day after you arrive, cancels all flights. Take a cab to the airport to find the airline office, which hides behind an unmarked door, behind a counter. To get their attention, your husband must walk behind the counter, transgressing airport decorum. Finally, get a voucher on American Airlines, which, ironically, files for bankruptcy later. But, you get home. Adventure!


10.  Throw out your first draft, and some of the characters in it, and rewrite the whole damn book.


11.  Query agents, 10 at a time. Try not to have delusions of grandeur when Dream Agent in batch 1 of 10 writes you a long, beautiful response, one that really gets your novel, and you think, this is it! You’ve hit the big time! The email’s final paragraph begins with “and so it is with deep regrets…”


12.  Use the nice letter to keep throwing yourself at more rejection. Give up around rejection #30. Who do you think you are, anyway? You’ve not written Harry Potter.


13.  In the meantime, distract yourself by writing a second novel. Oh, just a quick light thing, nothing like the first. Something with a bit of romance. Relatable. Saleable.


14.  A friend says not to stop trying until if you’ve tried 100 agents. The rejections are nice, but from what you can gather you’ve written something too dark, too weird. Wonder if this is code for: you’ve written a yucky book. You are an unrelatable weirdo.


15.  Consider whether this is one of those novels you stick in a drawer. It’s been, what, ten years?


16.  No, no, no, this is not a drawer novel! If this is a drawer novel, what is this life?


17.  Start the slow process of submitting the long-suffering novel to small presses, which is even slower than waiting for agents to reply, which is sometimes never.


18.  In the meantime, try your hand at a third novel, stupidly more ambitious than the first. You’ve heard of novelists writing six throw-away books before getting it right. At the rate you’re going, you’ll have to make it to age 80 for that to happen. But you’re bad at math so don’t try to make this calculation for real.


19.  The election happens. We’re all going to die. No one will ever find your book in a bookstore or a library or even a Little Free Library crammed with molding telephone books and rotten oranges.


20. One day, find a beautiful small press whose credo seems to match your own: read widely, read dead authors, read foreign authors. Why not try one more?


21.  And then score!  Receive that email from the small press that says yes. Yes! It turns out your editor is literally a genius with deep knowledge of obscure ancient literature and a doctorate in philosophy of theater which sounds more colorful than discourse analysis even though you’re not really sure what that entails—and she obviously has impeccable taste. (Try not to flatter yourself.)


22.  Die of shame asking for blurbs.


21.  Hey, wait. You’ve got some blurbs. Didn’t think that would work out.


22.  The weekend before your book launches, vomit repeatedly with anticipation. You will choke on your own vomit and die before the party, or else the nuclear apocalypse will happen, and either way no one will read the book. But, wait, the party itself is glorious. You sell out of books and have a trunk full of leftover cookies. Now bathe in a sea of chicken soup, as you’ve caught the flu. Hey, don’t you have that stupidly ambitious novel on the backburner that you have to throw out and rewrite 80 times? See you in 2028.


Anca L. Szilágyi's debut novel is Daughters of the Air. Her writing appears in Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, and Lilith Magazine, among other publications. She is the recipient of the inaugural Artist Trust / Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award, a Made at Hugo House fellowship, and awards from the Vermont Studio Center, 4Culture, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, and the Jack Straw Cultural Center. The Stranger hailed Anca as one of the “fresh new faces in Seattle fiction.” Originally from Brooklyn, she currently lives in Seattle with her husband. Find her at ancawrites.com or on Twitter @ancawrites.

3 responses to “How to Finish a Novel in Only 15 Years”

  1. Julia Park Tracey says:

    Pretty sure this is the story of my life. Congrats on publication!

  2. Looking forward to your novel. I’ve been writing a memoir for going on 15 years this July. Here’s to self doubt.

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