It is a good time for me to give an update on my progress on my trade book that deals with the early history of heaven and hell. I have not decided on a title yet – that won’t come until much further down the line, after it is actually finished and ready to head to press. At that time, my publisher, my agent, and I will all toss about ideas for titles that are both the catchiest we can come up with and are faithful to the intents and purposes of the book. For now I am continuing to call it “The Invention of the Afterlife” or, on occasion, “Heaven, Hell, and the Invention of the Afterlife.”
I know several members of the blog don’t like a title with “invention” in it, since it sound like someone actually *invented* the afterlife. But if I do continue to use the term I’ll explain what I mean by it. There are lots of views about the afterlife. The most common one in our western culture is that when a person dies, their soul goes to heaven or hell (more people believe in heaven than in hell, but in the most recent polling, still 56% of Americans believe in a literal hell as a place of torment). Others believe in some kind of heaven but not hell. Other people think that death is simply the end of the story. Throughout history there have been other ideas – for example, in the Greek Hades or the Hebrew Sheol (which were similar in many ways), or in the Jewish idea that at the end of time there would be bodily resurrection for the righteous but annihilation for sinners, and … and there have been other ideas.
My view is that each one of those ideas at one time did not exist. Before around 200 BCE, e.g., no one believed in a bodily resurrection of the dead. Then someone came up with the idea. After that many people came to believe it. Today it is still a doctrine confessed by over a billion people in the world. If the idea did not exist at one time, and then did exist, then someone came up with it. In other words, it was invented.
That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. All of our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, opinions, understandings and so on are “invented” – that is, the result of human thought coming up with something no one had thought of before. Some physicist invented the theory of gravity; some mathematician invented the formula for determining the area of a rectangle; some political scientist invented the idea of democracy. They are human inventions. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I believe in all three of these things. And lots of people believe in heaven and hell.
My question in the book is where these beliefs came from. The basic thesis of the book is that the popular Christian notions today that when a person dies their soul goes to either heaven or hell as places of eternal reward and torment are not to be found in the Old Testament and are not what Jesus himself thought. So where did they come from?
Good question, I think. The trick is coming up with a good answer.
So, in terms of my progress. I have finished writing a draft of the book, and am ecstatic about it. I did something very smart this time, around. I changed the way I constructed, and therefore wrote, the book. The book is about the same size as most of my other recent trade books, or slightly shorter. I tried my darndest to keep it under 100,000 words; and it right now is weighing in at 93,000. But I haven’t added endnotes yet. Still, it should be within my target-length.
What I did that I’m really pleased with has to do with the length of the chapters. I have always really loved books with *short* chapters rather than long ones. My books tend to be something like 6 or 8 chapters on the longish side. This time, I thought, why not write a bunch of short ones instead? And that’s what I’ve done. For now it is 14 short chapters, of about 7000 words each, instead of, say 7 chapters of 14,000 words each.
I am seeing this as a stroke of genius on my part, for a simple reason. It made the writing of the book SO much easier. I gave myself 3-4 weeks to write the book. I can easily write 7000 words in a day. For most of my books it has been more like 12,000-13,000 a day. But that was really really hard. Draining, exhausting, difficult. I would lock myself into my study, shut out the world, and go into a zone to write for about 8 hours, then emerge like a zombie dead to the world. Not pleasant for me, and not pleasant for anyone who happened to be around me.
Not this time. I could start writing at 8:00 am and be finished by 1:00 or so, and be done for the day. Absolutely fantastic. Could hang out and do whatever I jolly well pleased – get a work out, read a novel, whatever, with no pressure to feel like I had to do more work. Hey, I already wrote a chapter! What more do you want? I can’t believe it took me this long to figure this approach out.
Anyway, there are fourteen chapters, they are all done and in draft, and I’m on schedule.
So now what happens is this. I have edited all the chapters once for style. I will now edit them a second time, doing four things: (1) Working on style some more; (2) Fact-checking (roughly 47,000 facts in a book of this length); (3) Adding end notes; (4) Making sure my arguments work at key pressure points where I know people are going to heartily disagree with me, or at least be vigorously inclined to disagree with me.
I will do all this at the computer, on screen. Once I finish that, hopefully this week, I will print out all the chapters and edit yet another time: I always am better at improving style when looking at something on paper than on screen.
THEN I will send the manuscript off to colleagues who are experts in one area or another (Greek and Roman religion; Hebrew Bible; New Testament; Early Christianity), who have graciously agreed to read it and make comments, suggestions, and corrections. They have agreed to do it in a month. I will then edit accordingly, based on what they tell me.
Then I will show it to my agent for suggestions, and edit yet again accordingly. Then I will send it in to my editor, who will make suggestions, and I will edit it some more, for the last time.
And then it will be done! It’s a long process, but all the editing is absolutely essential. And the HARD parts – all the research and, especially stress-inducing, the writing itself – are finished. So I’m feelin’ good, and am ready now to move on to the next phase.