Last Saturday, September 22nd, 2012, I finished the last chapter to my novel. Since then, I’ve been going back over it, to see if it’s readable, if it’s sequenced correctly, if it’s properly paced, and looking for major inconsistencies in character placement and chronology and setting and so forth. Then I’ll have to go back through it with a keener eye and start editing, looking for the grammatical and stylistic shortcomings that are all too often overlooked whenever one reads his own manuscript. In short, there’s still a lot of work to be done before I dare submit it anywhere.
That being said, I still feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride. Not that it’s a great book or anything, but I did it, I’ve written a novel, even if it is only a rough first draft. This is something I’ve dreamed of doing all my life, and about the fourth time I’ve tried. The other three attempts were undertaken at various points in my life and were miserable failures. I’d get about 50 to 100 pages written and realize that what I was writing was crap and was going nowhere. More than anything, I didn’t have the will to stick with it, to get rid of the crap and salvage the scraps that were good. I was unwilling and unable to learn from the process.
I’ve always been able to write. In school, it was one of the few things I did well, and I was able, with a minimum amount of effort applied, to consistently have my papers read aloud by my teachers. I recognized that I’d been born with some talent. It came easy for me.
That was the problem. Soon after I was out of high school, I tried to sit down and write, some short stories and my first attempt at a novel. I quickly found that, gift or no gift, writing, when not given a specific assignment and a deadline, is damned hard work, and requires discipline and determination, two things that I had no concept of, two things that quickly sucked any joy out of the endeavor.
So any dreams I had of writing were put on a shelf somewhere in the dusty attic of my mind. I went to school, focusing on the more economically viable and growing field of Information Technology, and started a career and raising a family. I grew fat, dumb, and happy – seriously happy. I loved my life as a husband and a father, and found both roles to be extremely gratifying. For the most part, I enjoyed and took great satisfaction from work.
Still, from time to time, while putting other things away, I’d stumble across those musty attic shelves and blow the dust off my writer dreams and attempt another go at a novel, the memories of praise from high school teachers and my mom serving as inspiration. It didn’t take long for me to realize that trying to impress your mom isn’t a good enough reason to write, especially when you realize she’s your mom, and is pre-disposed to liking anything her child produces. Mainly, I still wasn’t ready for the perspiration, the hard work required.
Then in early 2005 I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Not long after my diagnosis, I began to suffer from serious sleep irregularities. I found myself up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep for hours at a time. One night, tired of playing the sports simulation games I normally passed the time with, I opened up Word and started writing. I started by writing descriptions of vivid dreams and childhood memories that had recently been flooding my mind. I went on from there to write essays describing my experiences with Parkinson’s. It occurred to me that maybe my children would someday find value in knowing what their old man was going through, what he was thinking and feeling and what he was doing in the middle of the night. I finally had a reason to write, and more importantly, a desire to get better at it.
I joined a local writers group (the Kenosha Writer’s Guild), not knowing what to expect. It was the best thing I’ve ever done. They were kind and generous and supportive in receiving my work. More importantly, I found amazing and diverse talents in the group. I’ve learned so much from their support and critique of my work, I’ve learned even more reading and critiquing theirs.
I wrote a series of essays and tried to get a collection of them published as a memoir focusing on my experiences with Parkinson’s. I had a couple of feelers from a couple of literary agents, but they both eventually turned me down. I could see why; I knew what I was lacking, and that I just didn’t have it in me to fix them yet. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to put in the work, it was more a realization that the story I wanted to tell wasn’t ready yet. This plus the fact that I was growing bored with the subject of the memoirs – me – lead me to, almost two years ago now, start work on a novel.
At first, the thought of writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, was daunting. I’d become very comfortable with the essays and memoir material, learning to some degree how to craft personal experience into something a bit more universal, how to articulate my view and experience of the universe in a way others could see and relate to. In fiction, it seems you have to create the universe first. I’d have to articulate what I imagine, and that seems much more personal than the fact-based world of memoirs.
But that quickly went from daunting to liberating. It was the realization that in fiction, you can still describe what is important to you, but you are no longer limited by the constraints of experience. If you strongly believe something but you don’t have fact based experience to support it, you can just make something up to fill in the gaps.
Still, I knew nothing about writing a novel. When I started, I had a setting that I wanted to write about, and a handful of characters, but I really didn’t have a story. So I dove into it, and soon a story began to reveal itself. I followed it for a while, but I quickly found it wasn’t going anywhere I was interested in. I still liked the setting and most of the characters. So I started off on a second storyline. Like the first, it wasn’t going anywhere.
What I had at this point was a setting and some characters and some random, disconnected stories about each of the characters, but still nothing to connect them. I then decided, screw it, I’d write one of the stories and see what happened. The story was about a middle aged woman who is married to a man with one leg and has an affair with a second one legged man. I wrote the story, and when it was done, I thought, this is the best fiction I’ve ever written, there has to be something there. I then wrote another story, with one of the main characters from the first, and I liked the second one even more.
At about the same time, I read the book, “The Temple of Air”, by Patricia Ann McNair, a collection of loosely connected short stories about a Midwestern community. It’s a great book, it knocked my socks off, and for a while, I thought, that’s what I’ll do – I had all these story lines and characters, I’ll just keep writing the stories and see what happens.
Eventually, though, I was able to find the thread that connected the stories, and wrote several chapters that were strictly transitional – so it seems I have a novel after all.
Now I have to tweak it and get it ready to submit. I am realistic enough about my own talents and the nature of the market place to know that publication is unlikely. That probable frustration still waits – for now, I am going to enjoy and take pride in the sense of accomplishment of actually getting a first draft done!