When I first wrote my short story, "Escaping Time," I intended for it to be a standalone piece about a teenage girl attempting to escape from a military brothel during World War II. I was satisfied with the final draft and even submitted it for publication in my creative writing program’s short story anthology, The Mechanics’ Institute Review. By the time it was chosen for publication, I had already begun to have second thoughts about its completeness. Due to its subject matter, I needed to include a lot of background information in order for the reader to understand what was going on at that time in history and that part of the world, but I was confined by the parameters of the short story and unable to expand on both of these issues in the way I could in a novel. By the time the anthology went to the printer, I decided to expand it into a novel.
An American author of Korean descent living in London, Mary Lynn Bracht grew up in a large ex-pat community of women who came of age in postwar South Korea. In 2002, she visited her mother’s childhood village, and it was during this trip she first learned of the “comfort women.” Her debut novel, White Chrysanthemum, will be published in January 2018 by Chatto & Windus Books and Putnam Books. She is represented by Rowan Lawton at Furniss Lawton Agency.
So, how did I get from a published short story to a soon-to-be-published novel? The first step I took was to set a deadline. As I neared the end of my Master’s degree program, I decided to submit the novel as my thesis. This gave me my initial deadline; I had nearly five months to write, edit, and polish 10,000 words. The second step was to figure out how to write a novel. Not as easy as setting a deadline! Looking back on the process, I recognize that I basically asked myself three questions, and the answers to them helped me write the first draft.
Question 1: How does the story end?
My short story ended with the teenage girl escaping from the brothel, but her progress and ultimate success or failure was left to the reader’s imagination. I didn’t have space in the short story to do this for the reader, but I would in the novel. Deciding at the beginning of the writing process where I wanted the story to go helped me find my way there. Even if I decided to change the ending when I finally got to that point, I would at least have a direction to follow. I actually changed the ending quite a few times, but having an initial starting point allowed me to get there.
Question 2: What scenes/events must take place in order to reach the end?
I was limited in the number of events I could include in the short story, so it was an easy task to list all of the scenes I wished I could have written. When I exhausted that list, I brainstormed further events that needed to be written in order to reach my desired ending.
Coming up with a list of scenes/events before starting the actual writing process helped me in two ways. First, it informed me of what I needed to research in order to write those scenes. A historical novel requires an immense amount of research, and knowing what scenes I intended to write gave me a solid idea of exactly what I needed to find out. Second, it helped me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block. I have a tendency to write chronologically from the beginning of a story to the end, which can be problematic if I reach a point where I suddenly don’t know what happens next. At times like this, no amount of forced brainstorming will remedy the situation, so having a list of scenes that I know need to get written at some point in time will help keep me writing. I would just look at my list of scenes/events and choose one because I knew they all needed to be written at some point, so why not write it when I can’t continue with the current scene. This was often all it took to get me writing again, and I could then return to where I left off, fresh with new ideas to finish that previously difficult scene.
NOTE: I mention scenes/events because I didn’t write this novel in chapters, as I know many writers choose to do. Instead, I wrote the first draft entirely before breaking it down into chapters. This helped me during the redrafting process because I could easily move the scenes around to better fit the narrative before dividing them up.
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Question 3: Am I telling the story from the right character’s perspective?
As I mentioned before, the narrator in my short story is a teenage girl, and everything that happens is told from her point of view. After reviewing the scenes/events I intended to write, and thinking about what I wanted the reader to come away with in the end, I questioned whether this one character’s point of view would be enough. In the short story, the teenage girl sacrifices her freedom in order to save her sister from the same fate, and I began to think about the sister left behind. She soon became someone who interested me just as much as her older sister, because part of what makes the kidnapping of a loved one so painful is imagining what they are going through. I began to have so many ideas about the little sister’s perspective that would add to the narrative that I decided to write the novel in alternating chapters from each sister’s perspective: The older sister’s was in the past and the younger sister’s was in the present.
Deciding to add a second point of view before I wrote the novel allowed me to do the necessary research for this second character before I began writing, instead of after. I think this decision helped to enrich the novel by giving it a broader, more satisfying shape, while saving me time and stress from making a huge change later in the process.
Once I set my deadline and answered these three questions, I was ready to start writing. By the time my thesis was due, I had already written more than the required 10,000 words, the short story had been published, and an agent who read the anthology had contacted me. She wanted to know if my short story was part of a larger piece, and if I was able to send her my edited and polished thesis.
That was how I signed with my wonderful agent, Rowan Lawton. Six months later, I finished the first draft of the novel, which I credit to her, because knowing that she was waiting for it gave me the impetus to literally reach The End.
Once the first draft was completed, it went through several revisions over the course of a year before it was ready to submit to publishers at the London Book Fair. My editor Tara Singh Carlson, at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, pre-empted my novel White Chrysanthemum before the book auction officially began, and the book will be published in January 2018.
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