The title is Loose Dogs. The protag is an animal control officer. And I finished writing it in 2004.
Except that I didn’t.
2004 was an eternity ago in publishing history. The launch of the Kindle was still three years away. There was no such thing as an “indie writer.” Self-publishing was a euphemism for vanity publishing, and vanity publishing was the crazy aunt in the attic. She’s there, everybody knows she’s there, you feel sorry for her, you sure as hell don’t want to be her.
I have always had an abundance of confidence in myself as a writer. (Which is a good thing. A lot like the confidence a toddler has that he can walk. No matter how many times I bounce my head off the corner of the coffee table, I seem to forget the pain pretty quickly and pull myself together and try again.)
So when I finished writing the penultimate scene in Loose Dogs and it moved me, as a writer, to tears, I thought man oh man, this one’s gonna sell.
It wasn’t good enough. Not that I could understand, at the time, what was wrong with it. I got some valuable feedback; I knew there were problems with its pacing — but I didn’t have any idea what that meant, really.
So I put the book aside and gave myself a crash course in plotting.
Take that, you nasty coffee table, you.
It seems to have worked, too. People who have read the two novels I’ve since published — Libby and Can Job — comment on my plotting, and in a good way.
Loose Dogs, meanwhile, sat there in my filing cabinet. And also in the back of my mind.
A completed manuscript . . .
From time to time I’d pick it up, then put it away again. I could now see many of its weaknesses. I could understand why it hadn’t sold. But oh, so many words already put down on paper! Surely I could return to it now, tweak it a bit, and voila I’d have another novel to sell . . . right?
Finally, last spring, I did just that. Cleaned up a few things, improved the pacing, changed a key bit of how the plot resolved.
And I asked a handful people to beta read.
And although most of them thought it was great, one came back and said “it’s not as good as your other two novels.”
And I thought damn. Because he was right. He gave me dozens of specific examples of things that didn’t work in the novel, and he was right.
So . . . Plan B. Instead of “tweak it a bit,” I guess I’ll have to do a more extensive revision . . .
Only it wasn’t that easy — because I knew that if I pulled at the wrong thread, the whole novel might possibly unravel. So I started out veeeeerrrry gingerly. Moved some plot elements around. Broke up the flashbacks so they revealed some of the backstory more artfully.
But the more I mucked around, the more stuck I became. I had created a bunch of characters, but I didn’t really understand them. I hadn’t gotten inside them. And the thing is, I’ve known this — I remember back when I wrote the first version of the novel that the characters felt opaque to me, like I was using words to build something but I wasn’t persuaded that there was anything underneath, like I’d built shells but there were no animating creatures within them. So when they moved, it was me, pushing them around — they weren’t moving by themselves.
And I was frustrated. And I had to keep putting the book aside, because the characters couldn’t come alive without breaking more of the book. And quite honestly, I didn’t want that much work. I didn’t want the revision to be that hard. I didn’t want the book to be that different from what it was in 2004.
I thought about abandoning the book altogether — more than once.
But I’m not going to abandon the book.
It’s too good. Not that it’s a good novel now, in the form it is today, but because the bones are too good. I want to write a protag who is connected to dogs. I want to write about love, and sexual attraction, and how men and women interact and what it means when they do. I love the surface issue trouble my protag gets into and how she gets out of it.
And so this morning I sat down — again — with the book. How many times I’ve done this. How many times I’ve forced myself to sit down with this book!
Only today, I finally gave in to what I suppose was inevitable from the beginning.
I admitted it to myself: Loose Dogs has to be the sort of book I want to write today, not the sort of book I wanted to write 10 years ago.
Ten years ago, I set out to write a light romantic suspense sort of book — something like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. But I’m not a Janet Evanovich sort of writer. I’m not the sort of writer who wants to master a formula and then apply it over and over. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — on the contrary, I have tremendous respect for writers who succeed by finding niches and serving them. But I can’t do it — I literally can’t. As good as I am as a writer — at putting sentences together in a way that keeps readers’ interest and carries them along — there are things I simply can’t do.
The truth is you turned away from yourself,
and decided to go into the dark alone.
Now you are tangled up in others, and have forgotten what you once knew,
and that’s why everything you do has some weird failure in it.
(The Sufi poet Kabir, as translated by Robert Bly . . .)
And so here I am again, looking at this novel, and it’s suddenly obvious. If I keep trying to correct the novel I began ten years ago, Loose Dogs will never be published. I’ll keep hitting this wall. I’ll keep making changes in one spot only to discover it wrecks something somewhere else.
But if I write the book as I’d write it today, at the very least I’ll be able to work on it — at the very least, I know that at some point I’ll end up with a novel that I can publish . . .