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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.

The Other Folder*

In preparation for my mother’s visitation and memorial service this week, my sister gave my daughter two folders of my mom’s writings to put together in an album.

I knew that my mom had written many short inspirational pieces for religious publications in decades long past. As my daughter emptied the first folder these were there, in their published form.

But my daughter began to empty the other folder and read to us from those pieces. General short stories. Autobiography. Poetry. Character-driven fiction. More poetry. Some appeared to be final drafts while others were overlaid with her hand-written edits. Mixed into these drafts were typewritten submission copies, and at least one rejection letter.

I thought that my work was pushing well beyond where she had gone, but as it turns out she was exploring much further afield than I realized.

In a culture that idolizes individuality, it is easy to see ourselves – our passions and positions – as a result of self-designed, self-made outcomes. But this is rarely the case. We are often navigating pan-generational trajectories. It is valuable to proactively identify these so that we can knowingly add to a legacy or, conversely, take intentional steps to break free of destructive ruts.

In my case, I’ll continue to write. 

But with a greater sense of the forces that drive me to practice my craft.

*In memory of Marlene Joyce Schaiper Marsh Crump | 1937-2019

Waiting Work

A key skill in publishing your debut novel is the ability to wait well. There’s a lot of it. Waiting seems to be most of what is asked of you.

But what I’ve discovered is that waiting is not the same as doing nothing. In fact, waiting well is about not wasting time – perhaps the most valuable time you’ll have.

Since mid-October I have been waiting for the publisher of my debut novel (tentatively titled) The Confessions of Adam (Bold Vision Books, 2019), to complete manuscript edits and initial cover art. During this time I have not been lying on the couch eating cookies and binge-watching The West Wing. Instead, my focus has been on waiting work. I have (in order of importance):

  1. Read The Confessions of Adam, hardcopy, with pencil in hand, 3 times – once aloud.
  2. Completed and submitted for workshop the 6th draft of my next novel.
  3. Alerted my writerly and readerly network to the anticipated release.
  4. Scheduled and sat for my author photo.
  5. Altered my 2019 planned schedule in anticipation of release activities.
  6. Began building my book release email list and started investigating mass email platforms.
  7. Started to arrange book release readings at two venues.
  8. Investigated how to add a book release splash page to my website.
  9. Given notice to several book clubs of the upcoming, albeit yet undated, release.

For the casual observer, waiting work is hard to differentiate from routine work. The difference is that waiting work anticipates what might be needed while routine work follows a defined plan. Both are essential. Waiting work is no less critical to your progress. In fact, it can make the difference between routine work that is on-time and that which is rushed to completion or delivered late.

So, wait well and get to work.

Tossing the Lasso

I live a life of daily, lusty, creative pursuit. I alternate between quiet hours of writing the next draft of my second novel, reading one of the fascinating books from the stack by my armchair, and sculpting clay at my workbench in the garage. I fill hours each day neck-deep in my art. I do have to pause occasionally and turn to the pedestrian tasks of Gmail or getting a haircut, but the core of life is spent in refining my creative process and reveling in the fruits of my labor.

Here ends the dream. My precious, imagined reality.

My life reads a lot like your life.

At the office Monday through Friday, an 11.5 hour-a-day-commute-included hard-switch between one task and the next. 90 minutes some evenings and 60 minutes others to share between what I might write and read before grabbing a late dinner, cuddling with my wife, packing my lunch, looking at Outlook/Slack, setting up the coffee maker and hitting the pillow for seven-ish hours of sleep before the alarm goes off at 5:30AM. One weekend a month, where there is not some demand on my calendar or the not-to-be-ignored-any-longer need to catch up on personal email, household tasks, and other life-admin, I write and read for stretches that sometimes border on the (dare I say it) luxurious. I will say that I’ve made it a priority to make war with my muffin top by jumping rope or going for a walk once in a while, but I’ve come to grips with the fact that the cause of death on my certificate will read “out of shape.”

No one lives a life where their creative work is central and all else orbits*. Creativity is always pushed to the edges. We’re always tossing the lasso, trying to ring and pull our pursuit back toward the center.

So it goes. Keep the dream alive. Your soul pleads for it.

*For a timely example: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/24/business/tracy-k-smith-poet-laureate.html

What Were the Questions I Was Asking?

Earlier this month I asked myself why I wrote my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam (Bold Vision Books, 2019). I realized that I’d thought quite a bit about the ‘themes’ of the novel – the guiding concerns of the work – but I’d never written them down.
So I did. Here’s the list.
Central concerns/questions that drove me to write The Confessions of Adam:
What actually happened in Eden and after? I was drawn into the Hebrew narrative. I was a reader first.
How does personal memory work? Is even the most trustworthy of memories trustworthy?
How might Adam have defended himself – long after the events of Eden?
Why is this narrative so unexplored fictionally in this form?
So what are some answers that I came to while writing?
Here you go:
Reading the narrative of Genesis 2-4 was the greatest driver to writing it. If I hadn’t found it compelling as a reader I could never have written the story. There is also a creative event that happens quite early in the writing of something like this. You come to believe what you’re writing. Of course you know it’s fiction, but you come to believe that whatever happened, the telling you’ve settled on is closest to the unknowable facts.
Our memories (what and how we recall events) is a complex calculus. Our memories are shaped by our biases and reshaped each time we revisit them. Like putty, we pull at certain aspects of our memories and repress others. All memories are flawed and not to be trusted blindly. All memories need interrogation.
We know there is the defense, the reaction, that pops up in the moments immediately following a failure. There is also the entirely separate series of defenses that are riddled out in the weeks, months, and years following the event(s) in question. These short and long-term defenses are arrived at very differently. I wanted to look at these side-by-side with Adam.
The primary reason is because it is so familiar and hard to get at. A passable construct has to be put in place in order to peel back all the familiarity and gaze afresh on these events. And putting together such a construct isn’t easy.
What questions will my readers have after they finish the novel?
Those are the more interesting questions.

What Happened to December?

I read The Confessions of Adam out loud.

On November 28th I went to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, with my friends Jim and Rita to hear a reading by the current US Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith. The reading was excellent. While there I reconnected with my former professor and friend Greg Schwipps. We were catching up regarding the planned publication of my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam (Bold Vision Books, 2019).

Not far into the conversation Greg became very serious, as he does in his wonderful way, and shared with me a lesson learned from the publication of his terrific Indiana-based novel What This River Keeps. Greg told me that now is the time to ensure that this novel is as good as I can possibly make it. I told him that I’d read it twice, in hardcopy, pencil in hand and had identified several edits. He shook his head yes, as if to say ‘of course you have.’ He then looked me square in the eye and said there was one thing I had to do – read the manuscript out loud.

Suddenly I remembered this tool. Reading out loud. I’ve used it for short fiction for years. I swear by its effectiveness. Yet somehow, when it most mattered, I’d forgotten all about it.

So what happened to December? I read The Confessions of Adam out loud, 8-10 pages each day to my wife – she on one side of my writing table and I on the other. She heard things, I heard things, and upon these things I made yet more marks with my pencil.

Indeed, I forgot you for a month, dear blog reader, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me. For the novel you will read later this year (my sincere thanks in advance) will be better for my absence.

And thank you, Greg, for this most timely reminder!