Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Finished Books

Starting to get some nice early reviews on Book Blogs here and there.

Here's one.

And here's another.

I got the finished books recently and I'm still smiling. This is the first book I've ever written that has an index. I know that may not sound like much, but it pleases me no end. I feel like a grown-up now.

Writing Hit Lit was the most exhilarating and difficult challenge I've ever taken on. First there was the fact that this was new territory for me. No scenes, no dialog, no action, no character descriptions or descriptions of weather. No narrative.

I had to invent the structure from thin air. Figure out a way to take 20 years of notes and literally piles and piles of books that I'd notated and analyzed and reduce them to some coherent and lucid form. And I had to discover a voice.

A voice for non-fiction! It took me literally months of trial and error to find the sound I wanted. A tone that was not pedantic or professorial but that could communicate some fairly academic premises. Above all I didn't want the book to sound like a goddamn text book.

For assistance with that struggle, I reread some of the pieces I'd written for the Sun-Sentinel Sunshine Magazine many years ago, and that are collected in Hot Damn!

The tone in most of those pieces was wry and self-deprecating. Not an easy voice to sustain for a couple of hundred pages. So struggling with that, and trying to find the form of the book were the hardest early challenges.

But then came the actual arguments, the explications of texts, the logical and orderly progression of my thesis. I'm not, by nature, a logical and orderly person. I never use an outline. I find them limiting and counter-productive. They stifle me rather than liberate me. So I fumbled through the dark for months, and those months became years.

I finally got a hundred pages in and turned in that section to the publisher to show that I was indeed trying to write this book they'd already given me some money for. I spoke to her on the phone and she basically said: start over.

I was so crushed, I put the book aside and didn't get back to it for a couple more years. I thought about it a lot and worked on it in my daydreams, but I didn't write anything until one day my agent called to say that the publisher wanted to know what had happened to the book on bestsellers.


So I got back to it in earnest and wrote and wrote and tried to hone the shape and adjust the tone and keep the whole thing moving affably and smoothly forward.

I turned in a draft about a year ago, and the publisher assigned me a young lady as my editor. Millicent Bennett is her name. I'll always remember her first email to me after she'd read an early draft. It was the most intelligent, most carefully considered, most impressive piece of editing I'd ever read. She wanted me to reshape certain parts of the book. She particularly wanted me to reconsider the harshness of my tone in certain places.

I had gotten a little carried away in attacking what I considered a snobbish sensibility that looks down on bestsellers and mocks them mercilessly. I had mocked the mockers. It was funny but it was also a bit bitter. It took me months to accept that Millicent was right.

I cut away the bitterness, the counter-attacks. I eliminated some of my most bristling defense of the low-road commercial fiction that I was analyzing. Little by little Millicent helped me see that I'd written two books. One was angry at snobbery, the other was gleeful and positive about the benefits of bestsellers. She wanted me to disentangle the two books. She wanted the book to be about my love of reading, and how bestsellers helped me rediscover that after years of academic study.

That feat required cutting away about a hundred pages of text. A job that Millicent assisted me with through every paragraph, every sentence, right down to shaping phrases and choosing better words.

I realized that in twenty-five years I had never been edited before in any way that resembled this. Millicent and I were literally teaming up to write my book.

Just as I finished the final draft, she left the publishing house. Editors do that. I didn't feel betrayed. She'd finished her work with me. My book was done. But I was sad to lose the interaction, the back and forth intellectual engagement. This is one smart woman.

How lucky I was at every stage in the process of creating Hit Lit. More on this later. For the story of the book's inception is one of coincidence and absolute luck.

But the writing of the book was like no other creative enterprise I've ever experienced. I'd like the book to do well in the marketplace, of course, but I can't imagine a better experience in that regard than the one I've already had.

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