First Copies

At a conference last week my publisher had a book table and sold the first pre-release copies of my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam. About a dozen copies went home with readers from various locations across the US. 

It is surreal to think that at any given time a stranger somewhere could be reading your novel. I have moved the work from that silent and solitary place of daily writing, through months of maneuvering a manuscript toward publication, to this new and foreign stage of observing from afar unknown readers as they react to a book with my name on it.

I am reminded of the axiom ‘the story must stand on its own.’ I’m not sitting next to each reader giving them a synopsis of the novel or telling them how I came to write the story. They’ve never seen my name before. I’m an unknown. I’ve nothing to do with the reader’s experience. The book is now theirs to complete, to read and to imagine.

The story must stand on its own—while I write the next one.

[Title Here]

I am having a very hard time titling what I hope will be my second novel.

There are two outcomes of each title I write: 1) it stinks, and I know it right away or 2) I am utterly enamored with it as soon as it hits the page, only to find after a day or two it grows soft, gray, and flat.

I tend to start with low concept titles, over-wrought and abstract ones that give the reader no idea, no clue what they are getting themselves into. These titles are artsy, literary, and pleasing to only one reader—me. Slowly, painfully, I find my way to the high concept titles, those that draw the reader in. Those simple titles that tell the reader something central about what they are getting themselves into when they pick up my prose. 

The only way I’ve found of getting to these better titles is via a list, getting all the low concept titles out, onto the page, so that they can be forgotten and I can get to the ones that have potential. The tenable titles come at least ten titles into the list, more in most cases. 

Finally, the chosen title must always be set out to rest. It must still be the title of choice days and weeks later.

And this is how titles are made.

Sunday Word Choice

Early Sunday morning, while working through edits to The Confessions of Adam, I came across a passage where one of the central characters uses the word ‘sewage.’

I stopped reading. The right word for the situation. The wrong word for the story. Too modern.

So began the search.

I didn’t want a reader pulled from the dream by the wrong word. 

With a dictionary in one hand and a thesaurus in the other, I went to work. I spent an hour reading and looking at synonyms, their definitions, their origins. Hundreds of words all revolving around refuse, waste, discharge, and other distasteful aspects of human leavings. 

It turns out that the word ‘sewage’ carries a lot of weight.

After finding my morning mood and stomach soured, I consulted a writerly friend. I texted him the challenge. Per his suggestion I went with the word ‘stagnant.’

And this is how it works. The word you’re looking for may not be an equivalent. It may be a change, a tweak, a subtle shift in tone, color, or perspective.

And this is the pursuit of story.

That

As I complete the final edits of the manuscript which will be my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam, I thought that I’d share with you the other item that my editor so kindly identified.*

What we’re dealing with here is called a “weasel word.” You can Google this. Better yet, look it up in Merriam-Webster. It’s there. I knew nothing about it until my editor pointed it out. 

As it turns out, my weasel word is that.

Here are two examples from The Confessions of Adam:

Incorrect: The telling of it feels like a tale. It could be an elaborate dream that he’s had and that he has now come to claim as personal history.

Correct: The telling of it feels like a tale. It could be an elaborate dream he’s had and has now come to claim as personal history.

Incorrect: ”No, the Maker isn’t visible, but he says he can see Him. Adam says that he can see the Maker just as a blind man can see his lover enter the room.”

Correct: ”No, the Maker isn’t visible, but he says he can see Him. Adam says he can see the Maker just as a blind man can see his lover enter the room.”

Clearly, those sentences didn’t need that. In fact once I removed that, the sentence shone brighter.

Shoot. Hang on. Let me fix that opening sentence.

As I complete the final edits of the manuscript which will be my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam, I thought that I’d share with you the other item that my editor so kindly identified.*

Forgive me.

*See the previous blogpost for my other editorial gotcha.

En & Em Dashes

As I complete the final edits on the manuscript that will be my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam, I thought I’d—I thought it would be helpful to share one of the key fixes that my editor, Lindsay Franklin found. I have spent 6–8 hours replacing hyphens with em dashes—not en dashes. When I started, I didn’t know the difference. You can Google the difference. And you should. It is important. Here are a few of examples from the novel:

Incorrect: Amat gently helps the sniffling boy tie his soaked smock up in a knot at his back and wraps a strand of bells just above each of the child’s elbows and knees. This done, he pats the boy’s head – no doubt a knot has risen from my reprimand – and ushers the child to the river’s edge, watching over him as he eases into the water and wades back in among the other boys.

Correct: Amat gently helps the sniffling boy tie his soaked smock up in a knot at his back and wraps a strand of bells just above each of the child’s elbows and knees. This done, he pats the boy’s head—no doubt a knot has risen from my reprimand—and ushers the child to the river’s edge, watching over him as he eases into the water and wades back in among the other boys.

Incorrect: “It was she. If she had not been so insistent–“

Correct: “It was she. If she had not been so insistent—“

Incorrect: There is a servant who aides Enosh and works the stable. Have you seen him – a thin, muscled, tan young man with loose, curly hair?

Correct: There is a servant who aides Enosh and works the stable. Have you seen him—a thin, muscled, tan young man with loose, curly hair?

Consider this your introduction to the world of dashes. Use them wisely.

Next

I am well into the throes of writing my second novel. I’ve heard that many writers don’t get the first novel they write published. The first one is often practice, the novel they learned on. The one that sits forever in the desk drawer. I recently heard the non-fiction writer Eula Biss state that a friend’s debut novel—at age 52—was the fifth he’d written. This hasn’t been my experience. In my case, the first one done is the first one out the door.

But none of this matters—which novel, how many, when.

What matters is that there is a next. A now. A work-in-progress. The writing is the thing. In the writing is where the work begins and ends. There is a current project that has captured me. If it is fit for readers at some point then so be it. If not, another next awaits.

What matters is the writing.

Ending

It’s been said that no one finishes a novel, they just stop working on it. If there is anything that is true about the craft of creating fiction, it is this. There is no ending for the writer, only a stop.  A surrender of the text to the editor. The writer’s temptation is to keep working and working on a manuscript. To tweak, adjust, straighten, repeat. I’ve heard authors in readings alter the published text – edit their work for a reading. This is how strong the desire is to continue. To avoid ending. To fix, affix, and reaffix. But you must stop. You must cease your effort. You must stand down. Beginnings demand endings. One day you finish, whether you like it or not.

The story is in the possession of the reader now.

And you move on to the new, the next. 

Beginning

The work of writing looks exactly the same today as it did ten years ago. I go sit in a chair at a table and open my laptop or notebook, and form and order words. It’s no easier or harder than it was yesterday and it’ll be no easier or harder to do tomorrow. 

Picasso said, to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing. Any understanding that I gain of the product I’m seeking to produce comes when I’m in the throes of writing. 

Thus, each day I begin again. 

The planning is very thin. I plan to sit down at a specific time with a specific starting place. That starting place may be where I left off yesterday, or a character that needs further development, or a snippet of dialogue that needs reworked. But very quickly after taking my seat any notion of where I thought I might be going that day is dispelled. The work tells you what it needs.

Beginning isn’t something you do once, or at the top of each story. 

Beginning is what you do every day.

I Can Do This

I remember the moment. I am standing in my study at my bookshelf. It is 1988 or 1989. I am in college, a sophomore. I have just pulled down a Hemingway novel – I don’t remember which one – and am leafing through it, reading a line here, a line there. And then I pause, look up and think to my naive experience-lacking self, “I can do this. I can write a novel. It can’t be that hard.”

Blink. 

Thirty years later I have a graduate degree in writing and my debut novel is about to be released.

I look back and I was right, I can write a novel.

I look back and I was wrong, it can and is hard.

But, this is how it always starts, with an unfounded idea. Whether it’s writing a novel, starting a business, or running a marathon, it always starts with simply pointing your nose in a specific direction. And it always starts with untethered, joyful ignorance of the difficulty ahead.

Along the way you will need to say again, a thousand times, that you can (still) do this. There may not be another living soul who has bought into your shenanigans. That’s fine. What you’re doing is personal. It’s yours alone.  And it will remain that way for a long time to come.

Until. 

Blink. 

Some years later when it’s no longer personal, it’s being turned out, into the wild, to fend for itself.

It’s Like Starting a Business

On the morning of February 25th, I had a conference call with my publisher, Karen Porter at Bold Vision Books. She and I discussed social media, manuscript edits, cover art, publicity, release prep, and endorsements. I left the call with a couple dozen action items – from compiling edits on the manuscript to ordering business cards to installing plugins on my website.

With the success of a publishing deal for your debut novel comes the requirement to not only ensure the quality of the product, but to also establish the structures of public commerce. 

I’m just getting started on this journey. Here is my first lesson learned:

Engage with the collaborative team that is forming around you.

This product that I have worked solo on for so long has now become a significant concern for other skilled and creative people. I need to now view these as my team, my colleagues, and fellow creatives. I am the founder of a co-op that is rising and forming. This has nothing to do with writing. This is about being a conscientious team member and ensuring that I engage my colleagues around the table.

So to my agent Joelle Delbourgo, my publisher Karen Porter, my photographer Connie Phillips, my social media consultant Scott Carter, and the other team members whose names I’ve yet to learn – my cover artist, my editor – welcome and thank you for all you’ve done and are doing to make The Confessions of Adam a successful debut. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be part of your team.