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On getting out a first novel

by Frank on January 29th, 2011

I’ve had a fair amount of work published in literary magazines over the years, and I’ve also had the good fortune to get a couple of non-fiction books published, and a collection of stories and poems as well. But Final Mercy is the first novel to stumble out of my office into the daylight, and it marked a real milestone in my writing life.

I’d been trying to write one for ages. My first attempt was during the summer of 1978, while circumnavigating the United States in a VW bug, with a digression for the heck of it down to Chihuahua, Mexico, though the journey’s purpose was to visit potential residency programs to attend after I graduated from med school the following spring. When it was my wife’s turn to drive, I would scribble in notebooks and by the time we got back to Rochester, I’d finished something that wasn’t very long and wasn’t very good, but that whet my appetite completely, and over the next couple of decades I accumulated several more novel-length drafts that never went any farther, until I finally decided to go for the goal post with Final Mercy, come hell or high water.

Novels are a much greater challenge to write, in my experience, than non-fiction works of equal length. You must make up characters and a plot, and you must be continually mindful of things like point-of-view, pacing, dialogue, consistency of detail and the balance of scene and summary. And unlike non-fiction, where you write a proposal, nail down a publishing contract, and only then do the heavy lifting (as had been the case with my two non-fiction books) novels are usually taken to completion with absolutely no promise of publication. You must write for years on hope alone. But so what? Hope is powerful within all of us.

Final Mercy’s road has been so long and tortuous that finally lifting a copy out of the shipping box in September of 2010 was almost anticlimactic. I had thought up the initial idea about eight years ago, then spent a year generating a rough draft. I do mean rough. After that came several years of re-drafting and polishing, until I finally had a version I wasn’t embarrassed to show an agent. Then followed six to eight months of rejection letters, until finally one of the smaller independent houses I’d sent a query to many months before—Zumaya Publications—asked to see the entire manuscript.

It’s true, I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble by going the self-publishing route, which is very easy nowadays—you just pay them and they publish you. That works for some writers, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s necessarily a bad thing at all, especially if you can get some good editing help. But I wanted the validation that only comes from having someone else believe in your novel’s value enough to take a stake in its success. Zumaya may be a small house, but it pays royalties and doesn’t ask for a subsidy. It makes its money, in other words, only by selling your book.

I was floored and delighted when Zumaya sent back an acceptance letter a few months later. But of course the story doesn’t end there. Final Mercy then spent almost two years in a prepublication queue, awaiting the final edit.

I’d have to say that the last stage—the final editing—was the most exciting leg of the entire journey. Liz Burton, the one-woman-powerhouse behind Zumaya, turned out to be a splendid editor and mentor. We did the work on-line in real time through Google Documents over a period of several weeks, she in Texas and me in New York, and I can’t tell you how much I learned about craft.

So there it is—you spend vast amounts of time creating something designed for a reader to devour in the shortest time possible. The better your work, the faster they consume it. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and I would do the whole thing again in a heartbeat—in fact, am doing it right now with a sequel.

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