The big problem with this essay, as I write it in the spring of 2002, is that I don't want to reveal much about my novel to you. I've even so far resisted the urging by several people to post some portion of the manuscript at this web site. I do plan to eventually put excerpts up here; I'd like to wait until my agent -- an as of yet unknown person -- has at least begun to deal with a publisher. Then it'll be time to give up a little about the novel in a public forum, including the title. So this essay will be cryptic in terms of the content of the novel. It's going to be about the process.
To write a piece of fiction the length of a novel takes a big investment in time, emotion, intellect, spirit and soul. That begs these questions: Why does an author invest all that in a particular story? Why does he or she choose that subject? How did she or he choose that subject? The answers, of course, are as varied as novelists are. For me and my novel, there are many conflicting answers, all pure truth, even if some contradict others.
One thing I believe about all fiction work is authors must taste the reality in the fiction they are creating. I think most discerning readers can tell when the authors don't. It doesn't really matter what the genre of the work is, if the authors throw their hearts into it, if they suspend their own disbeliefs, then the reader will more easily be able to do the same. Whether it's Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea or Tolkien's The Hobbit -- two of my favorite fiction works -- if the author invests a sense of reality in the work, the reader can, too. I've read The Hobbit several times, and almost every time it was in one sitting; the story is so authentic and so compelling to me I don't want to leave its world.
It's difficult enough to invest and sustain a sense of reality in five-thousand words; at ninety-five-thousand words it's a heavy investment. The idea here is that if I want to write a successful novel -- in terms of literary quality, not best sellers lists -- I have to sustain interest in the subject over the long haul and I have to feel the truth in my story.
When we sit down to write fiction, I'm convinced there must be some major aspect that fascinates us relative to the story. It could be a particular sort of personality; it could be why a person would do something completely out of character; it could be some twist in social behavior; it's something about people, places or things that intrigue or otherwise demand our attention. Once, a man who facilitated a fiction seminar I was in called upon me to read my short story by commenting that it was about communication between a man and a woman -- which, he said, my work usually is about. I hadn't realized it before he said it, but it's true. I am interested in the dynamic of communication between men and women. My novel very much involves communication between men and woman. The communication, (the relationship), between the protagonist, a ten-year-old boy, and his twenty-one-year-old aunt vies as the major focus of the book.
Let's say, however, the main focus of my novel is how a miraculous child starts his journey to a particular station in life, a particular place in society. It is made reasonably clear from the start of the novel, and all through it, how the child will turn out as an adult. It's not crystal clear but it's not mysterious. A germinating aspect of the book is my interest in how a person deals with the situation the adult version of my protagonist will come to. The questions of what he'll think about it, what he'll feel, and his perceptions of himself, as opposed to the perceptions others will have, those are what I originally was interested in exploring. And I'm intrigued by just how he could get to where he'll end up. In the forefront, or at least as the vehicle, this novel is the story of the beginning of that journey.
How I became so invested in this idea for this novel is a little complex. It starts in my own childhood. The protagonist is based on my fantasy alter ego as a child, at least in that he bears the same name and ends up in the same place as an adult. My childhood alter ego was an adult -- albeit by my standards today, a young adult -- and is the basis for the future adult suggested in the novel. The child in the book is also based in some manner on me, though not as much as some will think. I suppose a psychologist (or a book editor or a literary critic) would say I am involved in the tired exercise of self-examination and demon excising; and who am I to vigorously argue? Still I say this adamantly: the novel is not about me. The truth is I stole from my life when it was convenient. I was doing so much other research on many aspects of the world my novel happens in that I relied on many things, including setting, that I could excavate from my own experience. But the child in the book has a radically different family, social and economic life than I had, and a different sense of self. The adult he becomes lives a very different life than the adult writing this essay, too.
Still, at the open house for my college graduation in 1994 (I went to college in my thirties), I talked of the novel I had just begun. It was an earlier version of this novel; more about that later. One of my childhood buddies said, "So essentially you've been writing this all of your life." Which is true in ways I've already discussed.
These are really just a few aspects of the germination of the novel, this excavation of my own childhood, the familiar settings from my life, the use of my childhood alter ego as the protagonist of the novel. The active incarnation started with a short story I wrote for my first college creative writing class in 1989. It's the story of a turning point in the life of a middle-aged man, a different character than the one in my novel, but their overall stations are the same. The short story reads more like the treatment for a movie or the synopsis for a novel: way, way, way too much packed into something like eight-thousand words for it to be a short story. But there is a good idea there. And it came clear to me that I had the makings of a novel. I wasn't emotionally invested in the character, however. The idea of the story, the idea for a novel, did stick with me.
Early in 1990, a real, very famous person, who lives the same sort of life as both the short story and novel protagonists, was in the public eye for several months in a quasi-historical manner. My childhood fantasy alter ego was based more on this man than anyone else. And it came to me. I can write this novel with that alter ego as the protagonist.
The next step for me was to set about creating background information for him and his world. Outline is probably the best word to use, though technically inaccurate. There was a lot of biography, later, news items, events that both were and weren't key to the novel -- sometimes I didn't know which one an event would be. I also started writing short stories about him from various parts of his life, a couple from other people's points of view. A lot of the short fiction I wrote was about him. Though it was all fair game for the novel, the stories were really more character studies (or developments).
The most important role of those stories, however, was that they showed me that I can't be too thorough with my background information, at least not ahead of where I am in the story. I found as I would write a short story about a particular point in his life, if I was urged to go a certain way that conflicted with the background material, I resisted going there, even if it felt right. That told me it would be even worse when I sat down to write the novel proper.
I did begin to attack the actual writing of the manuscript just as I earned my degree in 1994. But I soon took a break, based on advice from my main creative writing instructor, and one of my writing mentors, James Thomas (author of the collection of short stories, Pictures Moving, and co-editor of the Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction and Best of the West collections).
James suggested I write more short stories first and submit them to literary magazines. I needed some yeses, otherwise I might get discouraged. Spending time focused on a novel can be daunting if your writing has never been accepted. James also said I'd polish my style.
Before the hiatus, if you will, I did write a few thousand words of chapter one. It is the same concept that chapter one of the current manuscript employs, though the new version is heavily revised. I workshopped the first version at a writing seminar and it was not well received. The other writers weren't sure what was going on in the story. The early part of the story has a lot of fantasy sequences and I'd blurred the line between fantasy and reality too much. The consensus in the room was that readers would get frustrated with no sense of grounding and bail out quick. I had a great opening line, a great opening paragraph, for that matter, which I begrudgingly abandoned when I came back to the novel in 2000, because of this opaqueness I clearly needed to avoid.
During the break from the novel, which was almost exactly six years, I wrote a bit of fiction and a bit of poetry. I won a few fiction contests, lost a lot more contests, and got some publishing credits under my belt. I've actually had a bit more luck publishing poetry, but fiction is my passion. Oh yeah, I started a web site, too.
In June of 2000 I turned forty-two. It was time to get this damn novel written. The story was to begin in March of 1968, just as it had before. I researched fresh the current events of the time. It's not a historical novel but it does have historical accuracy, as it should. I knew I was going to retain the spirit of the old chapter one when I wrote the new chapter one. I didn't refer back to the first one, however, I used only what had been substantial enough to remember. On July 3, 2000, I began to write the prose of chapter one for the manuscript I am now shopping to agents.
I was resolute on two things, to which I pretty much have sustained. First, I resolved to work on the novel every day. Second, I resolved to do research and background only up to the point where I was in the manuscript (or more accurately, to research and make background for the points I was about to write).
I got myself back on my ideal schedule, which, generally, I intermittently keep as a rule, anyway: up at about four o'clock in the morning, write fiction for a couple hours, go to the paycheck job, hit the gym after work, come home and do something involving the web site, get to bed by about eight o'clock. Let the weekends happen as they do. I didn't do it perfectly but I kept with it far more often than not. Working on the novel every day did not always entail writing prose. Some days it was research only with, perhaps, web site business dealt with in the morning. But research still counted as working on the novel and it counted as productive, obviously.
There is some background information and research from the first go around, in the early nineties, which is usable. Most will be usable in the sequels, however. Most everything in this novel is new research. I was able to occasionally reference the future, though, because I have a strong idea of what the future holds. Though this time through, I've kept that at such a macro level, and general enough, that new inspirations won't be interfered with or short circuited.
By late winter of 2001 I had five chapters done, with a target word-size of eighty-five-hundred for each. I had somewhere around forty-five-thousand words and what I then thought was about one-fourth of the novel. It turned out to be about half the novel, for this was the first critical juncture in the process and a place where some major changes were made.
Those five chapters got up to and through one of the most important events of the novel. I gave copies of the partial manuscript to several people. The reviews were evenly mixed, from one person who said, "Super. You won't have any trouble getting this published," to another who said, "Well, I really don't care for your writing style" -- and a lot of variations in between. I paid the most attention to the comments that disturbed me. I asked myself which I found valid and which I could dismiss as a difference of taste or opinion. I read through the work a few times and came to the conclusion that I down-played tension too much and that the language was stilted. So I spent the spring and early summer 2001 re-writing the manuscript from page one.
The other important decision had to do with length. I was planning a two-hundred-thousand-word novel. By re-write time it became clear such length was a bad idea. From everything I read about publishing and from my conversations with other authors, I came to understand that a first novel of such length was not even going to be read by an agent, much less go to print, unless I was already a bankable celebrity. And even then I'd have to be really famous. I decided to shoot for eighty-five-thousand words.
I also changed some characters. I merged two marginal characters into one important supporting character. And I changed the gender and the age of the protagonist's sibling because the change better suited their dynamic and will make a future* conflict between them more interesting. *(see next paragraph)
The new length posed problems for the story. It enhanced some problems, too. First, there was no way I could get to the originally planned climax. But I came to see that I was probably not going to make it anyway. Time line of the story was moving much slower than needed to get to that climax, even in two-hundred-thousand words. That climax was to happen when the protagonist is about forty, some thirty years after chapter one. So far in the manuscript (about forty thousand words) I had only covered one year. It was in front of me: I had to have a new climax for this novel. And it was clear that to tell my character's story it's going to take at least a trilogy of novels, perhaps more than that.
In many ways I dread this. I want to get this guy's whole story out of my system but I also want to write novels that have nothing to do with him. I have mixed emotions about whether to keep the momentum of his novels going or break it up, write other novels in between. I have a couple other ideas for novels that I'd like to get to. I suppose there are worse dilemmas for a writer. The thought of writer's block comes to mind. Regardless of future work, I focused on finishing this first novel. If I never write about the character again, I need this to be a novel with both a sense of completion and an opened end for a sequel. I believe I achieved that ending -- though I'm getting ahead of myself with that declaration.
In July of 2001 my writing routine was freed up a bit. Until mid-summer 2001, I had been getting up early, somewhere around 4:00 and writing for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half every weekday morning at my desktop pc. Usually there was classical chamber ensembles or jazz quartets or new age divas on the stereo, low in the background. Weekends were different. I could always give more time. Plus, I live close to a couple great park systems. I often would take a stroll and hash out ideas, either before I sat down to write or as a break from the keyboard. Then, in July, my Apple G4 Powerbook laptop arrived.
The composition of my novel went mobile. Weekday mornings I still got up about 4:00, only I left home to sit at an outside table somewhere on the campus at Wright State University, where I work. Lunch time was also good for at least thirty-minutes on the manuscript, sometimes more. Weekends: find me in a park, but now writing rather than simply thinking about what to write. I have a couple spots I especially love. There is a picnic table at a sharp bend in the Little Miami River, in John Bryan State park, where some good portion of the second half of the novel was written. So, often, rather than Haydn or David Sanborn or Enya as background, I had the sounds of flowing water and wind in trees and songbirds.
*At the moment I'm writing this portion, in fact, I am sitting at a metal table outside of the Biological Sciences Building on my campus. It's a cool but slightly humid, hazy, six a.m. on a June morning. I spent a little bit of time this morning doing some fidget-editing of a chapter of the novel, then settled in to work on this essay. At lunch, I'll edit poetry for the Summer 2002 literary update at the WriteGallery, perhaps by a stream in the nature preserve on campus. Walden's pond in the third millennium.
On December 12, 2001, I wrote the last line of chapter twenty-two, the last line of the book proper. The ending is not likely to change much, either, least not the last page. It works. I knew it when I wrote it. I had generally conceived it several weeks earlier and worked toward as I wrote the last two chapters in order to get to it. There is an epilogue, which I already had; it's a re- write of something I wrote twenty-three years earlier. It's ultimately where I get what I think is the final title for the novel. I wrote an end bit with acknowledgements and about a five-hundred-word author's notes section. Then I gave the first finished draft to a few people, some of them who'd read the half-draft six months earlier.
Then I put the manuscript away. I went to visit my best friend, his lovely wife, his two wonderful boys and his darling new little girl in Indianapolis. I took the laptop, but I worked on the web site and did not once open any documents in the directory for the novel.
By January I was getting responses from the readers and it was positive. They all agreed with me that the ending works well. I read the manuscript and found problems that needed addressed, of course. I did some slight re-writes in a few places and a couple more drastic ones, including eliminating a character. My reason was that the character was supposed to be critical to the protagonist and he was supposed to be integral to the story. But he wasn't. I said to myself, I bet I can cut him without impacting the novel at all. It was obvious I was right. And if a "main" character can be removed without impacting the novel, he or she should be. The only other alternative was to add several thousand words to give him the import he needed. I didn't want to do that. So out he went. And, of course, I challenged all my word choices.
I also decided the chapters should be about half the size they were. So I found spots somewhere around the mid-point of each chapter and split them, turning eleven chapters into twenty-two.
In March, I gave the manuscript over to a proof reader. Of course, I already had my own new hand edits all over the pages. The reader is a friend and not a professional proof reader but is a prescriptive grammarian and detail oriented. While she was doing her thing, I was still tweaking here and there. For one thing, I strengthened the resolution of a problem in a later chapter. It's not a major problem in the stroy line, but one that does belong there. I had given short shrift to the solution. I had to do a little research, but it only took the addition of a couple paragraphs to enhance the passage. There were a few places where I felt a little flavor was needed, too. And, naturally, some places were trimmed or cut. By the time I got the manuscript back, there were a few places where her good judgment was mute because the passage or sentence or the word wasn't there any longer in the master manuscript on my hard drive. But her contribution was invaluable. I think every writer needs a proof reader -- I mean before the stage of the manuscript being in the hands of a publisher, before, even, the agent stage.
So, now we're into spring 2002 and more re-writes based on the proof read as well as my own urge to keep scrutinizing. Various passages made it into the hands of a few people, too. All along I got responses about my punctuation getting in the way. It does. I over punctuate, especially comas. So I did what I call my "coma kill" edit. I literally evaluated the need for every coma in the manuscript. During the same edit I decided to go after some specific adult language usage. I don't mean four-letter-words, I mean such things as the proper use of "whom" and using "who" instead of "that." The voice of the novel is third-person past tense, but it still is in the head of the ten-year-old boy. He'll say "who" rarely and "whom," probably never.
In June, 2002, I began to send query letters to agents. I sent five paper, snailmail letters and one email message -- you send exactly what they ask for in the medium they ask for it; and you don't send what they say, "Don't send."
For the five paper letters I included a one-page query letter, a one-page vita, and of course, a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE). On the outside envelope -- the one addressed to the agency -- I put "query letter and vita enclosed"; they would know they didn't have to bother with the second page -- the vita -- unless the query snagged their interest. However, if any of them had said in their blurbs in the agents' directory, "one page only," I'd have condensed it all to one page. For instance, the agent that wanted the query via email also stipulated a one-paragraph vita. That's what I sent.
My query letter consists of an opening sentence paragraph, three full paragraphs that describe the novel, then a short closing paragraph. The opening says, "Below is a brief description of my novel. I've also attached a vita." The description includes the word count for the novel, general sketches of the major characters, the protagonist's dilemma, the conflicts, and mention of the ending. It, in fact, discloses spoilers, those which I'd hate to see on a dust jacket or in a review. The closing paragraph says, "I will be glad to send any requested portion of the manuscript. You may contact me through any manner listed in the letter head -- and included in the attached vita."
The contact information I give is as much as I can. They get my postal address, my home and work phone numbers, my email address, and the URL for the web site, too. Amazingly, agents get queries all the time with no contact information whatsoever, including no SASE.
On June 12, 2002, six months to the day after I first keyed the last word of the novel's end, I got the SASE back from an agent. I stood at my mail box and said to myself, "Great! My first rejection from an agent! The next leg of the journey's begun!" You may find that pessimistic, I find it psychologically sound. I would much rather be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed. I believe in the merit of my book; I know there's an agent or two out there who will, too; I just know that finding the fit is sometimes a trek and trudge.
That particular agency didn't think the project was right for them. The next day, another letter said the novel wasn't in the editorial direction that agency was headed; and another wasn't taking on new clients.
The same evening came the first bite in an email. That agent asked to see the manuscript. "Send it as an email attachment," the message said. Now, mind you, I wasn't quite finished with that coma kill edit I mentioned earlier. I had a few chapters to go. I'd not expected anyone to ask for more than the first few chapters, or the first fifty pages, something like that. I had to put every other project aside and finish that edit. I sent the manuscript in the late morning, two days later, on Saturday. The agent responded on Monday, with an offer I could refuse. For a $1900 fee he'll publish my book and sell it at such places as Amazon.com and Barnes&Nobles.com.
I'd get fifty percent -- better than any other publisher is offering, I was informed. Problem for me is how much promotion would be involved? My suspicion is none, save for what I could muster. And though I quite obviously will do what I can to promote my book, I still will have a puny promotional arsenal as opposed to even a medium-sized publishing house. At a major book selling web site, my book, under this "agent's" proposal, would be a very small fish grappling for attention with thousands-and-thousands of other small fish and some good amount of whales. Being a guppy in the world of sea mammals at Amazon.com -- or Barnes&Nobles.com or Books-A-Million.com, etcetera -- doesn't make that fifty percent promising. Fifty percent of one doesn't excite me as much as fifteen percent of one-hundred; even a math moron like me can figure that equation. I've may have exaggerated the ratio (100 to 1) but the point is valid.
Besides, I don't seek a self-publishing deal, or whatever it is we can call that offer. I seek representation by a literary agent who believes in my novel and wants to get me the best deal she or he can from a publisher who will sell it in brick and mortar stores as well as on the web. Plus, I am not at all keen about paying even one dime to have my book published, not through a publisher at least. If I were taking on the role of publisher and contracting strictly to a press, that would be another scenario. That is not what I am doing and that is not the proposal that was made to me
I passed and told this agent/publisher to delete the electronic files and any print-outs he might have made.
His offer and my turndown were on a Monday. Tuesday the sixth response came. This time the letter said the agent I had addressed the letter to had left that particular agency to start his own. So I sent a query to his new agency. And thus, the second wave of contact has begun.
This essay title uses the word "Finished" in quotes thus, because the novel will not truly be done until I have approved and sent the galley back to the publisher. I also have no doubt that I'll see things I want to change even in the printed book. Perhaps in a later reprint those changes will appear. I've been writing this essay in bits and pieces over the span of a few weeks, and editing of the manuscript has still gone on. Since I finished the comma kill edit I have made a couple other changes. One was the correction of a technical error I was made aware of. I am beginning to suspect I've made another one and will research to be sure. There are a few passages I've always felt uneasy about that I now think I have decided how to improve. I am also trying to mentally, emotionally and spiritually prepare myself for any changes the agent suggests. I hope to be accepting enough to compromise when I should and to be strong enough to diplomatically reject what I know is an error in the agent's thinking. I also hope for the wisdom to know when to compromise and when to say no. I pray for a thousand times this when the novel is in the editor's hands.
At this point I send more query letters, I attend to the web site, I tweak the manuscript when a tweak-worthy spot presents itself, and I look at a few short stories that have never been accepted anywhere. I edit the stories if they seem to warrant and I submit to some literary magazines. I will also write new short fiction for submission.
Meanwhile, good luck to all you writers out there pursuing our common dream.
this essay first appeared on the "From K.L.'s Desk"
page on Thursday, June 27, 2002.
|For the index of K.L.'s creative writing and essays at this site, click here.|