In August 2003 I got a mailing from the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio promoting their fall program. I had somewhat suppressed writerly aspirations so I decided to take their introductory course, which was taught by Barbara Croft (author of the novel “Moon’s Crossing”.) I enjoyed the course and Barbara was reasonably encouraging so I continued to take courses.
In the summer of 2005 my niece, Kathleen asked me if I would write a story to be read at her wedding in September. I thought that was a really bad idea and eventually she abandoned the notion, but not before I wrote a thousand word story called, “The Toast,” about a thrice-divorced salesman named Clayton who is asked to give a toast at his niece Kayla’s wedding. Clayton’s has a younger more serious brother named Jim and an outspoken wife, Paula.
A year later, after a dozen rewrites, that story had evolved into a four thousand word story titled, “Dancer Stonemason is Missing,” The same characters, but I added a father named Dancer. I have no idea where the name came from—it just popped into my head one day.
In the fall of 2006 I started to take a novel course at the Writer’s Studio taught by Patrick Somerville, (author of the novel, “The Cradle”). I hadn’t realized that most people who sign up for a novel course have a novel they are already working on. The structure of the course was that each week we would workshop a new chapter in our novel.
For the purpose of the class I decided I would write a novel-in-stories and use my Dancer Stonemason story as the first chapter. Every other week I wrote another chapter/story. Each story was told by a different character from a different point of view. Many of the scenes were identical from story to story, but told from a different perspective.
In the summer of 2007 I attended the weeklong Tin House Writer’s Program at Reed College in Oregon. For an extra fee they allowed participants to have their manuscripts critiqued by one of the instructors. My novel, now titled, “The Stonemasons,” was read by Whitney Otto (author of the bestselling novel, “How to Make an American Quilt.”)
Whitney encouraged me to continue with the project. I told her I feared becoming that guy from the film “Sideways,” who lugged his phone-book length manuscript around for years, searching for a publisher. To that Whitney said, “That’s what we all fear.”
Since Whitney had only read part of the manuscript I hired Sands Hall (author of bestselling novel, “Catching Heaven.”) I had taken a class Sands taught at University of Iowa’s Writer’s Festival the summer before. Sands gave me detailed feedback on each of the stories. She suggested I consider abandoning the novel-in-stories approach as it was dragging down the story line.
In the earlier versions the story took place on the day before the niece’s wedding. When I rewrote it I added a chapter that takes places in 1953, when Dancer is a young man. It is about a baseball game that has a profound impact on the rest of his life. It’s a good story, but I was concerned the baseball setting might turn off some readers who weren’t sports fans.
In the summer of 2008 I attended the Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference and I workshopped that opening baseball chapter. It was well received. After the conference I hired Barbara Croft to read my entire manuscript, which was now 60,000 words and titled “American Jukebox.” Each chapter title was the title of a song. Barbara gave me excellent feedback and encouragement. She pointed out the gaps in the story line, character inconsistencies, and which chapters worked and which ones were weak.
I rewrote the novel once more, eliminating some chapters and adding several new chapters. By January 2009 I was convinced I was ready to start looking for an agent. After all, I had two chapters almost accepted for publication as stand alone stories and had even taken an honorable mention in the Nathan Brandsford Literay Agent blog "Best First Page Contest." (Of course I had actually entered page 156, which perhaps should have told me something.) I polished my query letter in the Zoetrope Literary Agents office and started sending out queries.
Unfortunately the agents weren’t as convinced as I was. I queried about seventy-five agents and only got two agents to read the entire manuscript. Both agents said about the same thing: good story, heartfelt characters, but lacks a hook and would be hard to sell in a difficult market.
On the strength of my query letter I had several agents who requested to read the first chapter (the baseball story). None of those agents asked to read the entire manuscript, so I decided the baseball opening was not a strong enough hook.
Throughout these many months I had continued to attend a novel workshop which was an offshoot of our novel class. At one of those sessions in February, one of the women suggested I start the novel at the end—at the climax of the novel. After some reflection, I decided that was an excellent idea.
I rewrote the novel during the spring and summer. Now, instead of having it cover fifty years – it all took place over twelve hours. I spliced the historical chapters into the present-day chapters as flashbacks. I thought it worked very well. A strong hook with lots of action in the first six pages.
I workshopped the new first chapter at Squaw Valley again, and while there were some concerns about following the timeline, for the most part the feedback was favorable. In August and September I started sending out queries again. I decided to send them out to the same agents who had rejected me earlier because I didn’t think they would remember my earlier query and that way I would not spoil my chances with a whole new set of agents in case this version didn’t work. I sent out twenty queries.
One of the agents who had read the earlier version agreed to read it again. She didn’t like the new version. Apparently no one else did either. Not one favorable response. I stopped querying.
So it has now been three years since I started working on the novel. I’ve learned a lot in those three years, and managed to get several short fiction pieces published (including one of the chapters of the novel.)
Over the last couple of weeks I thought about whether I should continue with this project or start fresh on a new novel. I decided I’m not ready to give up on it yet. I’m going to hire another editor to give me a fresh perspective and then I’m going to write it one more time.
Hey - it’s only been three years—and it’s nowhere near the size of a Chicago phonebook. And I don’t look as old as that guy in the picture. Not yet, anyway.