Eight years ago I sat down to write a novel, because my knees are lousy, so I couldn’t do it standing. The book’s setting is San Francisco, and its inciting incident is the earthquake of 1989, which flings together—in often unseemly ways—three characters who otherwise would have remained on the periphery of each others’ lives. The work proceeded at my standard brisk pace: I started it, stopped, muddled about, felt guilty it wasn’t going anywhere, took it up again, outlined and pretended that was actual writing, blamed the characters for not fully investing in their fates, paused, dribbled and paused.
Before I’d gotten very deep (well, the deepest part of the shallow end of the scribbling pool), I’d decided I wanted a multiple point-of-view perspective from the three central characters: one first person, and two in close third person. That felt like the best way to tell the tale, and had a writing challenge in it for me. Thus, I perspectivized thusly. Doing the math: I added up the characters, setting, murky-but-sketched-out story arc, two substantive subplots and the opportunity to write. The sum of the figures: Zero, because I kept pausing in the work. Long pauses.
For a couple of years, I fiddled with correcting the first six or seven chapters, outlined some more, thought about it and then not, and called that all writing. (And when I’ve had enough bourbon, I call a rosebush a horse too.) After about two and half years, because I am slow on the uptake, I shamed myself into writing a mere half-hour a day, on weekdays, and was able to finish the damn thing in a few months. I’d read several bushels of novels (even self-pubbed an earlier one) and I thought this resembled one. Four beta readers agreed, and after revising from their considered comments, I sent it out to agents. This is a good way to get some yard work done.
A Chorus of Nos
There are a lot of ways to say “no”: many are gracious, some blunt, some are merely the answer of no answer at all. Even the maybes (a fair number of partials, a few full manuscript requests) ended with the shade drawn slowly down. Notwithstanding that 50 or 60 agents could be plumb crazy or boorish philistines, there seemed to be a clue that perhaps the work was wanting in some way. The work needed more work. I attacked this challenge vigorously: I put the novel on my hard drive’s shelf, to breathe.
So the thing slumbered for another long while, while I blandly pondered self-pubbing. Having spent a couple of years here at WriterUnboxed, where the tutelage of eagle-eyed savants like Don Maass, David Corbett, and Lisa Cron can’t help but inflict one with exquisite writerly pain, I began to see that there might be a couple of rips in the novel’s fabric that might necessitate some sewing. With a whaling harpoon. [Read more…]