Slowness and the young author

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

I recently caught up with Orville Schell, a great Sinologist, former dean of Berkeley’s Journalism School (where he asked me to teach) and author of, wait for it, fourteen books! (To me, of course, Orville is above all one of my three mentors.)

Since then, I’ve been pondering what Orville told me about book editors and book editing, and indeed the entire fascinating change inside an author’s mind that occurs between the initial delivery of the manuscript and the printing of the final product.

The reason, of course, is that I am currently in exactly this phase. It has been almost two months since I sent my manuscript to Riverhead, the publisher. The book industry runs in a parallel time dimension, so I knew this would take a while. So I’m absolutely (and in a very positive way) fascinated by how my own mind is filtering the long (110,000-word) text that I just sent off. And of course I’m eager to hear how my editor will react.

Some editors, Orville said, don’t edit at all. That’s a good thing only if they are terrible editors. The best editors, says Orville, see the manuscript as a long and detailed outline, a sketch of what is to come, the genotype of the phenotype that will result. That’s because so often–at least in Orville’s experience–the real book emerges during this waiting period, as the author’s mind, with help from his editor, digests its own product, tests it, does violence to it, stirs it up, cleans it up and finally emits … a thing of beauty.

This, therefore, is one of the big differences between blogging, magazine-writing and book-writing: Time.

The blogger disdains time. The magazine-writer by turns battles, fears and overcomes time. Only the book writer learns to love, savor and appreciate time. (I happen to be all three, of course.)

Time can do good things to a text, especially if the author’s immodest hope is that it become timeless.

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And the manuscript is… off!


The bits are zipping through the internet to Riverhead, my publisher, as I write this. That feels good.

I can’t wait to get my editor’s reactions.

So it took me one year (of writing part-time, since I never took a book leave) from the proposal to the first draft, and another four months to finish this second draft. I went about it rather as Khaled Hosseini does: one run through to have a working blueprint, then another to add the beauty.

Allow me to indulge for one moment in a short meditation on success. The book is about success and failure and how each constantly wants to turn into the other, so this is appropriate.

When I started writing, I defined for myself two layers of success: In the first layer, I would simply write exactly the book that had conceived in my head, a book that I would be proud of. I’m really happy to say that this is how it turned out. So I’ve succeeded.

The second layer is conventional success–ie, good reviews and sales. That, obviously, is something over which I have absolutely no control once I bid my manuscript adieu. So I have decided, for the time being, not to worry about it.

Zen Anecdote

Which reminds me of a story that a professor of Japanese history once told me in college, long ago. He was visiting a Japanese artist and walking around the artist’s house, admiring the paintings. The professor stopped before one and said ‘Why, this one is just stunning!’

The Japanese artist said ‘Thank You’, then took the painting off the wall and tore it to shreds.

Had this guy gone nuts? the professor asked rhetorically years later when he told me about this. No! For this artist, Zen-inspired, painting was something that he did for its own sake. He was not being rude or weird by ripping it up. He was simply showing, or reminding himself, that the praise of others was not necessary, that the painting had already brought him all the joy it could, and that he was now detached from it.

Don’t get ideas. Nobody gets to rip up my manuscript. But I like the story.

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The great story-tellers?

Well, I’ve taken this week “off”, so to speak, to finish writing my book. Yes, I do expect to send off the manuscript by the end of this week!

That won’t mean that it’s done, but it does mean that we will move on to the next stage, once my editor at Riverhead takes a look. And then I hope to get a publication date and … title! (Here is why the book doesn’t have one yet.) I’ll keep you posted, of course.

In the meantime, I thought our recent inquiry into the great thinkers of world history was fun. The whole thing was really just an excuse for me to think about what ideas had influenced me the most, and for you to point me to some thinkers that I might have been overlooking, which you did in the comments. Gödel, Salk …

In fact, it was so much fun that I’m thinking of starting new inquiries. Since my mission in life is to tell stories, perhaps a search for the world’s greatest story-teller ever?

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Too busy writing books to read them?

As Carl Jung might say, synchronicity: On the very same front page, the New York Times mourns the passing of one great author and, separately, observes the trend toward self-publishing by lots and lots of “little” authors:

The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them.

Ahem. That touches a nerve. I’ve been too busy to read books (at least books that are unrelated to the research for my own book) because I am writing a book. The same goes for most of the people I seem to know.

I’ve opined on all this before, of course. Still, it always comes a shock to discover that

In 2008, nearly 480,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from close to 375,000 in 2007, according to the industry tracker Bowker.

Some time later this year or early next year, mine will be one of the half million in that year’s batch! Hmmm. Here’s hoping that Riverhead, my publisher, continues to defy trends and … rocks.

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Kafka vs Hosseini: writing vs re-writing

Listen to Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, both best sellers, talk about his writing process, and in particular the role of first and subsequent drafts:


Writing is largely about re-writing…  So I use the first draft purely as a frame… I understand that it’s going to be lousy…. the heart of the story has to be there in the first draft… I abhor writing the first draft, I love writing subsequent drafts.

This is the exact opposite of the way that Franz Kafka apparently did it:

… it took a single night. On Sunday, Sept. 22, 1912, the day after Yom Kippur, the 29-year-old Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote “The Judgment,” his first masterpiece, in one all-night session. “Only in this way can writing be done,” he exulted, “only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.”

My first reaction is to place Hosseini into the catagory of “old masters” and Kafka into that of the “young geniuses”, using David Galenson’s theory. Remember what that means: Some writers see the creative process as a search, as discovery, as learning; others see it as a finding,  as the execution of a bold idea. Cézanne was the first, Picasso the second, and so forth.

And my second reaction? Well, it was to wonder, once again, whether I am more of a searcher or more of a finder. I certainly could not do a Kafka and write my book in one single night. But I did start with one simple idea and the book is hewing closely to it. As I approach the end, it turned out pretty much exactly as planned.

On the other hand, I proceeded exactly as Hosseini did, by racing through a sloppy first draft in order to erect a skeleton which I have since been putting flesh on. And, of course, there were plenty of discoveries along the way.

So perhaps Galenson’s categories are better thought of as poles, with a spectrum between them.

Incidentally, in the same interview, Hosseini talks about how he first got started selling the book.

I cold-called a bunch of agents through mail. I just sent them three or four chapters with a query letter and a synopsis, … I got rejected more than 30 times … I still have the manila folders of all of the rejections that I received from agencies. I didn’t take it personally, I knew that you have to have a thick skin, that rejection is part of the game…

The rest, of course, is history. He ended up being published by Riverhead, which happens to be my own publisher. Let that be an omen!

The home stretch of writing

A big moment of sorts last week: I finished the first and rough draft of the book.

That doesn’t mean I’m done. But it does mean that I’ve started the second round.

What happened over the past year is roughly this: The basic idea proved better than I could have hoped. And the book almost wrote itself, much more easily and faster than I ever thought. But it took me a while to find my own, authentic, loose and easy voice (as opposed to my “The Economist” voice which I’ve become so accustomed to over the past decade). (Blogging helped, as you recall.)

And so I ended up with an unexpected trajectory: The early chapters are fine, but need improvement. Then the chapters get better and better, and the final ones absolutely rock.

So now, in the second draft, which I’m hoping will only take another month or so (all the raw material is already there), I need to bring the entire book, from the first sentence to the last, up to the quality of the later chapters.

Then I’ll mail them off to the editor at Riverhead, and see what happens next. I’m quite curious about the process….

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*Why the book does not have a title yet

*Alright, so I’ve given you this teaser about the book, and I had to give the page a provisional title. But Hannibal and me is not actually the title of the book. It turns out that several other authors are already using the and me conceit or some variation of it, so my publishers, Riverhead, pointed out that we’re in cliché territory, which is of course to be avoided.

Nor is my original idea, The Hannibal Curse, the title. It’s been explained to me that American publishers are very wary about any book title that could sound remotely negative, and Curse apparently fell into that category. So no Curses. Hannibal’s Impostor, Eternal Hannibal,… Who knows? Riverhead and I will agree the final title when I deliver the book, in a bit less than a year. As I joked to my agent, Dan Mandel, that feels a bit like agreeing to let the midwife christen your child at birth, but hey, it’s the way the business works. They’re apparently good at picking titles at Riverhead–think A Thousand Splendid Suns and such.

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