Though Dreamweaver Road, my young adult novel, was a short summer project that came out fully formed in just a few weeks, Cairo in White was what I call a breach baby (other authors more delicately call this a “labor of love”). The novel began as a short story during one of my undergraduate creative writing courses, just the first chapter of what would become Cairo in White, but when I tried to move on from Zahra’s story, I couldn’t. I was intrigued by her struggles and her culture, but more than that, I felt like I knew her. So I embarked on the novel-length journey, discovering Zahra’s daughter, Aisha, along the way, and wrote the first draft while completing my BA in Women’s Studies and working at a mixture of part time jobs. Amazing, I thought as I wrote up my first query and emailed it to agents during a Chemistry lecture I should have been listening to, the tough part is over!
Not quite. Though many agents responded to my query and asked for partials or the whole manuscript (this was before the big online book boom that has made it so difficult to find an agent or even get a response from one), it was evident that Cairo would need a solid revision. I was lucky enough to have one agent generously respond with a page of notes on how to do so, and I dove back into grammar changes, new scenes, and character traits in the eight months between undergraduate work and graduate work. Then, after resubmitting the manuscript to that agent and getting another page of generous notes and tips, I did the whole thing again.
As you can imagine, when this latest set of line edits and small changes didn’t make the cut, I decided to take a year off and write something else. And by something else, I mean a novel, a novella, a book’s worth of short stories, and many other poems and nonfiction pieces that made their way into literary magazines. Not only did I learn my craft by practicing with these stories and poems, but the boost of confidence I got when accepted helped me fill the hole left from the time spent on the giant novel wasting away on my computer.
During my last year at Johns Hopkins, a friend of mine who had read Cairo at the beginning of the program encouraged me to use it as my thesis. Am I ready to look at Cairo with fresh eyes? I asked myself. Am I really willing to spend a sixth year on this novel? Then I printed the entire manuscript, opened a blank Word document, and started from the beginning.
Right away, I knew the Cairo I was writing was not the same Cairo I had spent so many years revising. Since I had not even looked at the document for a year, I didn’t feel attached to my poorly constructed sentences or feel the need to keep the extra characters that had performed the same function in the story but had seemed so important in the last draft. I cut scenes, one point of view character, entire side plots… I was giving my novel a complete makeover, and it felt great!
Within weeks after typing my last word, I had a contract in my inbox from a wonderful publisher who loved my writing and believed in what I was doing with it. I finally understood (thanks to a wonderful class called Sentence Power) how to construct my sentences, and I could see my characters and their actions as either essential or nonessential parts of the whole. Even if I hadn’t gotten a contract, those six years would still have been worth it because I finally wrote a version of the book that I was proud to call my own. That, after all, is why I began writing in the first place.