By Brenda Buchanan
In the beginning, Joe Gale was Marty Gleason.
This was eight or so years ago, when I sat down in my cramped study on Peaks Island, determined to write the book I’d been thinking about for many years. We’d decided to move to the mainland, and my intuition told me that enormous transition would be eased if I were already engaged in something that would feel as powerful and central to me as had my life as an islander.
I don’t think I wrote more than a chapter before we moved off Peaks. I looked out the window a lot, and did that ‘round and ‘round in circles thing, having no clue how to start writing a book. No bolt of insight arrived after we’d ferried all of our possessions across the water. But I remained committed to writing the mystery I’d been ruminating about since I’d left journalism for law school.
That long-ago conceived book—now called Cover Story—will be released a week from today, on September 28.
As it turns out, it’s not my first published novel, and there are good reasons for that.
My early drafts were amateurish. The manuscript improved in tiny increments as I navigated my way through numerous workshops, notably at New England Crime Bake. I also was fortunate to have the feedback of a good writer’s group.
But after several years of steady work, there was no way around it—the manuscript, then called Relative Defense, had problems.
Several of the agents to whom I sent query letters or met at conferences offered constructive feedback. You know how to write, they said. But you’re making all the rookie mistakes.
Their eventual advice that I hated to hear? Set your manuscript aside and write another book.
Though painful, it was the right answer.
If I couldn’t accept that the book wasn’t what it needed to be, and if I couldn’t bring myself to set it aside and start a fresh book, then I’d be a person who fantasized about being a published author, but I’d never be one.
So I wrote another book. The result was Quick Pivot, the first book in the Joe Gale Mystery Series, which was released in April.
Early in the process of writing Quick Pivot I realized why those in the know had nudged me in the write-another-book direction. Though I hadn’t cracked my first manuscript’s particular code, I was starting from a different place. This was a critical revelation.
What had seemed so, well, mysterious the first time around was now less so. I’d figured out point of view. I’d gotten the hang of writing dialogue. I knew I could sustain a narrative arc for 350 pages.
I also learned that my characters were disgruntled about a few things.
It turned out my reporter protagonist was a one-syllable first name, one-syllable last name kind of guy. That’s when Marty Gleason became Joe Gale.
His diner-owning best friend Christie was Greek, not WASP, so her last name became Pappas instead of Perkins and she grew a stronger personality to match. Unfortunately, I had to kill off her live-in grandfather. He was a nice guy, but he made for one too many characters, so he had to go. And most importantly, Joe’s mentor Paulie Finnegan came out of the shadows, which is when Joe himself began to make sense. Why did a thirty-something newspaper reporter go at every story with old-school verve? Paulie Finnegan, that’s why.
When my agent offered me representation on the strength of Quick Pivot, I was thrilled. Then she asked if I had any other manuscripts in the drawer. My stomach did a couple of flips. It had been a long time since I’d touched that first book, and the chorus of “not readys” that had greeted it when I sent it out into the publishing world still rang in my ears.
But I heard myself saying, sure, I have another Joe Gale book, one where he goes to Machias to cover the trial of a man accused of killing a politically well-connected DHHS caseworker. It happens in the middle of a brutal Maine winter. When Joe reports that the evidence doesn’t match up with the pre-trial hype, he learns the hard way about Downeast-style intimidation.
That was the gist of the story I’d written, and it was enough to construct the pitch and plot summary she needed to sell my publisher on a three-book deal.
Before that happened I’d taken that first manuscript off the shelf and gone into overhaul mode. Nixed the sloooow beginning. Cleaned up wordy sentences. Added and subtracted characters. Juiced up flat chapter endings. More times than I can count I thought I was done. But every time I did a start-to-finish read with my newly critical eye, it was clear I needed to revise some more.
Last year, with additional insight from my brilliant editor, I finally got there. Next Monday, the first novel I conceived will come into the world.
The moral of this tale? For all but the most gifted among us, getting published takes years of steady work. To those who are laboring on your own first (or fifth) manuscript, I hope this post encourages you to stay with it.
And to everyone who helped me bring Cover Story into the world, this one’s for you.