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“Long Time Coming”

Long Time Coming

Cynthia’s Column, May 2009

I know a secret about many of you that you think no one knows.  Even your mother who asks you every few years, “Whatever happened to that novel you were writing?”  Or even “Are you still working on that book about..?”  Fill in the blank.  The secret is that yes you are still writing that book.  For quite a few of you, this book has been an active part of your mental and physical life for decades.  Many of you have book children in their teens and twenties.  Some of your literary offspring are old enough to be sprung right out of the comfy old nest.

I have good news for you.  One of your fellows has recently arrived on the literary scene with a first novel that is being touted as “thirty years in the making.”  That’s right.  Selden Edwards novel The Little Book took him more than thirty years to write and now that is being used as a positive factor.  A marketing plus.  An ad phrase:  “Thirty years in the making.”

The Little Book is a time travel yarn and I have to say, I didn’t love it, though critics and readers seem to.  Its main character is a middle-aged guy who used to be one of the best baseball players in history and then became a rock star.  I never bought this.  I don’t believe that guys like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron turn into Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page.  I believe they turn into gamblers or car dealership owners.  But rock stars?  Sorry.  And rockers as teens were in garages with greasy hair obsessing about chord changes and girls.  Not out on some sunny ball field throwing fast ones.  Drinking beer is about the only common ground I could come up with here.  That conceit was too big for me to swallow.

Selden Edwards is also being called “Twain-esque” or some other derivative of Mr. Clemens.  But Tom and Huck were regular boys.  They didn’t need to have the best fast ball on record to get us interested.  And Selden takes his whole yarn seriously.  Earnestly.  I need to stick up for Twain here.  No writing that is without humor should ever be called Twain-anything.

I strayed off my point a bit here, which was, that you no longer need to be embarrassed about how long this book is taking you to write.  I do want to encourage you, at the same time, to create a plan for finishing it.  Or at the very least write that query letter and polish the first fifty pages and begin sending it out.  You might be amazed how much faster writing occurs after someone in New York says, “Send me your manuscript.”  It can shave years off the process.

Give yourself a deadline.  An actual date.  Write it down on a card and post it on your computer.  “I will finish this book by October 23, 2009.”  Or whatever date you can believe in enough to write down.  Make it a stretch.  A miracle even.  If it is posted where you see it every day, it will continue to inform your subconscious creative mind that it’s time to start gearing up and delivering the goods here.

A book I thought was brilliant, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides was eleven years in the making.  Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full took him so long to finish that the world kept changing and he had to keep going back and updating things to keep it accurately contemporary.  The world is changing awfully fast.  Be careful not to get too caught up in fretting over these details.

Let me pause and say a word about perfectionism.  First, although I can speak to this, I don’t actually have it.  But I understand that most writers do.  You want to make your book perfect.  The bad news is that it is not possible.  You will never achieve this.  And neither will anyone else on earth.  One of the many reasons you should never go back and reread your work once it is in print, is that you’ll find things that can be improved on now that it’s too late to do anything about them.

Secondly, perfectionism can be cured or at least lived with.  Another motto which might be useful posted in your work space as is one I live by:  “My best is good enough.”  This doesn’t mean you won’t improve your work.  Or revise.  Your best fourth draft will be better than your best first draft.  But on any given day, your best is good enough.  Seriously.  I swear this is true.  Your best is good enough.

Talk about a long time coming, Alexandre Dumas has a new novel out.  No kidding.  Not the young one, the father.  Dumas pere.  It’s called The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon. (Sept. 2007)  I know what you’re thinking.  How can a guy come out with a new, never before published novel when he himself has been dead since 1870?

The book was serialized, a thousand pages of it, then Dumas died before he could finish it and it was never brought out in book form.  One of the top selling authors in the history of France and nobody bothers to print the book?  Dumas set out to write a novel for every era of French History from the Renaissance to his own time and the one missing piece to the puzzle was this book which covers Napoleon’s era.  Dumas’s own father’s time.  In fact A.D. himself at thirteen saw the great emperor twice.  In his carriage as he stopped to change horses on the way to the Battle of Waterloo, and again, as he stopped on his way back after that devastating defeat.

Dumas held Napoleon responsible for ruining and bankrupting his father who was one of Bonaparte’s generals.  He had a huge vested interest in telling this story, writing with great energy even on his death bed, creating this thousand pages of a sweeping novel in his last ten months of life.

So where was this novel lost for 125 years?  In the archives of the Biblioteque Nationale de Paris.  Right under millions of noses.  It was found by the Dumas scholar Claude Schopp while he was researching some far less important facts about Dumas’s life.  When Schopp realized what he was looking at, he said “I imagined myself as fortunate as if I had discovered El Dorado.”  In the literary world, it is the equivalent of the legendary lost city of gold.  The last chapters written were in longhand, not even printed in their serialized form.  I have not read to the end yet, but I am relishing it.

When I found out this book existed, I reserved it on the public library’s website.  They had a copy and I was the only one requesting it.  (One out of one.  Seriously?  Because I’m currently #72 of 89 on the waiting list for Dexter Season 2.)  After reading the 72 page introduction which recounted the discovery, I broke down and ordered my own trade paper copy online.  Also the hard back is too heavy to hold for long.

One of my fondest memories of my kids learning to read well enough to be transported into their own book worlds, was from Nick when he was around 7 or 8.  He looked up from his book and breathlessly said, “Mom!  You won’t believe what De-Artigan just did!” I didn’t have the heart to correct his pronunciation.  He was off adventuring with De-Artigan and who was I to interfere with the action?

It turns out that in real life miracles occur.  They may even abound.  How much time has passed is irrelevant.

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