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The Heartfelt, Unpublishable, Captivating, Shallow, Sound, Abandoned, Reclaimed, Worthless, Most Excellent Potential Novel

Image courtesy of jeltovski via morguefile.com [1]
Image courtesy of jeltovski via morguefile.com

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.

[pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

I employed my own editing edification again, printing the creature out (again), reading it out loud (again), making trifling changes (again) and even sending it out to a small publisher—after vowing (again) to not send it out to anyone. There’s that old saw, often attributed to Einstein, that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But hey, the shoes they gave me at the asylum fit well, so I plodded on.

No Bone Structure
Last week I heard back from the publisher, who (and very kindly) told me that while the book is well written and interesting, the lead, first-person character is annoying (wait, is this my sister talking about me?), and that the first-person perspective shared with the other two thirds might not work structurally. Yeah, that’s worth considering. I’m still considering.

Interestingly, I won a fellowship (minus the lodging fees) to a writing conference a few months back, based on the first 20 pages of this blasted book. The conference will be in two weeks, hosting four days of workshop sessions, where authors’ ideas (and heads) are tossed about, cheeks pinched and hair fluffed. I have a masters in creative writing, so I know from workshops: there can be much good in them, and some bad, but when I shop, I never buy the bad avocados anyway, so that’s all fine.

[pullquote]All this has been a long-winded way of me getting to wondering if, after eight years, I have the stamina to make the necessary—and still to be determined—changes to enliven this work.[/pullquote]

All this has been a long-winded way of me getting to wondering if, after eight years, I have the stamina to make the necessary—and still to be determined—changes to enliven this work. When I heard I’d won the fellowship, I considered sending them pages from the novel I’m working on—slowly—now, because its characters are the ones I’ve been mulling, in my mind and on the page. The last time I read the old book, I still liked it, still thought it resembled a novel, still thought it had a heart. (Of course, like a snoring relative, I still resented it too, and thought it lacking in ways, but hey, that’s a writer’s life.) This love/hate thing has me thinking my own opinion is worth a composted potato.

I really don’t know where I’ll go with this; the novel I self-published a few years ago is a slight work, even though it has some merit. My book of short stories, published by a small press, has some decent stories. That’s not quite good enough this time. I’m not the same guy I was eight years ago, though some of my pals might say that’s an advantage. I do think of Mark Twain, who wrestled with Huckleberry Finn for seven or eight years, tinkering forever to its eventual publication. The book is a masterpiece, but yet, it has that cockeyed ending that doesn’t quite taste like the last, lingering bite that a grand banquet should. We should all be so flawed.

I could always tinker for a few more years, and then I can simultaneously write/publish the sequel to Don Maass’s book: Writing the Breakout Novel (at 90). I’ll get an ear trumpet for my cell phone for all the congratulatory calls.

So, ye of WU, do you have a novel that’s been on your back for a while? Does it resemble a hunch? How do you feel about your work that has something, but perhaps not enough of it? Slash and burn? Slash and create? Leave the smoldering ashes and move on?

About Tom Bentley [2]

Tom Bentley [3] is a novelist, essayist, and business and travel writer. (He does not play banjo.) He's published hundreds of freelance pieces in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and a how-to book on finding and cultivating your writing voice. His singing is known to frighten the horses. See his lurid website confessions at tombentley.com [4].