A Bit of History -or- How Not to Write a Novel

In About Writing by Daniel M. Clark1 Comment

Pen and Notebook

As I was saying before WordPress decided to break down on me…

Flashback! The year was 1995. At the age of twenty, I found myself suddenly living in South Florida, and not entirely by choice. I had not yet decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. To say that I was aimless would not be untrue; I had little ambition and few prospects for anything meaningful. On the assets side of my ledger, I had a car, my parents, a place to live, and food on the table.

Upon moving to my new home, I set about finding a job. The first thing I found was a position at a movie theater across the street from my home. For the grand sum of minimum wage, I would sweep the theater floors, man the concessions, tear tickets and find creative ways to do all of that with the bare minimum of effort. My only lament is that I did not score any sweet movie posters during my time there; the job was perfectly… satisfactory.

I had a lot of spare time. As a teenager, and a bit younger, I had written a few stories here and there. Writing was something that I enjoyed, but not something that I considered for a career. On nights that I wasn't working, I would be down the road at a Denny's. At the start, I'd go in for 45 minutes, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and doodle. After a few weeks, I would be at Denny's every night that I wasn't at the movie theater for hours at a time. Every time I went in I brought a notebook with me—remember, this is largely pre-internet time, and I certainly couldn't afford one of the primitive laptops that were starting to gain in popularity. I started writing.

Given my generally sour mood due to my situation in life, I tried writing pieces of scathing wit and sarcasm. George Carlin was my hero. I wanted to lash out against… well, everyone. I had no specific target. I had pieces called “The Gay Community”, “Things That Piss Me Off”, “The Whole Race Thing” and “Paranoia, Paranoia, Everybody's Coming to Get Me” (real original on that last one). Oh, I was clever. In the intro for what would have been my book of essays, I wrote “I dare you to try to categorize me!” Ouch. [Update, 2017. I found all those essays in an archive of an archive buried in a folder on my computer not long ago. I deleted them all. I, to the best of my knowledge, have now destroyed all the evidence. I was no Carlin. Nobody was, is, or ever will be.]

After a few months I somehow got it in my head that I should write a novel. Yes, this is where the metaphorical shit would get real. I would write an awesome novel that everyone would want to read. It would be picked up by a publisher immediately and movie rights would be optioned shortly after. I'd adapt the screenplay and choose who played the lead. Both text and film would be showered with awards. Did I mention that I was a 20-year-old idiot with more experience watching television than with living life?

Write what you know, they say. My story would be set in South Florida, Houston, Providence… places I'd lived. The cast of characters would be based on my friends. A murder mystery? Why, of course my friends could solve a murder mystery! I knew nothing of murders or mysteries of course, but that was a minor detail. I gave my characters names like Ray Kinzie, a mashup of two childhood friends, Ray Martin and Chris Kinzie. I looked around at what was happening in popular culture and movies at the time… what's trendy? Yep, I'll make most of the the girls bisexual. That totally makes sense! I did mention that I was an idiot, right?

For months, I went to Denny's three to five nights a week with several notebooks, writing my soon-to-be-award-winning novel by hand. I would arrive at nine or ten and leave at three or four in the morning. I'd swill countless cups of coffee and smoke nearly a pack of cigarettes on the longer nights—half a pack if I was only there a few hours.

I don't recall now how long it took to finish the book—nine months, a year on the outside—but finish it I did. I titled it The Fifth City because when titling a murder mystery, it's always a good idea to give away the ending right up front. Years later, seeking to tie it to another novel that I had started, I would change it to The Hard Way In. That was better, but did not improve the quality of the writing, which, you'll recall, had been crafted by an idiot.

This is the part of the story where things start to break down.

Almost immediately after finishing The Fifth City, I set to work on my second awesome novel, Michael MacNamara. This would be the story of a hit man attempting to go straight and all the pitfalls that trying to leave the mob entails. My mother loved this one for some reason. I don't recall letting anyone read The Fifth City, but MacNamara, I let slip. Reading it now, it's not horrible. It has potential, even if it isn't terribly original in its current form. I only finished the first chapter and a handful of scenes that would appear at various points in the story, but I learned an important lesson after the first novel: planning is key. The first novel had no plan, no outline, just a vague idea that I wanted my friends to solve a murder mystery. For Michael MacNamara, I outlined nearly the entire story. I had family trees, biographies and plot points for all the major characters and most of the minor characters. I spent so much time figuring out who was related to who that I never got around to writing the damn thing.

I ended up losing interest in MacNamara (much to my mother's chagrin), and a few months later, decided that I would write The Great American Small Town Novel. Yep, I was going to out-Peyton-Place Peyton Place (not that I knew what Peyton Place was back then, aside from “it's a novel… I think”). This made sense to me! I was from a small New England town! I could absolutely write drama! This should be easy!

It wasn't (but you knew that).

I took inspiration from Neil Peart's lyrics to the song Middletown Dreams and called my story… Middletown Dreams. Like Peart, I figured that nearly every state has a Middletown, and mine could be any of them. I wrote this one in parts; I decided a series of connected short stories would work well. A main character from one chapter might be a minor character in another and settings would be shared between several stories. It was to be a grand thing, and in the spirit of the Kevin Smith fan that I was in the 90's, I managed to tie it into my first two novel attempts. Ray Kinzie from The Fifth City ran a pool hall in downtown Providence, Rhode Island that two of my Middletown teenagers frequented. Michael MacNamara's brother went to high school in my Middletown before getting killed in The Hard Way Out—it was about this time that I renamed those first two books The Hard Way In and The Hard Way Out. I even wrote a new ending to The Hard Way In wherein my main character, Ian Brock, went to work for the family that Michael MacNamara would soon try to leave in The Hard Way Out.

There was drama galore. Underage drinking. Teenage hormones. Race relations, in the form of an African-American family moving to predominantly white Middletown. Gasp!

Needless to say, Middletown Dreams didn't work out, and after this third attempt to write something that would sell, I gave up. The trips to Denny's became less and less frequent, and in 2000, I moved back to Houston. Shortly after, I would (re)discover the internet, discover that you could make money with it, and completely abandon writing fiction. From the early 2000's until 2012, I wrote practically nothing that wasn't for a blog, an affiliate site, or later, FeedFront Magazine.

Twice in the past decade or so, I've tried to go back to those stories and resurrect them. The first attempt, not long after Middletown Dreams, was solid; I typed up all my handwritten pages on a laptop (yep, Denny's late-night again). I started to realize how badly The Hard Way In was written during this period, but I was only typing, not editing. After a week of typing, I got sick of reading the words and took a break. The stories languished on a hard drive for years after. The second attempt lasted about a day. Just a few years ago (2008 or 2009, I think) I opened the archive and dug out the manuscript with an aim to edit and rewrite. The story was incomprehensible. The problem with casting your friends in your novel is that they change. Well, either that or you lose touch with them and you forget little things like why they are acting the way they are in your story. More than ten years passed between the time I wrote The Fifth City and the time I tried to rewrite it… and I had lost touch with every single person that I had used in the book. The plot was confusing. The characters' motivations were all unclear. At the end of the day, I zipped up the archive file and buried it back in my Documents folder on the hard drive.

And that brings us to today. In just a few minutes it will be July 1st, 2012 here in my time zone. My desire to write has been rekindled, but I will not be bringing back those old stories. As I mentioned a week ago, I'll be working in the Fantasy genre, turning out short and long fiction in a rich, exciting setting. I attended Comicpalooza here in Houston back in May and I found myself more inspired than ever before. Inspired… and optimistic. I have written a novel. Sure, it's not very good, but it's done (first drafts count as done, and don't try to convince me otherwise!). I wrote a whole damn novel (first draft, I know, I know) and I can do it again—and this time, I'll take everything I've learned since that first attempt and I'll make something worth reading. Here then, are five lessons I learned along the way:

  1. My problems with using my friends as templates: first, that I did that at all. Second, that what I wrote presumed the reader knew my friends. Perhaps I meant to flesh it out later, but in the end, there are a lot of gaps in the writing that should have been filled with characterization. It all made sense to me at one point in time, but it's gibberish now—and nobody else will get it either.
  2. Passion is important. It's hard as hell to finish a book without a passion for it. My second two novels failed, in part, because passion faded.
  3. Planning is important. The Fifth City failed, in part, because I did not plan anything out. Flying by the seat of your pants is exciting, and practiced writers might be able to pull it off, but aspiring novelists? Not so much.
  4. It's the balance that counts, though. Too much passion, not enough planning is a bad thing. Too much planning, not enough passion, as in the case of Michael MacNamara, is also bad.
  5. Don't let your mom read your stuff. She'll bug you for years to finish Michael MacNamara. Or, you know, whatever you're working on.

Well, there you have it—my brief, 1,964 word account of my attempts to write fiction. From this point forward, it's a whole new world. I'm glad you're here to read it. Thank you.

Pen and Notebook

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