Well, to get down to the nitty gritty basics, before you can get published or publish your own work you have to write something. And it isn’t good enough to simply write it, after you develop a concept you need to create a structure, then figure out characters, situations, and locales. You need conflict and resolution. You need one or more protagonists and also, ideally, an antagonist. It has to all work together. Your characters need to talk, feel, and be alive within the pages.
I took quite a bit of creative writing in college. Part of it was laziness, if any part of writing can be called laziness. The course applied toward my English degree as an advanced level course and it could be repeated. The coursework was primarily short stories. It taught me one thing: a good short story, and I mean a really good short story, is harder to pull off than a novel. A vast majority of short stories are just that, stories that are short. They can be entertaining, even enjoyable, but most never of convey a complexity that only the best achieve. Still, it’s a good training ground and a novel can be perceived as a huge undertaking that seems insurmountable.
My debut novel. THE FEVER, began as a two page treatment, written on some hotel stationery in the summer of 1986. All of the rudimentary details of the plot are there. Over the years, I started to write it at least four times but I never got more than a few pages in. Once I actually wrote about ten pages. I like to say, “Life intervenes” and I’m sure that is part of the case, but in reality, I just had no idea how to write a novel and I would put it aside out of frustration.
Then one day (for perspective, in late November 2010) I picked up a book, NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! by Chris Baty. He was the founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). One could, he said, write an entire novel in thirty days. Nice trick, I thought. But as I read through it, I realized, “You know, I could do this.” As I read about NaNoWriMo, I was mortified to learn that the real event took place in NOVEMBER. I was too late for 2010. But I kept reading. I realized, it isn’t the event, it’s the process. I finished the book in early December and again resolved to myself, “You know, you could do this.” Simple math indicated that all one needs to do is try to write a little less than 2000 words each and every day. I decided to prepare myself and dig in January 1.
The process is simple: you shouldn’t expect to have a fully completed novel in 30 days, but you’ll have a completed rough draft in that timeframe. One of the main things Baty emphasizes in his book is that you can’t edit as you go along. As he says, you have to send your internal editor on vacation. Bogging down on a sentence or a verb or a pronoun is what drives most fledgling writers into the weeds. Don’t get me wrong, it works for some, but it never worked for me. For them each sentence is a masterpiece, carefully place one after the other until you have a … well, like I said, I tried that four times with THE FEVER. Bogged down every time. I endeavored to give this different process a good try. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I don’t know how you can get chapter two just perfect when in reality you have no idea what’s really going to happen in chapter 23!
It was my New Years Resolution for 2011, to have a rough draft by the end of January. Oddly, I decided NOT to write THE FEVER. This was, after all, a test. I figured THE FEVER was my best idea, but I had other ideas. Even though I had worked out a lot of the plot and different elements I wanted to explore in that story over the years, I didn’t want to waste my best idea on this process if it didn’t work. I couldn’t bear another failure. So I picked a harmless project I had bandied about. I had less of an idea of what I wanted to do, but according to Baty, it really didn’t matter. “Pantsing it” he called it; flying by the seat of one’s pants. I had a locale based on some autobiographical journaling I had done earlier that year, a marvelous old building where I used to work in an older area of downtown Houston. The gist of the storyline was somewhat autobiographical: write what you know.
Get this: I found the process incredibly creative. I created bullet points of a rudimentary outline but as the story progress, I left that far behind as I hammered out sentences intent on making my daily word counts. The story told me where it wanted to go. I became consumed with it, and woke up each morning with a fresh new desire to find out what happened next. When I reached the end, I was elated. I’m still proud of that manuscript, set in 1972 and populated by the hippie-types I knew in my youth. Oh, it’s pretty awful and needs so much work, although I did a little revision work on it later that year, I’ve never completed the revision work. But it still has a soft spot in my heart. One other plus: I actually achieved my New Year’s Resolution!
I turned around and did it again in November, with yet another story idea. I still avoided THE FEVER, I wanted to prove it wasn’t a fluke. I had similar results. Both of the first two manuscripts were written in first person. The original actually works in first person, but the second one should have been third person. I’ve been thinking about picking it up and working through it. It will be a lot of work.
By the next November, I was ready to dive into THE FEVER. I was so pleased with the result, I turned right around and started revisions after I finished the draft. I loved the story. This was when I found out one minor detail: I didn’t know how to revise a story. Oh, I knew I needed to clean things up, expand character development, and add more details. In the first couple of revision passes I did way too much and added extraneous details and descriptions that had little to do with the story. My 50,000 word draft ballooned to 130,000 words. It was bloated and heavy. It had lots of good stuff, but many things didn’t apply to the real story and true to the first two manuscripts, far too much autobiographical information. Some of it applied to the core storyline quite well, but I realized 130,000 words was far too much for a debut novel, so as I got better at reviewing my writing, I cut and honed. I call this crafting the story.
I eventually allowed a few trusted souls to read the drafts and got some valuable feedback. I kept plugging away. I basically skipped the next two NaNoWriMos, well, I cheated and worked at revisions one time and worked through my journaled autobiographical info another time. But NaNoWriMo is fun, you can buddy up with other writers, track each other and encourage each other. Picked a few long term friendships there. One of those contacts suggested I approach her publisher. I didn’t at first, because I didn’t think it was ready and her publisher seemed to be mostly interested in Romance books.
I was coming up on the third NaNoWriMo since I’d written the draft and, to be honest, I was burned out. One of my NaNo buddies strongly suggested I just dive in on a new project to clear my mind. It almost seemed like I was cheating on my novel, but I did it. Totally fresh idea, completely different story. I hammered out the word counts just like the other three and before the end of the month I had another rough draft. I liked it, and thought it had a lot of promise, then I shelved it and dug back into THE FEVER. My mind was ready to take it all the way.
I’ll leave off here. Next time, I’ll relate the next stages of getting it published.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC. More information about him and his books: http://thefensk.com