Weeks of Jan 7 – Jan 27, 2011: When to Rewrite

For the past few months I’ve been working on a rewrite of my novel. A lot of the process has been interesting and fun. It’s kind of nice to open up long-settled writing and start playing with things like point-of-view, voice, and structure again. Of course, there are some not-so-fun aspects too. Probably the worst, at least emotionally, is figuring out if you’re at the point when a rewrite is necessary, or not. I doubt anyone really wants to take on such a large project that’s essentially redoing work you thought was done, work you may be pretty proud of. There’s so much emotional turmoil that comes with starting over. You start thinking of wasted months, years, the thousands of words that have already been thrown out. And that’s before you start reconsidering POV and structure, the rhythm and tone. It’s questioning your very way of being. It’s a painful threshold to cross. As I’ve been working through this, I wondered how others might confront this problem. Please comment if you have some tips or ideas, or what might be some helpful reading. I’d love to hear them.

In the meantime, here’s how I’ve handled it.

Generally my revision process is tied closely to my submission cycle, especially with short stories. The main thinking here is that, after a dozen rejections, you should have an idea of how a story is being received. Even if editors aren’t sending back hand-written notes or requests to see more work, such silence can still mean something. After a while, the feedback and notes, or lack thereof, point to a course of action. From there, you can ascertain whether the piece needs some tweaking or an overhaul. (Or maybe a trash can.) With short stories, getting positive notes helps point me to what stories are hot or close. I keep close track of them. I may let it roll unchanged then, or it may push me to take a really hard look at what may be a winning revision, knowing that it’s on the verge of acceptance. For the novel, it’s harder because the piece is so much larger. But feedback from agents can be invaluable, if you know how to read what they’re saying. I think the most common cause of an agent rejection is that they don’t connect on a personal level with the material, which can really mean anything. So, is it just that, a missed connection with an individual, or is there a more serious problem with the manuscript. How do you know? This is where volume comes into play. Getting a bunch of rejections can be a good thing, if there’s feedback involved. If you keep hearing the same thing over and over, that’s probably a sign of what the problem is. It’s pretty simple.

With my current novel, I’d received feedback from a half-dozen agents. This isn’t a ton, but all of them gave pretty specific reasons why they felt the book wasn’t right for them. Some of them were kind of dubious of my going from a collection of edgy, contemporary stories to writing a historical novel. I wondered if there’s something about historical fiction that precludes it from being edgy, but realized that that probably wasn’t the problem. It was the way my book was structured, the way I was trying to shelter my protagonist from doing bad things—which is a problem, since I have trouble writing “nice guys”—and the way I sometimes allowed the history to overpower the story and how this also put a dry, scholarly slant to the narrative voice. (And a lot of this came from my having to figure out the history too. It was hard to understand the scope and structure of the story while I was still learning new, game-changing things about the history I’m dealing with. I put a lot of stock in the idea that we think best through writing. It just took me a lot of words to grasp these ideas.) I couldn’t see these problems without my clutch of rejection notes, which is the larger point here. It sucks to struggle through a stack of rejections, but this is why I’ve always enjoyed the process of submitting stories. I’ve been pretty lucky to get some nice feedback from editors and agents—that’s a big part of it—but the process is such a great motivator, conscience, and teacher as well. It makes you be honest with yourself about what’s actually on the page, the quality of the work, and what more you’ll have to wring out of it to make the story a success.

I’m not sure if there’s any other way for me to write besides building out of a series of failures. Maybe I’m too prideful to see my mistakes until well after I’ve made them. Maybe this is how it is for everyone. In any event, I think the rewrite of Hyphenates is turning out well. This new series of stets, scribbles, false starts, and mistakes is progressing nicely.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

yé-yé girl

“It was liberating to sit on the stoop early in a May evening, in those middle-spring hours when it was warm enough for Jacob to roll up his shirtsleeves and let the air hit his skin again. It was one of the main promises of spring, that there would be more of these nights to come, barefoot and comfortable, reclined in a sturdy chair. No mosquitoes yet, no bearing-down evening swelter. The whole world was green in those hours, breezy and clear.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

New England Review and CutBank for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Copper Nickel and Third Coast for “These Things That Save Us.” And, of course, “The Housekeeper” was published on Flatmancrooked last week!

Now Reading

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

Just Finished

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky. An interesting study of the anti-hero as filtered through French cinema. It’s pretty good! Highly recommended for all fans of movies set in Paris, or for anyone who has named their first-born child after the heroine of their favorite French film.

Up Next

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Weeks of Apr 21 – Jun 6, 2010 (Memorial Day Edition)

Last week on Memorial Day, on the way home from a Schneider family reunion in East Iowa Amish country (Nicole’s side), we stopped at Forest Lawn Cemetery in north Omaha. For a long while now I’ve been meaning to find the grave of Tom Dennison, who plays a major role in my historical novel-in-progress, The Hyphenates of Jackson County.

Tom Dennison with his second wife, Nevajo Truman.

The Forest Lawn website has an awesome database that helped immensely with this. (There’s also a walking tour of the cemetery, for anyone interested in Omaha history.) Of course, when we followed a whim and decided to stop after a day’s driving, we didn’t have any of the necessary information, but it didn’t really matter. We found it anyway, after an hour of walking and deductive reasoning. (Nicole is especially adept at graveyard searches. We usually end up in cemeteries on our vacations and are seldom disappointed. Some of our favorites include the Cimètiere Notre Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal (in a snow storm!), the Key West Cemetery, and many of the solitary headstones we came across while on our fern-thick honeymoon in the Green Mountains of Vermont.)

Over the months anticipating a visit to Dennison’s grave, I had these ideas in my head of a massive tomb, or an iron-doored, stained-glass mausoleum. As the longtime Boss of a wide-reaching political machine, Dennison was massively wealthy, so it stood to reason that he would have erected a memorial to celebrate himself. Forest Lawn, as the final resting place to many of Omaha’s founding fathers and first families, is home to many extravagant mausoleums and statues. I’d even worked up this day-dream where people would go to Dennison’s grave and take a shot of bourbon in some archaic ceremony of patronage. The reality, however, was much different from what I’d expected, as there is merely a large family headstone denoting the Dennison name, and then three smaller markers for Tom, his first wife Ada, and one shared by two sons who, presumably, died in their infancy. It was all very simple. No last words, no statues, no inscriptions.

I’d like to find out more about this, as there seems to be a story here. On the one hand, Dennison typically dressed simply, he came from very humble beginnings and was by most accounts a quiet, private man. So it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that he would eschew a flamboyant mausoleum. But on the other hand, there were over a hundred cars in his funeral procession, a fact suggesting that his interment was anything but quiet and private. I hypothesized that perhaps the original gravestones were damaged, destroyed or vandalized—and the simple markers were replacements—but I have no evidence to support this. It was strange, too, that none of his children who survived to adulthood were buried there either, which goes against much of what I’ve learned about his private life. Maybe they’d moved away from the area by then. If anyone knows about this, I’d love to hear from you.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“Word among those hanging on along the streets, afterwards, was that Tom Dennison had summoned the enforcers to reestablish control after the uprising, and that he’d been slow to give the order because he was vacationing in California and had to be wired with the news. They said that he was on a yacht off the coast of San Diego and they had to wait until he returned to harbor. Johann didn’t believe these stories, he speculated that Dennison was probably in his office downtown, or his mansion west of Benson, that he’d tried to keep things in control but couldn’t. Johann interpreted the delay as yet another breach in the Old Man’s armor—and, after what they’d witnessed from the bathroom window of the Potsdamer, more than a few of their friends agreed with him.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

New England Review for “The Current State of the Universe”; Mid-American Review, West Branch, and Yale Review for “Attend the Way.”

Just Finished

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. If you like the following things, this book is probably not for you: quotation marks, paragraph breaks, chapter breaks, short simple sentences. Otherwise, this is really an engrossing read. Some great sections involving European priests who use falconry as a means to stop pigeons from defecating on cathedrals and on the intersection of artistic patronage and military authoritarianism in Chile.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This is one of my favorite books, now, and I highly recommend it. The best writing about cricket I’ve ever encountered, which makes this sound like a lesser accomplishment than it really is, since I don’t recall reading about cricket ever before. There was a lot of talk about this being a post-9/11 novel with echoes of The Great Gatsby, but I didn’t really find these elements that central to the story.

Now Reading

Roscoe by William Kennedy.

Up Next

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall.