Sunday, July 16, 2017

Rethinking The Secret Year

The political situation the past year or two has me thinking about my first novel in a new light.

I wrote The Secret Year during the mid-to-late 2000s; it sold in 2008 but didn't appear on shelves until 2010. At the time I wrote it, I thought of the events in the story as occurring at any time from 1996 to 2006. It was just before the internet and smartphones became ubiquitous, when a family landline was not as endangered a thing as it has become today. Were I to rewrite it for a 2017 setting, I would probably tweak the technology a bit.

But if I were to write it today, I think I would probably have to address politics, even if only briefly. The fictional town where my characters lived was based on real towns I saw in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and other states. It was a town where blue-collar work had once brought in a good enough living for people to buy their own houses, but where the old industries had since collapsed. Where the American dream had come true, but then vanished. I wrote of the abandoned houses, the unemployment, the money squeezes. And I wrote of the wealthier people who had moved into the town and built their fancy houses on the highest ground with the best views. I wrote of the clash between these two groups of residents.

I didn't imagine the kinds of clashes that would play out in national elections. And I find myself thinking back on that book now, asking myself who my characters' parents would vote for, and why, and what new divisions might appear in the community. Sometimes I wish I could rewrite the book now to explore some of those questions, and sometimes I'm glad my story appeared before it could be viewed through the lens of current politics. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

The third book

The second book is supposed to be the tough one. Fraught with pressure and uncertainty, with the glow of first publication wearing off, it’s a notoriously difficult hurdle ... and yet it wasn’t that way for me. My second novel (Try Not to Breathe) was, and still is, one of the pieces of writing I’m proudest of. And it was, if not easy, less difficult to write than most of my other work.

For me, the third book carried all the baggage and trouble that the sophomore effort usually does. I despaired over every editorial letter. Many nights I left the computer thinking, “I quit; it’s over,” only to try again the next day. For that reason, for a long time I saw a shadow over that book. Remembering the struggle, I thought of it as lesser than its siblings. 

And then, at some point, I reread Until It Hurts to Stop. And I loved it. I reconnected with the characters, with the theme that had driven me to write it in the first place. My behind-the-scenes anguish was not on the page. The pages reflected only the outcome of the editorial decisions, not the doubts and debates that happened before those choices were made.

It reminded me that people don’t see what you leave on the cutting-room floor. They don’t see the endless drafts, the revision letters, the raw notes. A scene that took you a month to write may be gulped down by the reader in a few minutes. Its smoothness is possible only because of the trouble you took; it’s the product that counts. The reader doesn’t know that your dog died during the writing of Chapter Five, or that your kid had the flu and you wrote Chapter Eleven on no sleep, or that you rewrote Chapter Three seventeen times. The reader never saw the two characters you deleted and the twenty pages you lopped off at the end. 

The story—thank goodness—has a life apart from all that, a self-contained existence between its covers. It has been polished to its best form.