I just finished a draft of an historical novel with no title. This project has been around for a very long time, certainly longer than Andy has been alive but only a blink of an eye in Carol-years.
Here’s the story:
It began as an historical nonfiction account, and it was a project I was really excited about. Of course, the downside of writing historical fiction or nonfiction is the research—before the draft has any momentum, it’s easier and more interesting to do research and more research. And that’s what I did for at least a year. I collected images, maps, and prints from the 19th century, and I read everything I could find that was even tangentially related to my topic. I poked around in archives. And then I did it all over again. And again. So what’s the downside, you ask? Research ain’t writing. It’s part of the writing process, to be sure, but it’s also a pseudo-legitimate excuse to avoid writing.
And that’s what I did.
By the time I had a nonfiction draft finished and all the potential illustrative materials gathered, my original editor had retired. Fortunately, her assistant inherited me and this project, so the project didn’t slip away into orphan oblivion. Unfortunately, my manuscript still needed some work, so back to work I went.
In the meantime, I wrote two other books, co-edited another, and rewrote and updated yet another. All those books made it to bookshelves—a very few bookshelves, but at least they saw the light of published day.
This nonfiction book got revised and sent back to my editor, and she sent it back to me for more revision. Then she quit.
Her replacement (editor number three, if you’re keeping score at home) inherited me and that nonfiction project, and she sent me a letter asking to see what I had done so far. I sent her the manuscript along with all the illustrative material. Then we met in New York to discuss it. Over a very nice lunch in a swanky Italian restaurant on the West Side, we talked about the book. I was waxing eloquent about all the historical stuff, showing off my accumulated knowledge about my subject when she asked, “Have you thought about recasting it as historical fiction?”
“Would you like to recast it as historical fiction?”
“It was conceived as nonfiction, so I can’t imagine it any other way.”
“But fictionalizing it would solve some problems. There are some pretty big gaps in the historical record, gaps readers of a nonfiction book would expect you to fill. I really think you should take a crack at turning this into a novel.”
“But it’s not a novel. It was never envisioned as a novel. It’s a terrific historical event, and I’m sure I can make it work as nonfiction.”
“Let me see a new revision, then.” She picked up the tab and then moved on to become the editorial director at another publisher.
I was adopted by another editor (number 4, if you’re still keeping score), and by then I was working on a new project, a short biography of an African American baseball player. This editor was quite the baseball fan, and she encouraged me to pursue this new project, which I did. After reading several drafts of the biography, she encouraged me to turn it into a story, a story that would work as a children’s book. Of course, that was not what I had envisioned, and I resisted the change for a while before finally tinkering around with a dramatic recasting of my original idea. And I liked how it worked. And I worked on it and reworked on it for several months. After the 25th revision, I sent it to my editor and didn’t hear anything for about a year. Finally word came: “We’re going to pass on this.” Wow! My agent and I talked about this manuscript’s future, and she sent it to another publisher. Four weeks later it was sold. It’ll be out in January.
But back to that historical nonfiction project that had been orphaned. I decided that it couldn’t hurt to try transforming the nonfiction into fiction and spent a few months on it. I liked it. I liked it quite a lot. So I pushed ahead with it, dumping all the trappings of nonfiction and reworking the nonfictional manuscript into a novel. When I had half a draft, I sent it editor number 4. A few months later, we met at a convention in Philadelphia and discussed it over lunch. She had some excellent suggestions and encouraged me to rewrite and then finish the project. I picked up the tab and she stayed with the same publisher.
A year later, I finished that novel and sent it to her again. Months passed. An editorial letter came. Mainly she asked questions about the novel, questions that had needed asking. Really good, thoughtful questions. That letter arrived in May 2011. I started rewriting the novel but didn’t like what I was doing. I studied the editorial letter, wrote long responses to each question, and decided to start over. Yes, start over. This time the first-person historical novel would be written in third person. I didn’t like the first page. Or the second. But by the third page, something happened. The story showed some signs of life. I forged ahead in third person and finished the draft at the end of September. Then I started revision, cutting, adding, polishing. I finished that at 10:00pm Monday night (and missed Game 5 of the World Series). Now it’s in the hands of my best first-reader, and she’ll tell me what’s wrong with it.
So what I have learned from all this?
I’m not sure.