I am often asked how I wrote my first novel and persevered through print. In truth, it was like raising children – I question whether I would’ve consented to the matter had I fully understood the journey ahead. But such endeavors don’t throw every lesson upon our shoulders at once. So it was with writing.
I had the first chapter written for months, but nothing further. If you’re an author, this situation may be familiar. The opening was explosive, writhed with action, mystery, and a good hook. But despite the movement on the page, the manuscript went nowhere. I enjoyed daydreaming follow-up scenes and plot paths, but never put them on paper.
At my 20th class reunion I spoke with a friend who had gone into the ministry. As I drank a beer, he explained how he had published several theological books. At his challenge, I decided to finish my own, a military black ops thriller.
I pushed forward and scenes rolled freely. I was leaning heavily towards writing as a pantser, discovering where the characters took the story. It was exciting because not even I knew the outcome, my vision never extending beyond the next scene. But that strategy didn’t carry me far enough. Halfway through, I had to switch to plotter and outline the rest of the book so as to have a target at which to aim.
After that, momentum mounted again. I wrote, read to my family, edited, and brainstormed the next chapters. Within six months, the novel was complete, well over a hundred thousand words. I went through the entire manuscript several more times, tweaking and polishing it to perfection. Only then did I disclose my project to anyone beyond my immediate family.
My two sisters immediately requested copies of the manuscript. Both being artists in their own craft, I eagerly awaited their feedback. It came… but was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped.
My eldest suggested, “There’s a writer’s workshop put on by a couple published authors at the local arts center. You might want to try it out.”
But, I’d already written the book. Refined it. Even pushed it out to a few agents. I mean, this was the next New York Times best seller! Nevertheless, the workshop was only a few miles from my home, so I conceded to give it a try.
This clinic was the pivotal point in my career. Pause for effect. This is on the test. Pivotal. I still attend, six years and counting. We sat around a table and a chapter from each member was read aloud. The author couldn’t speak during their review, the concept being a reader only has what is on the page. Several times I tried to explain, “I was trying to…” or “I meant…,” and was bluntly told it didn’t matter. A reader had no benefit of the author leaning over their shoulder and explaining intent.
It took about four weeks for me to accept I needed to learn how to write. That was a heavy load. I was like a father who’d just moved their last child into the college dorm just to awaken the next day to sounds of morning sickness emanating from the bathroom.
Lesson learned. I purchased a few craft books and devoured them, dog-earing pages, and writing notes in the margins. Even so, each week at class, after I’d corrected all the prior faux pas, I was introduced to a new list. When was this going to end?
A diet isn’t just about eating less. It’s about eating less of the bad stuff, more of the good stuff, and throwing in a little exercise. Likewise, my manuscript went on a personal makeover. The hundred-thousand words were cut down. Liposuctioned. One particularly grim night, I condensed four chapters into one. Out came unnecessary wording, narrative summary, telling instead of showing, distancing language, point of view violations, and a myriad of other junk-food items. In went rich descriptions and metaphors that furthered the plot instead of simply fluffing it up. I crafted new scenes that developed characters and propelled the story. I endeavored to build a relationship with the reader, trust them to be inquisitive, intelligent, and unearth accurate meaning. And finally, the exercise – that was class. Every week, the accountability, and ensuing humility, of having your work critiqued and red-lined.
After about two years, the novel was ready to send back out. I continued to write, drafted the sequel, while also scouring for literary agents and submitting query letters. Over time, I received many declinations. I lost count. I’m told that today, getting an agent to simply read your first chapter is like trying to give a bath to a cat. They’re already inundated.
Finally, an editor for Kensington contacted me and said they were interested in my manuscript. Kensington is one of the few publishers that allows direct submissions, and I had sent it to them according to their detailed requirements. By my 25th reunion, I had the pleasure of telling my minister friend I’d landed a three-book deal.
My advice for aspiring authors is to persevere. Continually study your craft. Submit your work to review, learn to discern what feedback is on target, and implement it. Resist the urge to defend or explain when a reviewer asks a clarifying question. Instead, edit your work so the next reader doesn’t have the same issue. The words on the page don’t care what you intend. Your reader only benefits from what is written.