FROM FIRST TO FINAL DRAFT: THE CHALLENGES OF COMPLETING SCARECROW ON THE MARSH
Unless you’re an editor, it’s not very often that someone drops a partially completed manuscript in your lap and expects you to finish it. This is a daunting task for anyone, but when the project represents the lifelong dream of a deceased loved one, there’s even more pressure. That’s the situation I found myself in last year when I offered to complete my father’s novel.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not complaining. It was something I wanted to do. It was the least I could do for a man who had served a dual role as my mentor and best friend for most of my adult life. But I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
I spent more than six months researching, editing and writing new chapters for Scarecrow on the Marsh. Every paragraph reminded me that my father was gone. Every addition or alteration invoked profound feelings of guilt and self doubt. There were countless tears. There were bouts of anger and frustration. And though it’s something I would never want to go through again, I feel that I have grown as a writer and a person.
Basketball great Michael Jordan once said: “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. When you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it or work around it.” In the case of Scarecrow on the Marsh, there was a great deal of climbing and circumnavigating before the final draft was complete.
DECIPHERING MY FATHER’S HAND-WRITEN NOTES
Thoughts don’t always flow smoothly from brain to page. My Father felt that his ideas were more lucid when he wrote them longhand. The manuscript he left me was entirely handwritten. The margins were crowded with tiny notes. In some cases, there were notes about the notes. The pages were filled with scribbles, cross-outs and insertions. Some of the pages had subtitles—Page 157a, Page 157b and so on. Though I’m sure it all made perfect sense to my Dad, I found it puzzling at times.
GETTING THE FACTS STRAIGHT
My father chose Cape Cod as a setting for his novel because he had been there many times and was intimately familiar with the place. I myself was not. For months, my desk was littered with street maps and travel brochures. I used Google Earth to examine the physical characteristics of various towns and beaches. Since a significant portion of the novel deals with terrorism, I had a lot to learn. I knew very little about the language, religious beliefs or customs of terrorists. I knew even less about how they go about blowing things up. I performed so many Google searches on the topic I actually became a little paranoid about drawing the attention of Homeland Security.
KEEPING MY FATHER’S STORY INTACT
Let’s face it—a rough draft is far from perfect. This was my Dad’s first book so he was still finding his way as a writer. I had never worked on a mystery novel before, but I had read plenty and it definitely helped. My father’s premise was solid. Unfortunately, there were elements of the story that didn’t quite work. I struggled to determine which passages needed to be omitted or rewritten. This was a grueling process that caused me immeasurable grief. At times, I felt as if I was betraying him. I wanted to keep his ideas intact. I wanted to make him proud. And though I managed to preserve every nuance of the story, the final product is drastically different from the original manuscript. I hope that’s okay with him.
CAPTURING THE INTEREST OF PUBLISHERS
Ask any writer and they will tell you that this is the most difficult part of the process. There are roughly 2 million books released every year. Most are self-published works that fail to sell more than fifty copies. I felt that my father’s work deserved a better fate. I could have published directly to Kindle, but I knew he would have preferred paperback over a digital format. There aren’t as many traditional publishers out there nowadays and, without a literary agent, most of the major publishing houses were closed to me. The submission process can be brutal. You wait months for a response and consider yourself lucky to even get a rejection letter. Due to the high volume of submissions, most publishers employ the “if you don’t hear from us in three to six months, we’re not interested” model. After shopping my father’s manuscript around to thirty different editors, I got a few bites. In the end, I opted for a Print-On-Demand format, which reduces publishing costs and allows authors a higher royalty rate.