When Your Work in Progress Becomes Middle Aged

I never lie about my age, but I’ve started lying about my book’s age. You see, I’ve been working on my novel for so long that it’s getting, well, a bit embarrassing.

It wasn’t always this way.

When I first started writing, only two people knew I was working on a novel. My friend Diane, who convinced me to do Nano, and my husband, who picked up the slack with the kids as I pounded on my keyboard late into the night to hit daily word counts. At the end of that November, I had a newborn novel. I felt fiercely protective of this helpless and ugly thing (let’s be honest, not all newborns are Gerber babies) and had no plans whatsoever to show off my infant in public. That is until Diane talked me into signing up for a workshop at GrubStreet.

Though I was terrified to bring my baby out into the world, I was also aware of how little I knew about the care and feeding of writing a novel. At Grub, I learned about wounds and inciting incidents! Character development and plot structure! The feedback in workshops was helpful and generally positive, so I signed up for more. As my novel started to crawl and then teeter on unsteady legs, I thought: Maybe I can do this. Maybe mere mortals really can write novels.

Bolstered by my limited success, growing passion, unjustified confidence, and general insanity, I started applying to MFA programs and GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator. One snowy March morning, an impossible thing happened. My toddler of a novel was accepted into multiple programs. I was elated! I was overjoyed! I started blabbing to everyone I knew about how I was writing this amazing novel. It was the equivalent of bragging that your child’s going to grow up to be president because she received all “exceeds expectations” on her kindergarten report card. I was that parent.

Let me tell you: adolescence was painful. I enrolled in the Novel Incubator. I took an honest look at the mistakes I had made. My novel now had uncontrolled acne and a bad attitude. There were days I was angry with my teen, and nights my teen made me cry, but I wasn’t giving up. I needed to make some hard choices. In the end, I cut more than half my novel. More than 50,000 words. It was painful, but it was the right thing to do.

As any parent will tell you, it takes time to recover from the tumult of the teen years. My novel’s transition into adulthood left me bone tired and battle worn, yet at the same time optimistic. I was leaving the Novel Incubator with a clear direction, and though I knew filling in the gaping holes would take time, I felt hopeful.

The only problem was well-meaning friends and family were still asking about my novel. Hadn’t I been working on it for years? I would mumble something about how long it takes to finish writing/query an agent/sell a book, how work had been unusually busy, how driving the kids in circles around town eats into my writing time. Eventually–and mercifully–people stopped asking.

My novel has now reached middle age, and it’s hard not to notice the fine lines and gray hairs. If only there were an anti-aging beauty routine for novels. At this point, lying about my book’s age feels not only necessary but kind.

Come to think of it, a middle-aged novel might not be so bad. Middle age is a time of rediscovery and reinvention. I have more knowledge, experience, and patience. And I’ve learned to persevere. All great qualities that bode well for finishing a work in progress. Besides, over the years my novel has found steadfast friends in fellow writers who get what I’m going through because they too have traveled this same exciting, turbulent, sometimes maddening, always satisfying path.

It’s been a long road getting my work in progress to where it is now, and I still have more work to do. My plan is for my novel to live to a wise old age and not die an untimely death. In the meantime, please don’t ask how old my novel is. It’s simply not polite.

6 comments

  1. Sarah Annibale

    Amen, well said! Feeling exactly the same about my “baby.” This is a wonderful reminder that we writers are not alone, and that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. A meandering, frustrating marathon where the folks on the sidelines are frowning and doubting, rather than cheering and handing you orange wedges. Staying motivated is beyond hard. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes, people who don’t write simply do not get it. But I bet my progeny was older than yours–it was definitely starting to reach its dotage! I started to fudge the question of my book’s age, too, but maybe we should show some pride in all the life stages it’s been through? In the end, when it’s published, it’s brand new again, so that is the reward. Thanks for raising the issue, and good luck sending your middle-ager off into the world.

  3. Tracey Palmer

    Ha! So true. I’d rather fess up to my age rather than reveal my book’s. Keep editing, Julie, your book is awesome!

  4. Bonnie Waltch

    Love this, Julie! This is such an apt metaphor for our aging novels and I can SO relate, given how long ago I started mine! Here’s wishing that your novel grows old gracefully and successfully and reemerges reborn and reincarnated as a shiny new infant ready to wow the world!

  5. Madeleine Hall

    So relatable! This post gives me hope, energy, as well as humor when thinking of my own perhaps teenaged novel, hoping it can make it to its own middle age with grace, clarity, and the kind of wisdom that can only come with age! Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

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