Monday, June 14, 2010

Writing Q & A with Aidan Donnelley Rowley

A few weeks ago, I posted about this great book I'd just read. And I promised a review. Well, I'm going to do you one better. I submitted a list of questions for Aidan Donnelley Rowley, author of Life After Yes, to answer, and she's graciously obliged.

I chose this route rather than a traditional review for several reasons. First off, while I have plenty of praise for the craft and care Aidan put into this work of fiction, as well as for the reoccurring themes Life After Yes gives us to ponder, you guys don't need to read my opinion of the book. You can form your own just fine, thankyouverymuch, right? Plus there's wonderful ongoing discussion of the book's themes and characterizations over at Motherese, as we discuss it for her monthly book club.

No, my primary (and basically selfish) reason for conducting this interview was to pick Aidan's brain on the writing and publishing process. Most of you know about The Novel that Won't Die. Yep, it's still alive, no matter how many times I kick the crap out of it (four major revisions and counting). I keep trying to move on (I've even started Second Novel), but TNtWD is like one of those inflatable clown-faced punching bags we all played with as a kid. TNtWD just keeps springing back up for more, no matter how many times I punch it in its stupid, grinning face. And the crazy part is, I'm even starting to like it again. (The punching, and the novel.)

Anyway, some of you know what I'm talking about. Some of you understand the deeply personal, mostly painful, often isolating process of writing a novel and submitting it for publication. And certainly Aidan does. And so I'm honored to be able to learn a thing or two from her as I trek down the same path she's successfully navigated. If you're a writer, I hope it's helpful to you as well!


Q: In the Extras section of Life After Yes you explain the basic evolution of your decision to change from a legal career to a writing career. As a writer with several 'day' jobs, I want to know how much of the novel was formed in your mind at the moment you quit at your firm. Was it still a fuzzy idea, or did you know exactly what you planned to write?

At the moment I quit my job, all I knew was that I wanted to write a novel. I had no real idea, not even a fuzzy one, of what it would be about. At the time, a good friend had given me a duffel bag full of diaries she had kept since she was eleven and I contemplated trying to turn them into a book. I realized though – and quickly – that this was not what I wanted to do. I wanted instead to imagine my own story. From scratch. And so I did. Looking back, and writing these words now, I realize just how spontaneous it was to jump ship with no concrete idea or plan. I am so very thankful though that my foolish confidence pushed me in this direction.

Q: There are as many different writing processes as there are styles of writing (and counting). I have writing friends who wouldn't dream of penning that opening line until their entire novel was outlined in Post-It notes above their desk, but I know I need a foundation of prose to build on before I can define the full arc of the book. While writing LAY (and any current work), where do you fall on this spectrum?

I did not outline Life After Yes. I just plunged in and started writing. It always sounds bizarre to say this, but I followed my characters’ lead. Ultimately, I am happy I proceeded this way because the story evolved organically. But. This also meant a lot of edits. Once I had a draft, I realized that things needed to be added and subtracted and shifted around. This got quite messy. I intend to be a bit more organized am doing for my next book. I am writing the entire novel in isolated scenes. Once I have written them all, I will put them in the “right” order and connect them with prose. We will see how well this works or if it works at all!

Q: How many rewrites/drafts did LAY go through before you decided to query? After you queried? After you'd found an agent? (In other words, are we reading LAY 1.0, 2.0, 5.0?)

Oh, wow. I have no idea how many drafts I went through on my own. Many. I did one major revision for my agent which added a hefty sixty pages to the manuscript and I did yet another revision for my editor. And then. (Yes, there’s more.) Then I did a couple more line edits for my publisher. All in all, I would guess you are reading somewhere between LAY 7.0 and 12.0

Q: Tell me about the querying process for you. Again, everyone has an opinion about the best way to catch the eye of an agent. What was your experience? (And if you feel like disclosing hard, cold numbers, how many agents did you query before being picked up?)

Ah, the querying process. Once I felt like I was spinning my wheels with my manuscript, I started talking about the fact that I was looking for an agent. To whom? To everyone. I was amazed at how many names were unearthed merely by announcing the fact that I was seeking representation. I worked hard to write a compelling and concise letter and sent blind queries and queries to individuals to whom I had some connection, however tenuous. I honestly don’t remember exact numbers, but I think I received 5-10 rejections before signing with my agent. I realize, particularly after talking to many fellow authors, that this process was, for me, relatively quick and smooth.

Q: Have you reread the novel since publication? Is there anything you wish you could change? Anything you wish you hadn't, back during the editing process?

I haven’t read Life After Yes since publication. I could pretend that this is because I am very busy (oh, and I am), but I think it is more complicated than that. I think I haven’t reread it for fear that I would stumble upon something (or many somethings) that I would want to change. I think this is life. There will always be things (in life and literature) to edit, to polish, to tweak. But sometimes, many times, we must just let go. And move on.

Q: Tell me about one aspect of the publishing process that you hadn't expected.

There were so many aspects of the publishing process that I didn’t expect because I was (and am) an utterly ignorant rookie in this game. Coming up with a title was one of the most rewarding and maddening parts of the experience though. I never realized how important (and difficult) it is to isolate the right title – one that will inform and intrigue and inspire. Admittedly, this phase of the process was a struggle for me, but I am thrilled with the result. As a title, I think Life After Yes captures the subject matter of the story while remaining purposefully ambiguous. Now don’t even get me started on making a cover decision!

Q: Finally, give me a hint as to what you're working on next? (Pretty please?)

I am currently at work on my next two novels. I did not plan on working on two manuscripts simultaneously (and am not sure this is ultimately advisable), but I am excited about the ideas for each. They are very different stories, but both deal with themes of biology and motherhood. Hopefully, I will have more concrete details on these projects to relay soon! 


Aidan Donnelley Rowley lives and writes in New York City. You can read her words every day at her blog, Ivy League Insecurities. Thank you, Aidan, for taking the time to answer my questions. Your responses have caused me to form a dozen more!

If you haven't yet read Aidan's debut novel, Life After Yes, I urge you to pick it up and give it a try! You won't be sorry!
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