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.
Christine DeSmet, guest blogging recently at the Blackbird Writers’ website, raised the topic of typing.
Not keyboarding. Typing.
Way back in the twentieth century, every high school taught “touch typing,” with students achieving speeds of sixty words or more per minute, error-free, on manual typewriters. Nearly all typing students were young women, because typing was a secretarial skill.
The crewcut lads who hung around the malt shop after school, you see, would become executives and have secretaries to do their typing; the girls would be those secretaries.
Yes, Dear Reader, of course we understand that not all boys became executives. But those who did not would become farmers or mechanics or shopkeepers and would have no need for typing. Only large businesses and government departments could possibly need their writing to look like printing. Ordinary folks could, and mostly did, get by with cursive scrawls in pen or pencil, as long as the numerals were legible.
Today, all children, male and female, learn “keyboard skills” at a young age. The process by which they learn these skills is a mystery, but it seems to involve thumbs and cell phones.
When I was growing up—and even when Christine DeSmet, who is much younger, was growing up—there was no word-processing. There was no spell-check.
Nothing was virtual. Everything was real. Every tap on a key was answered by the whack of a steel typebar planting its face in an inked ribbon to strike a letter onto the paper beyond.
If you made a typographic error you had to manually remove it from the paper by one of three or four clever methods—none of them quite satisfactory. Important documents had to be perfect ab initio: one errant keystroke and you started over from the top.
The mere act of typing strengthened your fingers, because you needed to hit the keys with strong and uniform force.
As a young man, I did not take a touch typing course in high school. Fortunately for me, my mother taught me the rudiments on our old Underwood machine. Thus I gained skill enough to type term papers in college, where, by the early 1960s, typed papers had become the required standard.
Later, the United States Air Force improved me. I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, to learn Mandarin Chinese; then on to San Angelo, Texas, to learn radio eavesdropping techniques. The Air Force gave me a class to bring my typing speed from about 20 WPM up to 35. This standard achieved, they sent me out into the world of international espionage.
From a windowless compound surrounded by tea fields on a Taiwan mountaintop, we listened in on Chinese Air Force pilots and controllers across the straits. We made sketchy intercept notes in real time but went back later, listened to our tapes, and transcribed all that traffic in verbatim English translations, banging away on manual typewriters. The clunky old Royal of those days, purchased in thousands by Uncle Sam, was a nearly indestructible machine. I ought to know; I tried hard.
The transcripts we made of Chinese military air traffic ultimately went into a huge, room-occupying computer at the National Security Agency in Maryland. How they got there I never learned. But at some point, they must have been manually re-keyed for electronic entry into the Big Daddy Computer.
Therefore, our typing did not have to be perfect. If you made a mistake, you just struck over it. As long as the person typing the traffic into the computer could make out what you had meant to type, it was good enough.
I still type about 35 words per minute. I still make lots of mistakes, but on a modern laptop it’s not that big a deal. Corrections are easy.
Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read.
After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates, places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.
I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text.
The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.
My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at.
I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said.
Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!
My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.
Toward a Smashing Second Draft
I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.
So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.
After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,” “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions.
That step is a lot of work, too.
Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort.
By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.