Monday, September 22, 2014

My First Time: Sarah Yaw

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Sarah Yaw.  Sarah’s novel You Are Free To Go (Engine Books, 2014) was selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize.  Michelle Wildgen, author of Bread and Butter, had this to say about You Are Free To Go: “A trio of faltering young women, each still tethered to the local prison, an inmate rapidly approaching his end—all live inside these pages with haunting, visceral persuasiveness.  Dreamlike and startling, You Are Free to Go is poised between the imagined ether and bloody reality, but Sarah Yaw never flinches.”  Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an assistant professor at Cayuga Community College.  She lives and writes in central New York.  Click here to visit her website.  You can also find Sarah and her novel on Facebook and Twitter.

The First Time I Declared My Novel Finished

When I tell my husband, Doug, “I’m done” with whatever I’m working on, he looks at me with suspicion.  He’s fallen for that before.  He has learned that while “done” sounds final, sounds like time to celebrate, it is really a fluid concept for writers.

The first time I finished my novel, You Are Free To Go, I shouted from the rooftops that my six-year process was over; I had conquered a beast of a book.  I sent it out to my first round of agents, and then (you know where this is going), I got some of those nice “the writing is really good” courtesy rejections and knew I had brought the book out too soon.

Here’s what I had finished: a narrative that clung tightly to an idea.  I think back now and I really should have known better, but I had tried so hard to make the conceit work.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t going anywhere and something inside me (the part that always knows the truth) got that it was fatally flawed.  A friend of mine hooked me up with a terrific editor, Natalie Danford.  Instead of sending the book out to more agents, I did an about-face and sent it to her instead.

Natalie got the book completely and cared about the prison scenes, having taught in a woman’s prison for years.  She also understood the structure and was equally interested in narratives with shifting points of view with minimal connective tissue, so I trusted her take on the book.  Then, she laid this on me: Take out the central conceit.  Actually, I think her exact words were, “Take the training wheels off.”  It took me about two hours to see that I had spent six years creating worlds and characters and plot that were authentic and organic to the world of the book, but they lay submerged and undiscovered under a blinding idea that I had forced everything else to serve.

Yes, removing it was scary as hell.

I took it out and lost twenty or so pages, which says a lot.  Without doing anything else to it (did I mention I also had two-year-old twins and was working full time?), I sent the book to two excellent writer friends, who, for good reason, were both really annoyed with me for having made them read such garbage.  The book was just body with no bones.  One lovingly suggested I start working on another book.  The other asked me a series of simple questions.  I’m sharing them here, in brief, so you can see just how lost I was seven years into the writing of this book:
       I’d love to have some hook, some unanswered question or problem that makes me wonder what happens next.  What secrets remain to be looked at and resolved?
       Maybe some defining moment in the friendship that they all have to forgive and/or atone for?
       Beyond an education, what does he want?

An unanswered question, a defining moment, and a basic want.  Good grief!  This was Fiction 101.  Yet, these back-to-basics questions were exactly what I needed.  I answered each one and turned on the drama that lay hidden inside the book.  It was ridiculously simple and so much fun.  Removing the initial conceit got me, my giant authorial intent, out of the way and let me see the real story.  You Are Free To Go ended up much closer, thematically, to the original story I set out to tell.

I declared the book finished, once again, and sent it out.  Doug was ready to party.  It won the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize, so we did!  But there was more work to do.  “You’re kidding.  It’s still not done?” he asked.  “Nope,” I said.  I had won the great privilege of continuing to work on it with Engine Books’ Victoria Barrett, who is such a brilliant editor.  So now, nine years later, despite Doug’s nervous, sideways glances when I say it, that book is finished!  The next time I see it, it will be bound, covered in beautiful blurbs, and ready for a bookstore.

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