“Quit teasing us!” That was a message from a reader on my Facebook page this morning. She was kidding (kind of) but many of you seem to enjoy these Natural History of a Novel blogs, so here’s another.
I started writing Epitaph in the spring of 2011 and completed the first draft at the end of July this year. Yesterday I finished the first-pass start-to-finish edit of the manuscript. I cut over 16,000 words, restructured and re-restructured elements of the novel, clarified prose, sharpened dialog. The manuscript is 86 pages shorter after 49 days of relentless, daily effort. I don’t believe there’s a single sentence that was left unchanged.
The manuscript is going out to virgin readers now — people who haven’t seen it develop and who won’t be remembering earlier versions as they read. I’m concerned about unevenness of narrative tone, and about having cut so much that the story will seem anorexic.
In many ways, Doc and Epitaph are a pair of novels like The Sparrow and Children of God. I had a huge crush on Emilio Sandoz and I remain very maternal about John Henry Holliday. The Sparrow and Doc were both literal and literary labors of love. Reaction to both novels continues to be strong. Readers (and reviewers) wanted more. I, too, wanted more time with characters I’d become so close to. There were clear narrative reasons to write sequels to both novels. Nevertheless, I initially resisted writing follow-on books.
Sequels often disappoint readers even when they aren’t cynical attempts to cash in on the first book’s success. With an original novel, there can be a honeymoon effect — a dopamine-mediated rush of discovery. Sequels simply cannot recreate that. A sequel is an anniversary party, not a wedding.
Doc is a character study, while Epitaph is about an event: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The first book’s intimacy of tone isn’t reproduced in the sequel. When history is writing the plot, you have to get on with it, so when editing Epitaph, I cut a lot of self-indulgent scenes with Doc Holliday because they slowed the narrative down.
At the same time, I had to keep in mind that new readers may not have read Doc but have probably watched half a dozen movies about him and Wyatt Earp. My portrait of John Henry Holliday is at odds with the movie portrayals, so I had to retain enough character development to keep them from being confused by my rendering of his part in the events of October 26, 1881.
And I want to impress historians who’ve devoted their working lives to what happened that day in Tombstone, Arizona. I want them to be able to say, “This is the best fictional version of the story ever. This gives you a sense of what it was really like. This is both accurate and compassionate.” Which is why I struggled with how closely I should stick to the historical reality beneath my novel.
I hope you don’t think I’m complaining. It’s a privilege to make a living as a novelist, and issues like these are just part of the job.
The truth is, every single book is a separate roll of the dice. After a well-received first novel, new authors fret that their second book will get reviews that begin, “What a disappointment after such a promising debut.” In multiple-book series of mysteries or romances or science fiction novels, each new entry might be one that jumps the shark. Write five mega-hit spy novels, and Number Six might be left unfinished on night stands when readers say, “Okay, I see the pattern: ordinary guy gets swept up in scary international intrigue and triumphs. I’m done with this series.” Try something completely different, and you may discover that your earlier readers don’t follow you, and that new ones don’t notice your work. And success often breeds contempt; vampires and wizards and zombies will eventually out of style, just as Westerns did in the 1960s.
Which is why I work so damned hard on each book. I dread disappointing readers. I dread bad reviews. I dread falling sales. I deal with that anxiety by doing everything I can to make this novel the best I can, and by swearing, “This is the last one. I’ll never do this again.” I tell myself I’m quitting so that if the reviews stink and the sales sink, I can say, “Well, I didn’t want to play this game any more, anyway.”
That’s where I am right now, except… The first paragraph for what might be a novel about Edgar Allan Poe has started floating around in my head.