Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Things That Take a While

I wrote my first novel when I was eight years old.

It was titled “The Slowest Runner,” and it concerned the trials of a young man whose chances of winning the big race looked pretty slim.  I’m not sure how I planned to end it, considering I gave up after two chapters (a single typed page).  But I do remember that when I started writing it, I was thinking of myself as a writer, and the manuscript as a novel-in-progress.  I just wasn’t ready to finish it.

In middle school, I took another shot at writing a novel.  This time, having just read The Lord of the Rings, I produced a manuscript that was pretty conventional swords-and-sorcery fare, with humans, elves, dwarves, sorceresses, an Aragorn-esque tracker named (ahem) Nordica, a blue winged pixie named Willidrin (Willi for short), and (I have no idea why) huntsmen who looked like gigantic eyeballs with arms, legs, and feathered hats.  I don’t remember the title, and for all my searching I’ve found only a single sketch that survives.  As I recall, the book bogged down around page fifty, after the sorceress had called all the presumptive heroes together but I discovered I had nothing particularly heroic for them to do.  For the next few years, I drafted several outlines of epic fantasies I planned to write, but the outlines were as far as I got.

I completed my first novel at age sixteen.  Titled To Alter the Past, it told the story of Droman Greywolf, rightful king of a magical land, who is slain on the very doorstep of his castle as he attempts to recover the throne his father lost years before.  Through some magical process, two of the king’s followers bring the narrator, a man from our own world, to Droman’s kingdom.  There they beg him to relive the fallen king’s life in hopes that he will defeat the enemy and change the course of history.  He agrees, of course—otherwise no story—and lives an eventful second life befriending Elves and Catmen, defeating swamp monsters and witches, rescuing damsels in distress and gaining mysterious magical implements from mad hermits, before finally confronting not a mortal man but a demon from the pit at the castle gates.  That précis might make the book sound pretty run-of-the-mill, but in fact it shows a considerable degree of imagination and a fair amount of decent writing.  When a family friend who works in publishing agreed to take a look at it, though, he reacted as anyone but a sixteen-year-old could have predicted he would: “Your writing is good, very good.  But is it publishable?  Not yet.”  I was crushed and briefly flirted with vanity publishing—until I read the books the vanity press sent me and realized they were vastly inferior to my own.  I still have the complete manuscript tucked away in my closet.  I sometimes think it’s the best thing I’ve written.

Completed novel #2 came in college, as my senior honors project.  Titled Selfish People (later changed to The S.A.M.E. Semester when I sought publication), it involved the takeover of a small liberal arts college by a group of radical educators claiming to offer the benefits of their new educational philosophy to the students.  The faculty mentor who read it wrote: “This is a very creditable piece of writing.  It shows considerable fictional talent, ambition, scope, perseverance, literary sensitivity, an acquaintance with literature, and many other virtues needed for writing.  But it is not under any imaginable form publishable.”  Turns out she was right: in the years between college and grad school I revised it, found an agent who seemed interested, but then gave up when the agent went out of business and no other responded positively to my queries.  I was gearing up for doctoral study at that point, and while I still harbored the dream that I might return to novels some day, my focus had turned to writing about literature rather than writing it myself.

And so it went.  In the twenty years that followed, I published three nonfiction academic books and lots of articles, co-edited another book of academic essays, and pretty much put creative writing on indefinite hold.  I imagined a few new novels—one having to do with baseball, another with Thoreau—but they never got any farther than the fantasy novels I’d envisioned as a teenager.  I’d discovered that I was pretty good at academic prose, and it just wasn’t possible to devote attention to fiction-writing with everything else going on in my life.  So I held onto the dream, but nothing came of it.

That changed in 2008, when I finally decided I’d had enough of academic publishing and wanted to return to fiction.  I took a class at a local college to rediscover the craft (and to force myself to actually write something), started this blog, and began to compile a list of credits in fiction and creative nonfiction.  Feeling ready to try the long form again, I produced about a hundred pages of a novel with a faculty member as its main character, but stopped when I realized it was too close to my own life.  I completed another novel I really liked, a grim, dystopian retelling of the Santa Claus fable, but found that no agent or editor would touch it with a twenty-foot pole.

Then, in 2011, having read many books aloud to my children, I said to myself: “Why not try writing a novel for young adults?”  With nothing more than a name for my main character, I started writing.  The story took off.  My daughter, whom I showed some early pages just to make sure I wasn’t completely off-track, really liked it.  At the tail end of 2011, I completed it and started shopping for an agent.  I found one, revised the manuscript for her, parted company with her when her enthusiasm for the project waned, found another agent who loved the book (Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency), made some further revisions for her, then sat back and waited while she sent it out.  Trickles of interest came in, but no offers.  Liza told me to be patient.  I tried.

And then it happened: on Friday, February 22, 2013, a formal offer for my YA fantasy novel, Survival Colony Nine, arrived from Karen Wojtyla of McElderry Press.  I had turned forty-eight earlier that month.  Forty years after attempting my first novel, forty years after embarking on the dream of my life, I was finally on the road to publication.

Or maybe I’d been on that road all along.

On the day I received the offer, my wife bought me a miniature flower pot topped by Woodstock (in farmer garb) and a small sprouting plant.  The legend on the pot: “Faith is for the things that take a while.”

And that’s no fiction.


  1. Thank you for posting this. It's an inspiration to those of us who are still waiting to get the party to publication started!

    1. Thanks, Sarah! I love hearing writers' stories of how they got started, and I look forward to hearing yours!