On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.
I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.
I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around.
So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.
An American institution marked two centuries on August 4.
I am letting you all know here, in case you missed the announcement.
Readers old enough to remember the Saturday Evening Post may think it died years ago. Not so.
The once ubiquitous flagship journal of the Curtis Publishing Company was rescued from demise by the Saturday Evening Post Society, a nonprofit group which purchased the magazine in 1982. The Post now appears as six large-format print issues per year, with an impressive circulation of 237,907 (2018). It also manages a thriving Web presence.
“And this is significant, Dear New Favorite Writer, because of . . . exactly, what?”
Mainly, Astute and Forbearing Reader, because of the magazine’s unassailable tradition and the long list of distinguished writers whose works have graced its pages.
Younger readers may recognize the Saturday Evening Post as the locus of a series of cover illustrations which cemented the fame of 20th-century artist Norman Rockwell.
But those full-color covers—52 of them each year—by Rockwell and other great illustrators merely scratch the surface of the Post’s glory. When Your New Favorite Writer was a kid, in the 1950s, the Saturday Evening Post was a major pillar of Main Street America. People from all walks of life read the Post, learned from it, and were endlessly entertained by it.
Great Writers and Editors
Each issue held a lively mix of fiction, nonfiction, and features. The Post’s quick response times and generous pay attracted the best writers—Joseph Conrad, O. Henry, Rudyard Kipling, and others. Jack London’s Call of the Wild premiered in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.
Under a succession of editors—George Horace Lorimer, Wesley Stout, and Ben Hibbs—the magazine reached a peak circulation of over seven million and attracted writers such as Owen Wister, Ring Lardner, William Faulkner, Stephen Viincent Benet, Agatha Christie, and Ray Bradbury.
A Focus on Fiction
The magazine was particularly known as a great venue for fiction. Not avant-garde fiction, but mainstream fiction. And not just the writings of the greats, but great writing from not-so-well-known authors.
As a boy I followed the exploits of Alexander Botts, freewheeling salesman of Earthworm Tractors for the Farmer’s Friend Tractor Company. In a series of stories by William Hazlett Upson, Botts’s odd-ball sales campaigns were chronicled as a stream of frantic memos, letters, and telegrams between the loose cannon Botts and his perplexed home office in Earthworm City, Illinois.
It was, as they say, to larf.
Many young writers got a hand up by selling stories to the Post. Young writers are still doing this today—not to mention a few superannuated novices, such as Your New Favorite Writer. When I began to write fiction as a septuagenarian, I had a few quirky tales about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in a small town in the 1950s. The Post was kind enough to publish three of them (see here, here, and here), including one which won honorable mention in the magazine’s 2018 Great American Fiction Contest. For this I cannot help being grateful.
Rescued from Oblivion
And I was thankful for the far-sighted energy of Indianapolis industrialist Beurt SerVaas, who saved the Post during its distressed days in the 1960s and ’70s. When he acquired the Post, he was primarily interested in its sister publication, Jack and Jill, the well-known children’s magazine. In 1982, he spun the Post off into a nonprofit company, and the magazine began to focus on nonfiction articles about health, medicine, and volunteering—the passions of his wife and business partner, Cory.
A more recent strategic shift, in 2013, brought the Saturday Evening Post back to its original mission. According to the magazine’s website, it “returned to . . . celebrating America, past, present, and future. Since then, the Post has focused on the elements that have always made it popular: good story telling, fiction, art, and history.”
Storytellers, take note. The Saturday Evening Post is still in business, doing what it has always done best, bringing high-quality mainstream narratives to the American public.
Just over a month ago, I announced in this space that I was laying aside my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase for an indefinite time because of difficulty in reconciling two diverging story lines.
Soon after, I heard from my friend and champion Christine, who made a compelling case that it was possible to write a successful novel including this bifurcated plot. I took a deep breath, tried again, and lo! The successful rewrite is now complete. I am extremely satisfied.
I won’t tell you, Dear Reader, exactly what changes I made in the manuscript. I will tell you that it’s now a much more compelling read than the manuscript I was trying to sell as recently as a year ago. Some work remains to polish it, but I hope to begin marketing again in the near future.
What I can tell you is that is has a new title: The Maelstrom. And it is still the story of a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning.
Thanks for your patience. I heard recently the average time an author takes to complete a first novel is five years. So I’m right on schedule.
O purple splotch,
How dare you?
Arriving by stealth
to the back of my hand,
claiming space, a fait accompli.
You are an intruder beneath my skin.
I say again, How dare you?
Your coup unheralded,
even by minor pain,
suddenly you were just there.
In days of old this could not have happened.
In days of old my forces would have marshaled
thick skin and stout-walled capillaries
against your onslaught.
Had you attacked in strength—
the bang of a hammer blow,
the tread of an opponent’s spikes,
the slam of a door where my hand rested on the jamb—
I would have known it in that moment.
This noiseless, painless incursion is a new strategem,
the exploitation of brittle skin and numbed receptors,
but be forewarned: I am on to you.
You and your cunning ways,
how you will linger
flaunting your port-wine-ness in my face,
then six days hence decamp
as silently as the Arabs,
making me doubt my senses
until the next signalless foray.
How dare you?
But at last, these marches can avail you nothing;
for I have received the cure
and simply wait for the finality
of its deliverance.
My old friend Jay came up from Chicagoland last week, with his lady friend Harriet. We chatted over a very nice Italian dinner at a local restaurant. At some point, Harriet inquired about my quest as a would-be book author.
I told her I had the complete manuscript of a historical novel, but by submitting it to various agents and publishers I learned the story needed a complete, tooth-to-tail revision. A daunting prospect, but one I undertook bravely. The problem is that, even though the writing is a lot better in the new version, the many changes of plot and character made me fear that by the time I got to the end, the story would be an incoherent mess. But I was plugging on, regardless.
At this point, Jay made the obvious comment: “Well, at our age, you don’t have that much time left to finish this thing and get it published.”
Jay was, of course, correct in his assessment. But I shared with him this amazing secret: The older I get, the more patient I become.
It’s hard to account for. Against all rationality, I look forward to thirty or forty more years of productive life. Therefore I can afford to spend time getting my manuscript right.
Just when time is running out, I have learned patience.
The manuscript is another matter. Since the conversation with Jay and Harriet, it has become clear that I have two separate stories—a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America, and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning. I am not creative enough to make the two stories mesh.
My spouse observed long ago that I was writing two books at once. She was right.
For now, I’m laying it aside. Maybe I can sort out the separate strands of story at a later date. I have a lot of other work “in the hopper,” no end of things to write about.
One avenue of expression is these blog posts. Until getting bogged down in the rewrite project, I was posting here weekly. I now hope to resume that habit.
And I would like to pick up where I left off in what I call “the Bradbury Challenge”—writing a short story a week for a year.
And my daughter recently suggested an excellent setting for a screenplay. All it needs is a story to go with it.
So never fear, Dear Reader. I’ll keep busy. Someday, I’ll get back to the historical novel. Patience.
re•vise . . . 1 to read over carefully and correct, improve, or update where necessary [to revise a manuscript, a revised edition of a book] 2 to change or amend [to revise tax rates]
—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.
Webster’s second definition, “to change or amend,” suggests a process that may be nonchalant, whimsical, or mysterious, as when the legislature metes out taxes.
The first definition, which applies to a manuscript or a book, specifies a careful reading and only necessary corrections, improvements, or updates.
Friends, Romans, and countrymen—I am not here to raise your taxes. But I do have a manuscript to revise. (See last week’s post.)
The Varieties of Revision
Among literary lions, there are some who actually revel in the process of revision; who feel more comfortable and capable when improving a story than when thinking it up in the first place. Happily, I am one of those.
Revision, however, comes in different flavors:
There is the final polish, when you go through a solid manuscript to weed out extra spaces, an occasional poor word choice, or potentially embarrasing typos.
There is a thorough stylistic edit, where you change a lot of words, phrases, and expressions, with the aim of making the prose a joy to read.
But there is also another kind of revision. The term “structural” comes to mind. That is, a serious revision of the story itself.
My dictionary says “revise” comes from Latin re, meaning “back” plus visere, “to survey” or videre, “to see.” (“See vision,” it adds, helpfully.)
I am now embarked on what is sometimes known as a tooth-to-tail revision of Freedom’s Purchase. It’s clearly a case of re + vision.
More than simply supplying a few missing commas, it’s an attempt to supply what is missing in the story, and in the narration of the story, so that it will become a riveting read. It’s a re-working of the original vision.
What Will Change
Some characters will be lost in the shuffle. Many scenes will be redesigned or omitted entirely, and new scenes will be added. The main character will become more clearly a protagonist—the person who drives the developments in the story. Whereas the original manuscript had long sections of pastoral description or complex explanations of the historical context, my aim for the new version will be to put conflict or tension on every page.
It should be a book you’ll not want to put down, for fear you might miss something important while you’re making a sandwich.
The late Elmore Leonard had a simple explanation for his vast success in producing major novels and screenplays throughout a long career: “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
That, Gentle Reader, is what I’m trying to do, so that when you buy my book, you won’t have to skip any part of it.
The process reminds me of Michelangelo looking at a block of marble and chipping away everything that’s not a horse.
Keep me in your thoughts and prayers. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
In light of further experience scaling the slopes of Parnassus, today I offer Step 7 of 6:
In 2016 I started writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase—a historical epic featuring Norwegian immigrants involved in America’s struggle against slavery during the period of Abolition and the Civil War.
It took a couple of years to write the first draft. I thought the first draft was already pretty good. Several months were spent revising the book based on feedback I received from trusted beta readers. In February 2019 I began to query literary agents and publishers to get it published.
Many novelists today self-publish, with varying degrees of commercial success. But I aspired to be a writer, not a publisher. My aim was to write a book that one of the Big Five, or at least an established independent press, would want to publish. In other words, I would rely on the acquisition apparatus of the traditional book trade as my yardstick of literary merit.
Ups and Downs
It’s a tough way to go. You submit a query letter, usually with a brief plot synopsis, to many literary agents and publishers before you encounter even one who is willing to read your manuscript.
Last September I received a publication offer from a small publisher in the South. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet in October I declined the offer. It may seem a counter-intuitive move, but I had my reasons. (The whole sad tale is told here.)
I kept on querying publishers. I worked and re-worked my query letter and synopsis, honing them to perfection. Within a month, I got a request for a full manuscript read from a large and very active New York publisher. Their fiction editor read my book the very next weekend and sent me the following:
I really enjoyed the premise as well as the writing, and while I enjoyed the Norwegian hook, the plot didn’t always feel big or different enough to really stand out among the competition in the way I thought it would need to. The market is very competitive these days, so I feel we’d have a tough time getting this off the ground.
It was a rejection, but the kind of rejection you like to get. It included specific feedback, which is always encouraging to a writer. My plot wasn’t “big or different enough.” Hmm.
Then, in January, I queried a small, selective, high-quality independent press, and its owner/publisher requested a full manuscript read. His response came a month later:
I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.
Another rejection—again, a very nice one, and accompanied by even more specific feedback. He even made suggestions as to how my book could be improved.
What to Do?
A close friend and key advisor, who really knows her stuff, suggested I do a quick reshuffle of chapters and send it back to the owner/publisher. She said his feedback was virtually an invitation to resubmit. I agreed with her about that. But with the greatest respect for my trusted friend, I disagreed about the quick reshuffle.
My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. In some sense, they would rather read the promotional material than the book itself. This is not a good sign.
Considering their specific comments, I realized they tallied well with my own thoughts about the book. I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me.
The bright spot is that, having thought about it—a lot—I have some ideas. These ideas require a complete, tooth-to-tail rewrite that would substantially improve the plot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the least I can do to bring you, Dear Reader, a work that you will not just like but love.
So again I am doing the counterintuitive thing. At age 75 I embark on a quest which will add at least half a year, if not more, to my investment in Freedom’s Purchase. All while I have plenty of other projects to work on. But then, what else is there for a literary lion to do?
Writers read a lot of books. Some of the books we read are books about how to write books. One is Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I am only now getting to it, and I find it an interesting and useful read.
It probably will not tell me everything I need to know. None of them do. But Donald Maass is worth listening to. A top literary agent over four decades, he has seen everything, and he knows what can be sold and what can’t.
He also knows everything about how books are sold—all the tricks of editing, promotion, and clout. But he said one thing that stopped me in my tracks. A single sentence, almost hidden partway down a penultimate paragraph.
“At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”
He’s right, of course. Writers, for understandable reasons, get swept up in marketing and promotion, platform building and networking. But you and I would much rather read a book that’s riveting than one that’s not—riveting because it’s well-crafted, with appealing characters who undergo great moral and personal challenges in a plot with lots of twists and turns.
Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. I’m going back to the keyboard. I’ll let you know when something happens.
Even without all this wealth and fame, I would still be a writer.
Writing is a form of therapy for me. I have not always appreciated my blessings. I have cherished slights, nurtured grudges, and entertained low opinions of people, simply because I did not understand them. Harboring resentments against those close to us can become a life-long way to avoid developing a more mature and understanding attitude.
Sometimes, writing gives me an unexpected window into someone else’s world—an opportunity to get outside myself and see a larger picture.
A recent medical concern curtailed my writing for several days. When the ability to write returned, I penned this little memoir that showed my own father—a man I did not always appreciate—from a different perspective.
I thank God for the opportunity to discover my own story in writing.
Writers know that when pen touches paper, magic happens. But if we have any sense we deny it. We do our best to ward it off. Far better to develop a craft—a set of skills that give us a place to go and a map to help us get there—than to blithely follow the Muse.
So we plop our best writing pants in our best writing chair four hours each day. We bat out five hundred or five thousand words per session. We outline our story. We biograph our characters.
And, Lo! the magic happens.
“Naturally,” we say, explaining: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Were we to admit that writing is what Red Smith said it is—sitting down at the typewriter, opening a vein, and letting it bleed—we would abandon the quest altogether, for few could bear sitting down to write with no surety that anything at all would come out.
We cling to our practical, scientific methods because we think they will at least yield a concatenation of words on paper. From there, it’s only a matter of revision.
When something halts the magic, even when something blocks the flow of those humble superstitions we use to summon the magic, we plunge into despair. We can’t get the juicy stuff out of writing, because we can’t even rattle the dry bones from which the magic is to sprout.
Last week I went to the hospital and got my left hip replaced. I have been through this with my right hip, and, earlier, with both knees. The surgery is traumatic but not beyond endurance. The problem it causes for a working writer is the operating room anesthesia and the opioid drugs prescribed for post-surgical pain. These divine formulae wipe out, for days, the mind’s ability to concentrate.
Nothing now impedes the fresh flow of literary magic. But an ineffable fuzziness keeps my brain from forming a few simple sentences to get the ball rolling. I’m stuck.
There is nothing to do but wait it out. Sooner or later the drugs will wear off.