What Took You So Long?

March 6, 2021

Thank you for finding my blog. I typically steer most of my week’s writing energy toward my books, but I’ll try to post here at least once a month and make it worth your time. —E.L.

What took you so long to publish?

No one has asked me that question yet, but I know it’s coming. I’ve asked myself the same question of late. Let me see if I can come up with an answer.

There’s a whole bag of answers, actually.

I’ve known since a very young age that I wanted to write books. In fact, it was probably more than forty years ago that I decided I would like to do the thing that Donald J. Sobol did with Encyclopedia Brown, or what Franklin W. Dixon’s ghostwriters created with the Hardy Boys. It wasn’t just detective stories. Allan W. Eckert’s Incident at Hawk’s Hill and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls were early inspirers of mine—boys in nature finding their legs. In middle school I discovered fantasy and science fiction, especially Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes remains, for me, as perfect a book that has ever been written.) Then, high school teachers introduced me to modern literary classics. My bedroom featured typical pin-up models, but I also posted headshots of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. I wanted to perform their magic (in part, I suppose, to win over the beauties elsewhere on my wall). 

I won a number of writing awards in high school and college and even had one or two professors who were published authors themselves tell me that I could make it as a writer. I went to work as a newspaper reporter (isn’t that what Hemingway had done in Kansas?) then segued to magazines. I also started doing what so many writers attempted in the mid-1990s: I tried to write screenplays and sell them to Hollywood. Over the course of five years I researched and wrote three scripts I was quite proud of but which didn’t get a lick of interest.

It was around the year 2000 that I got married and started a family. This didn’t get in the way of my writing so much as focused it. My early mornings became devoted to writing fiction. I picked up my senior thesis and fleshed it into a novel. Knowing it wasn’t very good, I moved on to another one, which was better than the first but rife with structural problems that I’ve still yet to figure out. (I’ll go back to both novels someday.)

The first draft of Soft Hearts, begun in 2018, came very quickly. As with the screenplay form, here in the mystery novel was an established structure that gave me grounding. The real difficulty for me came in the wordsmithing, getting out of my own way and paying close attention to each scene, each sentence, each word. At least two-thirds of my time spent on the book was devoted to meticulous rewriting and line editing.

Friends, family, and editors-for-hire made all the difference. It had been a long time since my prose had been so lovingly scrutinized, and it was good for me. Those early drafts didn’t light anyone’s world on fire. But I kept at it, until I consistently began receiving the type of response I had been hoping for. 

Writing takes time. Though I write very quickly in the moment—at my fastest I can write a thousand words an hour—I figured out through trial and error that I can only write for about an hour or two a day, usually in the mornings when my brain is still in a non-linear dream state. (The one year in my 20s that I took off to write full time turned into quite the disaster. I got very good at throwing horseshoes, even better at feeling lonely and depressed.)

I suppose, too, that it took me so long because finding a story you really, really care about can be quite difficult. There is so much to care about in one’s life, so much to be distracted by. A novel requires one to be singularly focused, if not obsessed, maybe for several months or years. And, it’s not always the case that one’s writerly powers are up to the task of the current mission.

Perhaps I could find an alibi in the publishing world of our day. If you compare publishing in 2021 to publishing a century ago, you’ll find they are very different. Today the entertainment dollar is a target of competition more than it’s ever been, and books have not kept up with other media in terms of revenue. (Video games, for example, earn more revenues than even movies do.) Publishing houses are stressed for resources. As a result, there just isn’t the nurturing climate for writers that you might have found when, say, Harper Lee was penning To Kill a Mockingbird in the 1940s.

Lee’s book required the interest and patient prodding of an agent and a publisher to come into fruition. Two years of it, in fact. So essential was mentorship to Lee’s success that she was never able to write another book after Mockingbird. (Go Set a Watchman was actually her first novel; I tried to read it and had to put it down halfway through. It reads to me like discovery writing, its plot rudderless.)

Lee was hardly an anomaly of her day. For example, when you look at editor Maxwell Perkins’ influence on so many successful writers of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, it’s clear to me, at least, that most writers—even many great writers—require collaboration. And, for the most part, they just won’t get it these days. Many would-be terrific books die early on the vine, and the ones that do get published could be a lot better than they are, their pages the unfortunate victims of editorial neglect.

So, if an agent or publisher had taken an interest in me after college, I could have become a much better writer sooner. Then again, maybe not. The source of good writing is LIFE, and I’ve had a lot of living to do. Though it took me a long time to publish a book, I never once put off the living part. That means if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to sit at my writing desk and mine all those memories for many more years to come.