Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Notes on a day in late autumn

 Thoughts on a late autumn day:

You are currently reading a first novel by Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding, which, by some accounts, was nearly twenty years in the making.  It is a thick, rich narrative, seeming to luxuriate in its own polish and nuance.  With your understanding of the way trade publishing works, even today in its evolving state (wherein paperback reprints are giving way to electronic books, so-called e-books) you are ready to believe the author is at work on another novel for which he has a contract and a substantial stipend or advance (which is in effect an interest-free loan against anticipated sales of this new project).

With the same awareness of how the process among commercial publishers (who also publish literary works) is conducted, it is easy to visualize Mr. Harbach, whom you have never met, at full cringe when his literary agent and or publisher asks to see pages of the new work.

Unless Harbach has kept scrupulous records, there is no reliable way to determine how many drafts The Art of Fielding underwent before appearing in its published form.  Since you have no connection with the author, you can only guess about the next factor in the calculus, which is the due date, the date on his contract calling for delivery of the manuscript, usually referred to in the contract with language similar to”  “Author agrees to deliver a complete manuscript which is acceptable to the publisher…” followed by some tangible date.  Your guess is the delivery date is 15 January of 2013 for a book to be published in October of 2013 or January of 2014.

Look at it this way, Harbach had twenty years to fiddle with and tweak The Art of Fielding.  He may have a year or so to get the next one, which does not necessarily mean it will in any way be lacking, although the timeframe does introduce the mischief of potential disaster.

Harbach may have gained so much from his time with his first novel that his second will seem to come together in a series of splendid aha moments.

You are looking at a due date of September of 2012 for a work you are doing in collaboration with your old pal, Digby Wolfe.  You have worked on enough things together to recognize you are the antithesis of working styles.  This invariably translates to longer rather than shorter, although the end result is pleasure of a high degree.  You are also looking at the delivery date of a collection of short stories, all of which have been published, although you have one in the works that surely fits the thematic vector of the collection.  Some of these stories will be offered by the publisher on its web site as free samples, one a month, by way of calling attention to the printed collection which will contain ten or twelve additional stories.

Looking at these stories, you can see where you’ve been and, to a degree, who and what you were while writing them.  You already like some of them more than the others.  Will some—or all—of them require edits?

These are the reefs and shoals through which the writer navigates on some kind of regular basis unless the writer has taken refuge behind some form of security such as another profession or two. However accidental your other professions—editing and teaching—and however much they contribute to your writing self, they remain as aspects wanting your thought and consideration.  You are reminded of the story Joe Wambaugh told you about how, while he was still on the job as a cop, the then editor of The Atlantic Monthly had told him “You are a good policeman and a good writer but you cannot be a very good policeman and a very good writer.”

You are also aware that many of your favorite writers do not always produce work of uniform excellence, your own particular favorites batting about .500 (with one exception; Louise Erdrich is up in the 850s).

You have to continue asking yourself if the editing and teaching are growing to the extent of becoming distractions.  You have to continue looking at past work to see if you are still the same person or, to the person you are now, someone with an occasional good page or paragraph and promise worth pursuing.


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