James Michener, with his meticulously researched, epic tales of exotic locales, has always been one of my favorite writers. Recently I ran across a book by him that I had read before, titled The Novel (Random House 1991). It is fiction but undoubtedly drawn from his own experience as a successful author, and it presents a road map of the birth of a book, from manuscript to finished product. The Novel grabs my interest all over again as many of the details the author shared about his publishing experience are still as relevant today as they were in the late 1980’s.
Michener’s alter ego, a writer of historical novels by the name of Lukas Yoder, has much to teach aspiring authors through his own travails on the long road to success:
* It took him 13 years of “heartbreaking labor” and 4 published books (which sold around 1,000 copies each) before scoring a bestseller (900,000 copies). His championing editor had warned him that their publisher was going to drop him–and her–if book no. 5 did not turn the corner, which it fortunately did. As Yoder himself stated, “It was hell before death to watch the book appear, flutter like a wounded bird and die. And to experience the same disaster four times!” An overnight breakthrough, his was not.
* Through this ordeal, and even after he had become successful and famous, Yoder was guided, cajoled, and ordered by his editor to stop “chasing after abstractions and instead focus on your characters. First, cut. Cut a good deal of the long middle section. That’ll provide space for the subplot in which the reader could get involved.” She never missed an opportunity to pound it into him that his book “isn’t worth a damn unless somebody is bullied into realizing its merit and not only buys it but also says at the end: ‘I’d like to see what this guy does next time out.’ That’s writing. That’s publishing.” To which our writer responded (as many writers probably would): “I write books and allow them to find their own levels of success.”
* In spite of this constant tug o’ war between bending to his editor’s will (thus giving the readers what they want, supposedly) and following his own tunnel vision for the book, Yoder fully realized that “if I insisted on doing it my way, I’ve got to do everything possible to make the book as flawless as possible.” So he slipped out of bed at 3:00 am and went to work (and rework) on his manuscript. Even with full technical support from the publisher, it still took a whole year of “drudgery” between the time he finished the manuscript and when the book finally came out.
* Yoder also learned that with success came ever loftier expectations and heavier pressure: His most recent book sold more than a million copies, yet that did not keep the bookstore chains from having reservations about his latest offering. Based on advanced copies sent them, the bookstores’ editorial readers deemed his new book disappointing. “Too much preaching, not enough story line” was their verdict, which resulted in the initial print order getting cut back by two thirds, from the planned 750,000 to a mere 200,000 (poor Mr. Yoder, I thought!) Still this was a big blow to the publisher, who came down hard on the author with their not-so-subtle demands for significant rewrites.
The Novel is chock full of interesting insights like the ones I mentioned above. But most amazing to me is the fact that many of those observations have remained quite relevant even today, a quarter-century after the book came out. It sure seems like the more things change in the industry, the more they remain the same. But setbacks and heartaches notwithstanding, Lukas Yoder spoke for most of us writers when he said: “With me (publishing) is not a game, it’s not a matter of figures, it’s one of the world’s greatest professions, and I’m elated to be part of it.”