Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Slash-and-Burn Novel-Writing

We were once so close to Heaven
Saint Peter came out
and gave us medals, declaring us:
“The Nicest…of the Damned.”

They Might Be Giants
“Road Movie to Berlin”

Hollywood legend has it that Paul Newman was infuriated by the number of times he was nominated for Academy Awards before winning for Color of Money. While I feel sorry for Paul (who, god knows, deserved it at a minimum for The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke in the early days, and for other reasons since), there are two lower categories of high achievement one can fall into.

Sure, it would be possible to figure out who had the most nominations without winning, but I want to talk about the category of high-level achievement one step down from that. Somewhere out there is an actor who has almost been nominated more times that anyone else. But it’s impossible to know who that person is, since they never even made the shortlist. It’s an invisible achievement.

That’s what admiring rejection letters are like. They’re admittedly better and more encouraging than letters suggesting that you couldn’t write your name in the dirt with a rock, or recommending that you clutch your manuscript to your chest and take a long walk off a short pier, but they aren’t generally good for much. You can’t show them to editors as leverage—here, look at all the great rejections I have!—and you can’t sell an agent’s letter for the autograph. (Okay, you might be able to get a hundred bucks or so for an original Amanda "Binky" Urban, but I’m betting she doesn’t sign anything except contracts and royalty checks.) A pile of great rejection letters reads like the CV of Sir Robin from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Sir Robin the Not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Launcelot, who had nearly fought the Dragon of Agnor, who had nearly stood up to the vicious Chicken of Bristol, who…”

And what’s my point? I don’t know, but I had fun getting here. Oh, sorry (clears throat). I won’t claim to have a monopoly on admiring (nb: “useless”) rejection letters, but I have some real doozies, and a number of my finest rejections were for my novel A Map of the Edge, which I finished at the end of 2003.

A number of agents loved the opening chapters of MOTE; one lit-fic agent even said “It’s one of the most amazing openings I’ve read…”. But. Ah, yes, but. In the case of this letter, after some other wonderful make-nice sentences, we go on to the middle of the novel, where it becomes, um…well, I see the word “rudderless” here, and “desultory” (both of which are such nicely chosen words that I think he should be writing and I should be agenting his stuff). “Navel-gazing” also pops up, along with the note that he never made it to the end, but would love to see it again if I ever rewrite it.

I had a few of those offers, though I suspect the agents in question aren’t still watching their mailboxes in anticipation four years later.

I’m trying to rework MOTE—well, actually, after leaving it three years in the drawer, I’m edging up to it warily, ready to jump back, like a carrion crow uncertain if the seeming corpse is truly dead.

Now, it’s not as though I haven’t thought about MOTE in all this time. I just couldn’t figure out how to tweak it, how to make a few changes to give it a “rudder”, how to make it more undesultory, more, um, sultoracious, if that’s the word (and it can’t possibly be).

Sad to say, the problem is that it can’t be ‘tweaked’. My evaluation, having stared at it for some time recently, is that the start is good, the climax itself is good, and everything in between has to go. Which is roughly 85% of the words upon the page.

I couldn’t have made this decision without letting it sit for so long. It was too fresh in my mind, the storyline seemed too inevitable as it stood, the scenes were too vivid, and I couldn’t imagine any other way the plot could have developed. But now I feel kinda good about it.

Excuse me while I go out to the garage for my chainsaw.

And the parts I cut won't go to waste. Expect my novel The Rudderless Desultory Navel-Gazer some time in the near future.


ORION said...

I LOVED this David! Although LOTTERY is on its way to being released August 2. I too have a "MOTE" hidden deep in my drawer . I love the premise but after this length of time finally know what I need to do to rework it.
(My comments from agents? "...at its rather excessive length..." and "I found the character wearying...")
Ah well.

David Isaak said...

Hi Patricia! Nice to have you drop through!

Folks visiting here: It's worth clicking on her avatar and riding through to her website to check out her forthcoming novel. It looks as though it's going to be huge. (To give you some idea how huge: Putnam used the cover art as the cover of their catalog).

David Thayer said...

MAP OF THE EDGE is one of the best novels I've ever read. David, you have to finish this or I'm sending Armand and Mickey down there and it won't be pretty.

David Isaak said...

Holy shit, dude. Thanks.

Armand doesn't scare me, but Mickey makes me very nervous.

Jake said...

"Map of the Edge" is a fantastic title. I have no idea what it's about, but I really, really wanna read it.

sexy said...