Manuscript Complete! How I Wrote an Historical Novel
In 2015 I completed a Ph.D. in philosophy at UCLA. Over three years on the academic market, I applied for around 100 jobs. From those applications, I got one interview and one offer, a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Villanova University.
In the end, I turned down the offer. While it was a good fit in many ways, I couldn't see moving my family to Philadelphia for three years and then applying for new jobs in new places after that. My kids were about to be in high school, my wife, Angela, had a job, strong friendships, and community in Pasadena, where we lived, and my income would have been less than I made as a graduate student. So, I gave up academia and went back to engineering consulting.
Within a year I was miserable. I remember sitting in my car one evening after a long day at work, weeping, feeling completely lost. Soon after, I sought a career coach and ended up meeting with her for six months, trying to sort out what to do. Through the coaching process, I realized I loved to write. Unlike most doctoral students, writing the dissertation was my joy (On Loving Some People More than Others). The experience of discovery through writing electrified me: I just thought better and clearer while writing.
During the career coaching, I began setting aside time each morning to work on a popular theological book related to my dissertation. It focused on a puzzle I saw with the biblical command to love our neighbors: Can we really love on command? (This book remains on my back-burner and is tentatively titled, How to Love Your Neighbor.)
Around a third of the way into that project, two important things happened. First, on my daily prayer app, Pray as You Go, I listened to a meditation on Paul's epistle to Philemon, in which Paul seems to draw a contrast between motivation by command and motivation by love (see Philemon 8-9). Since this distinction was critical to my book project, I rushed to the Fuller Seminary Library (hooray for alumni access!) and began reading a commentary on Philemon, to make sure I was interpreting the passage correctly.
Readers of the New Testament often erroneously view the epistles as little theological textbooks written to anyone and everyone. In fact, the authors wrote them to particular churches and particular people in particular situations. (This is not to say the epistles can't speak to our different situations today.) The best way to interpret the letters, then, is to understand the situation into which they were written. As one of my New Testament professors once put it, reading an epistle is like listening to one person on a telephone call: the trick is to piece together the other part of the conversation.
As I sat in the library, trying to understand the story behind Philemon, a hundred gripping questions pressed in: Was Onesimus an escaped slave? If so, what happened to make him run? Was it a conflict with his master, Philemon? Why did a seeming Christian like Philemon own slaves? Were there tensions in the way the early church thought about slavery, or was it just part of the culture they didn't think much about? If the latter, why weren't they more concerned? And if Onesimus escaped, how did he meet Paul, who was in prison when he wrote the letter? Most importantly, why would Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon? Did Paul support slavery? Was the letter an effort to slip Onesimus back into his role as slave with minimal damage, or was it a request for freedom? In this flood of questions, it struck me a fascinating story lay behind the letter, and that someone ought to write an historical novel telling that story. Then a little voice in my head said, "Why don't you write that novel, Aaron?" I immediately began sketching plot lines and characters. It seemed I had a second writing project, in line behind my blockbuster theological book.
Then a second important thing happened: I had coffee with a new friend who was an acquisitions editor at Zondervan. My plan was to discuss how I might publish the theological book, but he told me there was no hope unless (1) I already had a bunch of readers lined up (like, thousands) or (2) I was a professor of philosophy or theology (which I wasn't). It turns out no one wants to buy theological books written by engineers. Go figure. But, he also said there are no such requirements on novels and novelists. "People expect novelists to have weird day-jobs." In that moment, the theological book slid to the back burner and the novel began to boil over.
I spent my first year on the novel researching Philemon and the world of a first-century slave in Asia Minor, reading widely, taking notes, sketching characters, imagining plots, and studying the craft of fiction (well, I never stopped that last one). I spent the second and third years drafting, writing in one-hour snatches before or after work, and on luxurious Fridays-off every other week, once I finally got the #bestdayjobever at Metropolitan Water District.
In year four, I begged my literary- and theologically-minded friends to read the manuscript. They gave me excellent feedback, and I revised the novel in earnest. After four years, I thought I was done, so I started pitching the book to agents but got no response. I scratched my head for a few months then decided to hire a freelance editor who previously worked at the U.K. publisher 4th Estate on Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel's last historical novel, The Mirror and the Light (the editor loved my book!). After two rounds of feedback from him, nine more months of intensive revision, and a total of five years and four months working on the project, the manuscript is finally complete! Now begins a new journey: finding an agent and publisher.
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