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 why he was dancing on a beach. I made him part of a tour group in Italy 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 Anglican 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.
Then came Hurricane Katrina. My elderly mother and an aunt refused to leave New Orleans. My older brother lived across Lake Pontchartain. Extended family lived all over New Orleans, its suburbs, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Days went by before everyone was accounted for, and my mother and her sister evacuated out of the city.
I can’t explain why, but that was the catalyst. I didn’t want to lose this story in my head. I started writing on my computer.
Once I began typing, 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 – “gushed” may be a better description – and the flow became a torrent. By the time I finished, I had a manuscript of more than 250,000 words – closer to two novels than to one.
So, I did what any writer would do – I split it into two parts, and started rewriting the first, 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.
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 eventual 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. A disjointed jumble of more than 40,000 words was what represented a possible third story in the series.
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. (For the record, that section was later cut; it may eventually become a novella.)
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. You need sex. 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.