And I needed a magical kick in the butt, because the decision to rewrite my children's novel before seeking publication seemed an insuperable task simply because I really had no idea where to start. Hence the puttering. And more puttering. Ad infinitum puttering. Then the puttering stopped just like that after a chance led me to a magical bookstore Manhattan this past winter. Who knew all I needed was a change in mindset? Just like that everything started to fall into place, and it was all due to luck or chance or magic or whatever your word for fate may be.
There was no reason for my change in routine, but one night, unlike other cold winter nights, while out walking my new puppy, we strayed all the way from Soho across the no-man's land that is Nolita at night all the way to the West Village where her tiny ones promptly gave out. I ended up carrying all ten pounds of her, coat and all, up Carmine Street. I had just passed Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (my favorite-- so far as titles go at least-- bookstore in all the wide world), when my arms threatened to give out as well. We were both shivering and cold, so I ducked inside even though I'd promised myself I would't patronize another bookstore until I'd finished the other five hundred (unread) books bowing down my bookshelf, but I knew I had the extra ten dollars I keep as emergency cab fare in my jacket, and which, to date, I have misused only, and I knew cold and tired or not the lure of books over taking a cab the mile or so home would win out, I ended up purchasing two books about Philip Pullman out of a big pile on all sorts of fascinating subjects from world-travelling women photographers to Taoism.
But Pullman is one of my favorite, recent children's book authors who writes in the genre in which I've always wanted to write my first book, so two slim, little volumes of literary criticism of his magical worlds won out.
And lucky for me he did.
Because the book I read that night changed my life-- or at least it's changed a year of it. However, to take the bombast out of my own prosey sails, that book didn't inspire me so much as shame me. Completely and painfully shame me.
The book that changed my year (so far) was a collection of essays by famous authors like Michael Chabon and less famous ones whose names I can't as easily recollect, and it was called something like Motifs in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, but it wasn't just about His Dark Materials. It was really about that genre as a whole-- children's fantasy-- which is a kind of unique mixture of fantasy, myth and (in the best of it) comedy. The essays also delved into the terrible and numerous-as-the stars cliches that abound in children's fantasy books-- talking animals, psychic little girls-- that's when I realized my manuscript, my baby, was guilty, embarrassingly guilty, of many of the worst crimes. I won't enumerate them here. They're too embarassing and best simply written out of existence.
In short a massive rewrite was in order, and the thought was stupefying. I'd already spent more than four years researching and writing the 40,000 word adventure story before I'd put it aside and started my aforementioned puttering and other avoidance strategies. I did know the needy thing (as I'd come to feel about my manuscript) still needed a great deal of editing before it was worthy of submission, but I'd already done so much. Maybe, I told myself, I just needed some space. Then I'd reread it, and it would be brilliant.
Did I mention one of my avoidance strategies was pretending to be Cleopatra? The Queen of Denial.
In Zadie Smith's brilliant little book of essays on craft called Changing My Mind, she calls the style I wrote that particular ms in "micro-managing" wherein you plod along chapter by chapter, editing it as you go. It's a viable strategy (and Smith's own), but sometimes by the time you're done you just want to cry (or at least that's what Smith did). You can see the drawbacks with that approach right there for a beginning author. Giving in to feelings of utter defeat before you start is rather crippling. I didn't want to cry, but I also didn't want to look at my book again for...well forever by that point or at least for a few months. I had also thought while lost somewhere in the wonderful world of Denial that it meant at least the editing process would, in the end, somehow magically be less intense than my first draft run (or rather crawl) through. Boy, was I wrong, so, so wrong. That's what I realized to my shame that very cold, very dark winter's night.
Luckily, I think it was around about that time I received one of those beautiful, rare emails informing me The First Line had accepted one of my literary essays for publication in 2013. Feeling a bit revived, after duly fist-pumping the air, I went on to their website and reviewed their inspirational first lines for 2012 just for the heck of it to see if I'd find one of them...well... inspiring.
And that was when the last of the magical elements fell into place: I saw a paragraph I'd never noticed on the site. To whit not only would they give a blocked writer such as myself the first line to each of their seasonal issues, but if you started at the begining of the year they also had another sort of challenge-- they would review and maybe even publish a four-part story that linked each first line from each season: Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall.
That is if you managed to get the whole shebang together and submitted by February 1.
It was just the right sort of challenge and length of work that I could complete in a month. I also sensed it might help me gain a better grasp for crafting the beginning, end and middle of a longer work. Not only that but the challenge would also provide me with what Zadie Smith in another piece calls "the scaffolding" of a work--i.e. the overall structure, which the writer might keep secret or not, that helps a writer put together a house (or a novel) that could stand together as a whole. In that vein of thinking I also decided I would devote each chapter to a different member of the same family, and to make the challenge more compelling, I decided each story would take place in a different, non-consecutive time period. At any rate, magic aside, I actually quit my puttering and at last sat down every morning for a month and began to write what I planned to be a 10-12,000 word piece (each story could be no longer than 3,000 words) using The First Line's first line for each of my four chapters.
A piece that short is technically called a novelette not a novella. A novelette is generally defined as being longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. I'd never heard the term before I looked up where my word count landed me. I liked the word my search came up with: novelette. There's something very unintimidating and new about the word "novelette". I know of countless, famous and intimidating novellas from Death in Venice by Thomas Mann to The Final Solution by Michael Chabon or Robert Musil's Young Torless-- the list goes on. But I can't name a single novelette. The whole experiment was fresh creative ground for me to stomp and stumble over and to try my best to make a few coherent marks of my own on.
I'm excited to say that after working closely with the ever-patient David LaBounty, an editor I've worked with through the years and to whom I feel I owe a great debt of gratitude, The First Line is publishing three chapters of my novelette. The first two chapters are available in the summer issue as a sort of compendium, stronger than the original, much wordier versions-- I learned a lot from that lessonn (the length of this blog post aside). The story is called "The Homecoming" and concerns the fortunes of Rachel, an American misfit whose life is changed forever after learning a family secret her grandmother chooses to share only with her.The final chapter, which takes place ten years later and tells the story of Rachel's twin brother Tom, will appear in the winter issue.
Again I'm so grateful to David LaBounty and the folks at The First Line for working with me throughout the years and helping me to learn so many needed lessons along the way. Not least of which is the lesson that-- short or long-- the writing process is a challenging, arduous one, but the rewards of creating a story that might possibly (I hope) entertain other people make it all worth it in the end.
Enough! Or huzzah! Time to celebrate. Copies are available.now online or at bookstores around the United States. Please follow the links below for more information, and thank you in advance for your support and comments.