Just published: My Three Suicides: A Success Story...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A complete idiot and four readers go into a bar . . .

By Hugh Gilmore

Boy, do I have a story to tell you ...

           March 11, 2009. By the strictest standards, a "real" novelist is a published novelist. 
            Having written a novel, but not sure what to do next, I bought The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published. I know that sounds like a laugh line, but it's true. I've read the whole darned thing. I'll tell you about the advanced parts in another column sometime.
            Presently I am at the pupa stage, having a 312-page, two-inch-thick wad of good intentions and hard work in hand. After 14 months of effort, every page has been rewritten and revised many times. Every sentence has been considered and reconsidered till I reached that magical aesthetic state called "going bats."  When you go bats you start wondering if every single word should be replaced by a different, better, word. I was like a kid sitting on the beach, taking a grain of sand, putting it in my bucket, dumping it, putting another piece of sand where the first one was, and so on. So many wonderful words in the English language. La la la!
            I'd gone as far as I could on my own. I thought I'd written a good story that was fast-paced and amusing. It also had occasionally good insights and some fresh language, even the occasional apt metaphor. But, la la la, who was I to know?
            I decided that before I shot my arrow in the air I should get a GPS. I asked four people whose opinions I respected to read the book and tell me where it sounded confused, inconsistent, improbable, boring, repetitious, repugnant, or just plain slow. If they found it wonderful, that was okay with me too, but I was more anxious to know where I could improve it. They all agreed and by e-mail we made appointments to meet and talk. I had never sat down and had a conversation with three of them before. A brief report on those talks follows.
I listen attentively as the feedback begins
            On Sunday, I met Margaret (Peg) Smith at the Hill Tavern at 3 p.m. Peg is over 40 and manages Garden Gate Antiques. She's led an interesting life, including an extended residence in Bermuda and has worked in the food service business with her husband, Edward, a chef. Until recently I'd known her only through e-mails we've exchanged for two years, originally in response to my Local column. Many of my best reading suggestions have come from her. She read the book in five days and e-mailed me:
            "Wow! What a ride.  Did not want it to end.  But it has, so best we get together to talk about it since it's not over for you. Let me know what works. Peg

            We talked till nearly seven.
             On Monday I was supposed to meet Bethany Maloof at Hill Tavern at 3 p.m. Bethany is a 32-year old hair stylist who works at Salon 90 on Bethlehem Pike. Because of the snowstorm, our meeting was delayed until 7:30. Bethany is a University of Maryland graduate in Business. Her specialty was advertising, but she grew tired of the business world and decided to make her living doing something she enjoyed. She's articulate, confident, and insightful about serious fiction. Salon 90 seems more like a literary salon when we talk about books and other heads lift out from under dryers and join the conversation. She finished the book in seven days and wrote that she really enjoyed my book and looked forward to discussing it with me.
            On Tuesday night at 8:15, I met with Tim Moxey, again at the Hill Tavern. Tim lives in Chestnut Hill and teaches English at Lower Moreland High School, where he also coaches several sports. We had met casually when he was a customer in my used book shop, but had never sat down and talked before. About eight days after I left the book inside his storm door, he wrote:
            Thanks to a snow day, I just finished your book. I really enjoyed it. And I enjoyed the chance to comment on it. I need some time to type up my notes for you.

            By now I felt the management at Hill Tavern was probably sick of seeing me sitting at a table for hours with a MS and a different person each day, a kind of Ancient Mariner haranguing a different innocent victim every day. But, of course, the staff was gracious, as always, and I recommend that cozy place to any and all seekers of wisdom, truth and good draft beer.
            Tim is a youthful, athletic 42. To my surprise, he told me he holds a Master's in Creative Writing and that his thesis was a novel. Since he's been through the process himself, he understood the technicalities of point of view, pacing, character development and plot structuring and very kindly shared them with me.           
            On Thursday I accepted my friend Shawn Hart's invitation to discuss the book at his house, over the kitchen table. Shawn looks younger than the fifty-plus years he claims and has led an interesting life. Among other things he was a merchant marine, an editor, and the Tour Manager for the jazz group, Weather Report. He works now as a free-lance writer and is putting together a memoir/personal essay book of his experiences in recent years. Our discussion was long and occasionally heated since most of our focus concerned character analysis.
            Before the meetings I figured that any flaws all four of the readers noticed were indeed things I needed to fix. The rest of it I'd have to sort out on my own.
            So what did they have to say? I wish I had space to tell you each reader's thoughts in detail. Everyone agreed that once the book got going, it became a page-turner. The characters were interesting, and each reader had a different favorite. The two men intensely disliked the protagonist, as he first appeared in the book, but liked him by the end. I was given very concrete suggestions about what to omit.
     Everyone thought the opening pages — which are absolutely crucial to sales if the author is an unknown — needed to be more dynamic. I need to work harder on combining exposition with action so the pace doesn't slow unless I intend it to. The sum effect of the process is that I need to revise the book, but now have a better idea why and how.
To get myself started, I went to Barnes & Noble on Thursday and read the opening pages of dozens of mysteries, thrillers, and mainstream novels, hoping to absorb the principles they had in common. Then it was back to work on Friday.
It takes an artist but a few seconds to have his or her painting seen, a musician the length of a song. The novelist must ask his audience for close to a full day's attention, with no guarantee it will be worth their time. This is my public thanks to my readers.




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