About fifteen years ago, the super agent Nat Sobel saw my first published story in Black Warrior Review and contacted me. The novel I had to show him at the time (because most agents aren’t interested in short story collections) was my first attempt, and not very good. He told me it was too slow and too artsy. I figured that was just my lot as a writer of fiction. I took my writing far too seriously.
Cut to fifteen years later. I queried Mr. Sobel again. I finally figured out how to write something I think a lot of people might be interested in reading–my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. It is neither slow nor artsy. It is solid, exciting, page turning, commercial fiction. He agreed to look at the first fifty pages. It turns out that his very nice and capable assistant Aida Wright was the one who read the pages. After nearly thirty days, she got back to me. It seems that for their purposes, I’d swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Far from being too artsy or slow, I moved things along too quickly (I disagree, of course) and too much happens (wrong again…just the right amount happens). Slow down, seemed to be her recommendation. Agents can drive you crazy.
I worked very hard to make this story “right” on the page. It is not too slow. You get to know the characters as they move through the story. I’m not giving up on the traditional path from agent to publisher–not quite yet–but I have begun thinking of other ways to get my work into the hands of people who like good adventure stories, people who like their stories with a good dose of undead. I may decide to offer the story on Amazon as a Kindle download. Maybe for free. Maybe for .99 cents. Andy Weir’s excellent realistic sci-fi novel The Martian went that route. He sold so many copies (35,000 at .99 cents each, in three months) that the publisher same calling. Now it’s a more traditional best-seller.
I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen to my novel, but it’s worth a shot. Anyone up for a good, exciting, scary read?
Can someone please publish one of my many awesome manuscripts so I can use this photo for my author photo? Please?
And because I wanted to write a scene with the Sphinx while my novel in progress (Once in a Lifetime) is in Egypt. A little glimpse:
It was nice standing there with Barbary in front of the stone head speaking like old friends. In fact, I’d begun to imagine that I’d known Barbary for a long time—or had known him in a different life or would know him—but as soon as I started pondering how or when we might know each other, my headache returned and I wanted more than anything to rest, to stop moving, to go home to where my loved ones awaited and dinner was almost ready, to enter that world as completely as I could, to dig my feet down into some cool soil and guzzle water from a cool stream. As I felt these things, a strange tingling began in my arms and legs, as if I had rested too long in one place and my limbs and fallen asleep, the pins and needles of awakening. I held up my palms and wiggled my fingers. A new light seemed to come from my skin and tiny particles of dust orbited my wrists. I looked up again at the great stone face and saw its jaw loosening and an empty tunnel forming behind its great stone lips. I held up my hands once again and saw the dawn light mingle with my light, with the prism now unleashed from within me, perhaps near my heart, were it was warm.
Oh, Barbary said, look at you.
I’m totally surprised by Don Delillo’s White Noise. I don’t know what I expected. It’s fantastic. Here’s a small selection from early in the book:
“They had to evacuate the grade school on Tuesday. Kids were getting headaches and eye irritations, tasting metal in their mouths. A teacher rolled on the floor and spoke foreign languages. No one knew what was wrong. Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food, the rays emitted by micro-computers, the asbestos fireproofing, the adhesive on shipping containers, the fumes from the chlorinated pool, or perhaps something deeper, fine-grained, more closely woven into the basic state of things.”
As I continue transcribing manuscript of what I call my last chance novel (title: Once In a Lifetime), I am beginning to realize how much work this darn thing is going to need. I could use those writing elves I’ve been asking for, God.
Working my way through my handwritten draft of my new novel manuscript: ONCE IN A LIFETIME. The llama is keeping an eye on things.
I drafted by longhand all summer with a strange feeling of joyishness about the work. I did not look behind. I wrote forward, a slim plot scratched out to keep me on track. I was unsure what I wrote each day because I never reread. Only forward. Only now. Now, I’m transcribing the longhand to a word document, typing it out, the first step in a multi-step revision process. And although I feel strange admitting to liking the story–let alone loving it, or being totally jazzed by how it is unfolding–that is exactly what’s happening. It’s a very strange story but on each strange page I transcribe, I feel like I’ve tapped into something good. I still have miles to go before I sleep, but–dare I say it? Admit it?–this writing is making me happy.
I teach at the University of New Hampshire. I have what most people, including myself, would consider a nice work schedule. I get summers off if I want. Usually, my summer schedule leaves me wondering how I ever find time to work during the spring and fall semesters. My goal has always been to write in the summer, to just dive in a get creative work done. My experience is that this rarely happens in the way that I imagine it will happen. This summer, it did. Today, I finished a rough draft of a novel. It’s longhand and it’s a mess of awful sentences and half-baked scenes and unrealized characters, but it’s a whole and complete story. Also, it’s a very, very strange story. I don’t know why I can’t write a more straightforward story that someone might actually want to read, but I can’t. My wife says if I could write something like that, then I wouldn’t be me. Still, even by my standards, this story is strange. It is six and a half notebooks of strange. Now, of course, the real work of writing begins, but I am satisfied and relieved and astounded that I was able to follow the path of my imagination in just this manner since the end of the semester last May. I’m fond of saying recently that I don’t know what it means to be a writer any longer, but I sure spent the summer writing.
I have no idea what it means to be a writer these days. But I am writing. This summer, I’ve filled up six notebooks with this new novel. Today, I started notebook #7 (picture below). A week away from a very rough first draft. Of course, that’s when the real work begins. Maybe that’s what being a writer is–knowing that the real work begins with revision. When I tell people I write longhand and that I’m finishing the first draft of a novel, they often say, “when can I read it?” I have to laugh at that–I’m so far away from having a readable draft. Light years. Right now it’s so rough and so completely rudimentary that I can barely think of it as a novel. Right now it is just a bunch of sentences. Maybe being a writer means that I know those sentences, as they are, are only the barest beginning. Or maybe being a writer means something different. One thing I’ve discovered this summer is that being a writer means I don’t have to worry about what being a writer means. All I have to do is write.
These are the sort of notes I scrawl to myself in strange places when an idea comes to me. The oddest thing about this note? It makes sense to me.