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The Impossible Novel that became IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS

I’m thrilled to share my book deal announcement (above) from Publisher’s Marketplace! Because book deal announcements don’t show the long and rocky road to publication, I’m going to share some of that journey here.
I am both surprised and not surprised that IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS is the first of my novels to be published. I’m surprised because I gave up on it so many times. I’m not surprised because, as corny as it sounds, this is the book of my heart that wouldn’t give up on me!
This is a tale of several novels, so I’m going to give them numbers for easy identification. Novel #1 was the first novel I wrote in my twenties. It was terrible. Some novels are meant never to see the light of day, and Novel #1 was one of them. I have no desire to ever revisit or publish that first novel, but I’m grateful for its existence because it sparked the creation of Paul and Lilia, the protagonists of Novel #2 (IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS). I was imagining what the children of my Novel #1 characters would be like, and Paul and Lilia popped into my head.
In my head they stayed for another ten years or so. I was too busy finishing my PhD and trying to start an academic career to even think about writing another novel for a long time, but these two characters stayed in the back of my mind, plotting a future for themselves without my conscious knowledge.
I began writing Novel #2 about ten years ago, when Paul and Lilia’s voices became too loud to ignore. Unfortunately, I mistook the rush of excitement while I wrote it for good writing. That rush of excitement said nothing about the quality of my writing but more about allowing myself to do what I’d denied myself for years. Like many a new writer, I fell in love with my own words and didn’t think the novel needed serious revision.
My biggest mistake was thinking that because I had a PhD in English Literature and taught academic writing, I would automatically be good at writing novels. Pride, in other words, didn’t let me learn from my first critique group when they pointed out (sometimes none too gently) where I’d gone wrong. I remember one well-intentioned fellow writer struggling to explain what was wrong with my scene, then dropping head in hands and saying, “I find your characters unattractive.”
Unattractive? I had no idea what my colleague meant, besides which, how dare this person insult my babies? Other, more specific criticisms followed from other critique partners, and I’m embarrassed to admit that more than once I went home after critique meetings and wept in my dark living room, vowing never again to show anyone what I’d written! (If there’s a way to grow a thick skin, I haven’t found it yet.)
In hindsight I can see that I was far too close to Novel #2 to see it clearly enough to revise it. I invested too much of myself in it, but that’s also why it was such a joy to write. It was everything a first draft should be: too long, repetitive, self-indulgent, and confusing. In other words, what was an utter delight to write was a complete nightmare to read. I couldn’t understand why others didn’t love my characters the way I did.
I tried to find an agent with this early version of Novel #2, only to receive nearly one hundred form rejection letters. It appeared that this was one of those “trunked” novels that every novelist has in her past. A practice novel, something that needed to be written but would never be published.
I moved on to Novel #3, which I wasn’t as emotionally invested in. I’d been burned and didn’t want to give my heart away again. But there are many kinds of love (!), and my relationship with these new characters was more like a successful arranged marriage: I came to love them as I spent more time with them. Even better, I became willing to learn how to write a story that people actually wanted to read. This involved massive revision. Not what I used to call revision, which was really just rearranging sentences or changing a word here and there. I came to understand that no writer is so good at writing that she doesn’t need to revise. And that means deleting and rewriting entire subplots, scenes, and characters. It means the final draft of a novel might be unrecognizable compared to the first draft.
I started querying agents for Novel #3, and I again received some form rejections. But there were other responses too. Agents started to send me personalized rejection letters (if you’re not a writer you have no idea how exciting a personalized rejection is after getting hundreds of form ones!). These letters mentioned my characters by name and suggested revisions that would make the book better. I was flattered that agents would take the time to read my book so carefully and write such long, encouraging letters. Some of them even asked me to send them my next novel. This was the turning point.
Some months later, Novel #3 caught the eye of the person who became my agent, the amazing Laura Crockett at TriadaUS! And in case you think that’s the end of the story, it’s not. Laura has described our journey together in this lovely blog post. Signing with an agent usually involves signing up for a whole new level of rejection, this time from editors at publishing houses. This time the sting of rejection was softened by Laura’s encouragement, but it was still rejection. We decided to set Novel #3 aside for a while. By this time I had written Novel #4, and I was polishing it to get it ready for Laura to pitch to editors.
But Paul and Lilia from Novel #2 still poked me in the back from time to time, reminding me of their existence, so one day I dug out their story again. Setting it aside for several years had given me the distance I needed: I was excited by its potential and able to see clearly what needed fixing. I also gave it to a few beta readers whose excellent suggestions helped me cut, slap, and beat Novel #2 into shape. Then I showed it to Laura, whose excitement buoyed me up during the months of waiting that followed. Then Katie at Pegasus Books sent Laura an offer and made me one very happy author!
There will be more edits before IMPOSSIBLE SAINTS is published, but after almost twenty years from idea to final draft, it’s a wonderful feeling to know that Paul and Lilia’s story will finally be out in the world and available to readers in early 2018!


  1. Susan Örnbratt

    Congratulations, Clarissa! I am thrilled for you, really thrilled! Your journey sounds very similar to mine. Goodness, how I could relate to everything you said – only you have an agent and I don’t. I am still going through all of that with my 4th novel and my #2 still nags me. Even #1 is still swimming inside me. This post is an inspiration. It restores my belief that one day all of this hard work might just pay off. Thank you for this.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Thanks so much, Susan! I’m glad you found my post inspiring. I’m always struck by how much of the hard work of writing is invisible to most people. That shiny book cover or deal announcement makes it look easy and quick, but it’s anything but. I wish you the best of luck with all of your writing projects, no matter what stage they’re at!

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