How To Write a Novel... eight years, nine months and three days.

On June 23rd, 2005 my niece, 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’s wedding.

A year later 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 a novel course at the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio taught by Patrick Somerville, (“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.

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. Eight weeks later I had a 20,000 word “novel.”
In the summer of 2007 I attended the weeklong Tin House Writer’s Program. 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 abandon 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 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. I already had two chapters published as standalone stories and had taken an honorable mention in a "Best First Page Contest." Unfortunately the agents weren’t as convinced as I was. I only got two agents to read the entire manuscript and both said the same thing: good story and characters, but lacks a hook and would be hard to sell.

So I started rewriting in November 2009.

In the summer of 2010 I attended summer workshops at Skidmore and Norman Mailer. 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. 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 time frame eliminated over half the characters, which was really difficult. They had become like family members.

It took me nine months to rewrite the story which now ended in 1973 instead of 2003. Convinced  I would never escape the query letter slushpile, I sent the manuscript directly 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 would make some structural changes.

I had a good conversation with the publisher, Jon Katora, and came away convinced 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 Hark! suggested were significant, but they made the novel much better. It was fun working with the Hark! team and finally, in April 2014, American Past Time was officially finished., eight years, nine months and three days after I started.

It took a little longer than I expected.

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