As many of you know, historical novelist Stephanie Cowell and I go way back. We met in a workshop taught by Madeleine L’Engle more than twenty years ago and worked together in a writers group in NYC for over ten years. She’s the “Stephanie” I mention in my usual first class essay – the Stephanie of whom we were all a little bit green when she published her first novel Nicholas Cooke back in 1993. We’ve shared a lot – hopes, frustrations, disappointments, more than a bucket of tears apiece, and finally the joy of seeing her previous novel, Marrying Mozart and my first not only published, but represented by the same agent and edited by the same editor. I’m honored that she’s guest blogging today to celebrate the launch of her latest, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet.
How long does it take to write a novel? Writing, rewriting and rewriting and…
Sometimes people ask me, “How long does it take to write a novel?” I am never quite sure what to answer! It depends on the novel, the life circumstance, the writer. Three months? Fifty years? The journey can vary considerably. There was an article about this in the New York Times some years ago. A certain novelist confidently promised his editor, “Two more weeks and you’ll have my final draft!” Four years later he was still writing, likely having changed his address, disconnected his phone, and claimed to be missing.
“Still writing that novel?” someone will ask you. “My kid’s in high school. Didn’t you start it when she was just learning how to read?” Argh! Or, “What! You just started your new book last year and already you’ve done? I bet your next one will take even less time!” Well, not necessarily. Novels, like individual children, grow in their own way.
Writing novels can be like wandering in a great forest: the path is straight or crooked. Take a wrong turn and end up two years out of your way. Or it can be like walking across a desert where the wind blows the sand and you have no idea where you came from or where you are going. You run around in circles, shouting for rescue, a little out of your mind.
Of the several novels I have completed, two have each taken only nine months of writing but the story which is showing up April 6th in bookstores – Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet – ran away from completion for nearly five years. My poor husband lived through every draft. Why did it take so long? It was a big story which combined the young Monet’s development as a painter, his great love for Camille, and the birth of impressionism. And all that had to travel along a rising plot line, which it finally did. But that is not my longest creative effort. I have several unfinished novels which I have worked on for a long time. There is one that has eluded completion for 21 years but I keep getting closer every time I go back to working on it. I think one day it will get there.
I guess the only thing to do is enjoy the journey. And maybe buy a t-shirt I once saw for sale and have regretted always not buying. In big black letters across the front it said, “Just working on my novel.”
Stephanie will be here for two local events:
May 1 at 1:00 PM
54 Fairfield St., Montclair, NJ
WORDS of Maplewood
May 13th at 7:30 PM
179 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood NJ
I’m particularly proud to host today’s guest blogger, Stuart Lutz, who has been a part of our Writers Circle literally since it began.
For four years, I’ve followed the progress of his extraordinary project, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors. It’s been a long, bumpy road, as his blog post below vividly shares. Take heart from his experience, everyone. Today I’m honored to announce that The Last Leaf is available in bookstores everywhere!
So pick up a copy and one for all your family and friends. And be sure to join us at Stuart’s book launch party at Maplewood’s Words Bookstore on March 26 at 7:30 PM.
Thank you for the advice, John Coolidge
Over the last holiday break, I cleaned my Augean office. The first place I started was my large filing cabinet that holds all my papers related to The Last Leaf. The top two drawers have dozens of files holding photographs, audio tapes, interview notes, and drafts of each chapter. These are important files to save. The third drawer was stuffed with everything related to the publication of The Last Leaf, and this was the target of my afternoon’s labors.
I had my first interview for my oral history book in 1998. I drove to Deep River, Connecticut to meet with Mr. Paul Hopkins, the last living pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth in the Bambino’s legendary 1927 season when he hit a then-record sixty roundtrippers. A slew of meetings with other “Last Leaves” followed. I drove to Vermont to meet with John Coolidge, the son of the President and the last man to live in the White House in the 1920s. I roadtripped to Alabama to meet the last Confederate widow (though she turned out to be the next-to-last Confederate widow). One weekend, I flew to Knoxville to interview the last Union Civil War widow. She gave only two or three interviews ever, and it took me fifteen months of begging and pleading to get her to meet with me. Slowly, the book idea gained momentum as I met more and more people. In Rochester, New York, the last suffragette; in Fort Myers, Florida, the final Thomas Edison employee in Florida; in the Maryland suburbs, the last commissioner from the agency that created Social Security.
In 2004, I mailed dozens of query letters and I found an agent. He quickly sold the book to a subsidiary press of Simon and Schuster. I was delighted to receive my first advance check. I took the money and went on additional trips to meet more Last Leaves. There was the flight to Memphis to interview the real last Confederate widow in Arkansas. A drive to Fort Wayne to meet the final witness to the first electronic television broadcast in 1927 with a stop in Pittsburgh to chat with the last man to play with the country music legend Jimmie Rodgers. There was a flight to Florida to meet with the last living Amelia Earhart passenger and the final survivor of the vicious Rosewood race riot in 1923. A quick roadtrip to Chattanooga and Asheville to interview two more subjects. And a manic three day Indianapolis – Urbana – Ann Arbor – Cleveland voyage that let me meet three more Last Leaves. Sure, I had to borrow from my saving account to pay for some of these trips, but I reasoned the eventual royalties would repay me.
April 19th, 2005 was, I thought at the time, one of the great days of my life. I emailed the final book draft to the editor, triumphantly wrote about it in my journal, and went to see a Bob Dylan concert that night. Starting on April 20th, I finally told people besides my close friends and family about the book. The Last Leaf was scheduled to be out for the holiday season, and it was a great thrill to see it listed on the Simon and Schuster website. The famous Civil War historian Dr. James McPherson gave me a quotation to put on the book’s cover. Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, the dean of American historians, offered to blurb the book once I sent him a galley. Gosh, everything was lining up so well for me…
I didn’t know it then, but the publishing house was in total disarray. They went through three editors, and the last two wanted me to rewrite the book, which I dutifully did. But with the time I spent editing, there was no way The Last Leaf was going to be released for the holiday season. Then, the publisher, in one of the wussier moves in world history, made his unfortunate secretary call me to say they were not going to release The Last Leaf. Ever. She asked for their advance back (a great example of sheer chutzpah). I told them if they wanted it returned, I would see them in court since they were breeching our contract. A few months later, my agent, saying that he could not resell the book to another publisher, released me and The Last Leaf was adrift.
I read when I was younger that it was not how many times you fall off the horse, it is how many times you get back on…
I took a few months off from the book, but then got back in the saddle. I spent one entire weekend mailing out letters to a new batch of literary agents. I mailed them on Monday, and on Tuesday morning, two different agents called me. That afternoon, I sent them the entire manuscript to show them that the completed book was ready for publication. Each called back after getting the drafts and both wanted to represent me. One of them revealed that she is the literary agent for a certain rock star from New Jersey with the first name of “Bruce.” “Listen Stuart,” she said to me, “Bruce keeps me so busy that I do not take on any new clients. But I cried when I read your book last night. I really, really, really want to rep your book.” Wow – now an agent was begging me to sign with her. So I did.
This agent used all her connections at the major publishing houses to sell the book. And she found no interest in my work at all. She released me and The Last Leaf was again adrift. She did present me with a bill for $313 to cover her mailing and photocopying costs.
I dusted myself off again. As I got back on the horse, I felt a couple of horseshoe prints on my tuchus from this last experience. My wife, who had been completely supportive of my writing efforts during this entire time, claims I am one of the most determined or stubborn (depending on the context, of course) people alive. I knew I had an interesting book concept and I was not going to let it die. Not after I put in all that money, time, sweat, typing and mileage. Not after Dr. McPherson wrote a blurb and Dr. Schlesinger offered to compose one too. Not after I told people that The Last Leaf would be released.
While the book was in publishing hiatus, I did more interviews, including meeting America’s last World War I soldier. I sent out letters again to literary agents and not a single positive reply. Those are the letters that are now sitting in my filing cabinet awaiting recycling.
I then tried a different tact. I wrote to some academic publishers, including my alma mater’s publishing house, the largest one in the country. The Johns Hopkins University Press editor told me that he thought the book was “too commercial” for them, and every other academic press rejected The Last Leaf too. I also wrote to some medium-sized publishing houses. One day, I came back to my office and I had a message from the editor at Prometheus Books in Amherst, New York. He said they were very intrigued by my book. He was concerned, however, because he saw an old internet listing that I had already published The Last Leaf in 2005. I painfully explained the entire tortured history of the book and I assured him that it had not been published. Prometheus bought it.
On that December afternoon, my wife took my son out on errands so I could clean the infamous third drawer, as well as the rest of my office. As a perverse form of entertainment, I read some of the literary agent rejection letters. Some were impersonal third generation photocopies, some were photocopies but the agent wrote my name at the top. They went into the blue recycling bin. Others told me that the book was not focused enough and one wrote to me that, while an interesting concept, the book was simply not saleable. “Ha ha sucker!” I yelled at that letter as I put it into the bin. A few agents wrote back kind and encouraging letters, including one man who said that I should start by doing a series of magazine articles on the final survivors and then turn the concept into a book. Into the bin with the other rejection letters. I also recycled all my earlier drafts of the book.
I opened the top drawer, the one with all my important book files, and I flipped through them. I saw the folder for John Coolidge, son of Calvin, and I pulled out the paperwork. He was one of my first interviews, and he invited me in 1999 to visit him in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, one of the most placid areas of the state. I went into his private house where no one who visits the Coolidge Homestead was permitted. He was in a wheelchair at that point, and I gently rolled him onto his sun-drenched porch on a beautiful early spring day. He recounted his boyhood memories of seeing the charred attic timbers in the White House (remnants of the British torching the mansion during the War of 1812) and discussed the death of his brother at age sixteen from blood poisoning. As I was leaving his home, he wheeled himself over to his desk. He opened a drawer and handed me a small card with a quote from his father, the President:
- Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
It has been eleven years since Mr. Coolidge handed me that card. Neither of us had any idea how prescient the quote was.
Stuart Lutz owns Stuart Lutz Historic Documents, Inc., a firm that sells rare letters and manuscripts. He has written for American Heritage and Civil War Times Illustrated, and appeared on National Public Radio. He has a B.A. in American History from Johns Hopkins. Learn more about Stuart and The Last Leaf at www.TheLastLeaf.com
Many of us come to a weekly writing workshop, a writers group or an MFA program looking for rules, instructions, some correct route to take as we navigate our way through our work.
Let me tell you after years with my own writing and helping friends and students alike, THERE ARE NO RULES.
Sure, there’s the basic grammar we all learn in elementary school. And oh, yeah, there’s a right way to spell most words. But when it comes to creative writing, even these steadfast rules are meant to be bent and sometimes even broken. Any author, living or dead, who’s ever tried to write in vernacular (for better or worse), will tell you that sometimes you just have to write it the way it sounds, even if it’s wrong.
Still we writers long for a few trustworthy guidelines. It’s a lonely job. Most of us never really know if we’re doing it right. But the simple realization that everyone feels like they’re “…driving a car at night” as E.L. Doctorow once put it, is a big step on the journey.
In last week’s Guardian article, Ten rules for writing fiction, a couple dozen illustrious authors offer their own best tips, starting with Elmore Leonard’s classic “Using adverbs is a mortal sin.” (Yes, we all occasionally use adverbs.)
What I found most comforting were the many contradictions:
P.D. James: Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing…
Jonathan Franzen: Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
I also loved Diana Athill’s recommendation: “Read it aloud …because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.”
Those of you who work with me know that I insist on reading aloud. I’m well aware that details often get lost in the listening. But the things that do stick in our minds – whether a plot point, character detail, an awkward rhythm or something else – are the critical pieces that tell us what works and what doesn’t.
These tips lists intone the need for discipline, hard work and persistence:
2) Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3) Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
Helen Simpson: The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying, “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert) which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”
Also the need for occasional breaks:
Helen Dunmore: A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
Hilary Mantel: If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
And then there’s the implicit or blunt futility in their advice. Call it schadenfreude, but it somehow helps to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle.
Margaret Atwood: Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Will Self: You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.
And finally, my favorite, all too TRUE:
Roddy Doyle: Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
Last Friday as a light sprinkle of snow drifted down, my friend and fellow author, Laurie Lico Albanese, accompanied me on my usual morning walk uphill.
Most of you know about my obsession with hiking, nature, and the South Mountain Reservation. Check out Laurie’s thoughts on our little adventure at her blog: My Big Walk: One Woman. One Year. One Thousand Miles.
Sometimes hope is an elusive prospect in the face of the daunting task of writing. The work can seem a chore, endless, lonely, unforgiving, even pointless when one considers the perhaps bigger chore of finding a publisher and an audience.
Those hours spent, those days and weeks soon grow into years of trying again and again, knowing the effort might lead to nothing, sensing that everything you write isn’t good enough, that it will never be good enough, that maybe you should reconsider your passions, if not your career choice. It’s very hard to swallow even for the most stubbornly determined among us.
So I take great delight in sharing this very brief but lovely essay by Junot Diaz, Becoming a Writer. (I know we had an interview with him earlier this session, but I can’t help myself.) His authorial heartbreak and astounding breakthrough are powerful antidotes for that feeling of frustration.
Writing sometimes is not about how much you can take as it is about who you really are. If you are a writer in your soul, then you must go on writing, despite all counter-indications. Every rejection, every challenging critique, every soggy tissue and ream of paper you throw out with the recycling, are just pebbles (Yes, pebbles, I know, I know!). They are the rubble upon which a stronger foundation will be built for the monumental work – short or long, published or unpublished – that you put forth. It is as strong as the pyramids because it bears your sweat and blood and bones.
Writing is unrequited love. Writing is being jilted and still having the courage to return to the altar. Writing is also the intimate wonder of cuddling an infant and examining it delicately to make sure that it is absolutely perfect in every minute detail.
So on this week before Thanksgiving, I wish each of you hope. And I thank all of you who have shared this journey with me. Having this precious circle in which to soothe grief and nurture joy makes every drop of sweat worthwhile.
I’ve been cleaning off my desk. It took longer than I thought, but these few weeks since I sent my manuscript to my agent have been fraught with minor illness and unexpected delays. Among the piles I found several half started articles, a couple of nearly finished essays, and a bunch of handwritten, spontaneous fictional sketches that I never even bothered to type into the computer. Most of them will never get farther than they are. Or perhaps in a fit of inspiration, I’ll finish them one by one and then pray that they’ll be read one day beyond the light of my office window.
There’s something seductive about that first inspiration, the idea for a story or essay or novel that comes to you in a flash. It shines in the mind like a brilliant, newborn star, or hangs just out of reach like succulent fruit waiting to be picked.
It is an illusion. Beware.
Those first words rush forth from you, brilliant, masterful. Then there’s the delving into research, all the planning, all those outlines for characters that will soon spring to life. But then, the blank page. How to become God on the last day of creation? All the supports are in place – the sun has risen, the moon set. The land and sea have been parted. The animals all roam among luxuriant forests or grassy, verdant plains. But how – how, indeed, to create a man? Or a woman? Or a child? Or a dog for that matter, someone or something that has light behind its eyes? That has thoughts and feelings and reasons for their words, if they have words at all? But then, you’ll need reasons for that, too, and a unique way of expressing them.
Slowly, I say. Slowly. Take your time.
About thirty pages in – or fifty, if you’re lucky – that first flush of momentum starts to slow down and the blank page doesn’t fill quite as smoothly as before. You discover on page 54 that indeed, the main character CAN’T come from a religious family because his attitudes are all wrong. Unless he’s a rebel. Yes, perhaps he’s a rebel. But then, you’ll have to go back and fix all that stuff about his blind devotion on page 27.
It goes on like that until somewhere around page 150 or 200, you start to understand the underlying themes of your own work. You’d written down ideas like that before: the overarching purpose, the inner life that drives your characters. But now you see that all of that was misguided, and the basic premise was both much simpler and much more complicated. So you start making notes, long notes, often incomprehensible, about what you must change, and ways to fill in the gaps you never even realized were there. And those notes fill a document or a wire-bound notebook, so you know you’ll have to go through them and think them out again. And while reviewing them one day, you’ll notice an uncomfortable number of brilliant contradictions.
Writing is not like life. It doesn’t roll forward of its own accord, any which way, whether you want it to or not. It must be wheedled and cajoled, shaped and fashioned to serve the vision of its master.
So if God’s really up there revising that epic book for the 5769th time, then take heart. He or she hasn’t gotten it right yet. So why should you, or I?