Objective Distance

“Jean-Paul Sartre said that it takes 20 years for a writer to objectively read his own work as his audience does….” That vantage may offer the writer “the delightful experience of encountering himself as a stranger.” cited by Charles Johnson, author of MIDDLE PASSAGE, in a recent NY Times interview.


For some of us, this may not always be a “delightful” experience, particularly when the readers were agents and editors who rejected our manuscripts. But this can certainly be an important experience, one that may even surprise us. 


I like to think that we grow as writers the more we write, the more we learn about our craft, the how-tos of effective dialogue and character creation, of shaping story lines that draw readers in. But I also believe that when we begin writing, the quality most of us need is patience, particularly those of us who write novels or full-length books.

I have never found a quick way to write a novel. Yes, Stephen King and others tell us we need to complete a draft in two months or six months or whatever. But for most writers, and particularly beginning writers, that seldom results in publishable work. Patience helps us understand that the completion of a full-length manuscript doesn’t end our work on it. Rather, it begins the process of perfecting what we’ve drafted, in other words, making it work.


Twenty years ago, I wrote the manuscript that became A Stone for Bread. At the time, I’d had my first novel manuscript accepted by the first agent who looked at it. A number of publishers considered it, several seriously. But none accepted it. A second novel was also considered and turned down. At that point, desperate to craft something publishable, I wrote a third novel, a literary mystery, and wrote it quickly. This time, even my agent turned it down and no one else wanted it then either. Discouraged, I basically gave up on it and filed away my notes and manuscript on my computer.


For twenty years.


In that twenty years, I wrote another novel, also rejected by publishers, until I got it through my head that I had to make it work. So I reshaped it, cutting some 90 pages. The next publisher I sent it to published it,  Absolution, my first novel.


Since then, I’ve been working on a new novel, still unfinished. But a couple of summers ago, while waiting for some feedback on it, I went to my computer files and re-read my much-rejected third manuscript about North Carolina poet Henry Beam and the disputed poems purportedly found in a Nazi concentration camp—objectively read, as in the above quote. And I immediately saw what was wrong with the manuscript. After an almost effortless re-edit and the introduction of a new character, I began sending it off, and it was accepted soon afterwards.

A Stone for Bread will be released by Livingston Press of West Alabama University this coming October.