Friday, April 1, 2011

The Rookie Novelist: A Tale of Trivial Turmoil

I doubt there is a conventional way to write a novel.  However if there was, my method sure as hell ain’t it.
When I think of the average writer working on his current book, I manifest visions of someone sitting at a desk in their study or office, surrounded by leather-bound books.  A stack of blank paper at their right, a typewriter in front of them and their first draft neatly stacked to their right.  Let’s also throw a smoldering tobacco pipe on that desk too, for good measure.  Somewhere near them, a corkboard  hangs on a wall.  On it are numerous index cards filled with handwritten notes, many of them crossed out with new words written below them… their storyboard-in-progress.
Long into the wee hours of the night, the only noise one would hear in that mysterious room is the sound of that typewriter’s clacking  noise and music held at such a low volume, it’s barely audible. 
As inaccurate as my assumption of an average writer’s workspace may be, I still know that a real average writer would look at my version and say, “Th’ hell??”
Now before I take you by the hand and we jump into the description of my so-called “workspace”, allow me to instead start from the equally goofy event that got me thinking about writing a book.
It was the month of… something… and I was at work.  I had a bag of garbage in my hand and was walking to the back door to throw it into the dumpster.  When I opened the door, my eyes became fixated on a bee headed straight for my face, ‘World War II Japanese Kamikaze fighter pilot’ style.  Not wanting  to get a stinger in the nostril, I ducked out of the way.  Seconds after I got my bearings, I turned around to watch out for the bee’s second attempt.  But it was nowhere to be found… until I looked down and saw it on the floor, dead. 
“That sonnova bitch knew he was dying and wanted to take me with him.  What a dick move!”
That got me thinking. “What if someone sling-shot it at me? … How could he get a bee in a slingshot? … What if he froze it, then as it was thawing, he sling-shot it at me? … That’d be one interesting-ass person. … I’d love to read about someone like that in a novel. … Why don’t I write a novel about that???”
Boom. The seed of writing a novel was planted in my head. 
If you don’t know me at all, I'm sure you're thinking, “This J.S. Wright guy is really weird.”
If you do know me, I KNOW you're thinking, “Why am I not fucking surprised.”
Moving on.
When I walked back to my desk, I immediately sat down and began writing.  For the next four to five hours, the only breaks I took were to either light a cigarette or to shake the cramp out of my hands.  When I was finished with some character ideas, possible storylines and settings, I hit Print and put the results in my pocket, then emailed a copy to my laptop.
For the next few days, all I could think about was novel ideas for the novel (see what I did there??).  My work days were slow so I would free write, make bulleted points, plan things out, then print the results and email a copy to my laptop.  After about a week of repeating that process, I had a back pocket full of clever ideas, but no direction.  I knew there had to be a better way of doing this.
The first thing I did was go online and search around for handheld notebooks.  The drive I made to and from work was too thick with wandering thoughts and immense ideas, I couldn’t let any of them fall to the wayside.  After I found exactly what I was looking for (Moleskine Notebooks), I realized that attacking a project of this magnitude couldn’t be done on my own.  So I turned to someone who would know a lot more about this sort of thing than anyone else I knew, my older sister.
I shot her an email and followed it up with some of the ideas I had originally written down on that fateful day when that bee tried to pull a murder-suicide.  Shortly after, I got a reply… and boy was she excited.  We volleyed emails and texts back and forth for a little while, me giving vague ideas and she giving helpful tidbits of information… including this one (paraphrased) gem: “Start writing… and keep writing.”
So that’s what I did.  The result was a close version of the novel’s first chapter, posted below.  I sent it to her and she came back with excitement and encouragement, a quality of hers that I've come to depend on over the years.  She’s one of greatest people I've ever known.
That first chapter gave me tons of storyline ideas.  Soon I had a definite main character, secondary characters, a love interest, an antagonist, but the storyline itself was shaky at best.  When it comes to writing, I somehow have the ability to come up with great ideas and clever lines moments before the spot where they were necessary came up.  Knowing this, I decided to write out chapter outlines and come up with the entire story on the fly.  Four hours later, I had the outlines for the first twenty-four chapters  of a pretty solid sounding story written down.  Print. Send.
The next few weeks, noticed that it wasn’t so much of a solid story, but more of a flaccid one.  Well, maybe not flaccid, but I like using the word flaccid.  Flaccid.  Flaccid.  Flaccid.
So, taking ideas from the books I had recently read, I decided to include subplots and back stories.  This gave me enough nerve to write chapter two, and I did… almost.  There were so many holes and dead-ends in my storyline, that it made it very difficult to bridge the gap between mid-chapter two and the rest of the story that I had planned out.  Worse than that, the storyline itself was starting to look very boring and thin.  Shit.  Then it happened.
Writer’s Block.
I've never experienced for myself, but I've always heard about it happening.  Let me tell you, it was just as frustrating as you might’ve heard.  Days turned into weeks, weeks tuned into months, and the only production I had was small little lines that might sound cool… somewhere.  Getting discouraged by the few little entries into the notebooks that I bought, I began to lose interest, and started writing essays instead.   Through force of habit, I still carried the two black notebooks and printed copies with me at all times.  Every so often, I would open them up and look over everything, tying to ignite a fire in my brain and get to ball rolling again.  “I wish I would’ve listened to my sister and JUST KEPT WRITING!” I would periodically think to myself.
 Fast-forward a few months.  By then I had started  two blogs and was posting on them from time to time.  Then one day, I decided to look for help again, but this time, I asked everyone.  On my blog, I explained my predicament as a header, then pasted the first chapter.  I never got any reply, and I wasn’t totally surprised.
Then one morning, I came up with a new idea.  I wrote it down like I always did.  Then as I wrote it, I added to it.  Three seconds later, another idea, then another.  Filling up pages and pages in my notebook, I opened up Word and holy SHIT the flood gates opened.  I became a machine. 
I cut out 80% of all of my old plot notes and ideas, the only thing I kept was the first chapter.  I began to write chapter two.  Four thousand words later, it was done.  The next day: chapter three, another three thousand words.  The ideas were coming to me so quickly, I couldn’t keep up by writing the book out in it’s entirety.  So the next day, I wrote outlines for some of the following chapters… only each outline was about a thousand words.  Not one idea was left out.  After four days of straight writing, I needed to take a break. It was time to brainstorm.  It was time to figure out a story that actually worked.  At the end of the fifth day, I had the whole book worked out.  I even came up with a fucking epilogue.
That was two weeks ago.  Because of work picking up and not having enough time at home, my pace has slowed down dramatically, but I’m still going strong.  Currently, I have six chapters done, and  extensive outlines up to chapter twelve, all amounting to 20,000 words.  At this rate, I hope to have the first draft finished by July.  “Why so far from now?” you ask.  Well basically, there’s a SHITLOAD of chapters that I've yet to write.  I’m projecting 35+ chapters, all being written in my very odd method and workspace location.
My workspace isn’t much of a workspace at all, its more in my head than any place else.  When I do write, it’s mainly at work, and I work in a damned warehouse.  Each chapter is generally broken up into sections, and each section takes me a few hours.  When I'm done with that, I print it and send it like I always have.  When I get home, I take a break and edit what I've written earlier that day while laying on my bed with my laptop beside me.  The next day when I find time, I sit back down and take the next section or chapter that I've formulated in my primary mental workspace, and write it while sitting in my secondary physical workspace.
Some writers have an elegant wood or glass desk, I have one comprised of cut and drilled particle board, that I built myself.  Other writers use a typewriter, I use a company-supplied desktop.  Some writers play classical music very quietly, I have Depeche Mode blaring loudly.  One writer may have his trusty dog laying at his feet, I have a forklift resting six feet to my right.  Another writer may have a rolling executive’s chair, I have a stool… that frankly isn’t very level.
Maybe if this book I'm writing ends up getting published and makes me some money, I might be able to find more time to write another book and then another.  I certainly have come up with a lot of great book ideas along the way, so there’s a slim chance I might be able to quit this god forsaken job altogether.  That would be pretty nice, having a real “writer’s type” of workspace.  I’d have the books, the desk, the solitude, but most importantly, the time to write. 
One thing is for sure though.  If you walked into my office, you ask me to turn the music down.  To which I would reply, “Fuck off.”
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