One of the most common questions I was asked during my trip to NYC last week was about the process of writing of THE RULES OF INHERITANCE. People wanted to know when I wrote it, what sparked the writing of it, how long it took, what the experience was like, etc. So I thought I’d write it all out here once and for all.
To begin with, there is no easy answer as to when I began writing THE RULES OF INHERITANCE. In some ways I’ve been writing this book my whole life, but technically I began writing it in March of 2009, almost exactly a year and a half ago. There have also been two other versions of this book. I wrote the first one when I was 25 years old, in the year following my father’s death. I never finished it, struggled through everything I wrote, and eventually realized that I wasn’t ready to write it. The second version I wrote was when I was 29 years old. I did complete this draft but it wasn’t very good. It lacked focus and flow and really just consisted of a lot of passages that were cathartic for me to write but that weren’t necessarily book-worthy.
I began writing the current version a year and a half ago in the spring of 2009 and I used nothing from the previous drafts, instead writing everything from scratch. I was actually on vacation in Florida with Greg and his parents when I began sketching out the framework for the book. I’d been in hospice for 3 years by that point and had decided that I really wanted to write a book about grief. Specifically, I wanted to reflect on Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief, but I wanted to give them a modern day spin and I wanted to show how fluid and malleable the stages are. During the course of my experience in hospice I was constantly struck by how many people clung to these five stages. The grieving clients I saw were always wondering if they were doing the stages right. I think I skipped the anger stage. Or I don’t understand bargaining. Or I haven’t gotten past the depression stage.
In my experience, there is no one way to go through the stages and a person might experience all of them at all at once or perhaps only go through one in their whole grieving process. It’s different for everyone. So, it was there in Florida where I wrote down the five stages and then underneath each one I wrote three examples of ways I personally experienced that stage. The result was a completely nonlinear tale that nonetheless made sense. After that I started writing.
And it just poured out of me. Although, in addition to coming up with the format, there were a couple of other things that helped get things flowing.
Right away I made the decision to write in the present tense, meaning that passages read as such:
1996, I’m eighteen years old.
My father’s voice is tinny through the phone line. I am in the booth at the bottom of the stairs in Howland dorm. It is my freshman year of college.
Claire, he is saying, your mother is back in the hospital.
It is a Tuesday. My mother was just here two days ago, visiting for parents’ weekend, and I am immediately confused as to why she is in the hospital.
(Those are the actual opening lines of the book.)
Writing in the present tense in this way enabled me to really immerse myself in the Claire I was during that moment. It was a completely different experience than reflecting back from where I am now and writing in the past tense. I found it incredibly freeing and also feel that it provided a certain amount of levity and a fast pace to the book.
Another decision I made early on was to adapt a slightly unique writing style. In the book I don’t use quotation marks at all. I don’t indent paragraphs and I break up many lines so that they sit alone on the page. There were a lot of reasons for this but the bottom line is that the technique proved very effective at keeping a consistent flow in the narrative. And I’m so grateful for my editor for letting me get away with using this style.
For a little more background on the style, I’ll say that first, I’ve just never been an indenter. I prefer a break between paragraphs rather than an indentation. Simple preference. Second, I found the quotation makes distracting and unnecessary. I also found them false. This is a memoir — it is written completely from memory. I know that the lines I provide as dialogue for many of the people in the book are likely not remembered correctly. Therefore it just felt odd to put quotes around them.
As for the line breaks, I simply wanted the prose to read the way it did in my head. I wanted there to be space and breath and I wanted certain sentences and statements to be allowed to exist on their own. I’d also be lying if I didn’t fess up that my husband used a similar technique in a novel he wrote and I found the effect quite beguiling. (I should also take this moment to note that after seeing the movie 500 Days of Summer a couple of years ago Greg suggested that I tell this story non-linearly, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing. Thanks, GTB!)
It was all of these things though — the structure that employed the five stages, the present tense, the writing style — that allowed this book to just flow out of me. Once I had hit upon those three components, the rest was actually quite easy. The story honestly just poured out. And I worked on it ALL the time. In coffee shops, in the morning for a few hot minutes before leaving the house, in stolen moments at work, at night after Vera went to bed. It was like I couldn’t not write it. By the time summer rolled around I had written almost half the book.
Before I move on to what happened next I just want to note that I am so grateful for having written those other two versions of the book. Although they were really quite terrible, and although the process of conceding that they were so terrible was painful, I would never have gotten to this distillation of the story had I not slogged through all that other writing.
So anyway, it was after I had written about half the book that I began working on a formal book proposal to send to agents. I felt that the book had grown into a real thing at that point. It had legs. It wasn’t going away. I had no doubts about my ability to finish it. I even suspected that it might be kind of good. So I took a break from writing and worked on a formal book proposal for the rest of the summer. In August and September I put it together with the first three chapters and began sending it out to agents. (I plan to write more about that process in another post so stay tuned.)
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around I had been rejected by almost twenty agents, had grown very discouraged, hadn’t written that much more of the actual book, and was on the verge of giving up completely. And then in early December I finally landed my amazing agent Wendy Sherman and she sold the book in literally three weeks to my equally amazing editor Denise Roy at Penguin. (Again, more on that whole process in another post.)
That was when things got really interesting. When Denise bought the book she had only seen the first three chapters, and that point I had only written nine out of the fifteen I had outlined. However, Denise bought the book to fill a last minute nonfiction slot in the winter 2012 catalogue for the Hudson Street imprint of Penguin, which meant that I had six weeks to finish it before my first draft was due.
Yes, you heard me right. Six weeks, six chapters. Again, I have my husband to thank for letting me disappear into the depths of Beans & Bagels on Rockwell for those six weeks so I could pound out the rest of the book. Again, the writing continued to flow. Perhaps even more strongly now that I had a crazy deadline and people that believed in the book. Not to mention that I felt really confident in the outline and knew exactly what I was doing.
I wrote the last chapter around the end of February and sent it in to Denise in early March and it’s literally been only fun stuff since then. Trips to New York to the Penguin offices, seeing the advance copies for the first time, hearing responses from people who genuinely loved the book, having amazing things happen like selling the Australian rights or getting chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover pick. It’s all been nothing but dreamy.
So yeah, that’s the story of how I wrote THE RULES OF INHERITANCE. Although it took me less than a year, I can’t help but credit a million of my friends for supporting me through my life, all the writing teachers and classes I’ve taken, all the thousands of books I’ve read and all the terrible drafts I’ve written. Oh, and one writer husband with some great suggestions. Writing a book may only take a certain matter of months but it’s still somehow a life-long process.