by Kelli Stuart
It took me a decade to write my first novel. Really, it took longer than that, but “a decade” is such a neat and tidy way of saying it took an extremely long time. From the day I typed the very first word of my first draft, to the day the book finally landed on bookshelves, was seventeen years. More than a decade for those who are good at math. I’m equal parts proud of how long it took me to write this book, and a little embarrassed. Really, when you think of some of the most prolific writers, and their abilities to pump out great books every few years, one novel in seventeen years isn’t something to brag about. I try not to dwell on that, though, because what good is comparing my journey to anyone else’s, right?
This book took time because I refused to rush the story. It is historical fiction, set in World War II Soviet Ukraine, which meant sifting through mountains of propaganda in order to find out the truth of those days. It required me speaking with over 100 former Soviet veterans, listening to their stories and feeling the emotion of what they experienced. I needed to get this story right, not only because I wanted to present the reader with a factually accurate historical fiction novel, but also because I wanted to honor the people of Ukraine, who’s country was the central focus of the novel. I also got married, moved across country a few times, had four children, and worked as an editor/ghostwriter/blogger in those years. There weren’t copious amounts of spare time from which to draw. In the end, however, it didn’t matter because when I finally finished the book I knew it was right. I had taken my time, and I’d written a book I could be proud of.
Had I pushed it through ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been the right story. I needed to live a little, to experience life and the world in order to really tell the story as it needed to be told. There is a feeling of urgency in the writing world. We all know that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that we’re simply looking for new and fresh ways to tell the same old story, but still…we don’t want to be left behind. It’s true that some writers are prolific. Some people have a lot of words, and somehow they manage to organize all those words into book after book, story after story, and I applaud them for it! Others have, perhaps, an equal amount of words, but putting those thoughts together cohesively takes a little more time. One isn’t better than the other as long as neither gives up. I wanted to give up on my book multiple times over the years. I was certain I wasn’t cut out for this fiction writing thing. I tried over and over to convince myself to just walk away. Be a mom. Be a wife. Be a blogger. All those things were fine. Yes, those things are fine – they’re wonderful, in fact – but I had a story, and I needed to tell it. For this reason alone, I couldn’t begin another book project in all those years. I tried to put the novel aside and work on different ideas, but it was as though that one book had occupied all the brain space available, and there was no freeing up space unless I finished.
Finishing was only half the battle, though, because after typing The End, I needed to find someone who would read it. And so began the arduous process of finding an agent, and then a publisher, and once again fighting the urge to just walk away. “Fiction is a tough sell.” I heard this line over and over as I pitched my book. Apparently in my “decade” of research and writing, fiction faded into the shadow of non-fiction. According to my pile of rejection letter, the masses had spoken, and fiction was the red-headed stepchild of the literary world. Still there, but treated mostly as an annoyance. Now, had I been willing to turn Hitler into a vampire, and throw in a few zombies, I might have gotten this show on the road a little sooner (and don’t think I didn’t consider it). But again, the integrity of the story forced me to wait, to be patient, and to refuse to give up. Fiction may be a tough sell, but the power of story is never going away. Story is the vehicle from which all of life can be revealed. From the very beginning of time, story has been the way that we’ve communicated. There is great power behind story, and so we the storytellers can’t give up, no matter what the popular market tells us. Putting in the time and effort to tell the right story in the right way is a daunting process. Of course we’ll want to give up at times, because writing is hard. But we cannot quit telling stories. So I’ll keep on writing and you will, too! Whether the book takes six months or a decade-ish, let’s agree not to give up on story, okay?
Because the world needs our stories, and we need to believe that.
Kelli Stuart is a storyteller at heart with an affinity for languages, travel, and history. She is fluent in the Russian language, and spent over a decade researching the effects of World War II on the former Soviet Union. Kelli’s first novel, Like a River From its Course, is an epic story of war, love, grief, and redemption set in World War II Soviet Ukraine. It released in June 2016. Kelli lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband and four children.
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