Writing her first novel, Another Place You've Never Been, Rebecca Kauffman figured out what kind of writer she was: a slow one. She wrote a paragraph a day, and couldn't write more. She struggled, too, with stress and anxiety. Why was she spending so much time on this project, this fictional thing that might, only might, someday become a book?
Time came to work on The Gunners, Kauffman's second novel, and the Virginia-based author realized everything she'd learned about herself as a writer was wrong. Or at least, wasn't right anymore. "I wrote the first draft pretty quickly," she said. "I'm actually a pretty fast writer. It took a little bit of convincing, and a little bit of elbow grease."
And confidence! She sat down to write The Gunners in possession of the validation that arrives only after a first book is accepted, and published, and read. The process, she said, was "almost completely painless and easy and joyful. … It just sort of sailed along."
All this joy isn't to say Kauffman churned out a perfect book, first try. The Gunners features childhood friends who reunite in their 30s after one of the group dies. Seeing the friends from multiple perspectives allows readers a fuller understanding of the group's dynamics, and of how each individual has progressed through adult life apart from the group. Managing these perspectives presented Kauffman with a challenge. She ended up in the middle of a narrative snarl, and turned to her agent, Michelle Tessler (Tessler Literary Agency).
Kauffman said Tessler is "a fantastic fit. She's an incredibly sharp reader, keeps me grounded and self-critical, keeps my eye towards the right things in the work." Looking at the early Gunners draft, Tessler advised Kauffman to step back and grab a few packs of Post-its, a practice originating with another of her clients, Mira Jacob.
"I tore the book apart," Kauffman recalled. Assigning each point of view a different color Post-it, she arranged them into narrative sections. And re-arranged, and re-arranged, and re-arranged, all with Tessler's encouragement.
Play with it, the agent advised. Put out of your mind how much work it's going to take. There are no limits to how many ways you tell this story.
And so Kauffman played with it, using central figure Mikey — who she calls "my great love in the book" — as a narrative core, relying on his good, kind, mild-mannered, everyday-nice-person character to highlight the extremes in the people around him. "My attempt at drawing more interest out of a character was to put these other players in close proximity to Mikey," she explained.
In and around, over and under, Kauffman stuck and re-stuck colored squares of paper across her living room floor, moving story bits and character sections all around her Post-its map. As she played, her vision of the book cleared. "That was when the book made a turn, and made sense."
The Gunners launches later this month, and while writing the book was "joyful," Kauffman must now tackle the book tour. Though she's grateful for the opportunity to promote the book, which she'll be doing at readings from now until May, she also finds them challenging. "I'm best with people one on one," she explained. "I'm excited for the events, but I could just as easily spend the next two months watching TV."
The word from other writers is, the publicity events will begin to feel less overwhelming. "The writers that I've spoken with, they say you get better at it," she said. "It becomes easier."
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Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.