On Being a Novelist in Grad School

This post was inspired by Kat Zhang’s post “Writing as a Student” over at Pub(lishing) Crawl. Perhaps someone out there is wondering what it’s like to be a children’s book author and a Ph.D. student at the same time. I’m not sure I have a lot to offer in the way of advice, but I can share my experiences. (In hopes of being helpful, I’m going to go into a fair amount of detail. You are hereby warned that the minutiae may get boring!)

1. Student Writers on the Rise?

Though I don’t have any data, my impression is that the number of authors who are currently in school is on the rise. It’s not that unusual these days to see a deal announcement in which the author is eighteen, nineteen, or in her very early twenties. I was 20 when I signed with an agent, 22 when I got a book deal, and 23 when Sparkers was published, and in this decade, that doesn’t make me that remarkable. There are so many authors who began their careers at a similarly young age: Kat Zhang, Stephanie Diaz, Tahereh Mafi, Karen Bao, Hannah Moskowitz… Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. And if there are so many authors of this age out there, chances are a lot of them are balancing their writing careers with college or graduate/professional school.1

2. Writing as a Student: Middle School Through College

Except for the year when I worked at a non-profit, there has never been a time when I was a writer and not also a student. I finished my first book when I was in 8th grade.2 I finished my second book, which would become Sparkers, in 10th grade. I finished my third book at the end of 12th grade.3 At this point, I figured I could write a book every two years, but my next book actually took three years because college.

It was in college that I started seriously pursuing publication. The spring of my sophomore year, I entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. My semester was punctuated by the anticipation and excitement of finding out the results of each round. I didn’t win, but that summer, while I was working as a research assistant at the University of Minnesota, I gave myself a crash course in traditional publishing, starting with the entire archive of Miss Snark. Then I began querying agents.

By late summer, I had a revise & resubmit. I decided to revise my manuscript based on the agent’s comments. It took me until early January of the following year to resubmit. In mid-March, while I was studying abroad in Grenoble, I got another revise & resubmit from the same agent. I decided to revise again. It took me until the end of August to resubmit. In September, now a senior in college, I signed with the agent. Then we embarked on more revisions. I got notes at the end of October and turned in my next draft at the beginning of the following February. More revisions followed through the rest of my senior year, the summer after I graduated, and my volunteer year before I went on submission to publishers. But you get the picture.

What I want to highlight in the above timeline is when I was turning in revised drafts. Early January, i.e. during winter break. Late August, i.e. at the end of summer vacation. Early February, i.e. after a month or so of winter break. In college, breaks were essential for my writing. They were the times when I was most productive, whether I was writing a book for fun or doing a serious revision for someone in the industry. I wrote while classes were in session too, but schoolwork took priority. I worked every summer, but I had more time to write working a 9-to-5 than I did as a full-time college student. It wasn’t so much that I figured out how to fit writing into my life as a college student as that I took full advantage of my long breaks to work as hard as I could on my books.

So if I managed to keep writing seriously in college in large part because of the long vacations, how do I now manage an actual career as an author while in the kind of school that arguably has no breaks?

3. Getting to the Point: Writing Novels in Grad School

In college, I did an icebreaker in which we were asked, roughly, “If you could be any professor, who would you be and why?” I knew my answer: I wanted to be Donna Jo Napoli. Donna Jo Napoli is a linguistics professor and a children’s book author. I can’t remember if I actually told everyone I wanted to be her, because at the time I was extremely cagey about my writing, but now that I’m in a linguistics Ph.D. program with the goal of continuing in academia, I really am on the road to becoming Donna Jo Napoli.

When I started grad school, Sparkers had already sold. I moved into graduate housing on September 1st, although the school year didn’t start until the end of September. Instead of exploring my new city, I holed up in my apartment and worked hard to finish a revision for my editor before classes began. After that, we were on to line editing and copy editing, which didn’t interfere too much with my heavy first-year course load. However, I was contracted to write a second book.

I began writing that next book during–wait for it–spring break of my first year of grad school. For various reasons, I took a very light course load in the spring quarter that followed this break, so I continued drafting through the term and on into the summer. The summer did afford me more time to write, but I was also undertaking a substantial research project. When classes began again in the fall, I wasn’t ready to send my editor the first draft of Book 2, and it was clear I was going to miss my original deadline. My publisher has always been very flexible and generous about giving me more time when I need it, but I wanted to turn in my draft just as much as they wanted me to. The later I was, the longer it would be before I published my next book.

The fall of my second year of grad school, I was taking two classes, beginning my master’s thesis, and TAing for the first time. At this point, I wasn’t drafting Book 2 anymore; I was whittling it down from a monstrously long manuscript to a book I could present to my editor. Revising can be easier than drafting because you already have something to work with, but it was still time-consuming. I began squeezing in editing time in ways I never had before. I edited over breakfast. I edited during lecture for the class I was TAing. Towards the end, I even started editing on my laptop on my bus commute. I finally sent my editor the first draft of Book 2 at the beginning of December.

To be clear, I enjoyed working on Book 2 alongside my schoolwork and my TAing duties. There’s a heady feeling that comes with being consumed by a revision. But that fall quarter showed me there was only so much I could do at once. Between doing the work for my classes, teaching sections and otherwise taking care of my undergrad students, and revising Book 2, there was little time left for research. I made very little progress on my master’s thesis that fall. Luckily, I had gotten a head start over the summer, so I was able to neglect my project for one quarter, take it up again in earnest in the winter, and finish my thesis by the end of spring.

To this too, there is another side. My editor sent me notes at the end of January, but I didn’t turn in my next draft until six months later, at the end of July. If I prioritized writing over my master’s thesis in the fall, during the winter and spring I prioritized my master’s thesis over writing because I had to finish the thesis by the end of my second year. There was no way I could work on both with any degree of depth while also taking classes, TAing, and presenting at conferences.

At last, summer came, and my master’s thesis was done! Unlike the summer after my first year of grad school, this past summer I had no particular research project to complete, no fellowship that required me to produce a paper. Instead, I had a research/career-related to-do list, much of which I totally neglected in favor of revising Book 2 not once but twice. The first revision I turned in at the end of July, as mentioned above, and the second I turned in two and a half weeks ago, just before the fall quarter began.

What did I neglect while I was revising Book 2 again and again? I had intended to spend some of the summer expanding my master’s thesis, carrying out new analyses, figuring out what theoretical contribution my research could make, deciding which journals it was best suited to, and turning my thesis into a publishable paper. I did none of these things. If I had not revised my manuscript twice this summer, I would probably have made more progress toward my first journal publication. Now that I’m a third-year, it’s time for me to be making myself into a candidate who will be competitive on the job market in a few years. I don’t regret spending more time on writing this summer because it was very satisfying, but I recognize that it was at the expense of my nascent career as a linguist.

The thing about grad school that feels different from college is that expectations are such that I could be devoting all my time to it: days, evenings, weekends, summers, vacations. There are no breaks anymore, not really. I may not have classes or teaching in the summer, but that just gives me more time to get ahead in my research and write papers. I’m not just a student with a school year schedule anymore; I’m also a professional trying to build an academic career. There is always another paper to read, another skill to learn, another line of research to pursue, another conference to submit to, another fellowship or grant to apply for. In college, I felt that, outside the strictly circumscribed hours when I was working, summers were mine to devote to writing. In grad school, I don’t feel that way.

This sort of dilemma isn’t limited to authors in grad school, of course. Many academics have families or hobbies that they make time for. There are plenty of jobs outside academia where one could always be doing more. As a novelist in grad school, though, I am pursuing two careers simultaneously, and it’s easy to wonder whether by doing so I’m not pursuing either one as well as I could be.

There’s also the question of making a living. Writing children’s books is usually not a way to earn one’s livelihood. That’s why I’m in grad school. But earning a Ph.D. in a field like linguistics is also not a guaranteed ticket to a stable, well-paying job. Depending on their field, many young authors in grad school may be pursuing two relatively uncertain career paths and wondering if either will pan out in the way they hope.

At the same time, we sometimes have the best of both worlds. I’m happy where I am. I’m writing books, and I’m participating in a field that fascinates me with colleagues I love. Ideally, when I don’t feel like linguisticking, I can turn to my writing, and when I can’t bear to face my manuscript, I can read a phonology paper or analyze some data. In practice, I sometimes don’t feel like doing either and end up browsing book reviews or recipes on the Internet.

I might be a more productive linguist or author if I was only one of these things, but maybe not by much. Tasks tend to take up the time we have for them, no matter how long that is. In other words, if I had more time to do linguistics or to write books, I might not do more. I might just take longer to do the same amount. Being a grad student puts pressure on my writing time. Being an author puts pressure on my research and schoolwork time. Between these twin pressures, stuff gets done.

I’m lucky to have an editor who understands when I put a revision on hold to write a thesis and professors and fellow grad students who are incredibly supportive of my writing career (some of them are probably reading this right now, if they’ve made it this far). If this wasn’t the case, I’m sure this whole two careers thing would be harder. For now, I’m just feeling my way forward one term and one draft at a time. And hopefully one day I’ll have become the next Donna Jo Napoli.

1. Then there are the Jake Marcionettes and Maya Van Wagenens of the world. I have no idea what it’s like to be a published author in middle school or high school.

2. It was your typical Tolkienesque fantasy, even though to this day I haven’t managed to finish The Lord of the Rings.

3. It was about a wizard school! Except it was heavily inspired by my experience going to middle school in Paris, so the school was located in Brittany and there was French swearing.

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