Monday, November 28, 2011

"Dancing Priest" -- The Writing Process

It started as an image evoked by a song. The image was a priest dancing on a beach. The song was “Luna Rossa” sung by Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis.

This started in October 2002. At the time, I was working as an independent consultant. The recession had taken its toll on my consulting business, though, and I would soon start to look for a return to regular employment. In the meantime, that dancing priest kept buzzing around my head.

It buzzed for three years. I essentially wrote the story – the entire novel and then some – in my head. Nothing went to paper or the computer screen.

I started mentally writing the story because of having trouble falling asleep. I began to think about the dancing priest, and what he was doing dancing on a beach. I made him part of a tour group that included a young American woman. The group had a dinner in a restaurant. The priest, an Anglican from Britain, and the American woman started a mild flirtation at dinner. I imagined a conversation between the two of them embedded within the conversation by the entire group at dinner.

The story grew and changed. The tour group disappeared. It was just the priest and the woman accidentally meeting and having dinner together. Then the beach disappeared. The priest became a young man studying for the priesthood in Scotland, the woman an American exchange student.

Two years into this “mental writing” process, I took up road biking. A few weeks later, so did the priest, except he rode for his university’s team and was a contender for the British Olympic team. By this time, he had acquired a full-blown history – born in England and raised by Scottish guardians. The mental writing at night before falling asleep continued.

Looking back, I can tell when this whole exercise started to get truly serious – early 2005. How do I know that? By the dates on documents I was beginning to collect for research. When my wife would ask about the pile of news stories on Britain, I would mumble something about a “writing project” – I wasn’t ready to tell anyone, including her, that I was working on a novel.

In the summer of 2005, the mental writing process – and the story – had become so involved that I needed a way to keep track of it. I began to make notes and outlines. And then, one day in the fall of 2005, I started writing the story on my computer.

Once I started, it was almost as if I couldn’t stop. The words came pouring out of my head, except it wasn't a “stream of consciousness” exercise – I had been writing and editing and rewriting the story in my head for three years. It flowed and flowed, and the flow became a torrent. By the time I finished, I had a manuscript of more than 150,000 words – closer to two novels than to one.

So I did what any writer would do – I split it roughly in half, and started rewriting the first half, over and over again. Rewriting, and new ideas, caused the first half to creep back up to 100,000 words, and so I began to edit and cut. (One of the cut scenes, the story of how the hero’s parents first met, is the story “Gratitude” I posted on Nov. 17.)

By this time, given the amount of time I was spending typing, I had told my wife what I was up to. At some point, she read an early version of the manuscript. I asked her just to read it for the story – and not edit it (she’s a first-class editor but at that point I had not done any serious editing myself).

She started reading. Some days into it, she called me at work and left a message. She was in tears. She had reacted to a certain scene in the way I had hoped she would, the way I had hoped any reader would. (The publisher – a man – had the same reaction to the same scene when he read it.)

I spent a good year on rewriting and editing. In the meantime, the story kept growing and developing. I completed the second manuscript, and there are six others in various stages of creation – from a 4,000-word story summary to a 70,000-word manuscript.

I went to a writer’s conference, where I met with an editor who had critiqued a section. We introduced ourselves, sat down, and then she said, “What happened to Henry and Anna? I have to know!” I took that as a good sign.

At the same conference, I met with an agent, who threw up all over it. “It won’t work,” he said. “No one will accept a romance like that. And it needs to be vampire chick lit,” a reference to the Stephanie Meyer “Twilight” series that had just become all the rage. “Look,” he said, “I just signed a multi-book deal for an author who’s writing about a woman who’s a late night radio talk show host – and also a werewolf. That’s what’s publishers are buying.”

I sent carefully constructed queries and pitch letters to all the usual agents, and received all the usual form rejections. Some of the queries were major projects – and I concluded that agents are trying to discourage as many people as possible.

I kept writing and editing. Then one day, a friend who had published a book himself and was working on a children’s book asked to read the manuscript. The world didn’t change overnight, but it began to change.

Images, from top: University of Edinburgh; men’s road race at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; part of the ceremony at the ordination of Anglican priests; mission style church (similar to the one in the novel). All are elements of "Dancing Priest."


Maureen said...

I wish you so much success with this!

Patricia said...

Me too =)

Louise Gallagher said...

Me three!!!! :)

S. Etole said...

I'm a four!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

charging the kindle...

Doug Spurling said...

Thanks for allowing us to ride with you - this is exciting! Yeehaw! Think I'll go dance on the beach for a bit.

Anonymous said...

I love this story, you're one of the club and you've gone the whole way, I so have to get a kindle for Christmas, it's becoming painful not being able to act on the impulse, but you are written down and I will read you soon.

I hope the 'Dancing Priest' isn't the only inspiration and that you continue.

All the best with it.