14, 7, 20 years. These are some of the numbers you’ll likely hear if you ask a writer how long they’ve been thinking about their first novel. Shakespeare & Co hosted a great panel on May 4th featuring four debut authors each with a sharp story to tell. Lynda Cohen Loigman said she carried the prologue in her head for what became The Two-Family House for 16 years before writing anything down. Jesse Chaffee (Florence in Ecstasy) didn’t know she was starting her novel 7 years ago when she responded to a class prompt: “write the prologue to a novel you’ll never write.” After 14 years, Janet Benton will finally see her historical novel Lilli De Jong in print on May 16th.

The panel, moderated by Caroline Leavitt (Cruel Beautiful World), also touched on gender in publishing, each author’s process, and how they deal with good and bad reviews.

On gender, my favorite story came from Loigman. At a pitch conference when she was starting out, 1 of the 3 agents she met — the only woman — scoffed at her manuscript. Loigman had checked the “literary fiction” box for her novel. “This is not literary fiction,” the agent said. “This is women’s fiction.” Gina Sorell (Mothers And Other Strangers) said stories about girls brushing their hair and looking in the mirror might actually be a good thing; Leavitt quipped when men portray those everyday realities they’re called Jonathan Franzen.

Each author said they read reviews, good and bad. Yet most were clear it wouldn’t change their work. “If someone doesn’t like my book,” Benton said, “That’s their problem. I did the best I could.” (Amen to that).

An audience member asked if they preferred the drafting or revising parts of writing. I really enjoyed Chaffee’s response. She wrote the entire novel fairly quickly, then mapped it out to see what on earth was going on here. Loigman was the opposite, revising as she goes, and not writing future scenes until she knows precisely what leads the characters to that point.

You can check out more Shakespeare & Co events here

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