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Thursday, July 1, 2010

That Was Then

Several years ago, I read a feature article in a magazine about author Pat Conroy. It's been in the back of my mind all this time because his writing process for some of his early books was so amazing. I'm sure the article comes to mind because one of the things he did was keep a word list. Any word he came across or heard in conversation and liked, he added to his list and found a way to incorporate it into his writing. I've started doing this with words that I see and hear all the time, but don't normally use. When I come across them, I write them down in a notebook, then look up the precise meanings and write those down, too. I keep the list handy and, while I'm writing, I occasionally take a look to see if I can use any of the words in my manuscript. In this way, I feel I'm broadening my vocabulary. After all, what is a writer without an extensive arsenal of words?

But back to Pat Conroy. At the time the article was written, he had secluded himself in a scenic old lighthouse on the Carolina coast to write a manuscript. He stayed there, alone, and did nothing but write until the manuscript was finished. His food, drink, and other necessities were delivered to his doorstep by friends so he didn't have to leave his writing zone.

Here's the really amazing part. His writing process was simply to write. And write, and write. The initial drafts for the books titled Prince of Tides and Beach Music ended up at something just over 2,000 pages each. He wrote the scenes as they came to him, and in no particular order. By his own admission, he ended up with a mess of manuscript that he couldn't make heads or tails of. It was his editor, Nan Talese, who took those gi-normous manuscripts, pored through them page by page, slashing whole sections and rearranging, until they became the books that eventually went on to become bestsellers. How incredible is that?

It makes me wonder. In today's publishing climate, where editors want everything as close to perfection as possible on submission--so there's a minimum of editing--how far would Pat Conroy's ponderous manuscripts have gotten? Probably about as far as my first manuscript, which ran just slightly over 700 pages--a wee pittance compared to Mr. Conroy's tomes. Green as spring grass, I queried that monster to agents. I received a note from one, who shall remain nameless (because he's still agenting today), that was absolutely priceless. He said, and I quote: "Are you kidding me with this?" But back to Mr. Conroy. I'm going to take the optimistic high road and say that I'm sure he would have worked through the whole culling and editing process himself, eventually. Those books would still have been published and gone on to become bestsellers. But how much longer would the road to publication have taken?

I thought Mr. Conroy's story was interesting and I think it serves as a good example of how much the publishing industry has changed in recent years. I have to wonder, though, if there are any authors in this day and time who still receive that kind of special treatment from their publishers.


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