My author copies of Wheatyard arrived yesterday. The finished book looks fantastic, and I couldn't be happier. My bulk shipment should arrive later this week.
This Podcast Will Change Your LifeMy great friend Ben Tanzer interviewed me for his podcast, over lunch earlier this month at Chicago's wonderful Pittsfield Cafe, talking all about Wheatyard. I must be getting better at this, because I was much more eloquent than usual, with only a minimum of ums and uhs. It's also available on iTunes - search for "This Podcast Will Change Your Life", episode 62.
Wheatyard is published!
My debut novella, Wheatyard, is now available at Kuboa Press, either in paperback ($3.95 plus shipping) or e-book (free!). It's been a long and grinding road getting here, since I first started thinking about writing fiction during the late 1990s, through several false starts over the following years and then finally starting Wheatyard in 2005, finishing it in 2011 and accepting Pablo D'Stair's wonderful offer earlier this year. It's nearly impossible to thank everyone, but if you ever enjoyed any of my short stories, talked to me about books, or just indulged my blog posts, you helped me to keep writing, keep pushing and make this book happen. So thank you, thank you, thank you.
Final excerpt from WheatyardWheatyard comes out one week from today, on Kuboa Press. Here's the final excerpt, from chapter ten:
But he spoke little, never looking me straight in the eye, as if embarrassed about what he had said that afternoon, as little as it was. Though he showed a flash or two of his old spirit, his mood was unlike anything I had seen during our three months of friendship—muted, subdued, detached. He mumbled a few stray comments about his manuscript and the publisher, but nothing more definite or decisive than anything I had heard before.I've really enjoyed posting these teasers over the past ten weeks, which I hope have whetted your appetite for the entire book.
Excerpt from WheatyardThis week's Wheatyard excerpt, from chapter nine.
He said nothing, looking down at his folded hands, still sitting sunken deep into one end of the broken couch. Before him, perched on an aluminum TV tray, was his battered Smith-Corona typewriter, the constant companion he had fondly spoken of several times over the past few months. The typewriter sat sideways, facing a folding chair, where he must have sat as he worked. Next to the typewriter sat a half-empty jar of Folgers Crystals - the apparent fuel for his writing binges - and below on the floor teetered a stack of typed pages at least two feet high.Publication date is two weeks from today. Preorders are now being taken.
Excerpt from WheatyardIt's Wednesday, which means that I'm a day late in posting this excerpt from Wheatyard, this time from chapter eight:
He certainly wasn't a sunbather. His pasty skin suggested he only went outdoors when he needed to—house to truck, and from truck to Simon's or Mullen's Tap or The Grind or Cellar Books. The sedentary act of sunbathing didn't fit him, nor the vain goal of a deep tan. I guessed that his house was such an oven that day that only sitting outside offered any relief. But not even being outside separated him from his writing; hence, the notebook and what must have been his latest misunderstood masterpiece.Pre-orders are now being taken at Kuboa Press.
Wheatyard is now available for pre-order from Kuboa Press. And above is the fantastic cover, designed by Carlos M. Gonzalez-Fernandez. The reality of all of this is finally sinking in for me.
Excerpt from WheatyardIt's Tuesday, so that means another Wheatyard teaser. From chapter seven:
"He's got manuscripts floating all around this building. I don't remember that one in particular, but I've read several others, and some of my colleagues have, too. He comes here looking for an expert opinion, though he never puts it that way. He's never on bended knee, in supplication, begging for validation. He'll hand a manuscript over casually, as if it means nothing to him, saying something like, 'If you have some spare time, maybe you could look this over.'"The release date is now less than a month away, on April 30, from Kuboa Press.
Excerpt from WheatyardThis week's Wheatyard excerpt, from chapter six.
He paused and fished a piece of Bazooka bubble gum from the depths of his coat pocket. Opening the wrapper, he unpeeled the comic inside, reading it with a thoughtful look as he popped the gum into his mouth and began to chew. He grinned to himself, some idea clearly having occurred to him, and carefully tucked the comic back into his pocket. I immediately wondered if some future story of his would include Bazooka Joe as a character.Publication date is five weeks from today. Still doesn't quite seem real.
"I’ve written a book," you say. "Now how do I get published?"I wrote a lengthy column, "'I’ve written a book,' you say. 'Now how do I get published?'", over at Contrary which relates the publishing odyssey of Wheatyard and offers some advice to aspiring writers. Actually, when you consider that's my first column there since August, I guess the column isn't that long after all, at least on a per-month basis.
Excerpt from WheatyardTeaser from chapter five of Wheatyard...
Mullen's Tap was a bar and, as I saw from a glance at the digital clock on the microwave, it was only 10:15 in the morning. My reluctance to accept such an offer from Wheatyard was fully justified. But his tone was amiable, carefree, as if he had already forgotten my brazen empathy with readership- and profit-obsessed editors a few days before. Maybe I was being given the chance to reconnect, to study him further.Publication date (April 30) is now just six weeks away! I should be getting my first look at the cover art either this week or next. When I do, then all of this will finally start to feel real.
Excerpt from WheatyardAnother Wheatyard paragraph, this time from chapter four.
All of that was moderately interesting, but I was already right in the middle of his strange little world — drinking coffee on a ninety-degree day in a trenchcoat, talking over the boisterous Kierkegaard conversation at the next table between two scruffy college lifers, the incomprehensible manuscripts and that decaying ranch house out in Tillsburg — and I wanted to know more about that, to make sense of it all. The fictionalized life of a Hardee's cashier in upstate New York seemed trivial in comparison. For me, that life was unreal, imagined, while the enigma sitting across the table from me was real, perplexingly real.In case it slipped your mind, Wheatyard is out on April 30, from Kuboa Press.
Excerpt from WheatyardAnother week, another excerpt from Wheatyard.
Or maybe I was just desperate, trying to figure this guy out, and read too much into it. Maybe Marilyn and Ahab and a bloodthirsty hawk were really nothing more than Marilyn, Ahab and a bloodthirsty hawk; maybe, as the old joke went, a cigar was just a cigar. Maybe Ahab and Long John Silver were mere homages to beloved boyhood seafaring tales. Maybe Wheatyard was just toying with all of us, presenting a cast of characters so audacious that overeducated readers like me couldn't help grasping for metaphors.As I've mentioned before, and will mention many times more, Wheatyard comes out on April 30 from Kuboa Press.
Excerpt from WheatyardAnother teaser paragraph from Wheatyard, this time from chapter two.
The heat inside the car was stifling, with little relief from the wind that whipped through as we sped at sixty-five along the farm roads. The temperature gauge was running dangerously high, so there was no way I could run the air and risk overheating the engine. Wheatyard might be able to replace his own carburetor, and wring two free beers out of a reluctant bartender, but there was no way he could conjure up a fresh supply of coolant out here in the vacant countryside. The annoyance act that worked so well for him at the bar probably wouldn't work on the nearest suspicious farmer.
Excerpt from WheatyardMy debut novella Wheatyard will be released by Kuboa Press ten weeks from today, so on the next ten Tuesdays I'll be posting a short excerpt from each chapter, just to build some anticipation. From chapter one:
There stood a rumpled, bemused figure, shaking his head like a gently scolding schoolmaster. He was of below-average height, a few inches shorter than me, with an unkempt beard, greasy hair which hadn't been washed for a week or more, and intense brown eyes which peered at my selection—which I unconsciously began to return to the shelf—with a riveting stare.
What the hell is Wheatyard about, anyway?It recently occurred to me that, with all my talk about trying to get Wheatyard published and finally getting my offer from Kuboa Press, I've never really explicitly explained what the book is about. It's weird being so immersed in creating a book that, although all of it makes perfect sense to me, it's very hard to succinctly explain it to others. So, as I continue to craft my elevator pitch, here's the standard written description I gave to prospective publishers.
Wheatyard is the story of the enigmatic, unpublished writer Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard and the unnamed narrator (a business school graduate stuck in an Illinois college town, jobless, after graduation) who improbably befriends him. During the course of a summer the two circle each other, with Wheatyard eager to exert his authority yet wary of revealing his personal life while the narrator struggles to focus on launching his finance career but finds himself distracted and passively fascinated by the writer. Though at first polar opposites, they gradually yield their idealistic extremes and arrive at a common ground that will better position themselves for the rest of their lives. The book meditates on art versus commerce, idealism versus pragmatism, and independence versus survival, as it reveals the lives of two very different people who have more in common than they realize, and also celebrates the subtle beauty of the rural Midwest.
Since Wheatyard has been accepted for publication by Kuboa Press, today will be my final rejection post for the book. And the rejection was the most prestigious I've ever gotten - from Alfred A. Knopf. Knopf is a rarity among big publishers in that they accept unsolicited, non-agented submissions (though they undoubtedly publish an infinitesimal number of those books, and maybe none at all) so on a whim I sent them a query letter and sample chapters. Then one day, shortly after accepting Kuboa's offer, a fat envelope from Knopf arrived in the mail. I thought it might be a free book (publishers still push unsolicited review copies on me, now and then), but was surprised to see that it contained their rejection letter (shown above) and my full submission. Though the rejection was no surprise, I didn't expect them to send back the whole thing, instead of recycling it. The package was still in its binder clip with my self-addressed reply envelope at the back, so I doubt that their reader did anything more than browse a few pages before rejecting it. As you can see from the photo, the letter is a boilerplate photocopy, though at least somebody went to the trouble of writing in my name by hand.
In the past, I would conclude these Gong! posts with a few stiff-upper-lip words meant to convey self-confidence and resilience, though that wasn't always what I was really feeling at the time. But now that Wheatyard has found a home, I'm passing along this Knopf rejection for curiousity and amusement. Onward...to Kuboa!
Wheatyard! Success!I am thrilled to announce that my novella Wheatyard will be published by Kuboa Press, with a scheduled release date of April 30. My deepest gratitude goes out to publisher Pablo D'Stair for giving a good home to this waifish orphan of a book. For the record, I started writing Wheatyard in November 2005 and finally finished it roughly two years ago, and since then it's been making the rounds at numerous indie publishers. So, for seven-plus years the book has been either in process (being written), in limbo (languishing in manuscript for far too long deep inside my messenger bag) or in circulation. I'm very eager to soon take this next big step.
Three things in particular drew me to Kuboa. First, Mel Bosworth re-published his novella Grease Stains, Kismet and Maternal Wisdom with the press. Bosworth's novella (which I read and enjoyed) is a low-key, plainspoken story of everyday life - no clever literary twists, no gratuitous violence, etc. - that has some vague parallels to Wheatyard, so I figured that any publisher who was receptive to the style and tone of Grease Stains might like Wheatyard as well. Second, Kuboa has a unique publishing model: physical copies of its books are published only in mass market paperback format (not the conventional, more expensive trade format) at a retail price of only $3, and the e-book version is free via Smashwords, so the focus is making the books widely available at a very affordable price. (Exposure is exactly what I need as a debut author, and not any concern for making money.) Lastly, "kuboa" (or "kuboaa") is an invented word that briefly appears in Knut Hamsun's Hunger, my favorite novel ever. It wasn't until after I accepted Pablo's publication offer that I learned that the name of the press is a direct reference to Hunger; Pablo says that Hamsun influenced him artistically more than any other writer. So while I didn't know about the Hamsun connection when I first discovered Kuboa, the mere possibility of that connection kept me interested.
I'll have more details as the publication date gets closer, so stay tuned. I'm very excited about finally publishing my first book, though admittedly I'm also pretty nervous over having to promote myself to the general reading public instead of just to prospective publishers. Selling doesn't come naturally to me at all, though at least I'll have a product that I totally believe in.
"From the Mouths of Babes"My great friend Ben Tanzer is writer-in-residence this month at Necessary Fiction, and he has generously published my essay, "From the Mouths of Babes", in which I discuss the unexpected origin of my novella, Wheatyard. Though I've referred to the book's origins many times here in the past, this essay is probably the most concise account I've ever written. Enjoy.
Rejection number twelve arrived last week for Wheatyard, from a small but well-regarded press whose publisher I've known casually for around a year and first met in person at AWP last winter. Though I doubted that the book would be a good fit for the press, I took a low-risk chance based mostly on the personal relationship. So I'm not very surprised at the rejection. Fortunately, over the weekend I connected with another small press which has a fairly unique publishing model, and is actually looking to fill slots its current publication schedule. (Which is a refreshing departure from many of the publishers I've researched lately, who have either suspended operations or are booked solid for the next five years.) So this morning I submitted the manuscript. I have several reasons to be optimistic about this latest one, and as always I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed. Onward.
Rejection number eleven just arrived for Wheatyard, from top-shelf indie publisher Melville House. I'm not exactly sure why I queried there, other than their open submissions policy and longtime commitment to novellas. In hindsight it now seems like I was aiming impossibly high. Wheatyard is currently with five publishers, but one of those submissions is now pushing nine months and is most likely a "no." On the other hand, two of the publishers are edited by acquaintances who graciously agreed to look at my manuscript, and hopefully will offer a more sympathetic reading than I've been getting with over-the-transom submissions. Onward.
Onward, but...today has actually been kind of rough. Besides Wheatyard, I had a story submission declined elsewhere. And Andy Griffith passed away. Looking forward to the brief respite of the midweek holiday tomorrow.
I certainly never expected this.
This assessment was based on several paragraphs from Wheatyard. I tried a second excerpt, from the same chapter of the book, and got Wallace again. Then a third try, again from that chapter, gave me Arthur C. Clarke. The only Wallace I've ever read was one single essay, and I've never read Clarke, so it's doubtful that either writer was even a subconscious influence on me.
Another rejection, plus a sort-of-rejection, for Wheatyard this week. (Counting both, the total is now ten.) The first was from a brand-new small press in the Midwest that just started soliciting its first submissions during the past month. Though I was already acquainted with the editors and they really liked the writing, they said it wasn't quite what they were looking for, and so took a pass. The second was from another small press that I queried last summer but never heard back from. I followed up today and they promptly replied, saying that with a recent surge in queries and their print publication schedule already being full for the next few years, they are only taking submissions for potential ebook publication. Though I know ebooks are where the industry is heading, I really want to see Wheatyard in print, so by mutual agreement with the press I formally withdrew my submission. I still have a few more irons in the fire, so I'm brushing off both of these setbacks. Onward.
Wheatyard just got its eighth official rejection, from a small but growing Midwest publisher whose editor I met at AWP. The editor was very gracious, even agreeing to read it outside of the official review period, but admitted a personal aversion to stories about writers. Interestingly enough, I generally don't prefer reading those stories either. The book is now in submission with four publishers; however, two of those publishers have had it for quite some time now, and once I finally follow up with them I suspect I'll have more official rejections to report. Onward.
Gong!Rejection number seven just arrived for Wheatyard, from another small press. They gave me a two month turnaround, which I can hardly complain about. I'm not too disheartened on this one, since I wasn't overly enthusiastic about the press anyway - I sent it out mostly on a whim, and I'm not sure my writing fits their style. And it would have been awkward repeating the name of the press to my mom, among others. The book is now under review with four publishers, including one which I queried this week. Onward.
Wheatyard has been declined for the sixth time, with the latest by Seven Stories Press. (I've refrained thus far from naming names, but will do so in the future when I've been treated fairly and respectfully, as was certainly the case here.) I knew Seven Stories was a longshot, but they have an open submissions policy and have long championed Nelson Algren (my literary hero), so even the slight possibility of being published alongside Algren made a query impossible to resist. Though their rejection letter was fairly boilerplate - not even mentioning Wheatyard by name - at least it was on actual company letterhead and personally signed by the editor. Despite being yet another rejection, I'm very glad I gave this one a try. Onward.
A small East Coast press, which I greatly admire, has apparently declined Wheatyard without even telling me. I sent them a query last summer, and after not hearing anything for months, I asked a writer friend of mine (who has published a book with the press) to casually inquire about the status of my submission. The publisher told my friend that he wasn't interested in my book, and that he doesn't reply to queries unless he's interested. In other words, no news is bad news. Though it doesn't seem like that much of a bother to send a boilerplate email to a writer as notification of a rejection, apparently that publisher feels otherwise. This now makes five official rejections for Wheatyard, but never mind - I just mailed off a new query (with sample chapters) to another East Coast press yesterday. The fact that I went to the trouble of stuffing a manila envelope and trekking to the post office should tell you how much I revere this publisher. Fingers crossed. Onward.
Wheatyard was just turned down for the fourth time, by one of the very best independent presses out there. They said that while they were "intrigued" by the story's premise, it just didn't fit their fiction needs. Which, for all I know, might just be their boilerplate language for rejections. As has been my habit, I immediately turned around and submitted a query to another great indie. One of these has to hit eventually. Onward.
"Life doesn't have to prove itself."
In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Shirley Hazzard (talking with Vendela Vida) discusses the place of coincidence in fiction:
Hazzard: In that same book (The Transit of Venus) I say a similar thing: that one wouldn't dare put into a novel the amount of coincidence that occurs in life itself.
Vida: Yes, one of the characters says: "I've thought there may be more collisions of the kind in life than in books." Maybe the element of coincidence is played down in literature because it seems like cheating or can't be made believable. Whereas life itself doesn't have to be fair or convincing.
Hazzard: Life doesn't have to prove itself. Life happens; we have to accept it. Reading fiction, the disbelieving, skeptical critic likes to feel in control. Yet his own existence, all existence, is subject to the accidental element, to the inexplicable or magical, or dreadful intervention that cannot be justified by logic.
I completely agree with her, partly because I'm facing a similar quandry with publishers' reactions to my novel, Wheatyard. Not with coincidence - nobody has yet questioned the plausibility of the narrator (a recent business school graduate) first encountering the eccentric, reclusive writer Wheatyard. Instead, questions have been raised as to why the narrator becomes so fascinated/obsessed with Wheatyard.
I think I did address this question - as I tell in the story, just a few weeks after graduation, the unemployed narrator has already begun to doubt the corporate finance career he once so thoroughly believed in, with his growing disillusionment making him more receptive and attracted to Wheatyard's independent lifestyle and outsider status. Not that the narrator is eager to embrace that sort of lifestyle himself, but it does show him another side of life that he hadn't experienced before, with Wheatyard's sudden appearance becoming an interesting diversion from his own depressing prospects. Of course I could have spelled out the point more bluntly, but bluntness is something I generally hate in fiction. I'm a quiet, subtle person, and I'd rather tell my stories quietly and subtly than hit the reader over the head with my message. I don't understand the need to baldly explain everything - Why is the narrator so fascinated with Wheatyard? - when the reader could easily take the cues I've given and answer the question himself.
Just as Shirley Hazzard doesn't feel the need to justify coincidence, I don't feel the need to justify my narrator's every motivation. That's just how he is. I've already explained enough.
I just received rejection number three for Wheatyard. I really had high hopes for this one. The publisher is an up-and-coming indie outfit that really seems like it has its act together, and they liked the first two chapters I sent last spring well enough that they recently requested the entire manuscript. (For a writer, I suppose that's like getting a second interview from a prospective employer.) Unfortunately, though they said they admired my writing and had many nice things to say about the book, it just didn't quite work for them.
One specific issue they mentioned was a supposed lack of impetus for the narrator's fascination with the protagonist; though other readers have also made this point, I thought the impetus was fairly clear, and if I said it any more explicitly I might as well beat the reader over the head with it. Since I feel like I need to keep moving ahead with my writing and working new material, I'm hesitant to dive back into the manuscript for yet another revision, so for now I'm keeping it as-is. If some publisher likes the book well enough to give a tentative acceptance that's contingent on resolving the impetus issue, then I'll do more revisions.
This rejection was a real disappointment, but I'm not despairing - in fact, I've already submitted it to another well-regarded publisher. Onward.
"There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagarian Eastern travelers, glancing from car windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without."
- Booth Tarkington, who was born on this date in 1869
Echoes of sentiments expressed by my narrator in Wheatyard, though those were about Central Illinois, which has very similar terrain. I've never read Tarkington, but I think I'll add The Magnificent Ambersons to my Summer of Classics longlist for next year.
The second rejection of Wheatyard just arrived. It was from a small publisher that I thought I might have an "in" with (via a mutual friend), though the publisher probably wasn't aware of that connection. When I submitted I refrained from any name-dropping; I kind of want the book to stand on its own merits, independent of any connections, even if those connections might open doors for me. The notification was standard boilerplate ("We've decided to pass on this one") and not too encouraging. Given the volume of submissions that publishers are seeing these days, I'm sure I'll get many more like this before the book finally finds a home, so this doesn't trouble me very much. Onward.
That subject line is in honor of Chuck Barris, and marks the first time that my recently completed novella Wheatyard was booted off the stage; that is, declined by a publisher. My plan is to post an update here whenever I get an official "no" from a publisher, while keeping all names anonymous. In this instance, the editor was extremely kind, reading the entire manuscript and giving me his decision and constructive criticism in only about nine hours. He also said it was the first time he had received an over-the-transom (that is, unsolicited) manuscript, which is certainly some sort of distinction. Onward.
Wheatyard: more unconscious influences
Several years ago I posted about unconscious literary influences - specifically, bits of Kent Haruf's Plainsong - that somehow snuck into my novel-in-progress, Wheatyard. The Haruf influences were relatively minor. But when I read Joe Pintauro's 1988 Algren essay just last week, I was floored by this passage that describes Algren's house in Sag Harbor:
Almost every inch of wall space was covered with heavy framed homemade collages consisting of old headlines, letters, clippings, and photos depicting the recent history of the world in terms of rape, war, sports, violence, literature, and art. Framed photographs, paintings, and documents hung from thick nails that bristled the walls. At the foot of the stairs was a huge blowup of the famous photograph of a Vietnamese girl, doused with napalm and running toward the camera screaming. Nearby, another blowup depicted a man from Bangladesh carrying his wife, who looked as if she had been beaten or raped. From the walls stared D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Abraham Lincoln: "The family heirloom is that Lincoln — my grandmother saved that. It was from Lincoln's assassination. She was in New York at the time. Oh, I’ve got stuff don’t have room for," he said in all innocence. "I’ve got almost all the wall space used up that I can." Only the corner where he kept his desk and typewriter was spartan and clean.
The plastered-wall aspect of Algren's house is heavily echoed by Wheatyard's living room, which is similarly covered with magazine advertisements, studio photos of old movie actors, German Expressionist artworks and the like. But the strange thing is that until I read Pintauro's description of Algren's house last week, I had absolutely no recollection of it. I certainly hadn't read Pintauro's piece before.
The only place I could have possibly read that description was from Bettina Drew's autobiography of Algren, A Life On the Wild Side. I checked my copy, and discovered that Drew had indeed quoted from the Pintauro passage, though I hadn't remembered that at all. So while I hadn't read the biography since around 1998, I didn't write my own description of Wheatyard's living room until 2005 or 2006. And yet somehow Pintauro's description of Algren's house (via Drew) must have subconsciously stayed with me all that time, and finally resurfaced as I wrote about Wheatyard's own eccentric dwelling, years later. Odd how the mind works.
Milestone is finally reached
Wheatyard is finished. (Or momentarily finished, until some editor starts tearing it apart.) I first started writing the book in late 2005, and just this morning, sitting in a drafty corridor in Union Station, I typed in the final edits. I didn't even mind the cold. When I stepped outside the sun was shining and I didn't mind the cold there either. I'm relieved and maybe even a little proud of myself for getting this done at last. Soon I'll start hunting for publishers, but for now I'm savoring the moment.
What I'm writing
I'm finishing up the fourth draft of my novel-in-progress, Wheatyard. For almost three years now I've been carrying a hard copy of the manuscript (bound in a navy blue Mead binder) to and from work in my messenger bag, for it to be handy should the editing whim strike me while I'm riding the train. That copy is now heavily marked up, and also supplemented by a newer notebook where I've been jotting ideas and longer revisions as they've come to me. During the past few months I've been transcribing all of those edits into a new Word file on my laptop, but even seeing all those words on a screen hasn't prevented me from feeling (undoubtedly aided by the constant presence of that messy hard copy and notebook) that the book is still an unruly mess that's far from completion.
That is, until this morning. I'm still working on one critical section (in the second-to-last chapter, and what I think of as "the revelation scene"), which I wanted to print out in order to do further revisions. However, our home printer recently ran out of ink, so I emailed the document to myself so I could print it out at the office. (Relax, Employer, it's only ten pages and not the entire manuscript.) On the train this morning, while checking email on my iPhone I came upon that self-sent message, and opened up the Word file. And up it popped, looking neat and tidy and not unlike several published ebooks that I've been perusing on my phone.
Immediately it occurred to me that, indeed, this does look like a book. And reading through it, the writing is good. GOOD. Not perfect yet, but good. I now realize that I'm a lot closer to finishing this book than I had assumed. In another month it should be ready to send to publishers. Hurray!
Hüsker Dü did the job last evening, and I eked out three or four pages of line edits. Not a major accomplishment, but at least it's a start. Slow and steady wins the race, right?
What I'm writing
My weekdays give me two hour-long blocks of down time: the train ride to and from work, morning and evening. Mornings I've set aside for reading, as then I seem to be at my sharpest and most refreshed, which I need to fully engage with serious fiction. But when I'm tired I can't really focus well enough to read, which is why I've devoted my evening train ride to writing, which is a less passive and more mentally engaging pastime. The evening train is also essentially the only time I write, since when I'm home in the evenings and on weekends I focus on family time instead of the relative isolation that writing requires. (Yes, I'm surrounded by others on the train, but I keep totally to myself and have no "train buddies.")
Since my last update on my progress on Wheatyard (a post which seems, when I read it now, overly self-congratulatory and/or self-pitying), I've done almost no work on it. This despite originally wanting to have this draft finished (and readied for submission to publishers) by the end of December, and then (when that didn't happen) the end of March. What little writing I've managed during the past month was a flash fiction piece which, due to its brevity and derivative structure, didn't really require that much effort. The rest of the time I've squandered playing euchre on my phone, browsing The Reader, or napping, which puts me no closer to getting Wheatyard published than I was before. I might even be further away now, as what little momentum I had achieved a month ago was soon left behind.
None of this latest update is at all intended as self-pity, and I hope it doesn't come across that way. I'm just trying to impart what an ongoing struggle this book has been. Inevitably I have my sights on newer, fresher story concepts that I want to pursue, but I know that if I don't show any ability to finish a book - and Wheatyard, despite its stagnation, is the closest I've ever come to finishing - then thinking of other books is totally pointless.
This week I'm trying another tack. Over the weekend I burned three heavy albums onto my iPod - Hüsker Dü's The Living End (live shows from their final tour, in 1987), Minor Threat's Complete Discography and Sonic Youth's Dirty. Those albums are pretty out of character with the lighter, poppier stuff I usually listen to, and I thought it might jar me out of my evening-train rut - not only keeping me awake, but also away from euchre and focused on writing. Those three bands brought such power and passion to their art, and if I can inject even a tenth of that into my writing, it might be enough to get this book finished. We'll see.
What I'm writing
I'm currently in the fourth draft of my novel, Wheatyard. Until recently, the latest revisions have gone well - the existing narrative has been significantly tightened up, while several new sections have been added that provide a clearer view of the narrator. (Thus correcting one of the biggest flaws of the earlier drafts - the focus was too much on the protagonist, Wheatyard, while the narrator was too thinly drawn.)
I've now fully revised five of the six chapters, but have been intentionally writing around (that is, avoiding) the fifth chapter. That one is the longest and thorniest chapter in the book, when Wheatyard finally reveals details about his personal life and his past, which the narrator has been tentatively seeking out for the entire book to that point. Before the holidays I sketched out that chapter, focusing on its key points and identifying parts that could be trimmed or eliminated entirely. Right now the chapter is much too long, wordy and redundant, and needs a lot of intense work. Then during the holidays I set the manuscript aside, partly to take a breather but mostly because I wasn't totally sure I was ready to plunge into heavy revision.
Last night, on the train home, I finally dove in. And I hit bottom. Though I had a sense of what needed to be done, I had little idea of how to go about it. I read through my sketch notes again and again, trying to decide what needed to be cut. I went back and forth between the manuscript and my handwritten notes, which literally required juggling while sitting in a tight train seat crowded by the stranger in the next seat, a woman whose handbag, for further discomfort, was pressed against my hip. As I struggled to organize my thoughts, I accidentally dropped my pen into the narrow gap between the seat and wall, and then later, as frustration mounted further, a stack of looseleaf sheets fell out of the manuscript cover and scattered on the floor. I picked them up, swearing. I was utterly, completely overwhelmed. I shoved all my papers together, stacked them on my lap, folded my arms across my chest, leaned back and closed my eyes, at that moment not caring if I worked on this novel - now five years in the making - ever again.
I stayed that way for several minutes, trying to calm myself - not calm enough to resume writing, but just to feel like a normal person again. Then, to my surprise, when the train's first stop was announced the woman stood and headed toward the exit. I opened my eyes as she departed, and wondered if she was truly leaving, or just tossing something in the garbage or needing to use the restroom. But when she stopped to wait in the line of departing passengers, I realized I had the seat to myself. I shoved my messenger bag to the other seat, leaned my elbow on it and stretched out, cracking open the manuscript again. I was still on edge, but that brief pause and the extra room changed things just enough. I also thought it was best to ignore the big picture for the time being, and instead of thinking about theme and major cuts, I focused completely on line editing - deleting phrases, changing verbs, all the detail work that the manuscript would eventually need anyway. And I made progress, slow but steady.
When the train reached my stop, I packed up and departed, and even the bracing cold outside was unable to dampen my mood. As I walked to my car I felt much better about things - about both the novel's potential and my general self - and decided that I could keep the writing going for a while longer yet.
Pretty...oh, so pretty...
That's three copies of the latest (third) draft of Wheatyard, just back from the printer. Once I find some envelopes I'll be mailing them off to three trusted readers who I'm hoping will be as brutally honest as I need them to be.
Wheatyard - Small Edits and Big Edits
I'm working my way through the third draft of Wheatyard. As of this morning, I'm finished with what I call the "small edits" - tweaking words and phrases, adding a sentence here and there, fixing minor inconsistencies and streamlining the narrative.
Now it's on to the "big edits" - major revisions and additions that didn't occur to me until this most recent re-reading of the manuscript. One of these is the narrator's attitude toward the small town in which Wheatyard, the protagonist, lives. The narrator is a grad student in his final days of college town life, soon to return to the big city of Chicago. While he admires the simplicity of Wheatyard's town, he also sees its shortcomings - notably the small-mindedness and insularity of its inhabitants. But re-reading the manuscript, I was struck by how much my narrator, while considering small-town life, veered from admiration to condescension and back again. One day he was seeing something he really liked, while another day he was bitterly critical. The narrator's attitude is one aspect of the book that is in need of significant refinement.
Another thing I need to develop further is Wheatyard's relationship with his older sister, which was once close but by the time of the story has become completely non-existent. As it stands right now, the story doesn't at all address why the sister suddenly disappeared from Wheatyard's life. Julie was kind enough to point this out after she read the second draft, and it's something I definitely need to fix.
But the work is progressing very nicely, and I expect to have the third draft finished by the end of June. I've already lined up one writer friend, one whose judgment I greatly respect, to read the manuscript, and I'm soliciting a few others. If all goes to plan I'll have the final draft done by the end of this year and ready to send out to publishers. I hope.
Wheatyard - Unconscious Influences
I just started reading a book that I've owned for more than three years, whose first chapter brought me an oddly pleasant pang of recognition. The book is Plainsong, Kent Haruf's critically acclaimed novel of life in a small Colorado town. Our local Starbucks has a book case which the store encourages customers to permanently take books from, provided that the customers donate a book of their own to the shelf. Sometime in mid-2005, I visited that Starbucks with my family, having brought along another book which I had started, not enjoyed at all and then abandoned, and I figured I'd give that book a chance at finding a more welcoming home than my own. I deposited the book on the shelf and was quite pleased to see Plainsong, which I had been meaning to read for some time. I read the first chapter as we savored our coffee, then I took the book home, shelved it and didn't finally return to it until yesterday.
The first chapter of Plainsong involves a father, two sons and an all-but-invisible mother who live on the outskirts of the small town of Holt. Their house stands directly opposite a set of railroad tracks, on the very sensibly named Railroad Street. When I read this chapter yesterday (for the second time, the first having been at Starbucks in 2005), it suddenly seemed very familiar, and for very good reason.
I started writing Wheatyard in November 2005, several months after reading the first chapter of Plainsong. The eponymous protagonist of Wheatyard just so happens to live - you guessed it - on the outskirts of a small town, directly opposite from the railroad tracks, on Railroad Street. (Albeit childless and unmarried, in Central Illinois and not Colorado.) Although the similarities between Wheatyard and Plainsong end right there, I find it very interesting that these fairly minor elements of Plainsong found their way, unconsciously, into Wheatyard. Until yesterday I had completely forgotten that first chapter, and had absolutely no idea that Haruf's book had at all influenced my writing of Wheatyard. But the influence is definitely there, although to a very small degree.
Other than the name Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard (which my daughter Maddie made up) I have had really no idea where the concept of Wheatyard came from. At the outset, I simply reasoned that anyone with such an odd name had to be quite an eccentric, so I just started with the idea of an eccentric protagonist and improvised from there. Or that was what I presumed to be the extent of influence, until yesterday. Now that I recognize the fact that I borrowed some basic story elements from Plainsong, I realize there is undoubtedly a myriad of similar influences that went into the creation of Wheatyard, most of which I'm still only vaguely aware of. I expect the revelation of other influences in the future will be a similarly rewarding experience.
Wheatyard - The Epigraph
I have mixed feelings about epigraphs. When used appropriately, they effectively convey and summarize the author's thoughts about the work - but when misued, they can come across as pretentious and desperate invocations of earlier classics, as if the author is saying, for example: "By quoting from Milton, I am insisting that my book is every bit as great as Paradise Lost."
Erring on the side of caution and wanting to completely avoid the latter case, at first I gave no thought whatsoever to an epigraph for my novella-in-progress, Wheatyard. I finished the first draft last spring, epigraph-less, but then during my Summer of Classics I happened to read Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, and was struck by this passage from the narrator's introduction:
Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.
I immediately saw the obvious (and, I hope, non-pretentious) parallel between Bartleby and Wheatyard. Both protagonists are mysterious, idiosyncratic individuals who have mostly withdrawn from society and want to live their lives entirely on their own terms. Both interact with society only to meet their most basic needs - Bartleby for employment (and a clandestine place to sleep), Wheatyard for outlets willing to publish his fiction. And both Bartleby the Scrivener and Wheatyard are narrated by individuals who discretely and over-cautiously seek to find out the truth about the protagonists - tiptoeing around the periphery of the protagonists' lives without directly confronting them to get an immediate answer to the mystery.
Obviously, I could write for centuries and never achieve the status of Melville, and hope that in choosing this epigraph I'm not being too presumptuous. I'm doing so because Bartleby's sad story is very much reflected in the life I've conjured up for Elmer Glaciers Wheayard, and not because my writing in any way approaches the greatness of Melville. I'm merely standing on the shoulders of giants.
Wheatyard - Another Milestone
I've reached another milestone - the second draft of my novella Wheatyard is now complete, with the edits typed up, the whole thing printed up and bound, and handed off to my wife Julie for her thoughtful but tough assessment. The manuscript weighs in at 91 double-spaced pages, and about 38,000 words which, at an estimated 300 words per published page, would equate to 129 words in final book form. (War and Peace, it ain't.) As soon as I've absorbed Julie's thoughts and impressions I'll start in on the third draft which, when complete, I plan to distribute it to a few writer friends whose opinions I greatly respect, for further feedback. I'm planning on finishing the third draft by April and if everything still looks positive at that that time, I'll start to seriously evaluate potential publishers. Right now I have a few dream publishers in mind, none of whom I realistically expect to take a flyer on a first-time novelist such as myself. I'm sure I'll have to aim lower than that upper echelon, although I still might send them manuscripts on the proverbial wing and prayer.
If you're at all interested in how this book has progressed, I've created a new index, the very imaginatively named Wheatyard, which compiles all of my past references to the book. The past references are a bit sketchy, I'll admit, but now that the book is becoming more of a viable entity, I plan to comment on it here more regularly, and also publish some excerpts for your reading indulgence.
Despite my enthusiastic participation during the past five years, I've opted out of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year. The past five Novembers have left me with three unfinished novels, two finished stories ("Immortality" and "Ectoplasm", both of which have been published) and two unfinished stories. Rather than add a fourth unfinished novel to my inventory, I'm instead working on my most advanced novel, Wheatyard, which I started during NaNoWriMo 2004. Presently I'm typing up the hand-edits of the second draft which, once completed, I'll hand off to Julie for a close reading.
NaNoWriMo has been a great experience. It really gets you in the habit of writing every day and finally starting a book you've been kicking around in your head for years but never put to paper, and getting the story written without dawdling over rewrites and research. And it also makes you feel like you're part of a big community of fellow writers, all of whom are as overwhelmed by the process as you are. Writing is such a solitary pursuit that it's easy to feel like you're all alone, and NaNoWriMo helps you realize that you're not. There's thousands of people just like you, which is really nice to know.
If I'm ever going to get a novel published, though, I really have to finish one first, so I thought it best not to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Maybe next year.
Writing in Progress
Another update on various writings which are floating around, both in manuscript and in my mind.
New to the list:
Emboldened by the publication of "Deep in the Northwoods", I'm resuscitating my project of stories based on Farm Security Adminstration photographs, under the working title This Land Was Made for You and Me (with a nod to Woody Guthrie). Half a dozen stories are written so far, with at least another ten needed to make a decent collection. The stories are a bit on the short side, but I'm planning to publish them accompanied by the corresponding photos (all of which are in the public domain), so I'm counting on the pictures themselves telling a good portion of the story. Worth a thousand words, right?
Still on the list:
As I previously mentioned, I've finished the handwritten edits on the second draft of the novella Wheatyard, which are now waiting to be typed up.
Once I finished reading that second issue of Steampunk Magazine, my early interest in The Engine Driver quickly drooped. But I just picked up the first issue of the magazine, so maybe the piece will come to life again soon. Still, though, it's another novella, so I probably won't start writing this in earnest until the second draft of Wheatyard is finished.
Removed from the list:
The story "The Fable of the Small 'Suburb' Which Aspired to Be More Than It Was." As I suggested last time, the corner of my mind that contains this story has been gathering cobwebs. Best to set this story aside. Maybe listening to some more of Ron Evry's wonderful George Ade podcasts will bring the tale back to life someday.
Yesterday I finished the second draft of my novella, Wheatyard, and I'm pretty pleased with what I've accomplished. I'm generally good at starting things but not so good at finishing them, so while writing the first draft came relatively easy, knuckling down and revising the entire thing took some rather concerted effort. So finishing the second draft feels like an even greater accomplishment than finishing the first one.
Now I need to type up my handwritten edits into polished form, and then hand it off to my wife Julie, whose opinion (literary and otherwise) I cherish more than any other. She's only read a few fragments of the story, several years ago, and I'm very eager to see what she thinks of the whole thing. Once the third draft is finished - I'm guessing it will be about six months from now - I'll probably recruit a few other readers to look it over and give me more feedback.
Writing in Progress
New to the list:
I've just started to mentally sketch out a novella called The Engine Driver, which will be set in the Wisconsin wilderness near the end of the Civil War. The story is inspired by steampunk without actually being steampunk per se - it will be very much grounded in realism, with little or no sci-fi/fantasy elements. I just finished reading the second issue of SteamPunk Magazine, which I greatly enjoyed (more on this soon) and which is really stoking (pun intended) my imagination. And I just bought a new composition book to write my first draft in, which is always a sign that I'm getting serious.
Still on the list:
I'm halfway through the second draft of The Wheatyard Chronicles, and am already foreseeing the need to refine the narrative to focus even more on the title character and less on the first-person narrator (which is loosely based on myself).
I've kind of set aside the story "The Fable of the Small 'Suburb' Which Aspired to Be More Than It Was", and might have to remove the story from the list for a while. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this one. I've pretty much been writing it on the fly, without any definite idea of how the story will be resolved, or even which characters to focus on. This might be one of those story ideas that collapses and is swept into the Dustbin of Good Intentions.
Removed from the list:
I finished a flash fiction story called "One Evening in St. Paul" for this contest at Eximious Press. Alas, the story just missed being shortlisted, garnering a special Honorable Mention. (The editor really liked the story, but I'm guessing it was too long, at more than twice the requested word count.) I'll post the story here over the weekend. The story is nothing earth-shattering, but it's a gentle little piece that I really enjoyed writing.
"Writing in Progress"
I've added a new section to my sidebar, called "Writing in Progress." This will give you a hint of what writing I'm currently working on - or should be working on. Though I probably won't formally announce any periods of slackness, if I don't update that section for a few weeks you'll know that I've been irresponsibly neglecting my writing. Currently underway:
The Wheatyard Chronicles: My novella in progress, which I started writing during NaNoWriMo 2005 but didn't finish the first draft of until a few months ago. I'm about one-third of the way through the second draft.
"The Fable of the Small 'Suburb' Which Aspired to Be More Than It Was": A satirical short story inspired by the antic writings of George Ade and, as I've only just realized after re-reading Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis as well.
As-yet-untitled flash fiction for Eximious Press: The story, tentatively called "One Evening in St. Paul", is the latest in a series of stories I've written which were inspired by old photographs or ephemera. I finished the first draft on the train this morning, and am pretty happy with it so far.
If you notice that this section of the sidebar hasn't changed for weeks or months, do me a big favor and send me a nasty email, telling me to get the lead out, get cracking, etc.
Tale From the Crypt
Like a zombie arising and staggering to its feet, my novella-in-hiatus Wheatyard, which I've barely touched since late 2005, has suddenly sprung back to life. I finally wrote the final chapter on the flight back from Hilton Head on Saturday, and this morning I finished off another key new passage. Now I need to type up the new sections and add them to the old manuscript before diving in for a very close reading of the entire mess, so I can determine whether or not there's a feasible book in there somewhere.
I'm crossing both my fingers and my toes.