It’s been almost eight months since I finished the first edit of my new Chene trilogy, and I’m here to bear witness: No matter what anyone tells you about how hard writing is, it’s nothing compared to the months of not-writing that follow the completion of an unpublished new work.
In a proper life, I’d have started work on my next novel back on Aug. 9th, the day after I sold my final tomato of 2019 to a stranger named Delma, and four months and a half months after I “finished” editing the trilogy. I figure the market gardening season is about as much real-world time off as any working writer needs between books.
But then there I was in August, garden run riot, nothing but okra and limas to pick, endlessly suffering hot under stuffy cotton skies, and not a single writing prospect in sight. It depressed the life out of me.
This is the first fall I’ve passed without a book to write since 2015, and it feels like a squandered season. Janet set us up a table under the trees here in three years ago, and I took to writing under autumn leaves like a long-legged cat to a cardboard box.
Instead of writing, these days I’m “revising.” Not because I’m someone who can’t let well enough alone, but because I have friends who have been reading the books for me, and it’s my job to take their feedback and see if I can make the stories better.
And I’m revising, instead of querying agents, because after rejections from my two spring query-letter targets, I decided to improve my query game. I sent my only current query letter a month ago, and I won’t send my next one until I finish these reader revisions. That’s the deal I made with myself.
Which means I’m spending my favorite writing season revising text I’ve grown tired of grooming, all so I can set the trilogy aside and get back on the business of trying to convince strangers that I’m their next big payday.
People say that you’ve got to pay your dues. They don’t tell you that the actual writing doesn’t even count toward the hard part.
I blame John Steinbeck
Those of you who’ve known me for a while understand that I’ve been working towards an improbable career as a fiction writer since I was a teenager. In middle school. In high school. In college.
I wrote my first short story when I was 13. It had something to with a space ship. But a year later I stumbled across a book by John Steinbeck, and Steinbeck was basically all I read between 1977 and 1980. Even during my first year of high school, when some mistake put me in the lowest of the school’s three tiers of classes, I knew what I wanted to be: A guy who wrote books.
Sure, I was unrealistic. Most people who want to make a living writing books don’t make a living writing books. That’s why most of my friends’ parents worked in textile mills. Until they all got laid off. And I figured I’d rather live and fail on my own terms, like John Steinbeck or Jack Kerouac, than get laid off from some mill job just three years ahead of my retirement.
I was a blue collar kid at a blue collar high school, and I could do the math. I understood I wasn’t going to finish some Ivy League college and lounge around stylish cafes in New York or Paris or London while I pondered the plot of my first literary breakthrough
Maybe I’d wind up writing books while I worked as a mechanic. Maybe I’d go to college on the GI Bill and write books while I worked at some job. But I’d get out in the world and I’d write books in my spare time about whatever I learned about life. It might take me longer to get there, but by Gawd, I was gonna get there.
Even if it took me a lifetime. Even if I didn’t break through until I was, like, you know, 35 years old.
So I wrote short fiction throughout my four-year Army enlistment, and I submitted one of those Army stories to the University of North Carolina’s student literary magazine a few weeks after I arrived. They published it. It seemed a good start, so I submitted another one.
They rejected it, and that sucked. But I was a 25-year-old tank sergeant training to become a newpaperman, not a creative writer. I understood that I’d have to devote myself exclusively to journalism for a few years regardless. Making my living writing fiction was still the goal, but it would have to wait until I built a news career first.
This wasn’t entirely by choice. I was six years into a shaky first marriage by the time I got my first reporting job in 1990, and our son was born just two months later. I didn’t attempt writing a novel for another three years, and after a few weeks of 4 a.m. writing alarms before 6 a.m. work shifts, I quit. Not only was it wearing me out, it wasn’t doing my marriage any favors, either.
But I didn’t give up. And a year after my first marriage ended, I married a writer — Janet Edens — in 1999.
Which is when everything changed.
A late start, in the margins
Jay Wentworth, my favorite professor from my years at Applachian State, offered Janet and me a rare chance to attend a student writers workshop in Midtown Manhattan with famous sci-fi/fantasy writer Orson Scott Card. This was in early 2001, before the towers came down, and there we were, in our late 30s, living hostel-style for a week in ASU’s New York Loft with a bunch of undergraduates. It remains one of our happiest memories.
I had to write something to bring to that workshop, and that story — the first short fiction I’d written since the Army — wound up becoming my first professionally published piece. I got short stories into three anthologies between 2002 and 2004 and achieved my first fiction goal: Membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
I wrote my first novel during that period, too, and — miraculously — by 2005 it had been recommended for publication by a New York acquiring editor. I was 42, and despite the unexpected setbacks I’d faced with that manuscript, I simply couldn’t believe my relatively swift good fortune.
But then the publishing house where I’d been recommended fired its president and her editorial staff en route to sudden bankruptcy, and just as swiftly as it had come, my good fortune receded.
I spent the next few years absorbed in what would become the social media revolution, and spent more than a year on the road as a pricey digital media consultant after quitting the news business in 2008. With all that going on, I was in my mid 40s before I revised that near-miss first manuscript into two shorter novels and started querying agents again. That went nowhere slowly, and I was in my late 40s by the time I’d finished my next novel.
So I was 50 years old when I finally gave up on finding an agent for anything I’d written that far and just self-published the lot on the Amazon Kindle Store in the fall of 2013. The indifference was deafening.
That might have been it for for me. I spent the next two years avoiding fiction whilst desperately trying to carve out a new career that might reliably pay the bills. When I wound up suddenly unemployed, again, just weeks after my 53rd birthday, I gotta admit: Things looked pretty bad.
At least from the outside. Because it didn’t take us too long to figure out that the creative life we wanted was finally within our reach — if we had the guts to grab it. Since we were longer tethered to Charleston by our now-grown kids, all we had to do was sell our Charleston house, leave our friends and family behind, and move to the Upstate farm Janet owned with her absentee father and sisters.
If we lived frugally, we’d make enough money from our existing client base to pay the bills without me working beyond market gardening and freelance gigs.
For the first time in my life, fiction would front and center.
The work itself
Janet and I arrived at stately Black Sheep Manor (a 1990s singlewide trailer) on July 31, 2016. After weeks of plotting and fretting, I started writing my next novel, Chene on Oct. 9. In mid December I threw out the three chapters I’d competed, and three weeks later I started over with a new concept for the book on Jan. 6th, 2017.
On July 28th, three days shy of our first anniversary on the farm, I decided that Chene wasn’t one book, but the first in a trilogy. And I finished the first draft of Chene, the Chene Trilogy’s first book, on Oct. 13th, 2017.
I began writing the second novel, Llyr, on Jan. 23, 2018, and had finished six chapters by early April. But with our first market garden season underway, writing took a back seat to growing and selling produce until the final week in July.
Nevertheless, I printed out the first draft of Llyr on Aug. 14, and had finished editing Llyr and re-editing Chene by the end of the month. I started writing the final novel, Gwynyr, exactly two weeks later, and completed my first draft in exactly four months: Jan. 14, 2019.
After weeks of editing with Armina Familar-Ragsdale and Janet, I stopped revising the trilogy on March 21st, 2019, and turned to the next task: Finding an agent. So there’s the life cycle of the Chene Trilogy: Oct. 9th, 2016, to March 21st, 2019. Three books, written, edited and revised to a reasonable standard, in less than 30 months.
Tom Petty: Right about the waiting
So I know what I want to be writing at the moment. But if I start writing it, I won’t be revising. And if I don’t finish revising, I won’t be querying agents. So it makes no sense to start writing Ouhasandan now. I have to do the hard part first.
Except this is what happens: I read the news, and then — like the 20-year newsman I was — I want to write about it. So there goes a few hours on Facebook. Or I’ll think about Columbus Day and an emergency panel will light up on my mental concentration control board that says “WRITE ABOUT THE INDIGENOUS APOCALYPSE.” So I’ll do that for a few hours.
Then that’s done, and I’m back to staring at the current draft of Llyr, which I’m raking for the umpteenth time, only this time I’m searching for some character tic that annoyed two of my readers. And I just don’t want to do that on this fall afternoon.
I want to be a writer again. I want to drag this raw material out of my head and bang it into something useful on my keyboard.
So I made a deal: One last time, Dan. You’ll write this one last essay, and then you’ll change the oil and filter on the car, and then you’ll do the same thing on the truck. You’ll replace the guts of the toilet. And you’ll plug the tire on the riding mower. And you’ll do the transmission service on the tractor. You’ll tune up the bikes and clean out the pole barn and order the winter fuel oil and do all the things you do in fall.
But you won’t write anymore.
Not until this is over. Not until you’ve found an agent for this work.
Not until. Not until.
Not until your life, finally, finally, finally.