How I Wrote My Novel in Gmail

It always had a reader.

Image: Rob Sinclair

In the winter of 2014 I had an idea for a book so perfect and absurd that I stopped in the middle of a sidewalk to laugh about it. I’d gotten very immersed in a conspiracy theory about the love lives of the boy band One Direction; I had recently read an article about how teenage girls in fandom could translate the skills they were learning online onto post-collegiate resumes. The two ideas collided in my brain. I imagined girls who’d learned to analyze images for traces of Photoshop in order to ascertain whether Louis Tomlinson was in fact a father turning their skills to a weightier mystery.

I thought: someone should write a young adult novel about a teen girl fan-turned-detective.

Though I had recently sold a young adult novel, I felt very certain that this person should not be me. In the first place, I already had a project: 40,000 or so words whose driving force was a desire to make the metaphor often latent in supernatural stories — the werewolf, he is a stand-in for a the shame of being a gay man! — explicit. (A good idea, but not a good idea for a story, as it turned out.)

But also, I knew this book wasn’t the kind of thing I could write well: caper-y, was the way I described it in an email to my friend Logan about how someone else should write it for me.

In retrospect, of course, I told Logan about it because I didn’t want to be alone with the idea. One of the most infuriating things about writing is how it puts you in a room with nothing but your own judgment to keep you company while you struggle to pull together a first draft. This is difficult no matter what it is a first draft of, but particularly unnerving when it’s a novel, which requires that you sink months — if not years — of your life into its creation, which you can never see the beginning of at the same time as the end. My lizard brain knew perfectly well that the werewolf book wasn’t working, but it couldn’t figure out why. Before I abandoned it, and committed myself to something new, I wanted someone to reassure me: this one is really the one.

There is no such thing as the one; there is no such thing as knowing for sure when you set out on a novel-sized project how it will ultimately end out. But we tell ourselves stories in order to live, or we tell ourselves lies in order to take on projects we find intimidating, anyway, and the thing about Logan was, she wasn’t even lying to me when she said I had to write it, and that she was sure it was going to be good.

Logan truly believed in the book, and in me. Her belief opened up space, and allowed me to look at my work from a different vantage: because now that I’d introduced her to the idea, I owed it to her to follow up. Writing a novel is foolish, selfish, an elaborate guise for telling the world about your dreams. Writing Logan a story she wanted to read would just be fair. (And also: fun.)

But that didn’t mean I could get my mind around how to do it. There were plot problems, or, the problem that I have no great love for writing intricate plots — I can make things happen on the page, absolutely, but the sharp twists a detective story requires are just not my thing. I was also intimidated by the idea of trying to take a serious, diehard conspiracy theorist and quasi-stalker as my main character, and making her likeable — because I wanted this particular girl to be likeable. I wanted to write a book about being a fangirl that was engrossing and heartbreaking, not one that satirized her obsession even the tiniest bit.

How I solved those problems is another essay; the point of this one is, I never would have done it if I hadn’t had someone assuring me — Logan sent me periodic encouraging emails between my initial description of the story, and when I finally surrendered, and started writing it — that she wanted to read it. And, in fact, having a potential audience, one I knew well, helped me reshape my conception of the book. It stopped being about an abstract girl, a clever plot, and started being about how I could say to my friend, who was also a fan: can you believe what’s happening to us?

When I did start writing what became GRACE AND THE FEVER, I got excited about it the way I’d gotten excited about that first, instinctual idea: giddy, almost. Writing its first chapter was almost as fun as emailing Logan about the actual Direction’s shenanigans. So I sent it to her.

“What happens next?” she asked.

I sent her another chapter in answer.

The book is written very much in the tradition of the fan fiction about my favorite boy band that I read growing up: what’s known as self-insert RPF, or fic in which a character much like the author meets a real-life celebrity. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the way I wrote it is reminiscent of how many fic writers’ process works: my friend Verity, for instance, a prolific fic author, will sometimes send me snippets of her works in progress, scenes she’s proud of, or thinks I will like, or wants a particular piece of feedback on.

Sometimes I’ll make a suggestion but mostly, my role is as a cheerleader. That’s a bit of fandom linguistics, actually, the defined role of cheerleader, as opposed to the betas who will suggest edits when the whole thing is done. (Some fic writers will even post their WIPs publicly as they write them, which has always amazed me, the high-wire audacity of assuming that you can know in the first chapter what you’ll need to set up for the last. I have yet to write a book where I don’t end up inserting and removing characters throughout the editing process.)

Logan and I exchanged just under 200 emails in the next two months; I sent her near-daily updates to the story. Her encouragement bolstered me, but also, just the fact of her kept me from getting too far into my head about anything; it kept the priority on making this a book someone would be dying to get back to in her inbox every morning. I can still read the book and break it into emails; its beats were established by the rhythm of my writing time (8:00 am-10:00 am on weekday mornings before going in to work), and the imperative to make sure that every day Logan would write back and say oh my GOD but what happens NEXT?

There’s a lot of conversation among writers about why we write, and particularly among novelists about why we write longform fiction, a difficult, demanding discipline which can feel out of step in a hyperlinked, tl;dr literary landscape. Writing GRACE AND THE FEVER reminded me that the reason I write novels is because I love to tell stories, the longer the better, and because the breadth a novel allows can ultimately wrap up plot while also leaving the reader with tons of larger questions about the lives she’s just been immersed in.

I write for myself but I publish in the hope of finding readers, which can make the writing feel tenuous — it’s tempting, always, to look past the page to imagine who might eventually be looking. It’s far too easy to imagine that reader being cranky, saying what do you think you’re doing, which is always what you’re saying to yourself anyway — or else to imagine them getting bored and wandering off, which makes you get bombastic on the page. Part of the trick of writing is getting comfortable with your own voice in your head, but the other part is remembering that, when you’re done with it, it has to engage other people, too. Writing is a monologue, and publishing is a conversation. Navigating both terrains requires nerve and practice but is always helped along by luck.

GRACE was incredibly lucky: it always had a reader, someone sympathetic and generous, willing to take my hand and keep me focused. Someone who said, I love the way you tell this story. Who said, every morning: Can you tell me what happens next?