The other day, I “finished” my second novel. I use the scare quotes because I’ve finished this novel about a dozen times already. Even the pitch that tells what the book’s about has been endlessly revised, but here’s the latest version:
In Baltimore, there are two kinds of problems — white people’s problems and black people’s problems. As a forty-year-old divorced mom with a job teaching memoir at the city university, Dory Greengrass is knee-deep in both. The two collide when she decides to help an ex-student, Omar Franklin, turn his tragic personal history into a book. As the story tracks Omar’s Murder Chicken: An American Childhood on its way to publication, THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS becomes a comic exploration of the methods of memoir writing and how they relate to the attempt to live a meaningful life. Dory’s companions along the way include a rebellious teenage son (his hobby: taxidermy), her gay ex (now married to a celebrity chef), a grad school pal (with a memoir at #3 on the bestseller list), and men friends including an interstate trucker and a Baltimore City cop. Even her widowed mom is having an eyebrow-raising affair. Amid everybody else’s drama, Dory discovers her “boring” life is anything but.
The Acknowledgments began in early 2014 as a three-page story for my monthly writer’s group, and thanks to their encouragement and assistance with everything from three-act story structure to the uses and abuses of dialogue to how to get people in and out of restaurants and have them eat their food before they leave, I finished it for the first time at the end of that year. If, someday, The Acknowledgments has an acknowledgments page, those will be the first six names on the list.
As I started to show the manuscript to literary friends outside the group, I got more suggestions, so I finished it several more times. It was a very short novel, and part of the advice was to expand it a bit. It grew, it shrank, it grew again. Whole chapters and subplots withered and fell away; new ones grew in their place. “Dory Greengrass, Memoirist in Trouble” became “The Secret Life of Dory Greengrass” became “The Murder Store” became “The Acknowledgments,” that last, and best, title suggested by Elisabeth Dahl, a member of the writers’ group. Another member, Jim Magruder, read at least five drafts, God bless him.
At one point, a New York literary agent got involved only to pass it over to her associates, who had me rewrite the book twice. After I sent it in the third time, they got back to me with a long letter saying I hadn’t addressed their original complaints and they still couldn’t tell the characters apart. I was advised to “roll up my sleeves” because “real writers do lots and lots of revision.”
This was the end of that beautiful relationship. I took my trusty pitch and went agent-hunting again.
Now I am at the same point where I was when I finished my first novel in 2011. That book was quite different from this one – It was called Ninety-Percent Mental, and it was about high school golf and football players in rural Pennsylvania. (Yes, really.) It was meant for middle school readers. Via an assiduous process of cold-calling, I was able to interest the famous agent Liz Darhansoff, a passionate golf player, in the manuscript. Liz made a few suggestions for revision, then began to submit it to publishers.
Hopefully, the similarities between my first and second novel will end there, because that was the end of the road for Ninety-Percent Mental. Twenty-six YA editors looked at it, and twenty-six YA editors declined.
If only I’d had teenage vampires golfing in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future…
At the beginning of this summer, a different well-known agent at a very fine agency agreed to represent The Acknowledgments. Robin too had an associate help me with revisions, but this one — let’s call her Genevieve of Alaska, since her name is Genevieve and she’s from Alaska — has been a dream, not a nightmare. She had no trouble telling the characters apart and gave me ideas I could actually do something with. For example, I’d heard many times that my protagonist, Dory Greengrass, was not 100% likeable, but I could never see it, much less fix it. Genevieve of Alaska suggested that certain adjustments to her backstory might yield a kinder, gentler Dory. More importantly, she interpreted the book as being about something more interesting and worthwhile than I had ever consciously intended, and helped me paddle over into that better lane of the pool.
And so it’s finished again.
I have every hope, prayer and 11:11 wish (according to my daughter, you can make a wish any time you catch a clock at 11:11; this has been life-changing for me) that The Acknowledgments will not end up in the drawer next to Ninety-Percent Mental. But if it does, I won’t call the past two and a half years a total loss.
Most creative writing, and certainly novel writing, goes on in the context of a dream of publication. That’s the imagined endpoint of all that hard work, for raw beginners, for writing students, for people who earn their living in more reliable ways, as well as for those of us who have been published before. But even then, the dream doesn’t always come true. A vast amount of writing lives in drawers. So it’s a good thing that there is so much else that makes it a worthwhile pursuit.
Some of the rewards of writing fiction are similar to those of writing memoir. The fun of crafting sentences, of figuring out how to describe facial expressions and morning skies and people’s smells, of embroidering a rough draft with imagery, figures of speech and humor, of creating suspense and gradually paying it off. Of escaping into your own head for long, luxurious stretches of time, of sitting on your couch with your cat and your dog and your laptop, off the clock from real life.
But writing fiction is also very different than writing nonfiction. It’s an extraordinary experience to create an imaginary world, even if it is composed in large part of elements of the real one. It’s as if there’s a Baltimore, a Roland Park, and a house at 4600 Keswick Road that exist in a parallel universe, one that I can enter, and alter, at will. In this universe, my mother, who never lived in Baltimore and who died in 2008, has been re-incarnated as a character named Mona Greengrass. Mona has replaced my real neighbor on the other side of the wall of my duplex; she owns the place. I’ve given her the sizzling senior love life my widowed mother never had.
Qualities of all five of my kids and stepkids came together to create Ben Greengrass-Molloy, a 7th grader at Roland Park Elementary/Middle being raised by divorced parents. His father, Jack Molloy, reflects my ongoing curiosity about what would have happened to my first marriage if my husband hadn’t died of AIDS in 1994. Maybe we’d have divorced, but remained good friends. Maybe he’d be remarried to a rich husband with a DC culinary empire. Maybe I would be asking him questions about Viagra over Bloody Marys.
In this wild world where I can make anything happen, it turns out my idol Tupac Shakur fathered a child during the year he was going to school at Baltimore School for the Arts. This character, Omar Franklin, 26 when the novel begins, is partly inspired by my student, the famous writer D Watkins. Dory gets carried away helping Omar write his book, which isn’t at all what happened in real life with me and D. What did happen is that my character, Omar, wanted to write some rap lyrics. So I wrote them for him and showed them to D for his approval. He was so horrified that he wrote a whole new rap for me to use. And then I needed another one, so he wrote that too.
Like I say, if The Acknowledgments gets to print, which I doubt could be sooner than 2018, there are going to be a lot of people to thank, up to and including Genevieve of Alaska. Half the sentences in the book have co-authors, and all these collaborations have been a big part of the fun. Once a book is published, you don’t get to talk to readers so intensely about every scene and paragraph. Or if you do, it’s at a book group where you are either a.) defending your decisions or b.) feeling depressed that everyone seems to have taken the book out of the library.
This week, Robin will shepherd them off into the world, my little cast of oddballs in their virtual Baltimore. Wish them well! Maybe someday people will be arguing about whether my portrayal of Omar is racist and whether my Baltimore cop is believable and what the hell I was thinking with that taxidermy subplot. (Actually, you can blame it on a suggestion from the writer Dylan Landis, who commented on the manuscript about ten iterations ago.)
And if that never happens, if I never get the dubious joy of reading bad reviews and checking my Amazon rank, and the real joy of seeing people with their noses in it on the Bolt bus, of hearing people laugh at bookstore readings, I won’t regret it. Writing a novel is a thing worth doing for itself.
Be prepared to remind me that I said that.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit marionwinik.com to sign up for a monthly email with links to new installments of this column, other essays and book reviews.