J.K. Toole and first impressions

I don't know if you're familiar or not with John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, but there's a lesson in his situation for all of us.

He never published his wondrous comic novel during his lifetime; his mother did it for him. She knew it was good, but she needed a third party to validate the novel's greatness.

confederacy cover.jpg

So she learned that novelist Walker Percy was living and teaching nearby, and begged him to take a look at her boy's manuscript.

The lesson that I'm thinking every writer should remember is in Percy's introduction to the novel, in which he describes what happened when Toole's mother gave him the manuscript. Their meeting took place in the 1970s long before the advent of email or GoogleDocs, and Toole's manuscript was gross. Dirty, smeared with God knows what. Not a very good first impression.

Percy dreaded reading it. He was looking for a way out, and here's what he hoped would happen:

There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained--that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

Percy's attitude is not uncommon.

When you pitch your book to agents or directly to publishers, they are going to give you a few pages--or just the first paragraph--to show them what kind of writer you are.

Yes, you might have some incredible things to say later on in your narrative, but it doesn't matter. If you don't hit the right notes early on ... if you don't show them that you understand the essential rules of telling a story ... well … they are going to take a pass on that wonderful story that you have been struggling with for years. I have been there. Trust me.

So go back to your opening pages and ask yourself some hard questions: What will a stranger see when they look at this? Even if it's a work of fiction, is my message still clear enough?

If you’re not quite sure how to answer these questions, we should talk.

Surprise: Your Draft is a Zero

Hold on a minute. I didn't say the draft was terrible. I said it was a "zero." That is totally different ... and useful to understand.

I found this idea in the pages of the late great Peter Drucker, venerable founder of modern management, in an essay of his called "Know Your Time."

The essay is about effective management, especially how people manage themselves. At one point Drucker says that managers spend time writing "zero drafts" as part of the writing process ... and that idea is helpful for any writer to understand.

Very often (I am speaking from total experience here) what happens during the writing process is this: You come to the end of a draft, think you're done, and realize you're dissatisfied with the whole thing ... except for a few sentences near the end where things really started to fuse and get interesting. Instead of being done with the process, you realize, you're just getting started. It just took 15,000-20,000 fricken words to get there.

That's your zero draft.

calculator zero long
 

It doesn't mean the material is useless or valueless. It has immense value. It has helped you dump all those expectations and preconceived notions so that you're ready to produce something truly in your voice. (And plenty of that material will probably crop up in your finished draft somewhere anyways-- you'll just use it in a different way).

On the road to finishing my first novel A Walker in the Evening, I probably created three zero drafts (maybe more, it's all a blur now). It was a long, painful apprenticeship. But I learned a lot. If you aren't sure if you're working with a zero draft or not, let me know. I can help.

The most important thing, my best beloveds, is not to get frustrated or to doubt yourself. You're on the right path. The result is going to be amazing ... and worth the extra sweat.

Keep going. You can do it.