Monday, March 31, 2014

How to Write a Novel in Eight Years, Nine Months and Three Days

On June 23rd, 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. In this story Clayton 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 standalone 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.
So I started rewriting in November 2009.  
In the summer of 2010 I attended summer workshops at Skidmore and Norman Mailer. By then I had another forty thousand words written. The workshops helped me to see what was working and what wasn’t. When I returned from the Norman Mailer workshop on Cape Cod I thought I had a clear vision of how to finish the novel.
I finished it (again) in September 2010 and hired Marita Golden who was my instructor at The Norman Mailer Writers Colony to give the manuscript a critical reading.  She gave me some excellent, but discouraging news and I started the rewrite process all over again.
In June 2011 the first chapter of “American Jukebox,” won an honorable mention from the New Millennium Writing Competition and then in July an editor from Grove-Atlantic agreed to read the manuscript after I had been referred to Grove-Atlantic by a writer friend whom I had met at one of my earlier summer workshops. I waited nervously for two months but they ended up declining. The editor was positive about the opening but thought I needed to narrow the scope which covered almost fifty years.
In August 2011 I attended the Sewanee Writers Conference where I met Pamela Erens (author of the critically acclaimed novel, “The Virgins,”). I asked Pamela if she would be willing to read through the novel after I rewrote it one more time with the condensed time frame. Shortening the timeframe eliminated over half the characters, which was really difficult. They had become like family members. Well maybe not family, but close.
 It took me nine months to rewrite the story which now ended in 1973 instead of 2003.  In May I sent it off to Pamela and a month later I had her feedback on what worked and what didn’t. In June and July I made revisions that addressed issues Pamela had raised.
I began querying agents again. On September 28, 2012 in a blog post titled, “The Novel So Far: Quitting Time” I concluded:
I’ve queried one hundred literary agents and also submitted the manuscript to a dozen small independent presses. Agents are overwhelmed with submissions and it’s hard to get noticed. Two agents asked to see my manuscript based on my query letter and one publisher who had looked at the earlier version agreed to reconsider the newest version. But it’s been weeks and I’ve haven’t heard from them and that’s usually a pretty good sign they are not interested.

I had planned to self-publish, but I’ve changed my mind. There are a lot of good self-published novels out there (also a lot of not-so-good ones). With Amazon and other programs I could have American Jukebox on the market in a couple of weeks. I like selling and if a publisher had bought my book I would have sold the hell out of it. It would have been fun. But without a seal of approval, I just don’t have the confidence to trump the decisions of the gatekeepers. Hawking my self-published book would take all my time and I need to get back to writing again. Something new. Something better.
The day before I made that post I had sent the manuscript to a new publisher, Hark! New Era Publishing.  A week later they contacted me and said they would be interested in publishing my novel, if I were interested in making some structural changes.
I had a good conversation with the publisher, Jon Katora, and came away convinced that I would be able to work with him and his team.  It was extremely gratifying to have found someone who liked my work and was willing to devote time and energy to making it better.
The changes that Hark! suggested were significant, but in the end, they made the novel much better. It was fun working with the Hark! team and finally, last week, American Past Time was officially finished.
It took a little longer than I expected.
Right now I am in the period where I can feel good because the book is done and I can send copies to friends and family and they can congratulate me on how nice it looks and commend me for my determination (perhaps obsession is the better word).
I am enjoying this interlude. Soon (I hope) there will be real feedback, reviews, critiques from people other than family and friends. Some of those reviews will be less than favorable. Some readers won’t like the book. But I will worry about that (or not) later.
The book won’t officially launch until April 19, and it will be primarily sold as an ebook. But there will be paperback versions available.  And while I really love reading books on my Kindle, I have to say it felt really really really good to actually hold a copy of American Past Time, in my hands. 
Soon I will start on a new novel, a sequel which will give me a chance to resuscitate all those characters I had to kill off. The next novel won’t take me as long. 
I hope.