A guest blog by David Hallock Sanders, author of Busara Road
This is not a feel-good story. It’s too full of disaster, disease, and failure.
It’s not a sob story, either, even though it does include some sobbing.
It’s also not a how-to story, although it does have bullet points.
But then again, it ends on a happy note, so maybe it is feel-good after all.
And maybe that’s where I should start, with the ending:
This year my novel, Busara Road, got published.
That may sound like solidly feel-good news, except that it took me 20 years to get the book into print – years filled with grave setbacks, personal traumas, and drawers of failed drafts.
Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1999 I wrote my first draft of something that was not yet a novel, but was more like a short-story attempt that got way, way out of hand.
It was titled Return to Kwetu, and contained many of the same characters, settings, and themes that would one day become Busara Road. The core story, which has remained remarkably intact over the years, involved an American Quaker boy who gets transplanted to Kenya in the early sixties, just after Kenya’s long and bloody struggle for independence. The story followed this kid, Mark, as he comes of age in a nation that is coming of age itself.
That first story was a long, royal mess. Rambling, leaden, and confusing, it just kept growing longer and longer, until it was so unwieldy that I finally abandoned it.
Two years later, though, I excavated the original story and took another look. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe I was dealing with a novel here. I renamed it Kijiji Road, and began again.
I fleshed out some of the more compelling characters. I wrote new scenes that became new chapters. I ended up with several hundred pages of new text – some of it interesting, most of it not.
That attempt failed as well.
I started over. This time I reconceived the work as a magnum opus in three parts. The first section would be the boy’s childhood in Kenya. The second would be the span of his adulthood back in the United States. And the third section would be his return, in his aging years, to the village where he’d lived as a child.
By 2007 the manuscript, now titled Busara Road, had grown to over 800 pages, yet I was still stuck fumbling around in the character’s early life. I was finding the whole thing completely unmanageable. Another failed attempt.
Here I was, eight years in, and I still didn’t have a legitimate draft.
So I decided, once again, to start over. I set parts two and three aside to concentrate on the first section. I decided to focus on the plot, a sensible approach that I should have taken eight years earlier. I bought new software to help me create a master plotline, filled poster boards with scene-by-scene index cards, and charted each chapter in detail to track my through-lines, thematic developments, character motivations, etc., etc. I lugged boxes of notes and source materials with me to more than half a dozen writing residencies.
It was slow going. But by 2011, I finally had what felt like an actual, presentable draft.
And then disaster struck.
My computer suffered a catastrophic hard-drive crash. Even worse, I had not been backing up for years.
I lost everything.
A long road back
The wonderful writer Pico Ayer has written movingly about losing his home and all of its contents – including 15 years of notes and manuscripts – to a devastating fire. He ultimately described the experience as liberating, one that left him with a strange sense of freedom.
I don’t have Mr. Ayer’s Zen Buddhist composure.
When I lost my novel I nearly lost my mind. I literally curled in a ball on the floor, sobbing and moaning, “I fucked up! I fucked up!” My wife, grasping the seriousness of the situation, fed me shot after shot of whiskey.
From there I began a painful, lengthy period of reconstructive surgery. I dug through cardboard boxes for old printouts of early chapters. I thumbed through file cabinets for old notes and searched through old thumb drives for discarded text. I reassembled all of this material the best I could, and assessed what I had.
The whole thing was a mess. The novel’s narrative voice was all over the place. Scenes meandered. Characters behaved in inconsistent, unconvincing ways. Story arcs conflicted. Tenses battled – present in some sections, past in others.
And this wasn’t only the fault of the disjointed drafts. The entire novel suffered from these shortcomings. It just wasn’t working.
That stark realization, I now believe, was a gift. My version of Mr. Ayer’s liberation.
So I started over, once again, from the beginning. I re-plotted the book in detail, chapter by chapter. I re-defined character bios and thematic threads. I dispensed with the wandering prose that had diluted early drafts and focused on simply telling the story. I even re-wrote the whole novel as a screenplay, which taught me a lot about plotting and pacing and efficiency.
I signed up for a one-on-one novel intensive with Nancy Zafris, a marvelous writer and teacher who literally tore the manuscript into pieces and helped me reassemble it with a better, stronger structure.
It took me two years to complete a new draft. I submitted an excerpt to the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Prize for a novel-in-progress, and was shortlisted as a finalist.
I pitched the novel to agents at conferences – AWP in Seattle, PWO in Philadelphia, Grub Street in Boston. I got requests to see more of the manuscript, and sent it off with high hopes.
I sent the new manuscript to more editors and publishers. I pitched it to the agents of writers I knew. I pitched it to the agents of writers I didn’t know. I got more requests to see the complete manuscript.
I was certain that acceptance was near at hand.
“The writing is beautiful,” said one agent, “but I don’t know how to sell it.”
“I love it,” said another, “but just not enough.”
I continued to collect rejections. I felt lost.
And then I got cancer. Nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Over the next half-year, throughout chemotherapy so debilitating that many days I couldn’t sit upright for more than an hour at a time, I started re-writing the novel again. I cut scenes, added scenes, moved scenes. I changed the entire narrative voice from past to present tense. Decided I didn’t like it, and changed it all back. I continued to send the manuscript out, and the rejections continued to arrive in return.
But as the Buddha said, “Each day we are born again.” And one of those days finally brought acceptance.
This spring Busara Road was published by New Door Books. Hardcover. Paperback. E-book. Big release party. The works.
So there’s my happy ending.
And what did this whole saga teach me? Here is my promised set of bullet points, my three-p finale of lessons learned:
• Patience. Things simply take the time they take to get to where they need to be. Had any earlier draft of the novel appeared in print, I would have been disappointed in both myself and the work.
• Persistence. I was determined not to give up. I was stubborn about seeing each stage through to its completion, and when it didn’t lead me where I’d hoped it would, I’d find another way forward. And finally:
• Pain management: Sometimes, when anguish overwhelms, a shot of whiskey works wonders.
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