Labor of Love
“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” -- William Faulkner
I was terrified the day my novel went into print after toiling over it for nearly five years. I’d sent it to 46 different publishers, mostly independent, and that’s not including the queries I sent out to test the waters. I had some encouragement from literary journals where I’d published short stories. Some had considered launching book imprints, but I rarely heard back from them. One Sock Press, from Bainbridge Island in Washington, took an early interest in my book, a couple of years ago, but when the economy started to head south so too did my hopes for publication.
In March of this year, I was in shock when All Things That Matter Press (ATTMP) responded to my query letter, requesting to see my entire manuscript. They’d been impressed with my forthrightness and sample chapters. They told me quite candidly that they didn’t waste their time if they weren’t interested. Naturally, this got my hopes up and by July, when they’d offered me a contract I had doubts. Was Shades of Luz ready for print? Of course not, it needed editing. All books do. But, what concerned me most was that I hadn’t penned my “splendid failure of the impossible.”
I mooned over my work. Each edit weighed heavier on me. I’d been polishing my novel in workshop for over two years after putting my novel into what I considered a second or third draft. I’d passed through three or four rounds of redlines with the ATTMP editor-in-chief. When I inched toward the final galley, Phil Harris, the publisher, told me that we were going to do a final run-through, but that I should only concern myself with major typos, weird font, or spacing issues. They wouldn’t have accepted it if there was any doubt, Phil assured me, but my inner eye wouldn’t blink. It saw things, perhaps, that critics would chew apart and spit out into the vast wasteland of ho-hum literature.
I’m not casting aspirations when I say self-help writers don’t feel this sense of self-loathing, but fiction tends to draw a keener eye to the page. Francine Prose says in her book Reading Like A Writer “Every word needs to be put on the trial of its life.” That’s a whopper. Anybody willing to put themselves under such scrutiny is either molten rock brave or crazy. I’m an introspective laborer of love.
If I wanted to be technical, it wasn’t even my first book. This worried me more. If somehow the public could forgive me for delivering a flop, I knew I had completed novels swimming in neverland. Maybe I’d made progress, but did I deserve the joy of an ISBN stamp and a barcode? I’ve spurned projects before. I used to keep a folder entitled “Story Starters and Teams of Themes” for the rush of ideas I could hardly keep up with and I found myself writing what I thought were good beginnings. I noodled with characters. When a scene didn’t pan out I logged stage directions, and told myself I’d return to it. Then I tackled themes, tropes, and ranges of emotion I wanted to uncover. When I picked up where I had left off I wasn’t always sure I was headed in the right direction. A fresh set of eyes has a sobering effect on one’s work. I also admit, three years ago, I was a miserable reviser— the keystone to the craft.
A few things have changed. I’m a slower reader now and I’m a slower writer. I stay with a single piece longer than in the past, refining it until there’s a confluence between story and sound. I’ve lost the file for “Story Starters and Teams of Themes.” It died along with the hard drive of my old Gateway. I’m more upset about the novel I’d written seven years ago, before Shades of Luz that my agent hailed a gem. After I’d been universally rejected by Harper, Kensington, Norton, Houghton Mifflin, and all the other usual suspects, it took me a while to regroup.
Big houses won’t give a manuscript a second read once they’ve given it thumbs down. I wasn’t ready to buy into that. I attacked my spurned manuscript, the hard copy, took it with me wherever, mainly to coffee shops, park benches, and rollicking subway cars, and proceeded to edit it in pencil. Even in these Twitter Times, I have a great affinity for writing implements: pen, pencil, crayon on occasion. There’s a tactile quality you just don’t get from punching into a keypad. My lust for scribbling in pencil might be a holdover from my unfulfilled wish to be an artist. I’m a lousy painter and an even worse sketcher, but the intoxicating smell of graphite as it rubs into my moist fingerprints urges me to shape earnest prose.
Armed with #2 pencils, hot pink and fluorescent yellow highlighters, my manuscript, and a clutch of scrap paper, I re-envisioned my first novel. I found myself adding as much back into it as I was taking out of it. I actually started backwards from the last page because Harper, for one, thought my novel had great promise, but hated my ending. Kensington confessed my promise as a writer, but my book was not marketable. I got three-quarters of the way through my revisions when I lost my manuscript after a night of drinking. Indeed, a tragedy. I hadn’t made a single note on the computer, and I hadn’t any paper copies.
Way it goes.
The next few years I spent mostly writing shorter fiction, but I’d begun a few new projects. I’d even entered the NANO competition during National Novel Writing Month, back in 2006. The challenge was to write 50,000 words in the month of November, all on the honor system. Believe it or not I clocked in the magic number in three weeks. I’ve never since returned to that chunk of words, but I think it taught me something. I think all the writing we do teaches us. There’s a learning curve with any craft, and with writing each new piece informs the previous.
I’ve been working on a short story collection for a while now, but have also started a new novel. I can’t say for sure if my next published novel will be the one I’m writing now, but I grow attached to my work, slip into its fictive dream and live in a symbiotic relationship.
Before John's stories appeared in literary journals he snapped the Eyesore of the Week for the Queens Ledger. Since then his work has appeared in Mississippi Review, The Rose & Thorn, The Shore, Monkeybicycle, Plum Ruby Review, Thieves' Jargon, Word Riot, Nexus, and elsewhere. In 2003, his screenplay "For the Love of Auntie" won the NY International Indie Film and Video writing competition. His debut novel Shades of Luz is published by All Things That Matter Press.