Personal Essays

The Rabbit Hole to Wonderland: a Reflection on the Journey of Writing a Novel

My laptop screen illuminates my face in the dark. Pellets of rain pound against the sidewalk outside my paper-thin dorm room door. I’m curled up in my favorite plush blanket, stealing a quiet moment to write after a long day of lectures and dry textbook passages. I click the age-old document buried in subfolders to begin my work, but the number in the title sticks out. “Draft #7,” it reads. Seven drafts in. The lingering aroma of burnt pumpkin cookies wafting from the kitchen reminds me of the date. It’s autumn again. That tells me it’s been four years since I started this book, and I haven’t published a page. My ambitions of publication and daydreams of sold-out book signings are worn and threadbare now. Sitting in my dorm room, the pounding raindrops outside take me back to that time.

Four years ago, Seattle’s umpteenth rainstorm of the year pattered down the window by my desk and red-inked research filled the pages in my lap. I’d taken an idea and had run with it again; I had the tendency, and still do, to lose myself in rabbit holes of learning. On that morning, outdated pink walls and plush carpets welcomed me in to study obscure facts about World War II. While it stormed, I decided to take a break from writing to watch the neighbor’s pine trees bend under the weight of the northern wind’s force. Beyond that, my attention had been captured by the words at my hands.

The latest books on my shelf had inspired my newest and shiniest rabbit hole: Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl; The Book Thief; The Witch of Blackbird Pond. My parents were eager to keep this sudden spark of interest alive. My mom gave me her old historical novels with the pages rippled from reading in the bathtub; my dad shared what he knew about certain histories over the dinner table, teaching me the facts school had neglected to tell me. Every word was another rabbit hole for me to dive into later that evening. I spent my last few months in the writer’s paradise that is Seattle devouring any historical information I could get my hands on. I had had no idea that this was no fleeting interest. I didn’t know that, only few month later, I would be using these facts to paint images on the page and breathe timely characters to life. And I couldn’t have known that my “rabbit hole” would turn into a passion several years in the making.

Around that time, my family decided to leave Seattle. I made it a point to hike Mount Rainier before I left. Knowing it could have been the last time I had the chance, I drank in every detail. Even in the heat that soaked through my shirt to burn my skin, snow iced the tip of the mountain like frosting on a cake; I can still see the snow gracing gray peaks and filling the flattened top of the mountain. Lush pine trees shrouded the cabin-like visitor’s center, and a stream trickled down hills freckled with flowers. Gazing at this view, catching my breath and wiping sweat from my hairline, a feeling of love filled me. A love for what, I didn’t know. The mountain itself? The state of Washington that I adored? My family, eating granola bars beside me on the trail? I still don’t know. Regardless, that love bloomed into inspiration, and inspiration into passion. Alive with that passion, I returned to my house that evening to begin planning my most ambitious project yet: a historical novel.

A few months later, the mountains in my memories were stark in contrast with the crunchy grass and leafless trees I saw while peering out the round plane window. But one constant lingered: the new interest I loved. On that plane ride to Nashville, I scribbled the first scene of the fresh story I’d been planning. My legal pad rested on the pull-out tray in front of my seat, and my messy script grew messier with the roll of the bumping plane. The man sitting on my right looked up from his Kindle to peek at what I was doing. But I didn’t pay any mind to him, nor to my four-year-old sister spouting nonsense on my left. I decided I was finished crying. I forgot, intentionally perhaps, that I was leaving my favorite place I’d ever lived. I introduced myself to the characters who had been living in my head, and they decided to stay a while. Their faces gained more color in my mind’s eye as time passed.

Thanksgiving Day in 2016, a week shy of my fifteenth birthday, I moved again. But I didn’t lose momentum. In my new bedroom adorned with wood floors and high ceilings and exciting possibilities, I sat on an air mattress to write. I kept my coffee – I never drank coffee before undertaking this project, but now I craved it by the gallon – on a box on the floor. The click of my fingertips hitting the keys bounced off the walls in that crisp, empty room. I heard that tight ripping sound of my mom tearing open taped moving boxes downstairs, always a familiar sound in my ears. I opened my blinds to let sunlight warm my bare feet, and I kept writing. I finished a first draft in thirty days. I was in love with it. This project carried more weight than the stories I had written before it, and I had to find out why.

Self-publication was my target, and I had my arrow ready. Release date projections fell haphazardly out of my mouth to anyone who would listen. The estimates shifted from an optimistic “Sometime in 2017,” to a less eager “2021 at the latest.”I tried my best to keep my dream awake; I wrote blog posts to inspire a growing audience of writers who needed inspiration, all the while knowing Iwas the one who needed the inspiration. As my second year of editing flew off the calendar, worry crept in. I had clung tightly to this story like I would hold onto a rock in a stormy sea. I cared too much to let it fizzle out. That deep care for the project could bring it to fruition, or it could kill the story before it had a chance.

In late June of 2019, I sat down to have a celebratory Taco Bell dinner with my family. My mom, her curls pulled back tight to fend off the west Tennessee heat, bubbled with perhaps more excitement than even I did. A golden summer sunbeam seeped through the curtains onto the dining table. “We’re having this meal,” my mom announced to the rest of the table, “to celebrate that Sam finished her book.” She wasn’t entirely right, but I loved her enthusiasm. I’d finished my fifth draft. That alone wasn’t enough to warrant my choice of a number seven combo to celebrate. But this was a significant moment because, for the first time, my book was ready to meet new eyes. With the euphoria and horror that comes with sharing one’s writing, especially writing that is so personal and dear to one’s heart, I emailed copies to my parents and oldest brother that evening.

My worry had started to fade. My dad read my favorite chapters while we stood in line for hours at the stuffy DMV, gasping aloud at the dramatic parts and sparking jokes about the characters – my characters! – that we still carry on today. He would debate with my mom about this character or that motivation in my book. I listened to them argue as though I was watching a ball passed back and forth across the dinner table, and I felt like I had grasped success. They spoke like they were talking about a book they had picked up at the store; but no, it was my book. They loved my book, the one that had been born from nothing but a rabbit hole. Making my parents proud was all I cared about now. But summer transitioned to autumn, and autumn to winter. My dream of publishing my beloved book in the following months melted like the seasons with each day passed.

In December 2019, three years after I had penned that first page, my family clustered around me for my eighteenth birthday dinner. My sister chattered like a canary in my ear. My ten-year-old brother cracked jokes about how “awful” our other brother was for going out of town on my birthday. My grandparents beamed at me over a half-eaten vanilla cake. I had opened my presents, and one was left: a teal blue envelope that read “Samantha” in the swirly handwriting my parents reserved for birthday cards. My mom, in the same excitement she’d shown that night over Taco Bell, opened her phone to video me as I peeled open that envelope.

“Read it out loud,” she said.

Under the printed Hallmark note, my mom’s handwriting promised my birthday gift in a way that couldn’t have been wrapped. My parents were committing, as I read aloud, to pay any and all fees required in outsourcing my novel’s editing to a professional editor. They wanted to help me finish this project. They believed in me. Teary-eyed, I managed to get out an insignificant, “Thank you so much.” My granny smiled at me. “It’s really gonna happen,” she said.

My work would exist in the world. It was “really gonna happen.”

According to the video my mom recorded, I cried after that. But all I remember is calling my best friend afterward. I remember pouring six cups of black coffee a day to polish my latest draft for professional eyes, and my mom saying to me in the Sonic drive-in, “Are you sure you want to self-publish your book?” I remember finally, prayerfully, and anxiously embracing a long-overdue call to query to agents. Most of all, I remember spending my quarantined days of spring 2020 rereading my editor’s emails, a thrill for these new edits rising in my chest like sunlight over a rooftop. I didn’t mind that I was “supposed” to have published my novel by now. I only cared for the hope that my dreams would arrive on my doorstep in their own time, in their own way.

I’m in my dorm room now, and I’m holding that hope close to my heart. My old ambitions may be worn-out and riddled with holes, but its threads haven’t come undone entirely. “With any luck,” I say to myself, pulling my plush blanket tighter around my shoulders, “the seventh draft will be the last.” And even if it isn’t, I rest knowing that someday, it is “really gonna happen.” And that is enough.

3 thoughts on “The Rabbit Hole to Wonderland: a Reflection on the Journey of Writing a Novel

  1. Wow Sam! This was such a cool way to experience the journey of your novel. Praying that it will happen soon, because I want to read it! You got this!

  2. This was such a captivating blog post. It was like a roller coaster with amazing descriptions. Your writing flows so well. I really hope with all my heart that you novel gets published. I would love to read it. Please keep going. The road to success is paged with failures <3

Leave a Reply to Isla Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *