Dancing King has been named “Best Choice New Book Release” for December 2017 by Christians Poets and Writers. The mission of the group is “to help Christian Poets and Writers write for the glory of God, upbuild the church Body of Christ, and improve their God-given gifts of writing.” It’s an honor for the book to be named. Thank you!
I’ve been writing a fiction series. Two books have been published, and publication of the thid, Dancing King, is imminent. The fourth has been sitting in manuscript form, some 70,000 words, for quite some time. There was too big of a story gap between No. 2 and No. 4, so I couldn’t simply skip the third manuscript and cover it with some narrative filler or explanation in the fourth. The gap demanded a complete novel.
Ideas weren’t the problem; my brain was seething with them. Neither were plot developments, new characters, and new conflicts. Perhaps I had too many possibilities.
The problem was how to tie it all together.
I tried several approaches, and not one worked, or worked well. The more I floundered with manuscript No. 3, the louder the No. 4 manuscript became, like a siren song enticing me into its pages.
I was getting nowhere. It wasn’t writer’s block as much as it was narrative frustration. I’d stare at the computer screen, try writing some words, and sometimes write more than 1,000 words before I’d throw up my hands in disgust. This isn’t working, I thought. Over and over again.
I knew what my frustration was – that fourth manuscript. It would be so easy, with it just sitting there and waiting, for me to turn my back on No. 3. But a voice inside my head told me that would be a mistake, because I would be spending an enormous amount of effort combining No. 3 into No. 4, or fixing No. 4 to account for No. 3. Too much would have to be explained. No. 4 made sense only because there was No. 3.
Then I went for a long walk. It was a cold, sunny day in early spring. I left my house and walked my usual twice-a-week walk of about three miles. Somewhere in that first mile, I heard one of the characters speak, and his heart was almost breaking.
At the very beginning of the story, this character is watching the hero leave his home. He’s leaving with him because he’s working with him. The hero’s family is leaving as well. Life has profoundly changed. And this character begins to tell the story.
I had my way out of my writing morass. An unexpected narrator.
For the next two miles of my walk, the pieces began to click into place. I couldn’t believe how I had been missing what was now so obvious.
When I got home, I began to write, or actually, rewrite, everything I had up to that point. I turned the manuscript on its head. A villain emerged. So did new characters and sub-plots. A couple of other narrators, including the villain, began to speak. New scenes arose, scenes that took the hero into new directions that fit the story arc. While the story still went from the A to the Z I had originally envisioned, just about everything from B to Y changed, and changed dramatically.
Novel No. 3 was no longer a transition book, almost my narrative orphan. It had become its own story, and could stand on its own if it had to.
And it had become my personal favorite book in the series.
Top photograph: Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace by Thomas Kelley via Unsplash.
Not long after A Light Shining was published, a colleague at work knocked on my door and asked if I had a minute. He sat down, and told me he had downloaded A Light Shining for his Kindle. And he had read it.
“I stayed awake until 4 a.m. to finish it,” he said. “I couldn’t put it down. I’m here to make a plea for a third novel in the series.”
I laughed. “We have to see what happens with the second one first.”
He smiled. “When I reached the part with Sarah’s speech, I lost it. I’m sitting there blubbering, and everyone else in the house is asleep, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. It was terrible.” And then he proceeded to outline what Sarah had said, quoting the key phrase of the speech exactly, and the reaction of one of the characters to her speech.
This was the same colleague who liked Dancing Priest so much that he bought 20 copies and gave them to 20 senior executives at our company, people from around the world. One of those executives – from India – stopped me and said he had read it and that he had enjoyed it so much that he had become completely absorbed in the cycling events in the 2012 Olympics in London this summer. “I didn’t know anything about cycling until I read your book,” he said.
Shortly after that, I picked my oldest son up at the airport. Right out of the blue he said, “That part with the warehouse kids – I totally lost it on the plane.”
“You’re reading the book,” I said.
“I bought it for my Kindle,” he replied, “and started reading it on the plane. Good thing I had a row to myself, because it would have been embarrassing.”
And then he said, “You better not kill him off.” Suffice it to say that I know which character he’s talking about, and why. But I wouldn’t respond to his question.
I’ve read both of those scenes – Sarah’s speech and the warehouse kids – scores of times. And I still get choked up when I do. It’s almost as if I forget I wrote them. There are one or two other scenes that affect me the same way. In Dancing Priest, the scene that never fails to bring me to tears is the British Olympic team arriving in the stadium in Athens for the closing ceremonies.
I ask myself what it is about these scenes, scenes I know intimately and have lived with for close to a decade that prompts this reaction, from me as well as readers.
I believe it has to do with our sense of the heroic, that something within us that reaches beyond what we’re capable of doing because something must be done, something must be said, some good and fine purpose must be achieved. One of the readers of Dancing Priest last year sent me an email, saying that the book should be required reading for teenage boys because it was about a young man’s nobility of purpose – something they get from nothing in our culture today.
I’m not going to be able to live off the royalties from these two books – longer than a day, anyway. But the reactions I hear from people reading them are royalties enough.
It was part of the original manuscript. The 82,000-word novel was originally joined to the 93,000-word novel that became Dancing Priest. Yes, that’s a total of 175,000 words, not including the original 5,000-word introduction and the 11,000-word “wedding scene’ (it was more than the wedding) that were both dropped, and the 50,000-word section that followed the conclusion of what is now A Light Shining.
Doing the math: 241,000 words, give or take a few hundred.
Long before a publisher ever showed up, even I knew that was way too long for a novel.
I looked at the one I was to read, and realized from the first sentence that it was not just bad, but spectacularly bad. It had ghosts and other creatures (but no vampires), and the writing was just bad. Including the misspellings and grammar mistakes. A dilemma: I was holding someone’s hopes and dreams and hard work, and I could read it like it was written or I could do something else. I did something else. I put my speechwriting skills to work and essentially performed it like a speech, correctly the grammar mistakes as I went along (no one else but the writer and the agent would ever know). After the session, the writer told me that “you spoke it better than I wrote it.”
After the writer next to me read my manuscript, there was a kind of pause, and then the agent said, “I don’t handle your genre. If I did, I’d sign you right now.”
That was sufficient inspiration for the next two years.
I came back from the conference and divided the manuscript. “Dancing Priest 1” eventually became the published novel, Dancing Priest. “Dancing Priest 2” became the core of what is now A Light Shining. The last 50,000 words became what is now entitled “Dancing Priest 3” – a rather raw and unfocused manuscript with a directional outline of what it is about.
Dancing Priest was rewritten and edited at least a dozen times. The interesting thing was that I didn’t think it would ever be published, but I kept editing and rewriting.
In 2010, a guy I knew in St. Louis who had set up a small publishing firm said he had heard I have a fiction manuscript, and could he read it?
I said no. By this time, I think I’d convinced myself it wouldn’t be published.
But he kept after me, and one day in 2011 I surprised us both and said yes, let’s do it. So we did.
I edited the second manuscript, and gave it to him. He sent me a contract.
But that’s when things got complicated.
So I had a contract, The manuscript was in the hands of both a reader and the editor. Early reactions seemed positive.
Then the reports came back.
Suggestions for wholesale cuts.
Too much focus in the first section on “the warehouse kids.”
Too much focus in the second section on, well, just about everything in the second section.
The suspense ended too far from the end of the manuscript.
The whole last section could be cut.
I set the whole thing aside. That I hadn’t signed the contract I saw as a good thing, because if I accepted the suggestions, what would be left was a longish novella.
For the next two months, I came to accept the fact that A Light Shining wasn’t going to be published. I was discouraged, tense, irritable, and upset.
The one thing that stayed in my head was the suggestion by the editor for a new character, to help carry the suspense through to the end of the story. In August, I wrote a new first chapter, and posted it at Faith, Fiction, Friends, essentially to test the reaction. The responses suggested I was on to something, although a few people said they were rather “creeped out.” Which I took as a good thing – that was the whole intent.
It was at that point that I signed the publisher’s contract.
So, the new character was born. I started thinking about how to integrate him into the story. We went to London on vacation, and my laptop (and the manuscript) came with me. Getting away proved to be the best thing I could have done. I did spend some time working on the story in London, but not a lot. I spent more time reading the existing manuscript, deciding what to cut and what to add, and where to place my new character. I didn’t give him a name, because I wanted to come up with exactly the right one.
We returned from London, and the rewriting began in earnest. It was intense, and it happened within the space of a month. I slashed whole sections of the existing manuscript. I rewrote. I integrated. I rewrote what I had rewritten.
And then it was done. The new character still had no name. I fretted over it for a few days, and then realized he didn’t need one. In fact, the story worked better with my character remaining nameless. He had emerged as the major antagonist in the story – an antagonist that Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes don’t even know exists until it’s too late.
The manuscript was finished. I sent it to the publisher, who accepted it, making only minor changes.
It was a different book from the first manuscript. But it was a better book.
Top photograph: A sunset view of Florence, Italy, a setting for part of the narrative of A Light Shining.
That was my first reaction. I also went back to the manuscript, and re-edited it (and rewrote it) yet again.
He kept asking, and I kept saying no.
This went on for six months.
He asked again. For reason or reasons unknown, I said yes.
He was the second person to read the manuscript, after my wife. And then he said he wanted to publish it.
I wasn’t ready. The manuscript wasn’t ready. I could think of all kinds of reasons to avoid publishing it.
He kept asking. And one day, I said okay.
A professional editor went through it, making it bleed. A cover photo was found and the cover designed.
Six years ago, at the beginning of December of 2011, Dancing Priest was born. Michael Kent and Sarah Hughes saw the light of publication. I was terrified. Exhilarated. Hopeful. Scared. I was all of those things authors experience at the birth of a first book.
People responded to the story.
“I didn’t get the feeling that I was reading a typical book,” said one reader. “It was almost as if I were spying on these people’s lives. I was the insider into an amazing array of people and situations that had me at times happy and more often than I’d like to admit in tears. Young is not writing a behemoth novel for page or word count. He is telling a story.”
“I’ve read a lot of good, and not so good, and this was part of the best,” said another reader. “The death had to be, but was not dwelt on to the point of being revolting. Jimmy is someone I’ve known. Sarah I liked. Michael is someone I would like to meet.” The reader was 92 years old.
“This book isn’t ‘deep,’ but it is deep,” said a pastor in Indiana. “This book isn’t meant to be challenging, but it will challenge you. This book isn’t meant to be a life-changer, but it is life-changing.”
A pastor in Lexington Kentucky ordered copies of the book for his staff and elder board, saying it was the best description of lifestyle evangelism he had ever seen. I reread the book to figure out what he meant, and I surprised myself when I found it.
An Anglican priest in Australia said it got several things wrong about Anglican priests. And then said he saw what I had done to wriggle around it. He was right, but if I had focused on getting everything absolutely precisely I would have lost the main story. So I wriggled around it.
“It is a novel in the traditional sense, but it is so much more,” said another read. “It is a testimony of God’s grace and mercy weaved into the lives of its characters. It is a powerful reminder to live intentional lives for Jesus. That while there is loss, heartache and pain for every one of us, there is also great joy.”
One reader put off household chores to read it. “Instead of chores,” she said, “I was gifted with an evening of beauty. An evening to explore a story told in delicate dialogue that revealed more than just the goings on of the lives of two characters — it revealed their hearts and ultimately, their faith.”
Top photograph: This mountain road in Spain is the type of road envisioned for the road race in Greece in Dancing Priest.
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.