A graph showing how writers learn.

by Hugh Gilmore

I’m building up to telling you about the mysterious woman who changed me and then left without telling me her real name. But I must first let you see why she affected me so.

I’ll begin with a warning to those of you planning to write a novel for the first time: The learning curve is steep and merciless. Assuming you do, you will eventually be cruising along, well into writing your book, proud as heck that you’ve stuck to task. You’ll have 200 pages written, maybe, but suddenly you feel you’d best stop cruising along and listen to that whisper in your writer’s ear: – somewhere along the way you learned a technique you wish you had known when you started. No, strike that, not “wished” you knew – something you should have known.

For example: Point of view (POV). If you have a first-person POV, how does your narrator know what is in someone else’s mind? Or what that person did last night? Another example: How to write “a scene.” Every scene should have its own tension if you expect people to read it. Another: Exposition. How do you let the reader know what someone looks like, or what his home looks like without interrupting the narrative?

When you first realize you’ve improved your management of these techniques, you’ll think you should go back to the beginning and rewrite. Get it right. Come on, just do it. But, then again … maybe you should finish the next hundred or two-hundred pages. You knew you were going to revise the manuscript, so let’s push on. Sadder-but-wiser,-etc., but push on. So you do.

(My poet friends will protest this, but I’ll say it anyway: Writing a poem seems like running a dash when compared to the novelist’s marathon. I had to restrain a laugh when I heard some poets on a recent panel, asked if they wrote everyday, reply that they’d like to, but found it hard to find the time.)

You push on with your novel – using your new knowledge, only to discover at the 250-page mark that you’ve learned more than you knew fifty pages ago. You now have 200 pages of Rotten and 50 pages of Rotten-plus-one, but are about to plow onward at a Rotten-plus-two level. So it goes, up to “The End” as you create your unevenly constructed book. If you were a first-time carpenter and this were a house, the final add-on shed you built might seem okay, but the rest of the place is ready to fall down, taking the shed with it.

That’s okay, you knew you had to revise. You’re willing to do that. Gung ho! Only, you’ll face the same learning curve problem again. Each time. Your start realizing that perfection is unattainable. Even adequacy seems overly ambitious. This is obviously not a race that goes to the swift.

I can’t tell you how lonely-making this Sisyphean process is. You’ve already committed a year or two of your life (or more) to a project no one else cares if you finish, and if you look up you’ll see that, well, you’ll have to rewrite this hundred-page section, and that will take, maybe, three months. So, yes, you’ll start on Labor Day and finish the “final” rewrite … hmm … maybe by Christmas.

And that’s what I did with my latest book, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour.” Big mistake.

The book was originally called “Garner” and the title character was based on a real person, an explorer and gorilla hunter named Richard L. Garner (1848-1920). I borrowed his name and many useful details of his life, but invented the plot I stuck him in and the people I surrounded him with.

I began writing the book 12 years ago and “finished” it after three years. After spending almost two years trying to find an agent, I had given up on publishing “Garner” and put it in a drawer while I worked on other writing projects.

In the years that followed, when I thought about that book, I thought the story had good scenes but was too talky. It also suffered from being written with too great a dependence on backstory. I’d put Garner on a train in the first scene and had his ride interrupted by people whose motives could only be known through their histories. The narrative flow was seriously flawed.

Last summer, however, while vacationing in Maine, hands behind my head while lying in a hammock, I decided to give the book another try. I now knew how to publish independently and had some sense of how to market a book. There were other projects I favored more, but, thinking through the timing of them all, I decided I could simply take time out and spend Sept. 1 to New Year’s rewriting “Garner.” The new organization seemed simple: I’d take all the other characters’ backstories and present them chronologically. Then I’d put Garner on the train and let them all mix it up.

Shouldn’t be too hard, I thought. Rewrite every page of a 300-page book in four months. Seventy-five pages a month. A little less than three pages a day. I had to push, but I made the deadline. In fact, by Dec. 21 I’d sent the manuscript to the publisher, designed a cover for it, written my publicity blurbs, and created a Kindle e-book version. To top it all off, I’d been offered the date of Feb. 22 to have a book-launch party at Musehouse, Chestnut Hill’s fabulous literary arts center. Gateway to the stars! Top of the world, Ma!

Boy did I screw up. Please accept that as the first of several apologies I owe people.

Hugh Gilmore’s best-selling book is “Malcolm’s Wine: A Noir Crime Novel of Rare Books, Vintage Wine, and Sneaky People.” Available now only through Amazon.com.

– Part 1

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