Thursday, June 23, 2011

Evolution of a Novel: Conception to Birth

On the morning of July 26, 2010, something entirely new and quite unexpected happened to me. But first, let me backtrack. I had already written and published five novels, the most recent, Down a Narrow Alley (2005). Since then I've turned my attention mostly to nonfiction projects, the most satisfying of which was The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean (2008). This set of personal reflections on themes from Victor Hugo's classic novel have been well-received (with limited sales, my literary fate).

I had no intention of writing another novel. I thought I'd told all the stories I had in me, except for one half-finished, dead-in-the-water novel (and stories I make up for my grandson's entertainment). That's why I was surprised to wake up that July morning a year ago with a rough, but complete, narrative arc in my head, three main characters who would carry the story from beginning to end. I even had a working title,  A Train to Bruges. For the next six weeks, I continued to wake up with snippets of story and characterization, all of which I scribbled in the notebook I keep bedside, just in case (rarely) I  think of something brilliant during the night.*

As always, writing the first draft was exhilarating. My dreamed-up characters came to life. My villain was sufficiently evil. Best of all, I knew from Day 1 how the story would end. Studying the completed draft, I realized as many novelists do in that situation, that all I had in hand was a skeleton. My story needed flesh, which came only with grinding effort through subsequent drafts, along with  whatever research I needed to make the setting and characters seem real.

By June 18, 2011, I had arrived at Draft 8.2 and could finally add the # # # symbols to indicate "The End." Somewhere along the way, my working title had yielded to the current pre-pub title, The Saint of Florenville: A Love Story. Not that a novel is ever really finished as long as it's still in the author's hands. Once already, I've gone back in to add a few sentences to close an information gap that will keep the reader from wondering, "What about . . . ?" 

Now the real work begins: marketing a manuscript the book-reading world is not panting for and competing with the other million or so books being published this year. Like a lot of my colleagues of a "certain age," the question is, do I set out to find another agent (I've had three over the course of my career, but no one currently)? Or do I play my "Go Directly to Self- and E-pub" card? I'm pulled in both directions. Response to the ms. from my beta readers has been encouraging (overwhelming, in fact): "the most powerful novel I've ever read" . . . "the characters drew me as if I was attached to them by rope or chain" . . . "a powerful story" . . . "a gorgeous, romantic novel, beautiful, masterful." Heady stuff. I still haven't decided which way to go. I'll let you know which direction I take in future posts.

For a sample, click on the heading, "Work In Progress," above.

* The lined, hardcover notebook was a gift from writer-friend Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff in May 2010 for my role in helping with the California Writers Club, Mount Diablo Branch's Young Writers Contest. The notebook had rested on my night stand unused until that moment in July when I began filling its pages each morning with plot, character, and setting notes.

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