Monday, January 7, 2013

What does it take to write a novel?

Since publishing Nothing is Right, I've gotten a wide variety of questions from friends, family, and people on the net who are working on their own books. Some of them are about why I chose not to shop my book to publishers and self-published instead (that's a whole other post), some are about process, and some are variations on "but how do you know it's good enough", which is a problem I struggled with for years. The single most common question I've dealt with, though, is "How long did this take you?"

That's a hell of a question for me. What do I say? Do I mumble about how I knew I liked telling stories in second grade? Do I count from the first time I managed to publish something (seventeen), from my declaration of a major in writing, or from the day I decided to stop writing for the theater and go back to fiction? Were the books I gave up on during the last four years part of my process for writing this novel? Were the other Clay stories I wrote (some of which will make it into the next book)?

Writing a first book is a lot like graduating from high school. There's no one part of it, and it marks the end of a long maturation process. It represents a new plateau in one's ability to hold on to a sustained discussion on the page. Why should it have to be quantified?

Because the audience wants to know, that's why. Unfortunately, there are some questions that well-meaning people will always ask because they don't know enough not to, and any attempt to explain why it's not a question that you can easily answer winds up making you look bad. Because of this, I usually say something like this:
Well, I wrote a bunch of short stories a few years ago. The Clay stories were part of them. After I tried to write a couple different book ideas and they didn't pan out, I went back to my Clay stories and decided to write some chapters bridging them together, and to release that as a book. It took me two months to write the original stories, and then another four to write the additional chapters of Nothing is Right, and then four months of editing and prepublication work.
That should be a perfectly understandable, logical, and satisfactory response. In fact, everyone I've ever given that response to has been totally happy with it.

I'm not happy with it, though. I don't think it's a realistic accounting of the work that went into this. So just once, I'm going to give the complete process of writing my first novel, the way I think it should be represented. After this, I'm going back to telling people the version I printed above.

  • In the fourth grade, I wrote a sustained comic strip series that had over 200 installments in less than three months. The narrative was essentially slapstick Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote stuff, but the characters developed as it went along.
  • In the fifth grade, I filled a journaling notebook (all 70 pages) with writing prompts from the teacher. She assigned a paragraph exercise every week, usually a prompt for a story, and then had us read them aloud. In the twenty minutes she gave us to write, I usually filled three pages, single-spaced and hand-written. During this time, I wrote several stories that the teacher found disturbing, and I experienced great emotional turmoil when she had my mother read them. Subsequently, I destroyed the notebook.
  • In the sixth grade, I won the Young Authors' festival award for my school for a book that was a parody of Michael Chrichton's The Andromeda Strain. It involved a lot of nonsense words and some bad jokes about alcoholism, but apparently it was the best story written in my school.
  • In the seventh grade, my English teacher was fond of having us read radio plays from Read! magazine that were adapted from classic short stories by Dickens, Poe, etc. I don't know why we didn't just read the originals. She assigned reaction writing assignments, so I reacted by writing my own radio plays making fun of the Read! magazine offerings by mixing in references to the Alien franchise, Star Wars, more bad jokes about alcoholism, and some blatant plagiarism from The Princess Bride. Most of them read like something Seth MacFarlane would write while suffering from a high fever.
  • In the eighth grade, I was not really engaged with writing, but I started reading Shakespeare and science journalism for the first time. I pushed myself to try to engage with fiction again, but it became very difficult for me because I did not know how to write a narrative from someone else's point of view. It was the beginning of my realization that expressive language was difficult for me. Plays started looking more attractive, because the stage directions could be curt and literal, and I could tell stories through dialog, which was empirically observable.
  • In the ninth grade, I had the English teacher that came closest to getting me to quit writing. Most of what I wrote for her were essays, and she was fond of criticism like "If you were in college, this kind of discussion would be great, but since this is high school and the focus correction areas don't cover this kind of writing, I had to mark it down." I called her the chicken lady. The only good things that came out of knowing her were that I read Great Expectations and I had an example to look back on when I started teaching, to show myself what I didn't want to be like. For some reason, she gave me the school's language arts achievement award after giving me a B- in her class. I don't usually swear on my blog, but fuck her. Still, after fifteen years. Fuck her.
  • My tenth grade teacher didn't do much to challenge me, but she was only twenty-five and she was pretty, so my sixteen year old self was pretty enthusiastic about going to her class. I don't recall being asked to write anything for her, but on my own time I wrote a lot of science fiction erotica that I shared with friends. I also had my first serious girlfriend, so I started writing poetry.
  • My eleventh grade year was also my first year of college, because I was going to night school to graduate early and getting a lot of dual enrollment credit. My Intro to Ethics class ignited my love of rhetoric. My literary composition class taught me a lot about the things that made it hard for me to write fiction. I did a lot of stupid teenage things and then wrote psychedelic poetry about them. I also wrote my first story for publication that year. In my final English class during my high school career, I read God-Emperor of Dune and met a student teacher who seemed to understand where I was at more than any of my regular teachers ever had. A few years later, I heard that his ex-wife accused him of molesting his daughters and he got forced out of teaching. The daughters testified on his behalf, saying that their mother was making up stories to blackmail him. Somehow, he wound up pleading no contest instead of getting the charges dropped. He might have been the only person I ever met with a more screwed up family background than I have.
  • At Western Michigan University, I spent a semester majoring in chemical engineering. I did this because someone convinced me that I could write no matter what I majored in, but that I would need a day job. I left the major after staying up all night to read Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in one sitting and subsequently missing a chemistry exam.
  • I also became a Resident Assistant at WMU. I did this mostly because I had no way of paying for room and board without becoming an RA. There were a lot of challenges in the position, but I persevered. I still did not know I was autistic, but it was getting harder to mask the fact that I was substantially different from the other students. I met my current partner during my junior year, when I was on staff at Bigelow Hall. That year was probably my favorite year, out of my entire life. There was some crazy bad stuff that happened, but I really miss the people who went through it with me. My staff was great that year, and even if most of them didn't know what my issues were, they still came together and acted like a family, and I needed that. I haven't seen any of you guys in a decade, but I still love you all. Email me if you find this.
  • During that time, I also started writing plays in earnest. I got better at poetry, too. I did the Grand Rapids slam poetry scene for a few months, won some meets, and placed in the top four most of the time. I also managed to publish a post-9/11 poem about biological weapons in the student literary journal at WMU, and I wrote a short play that won an English department award. Most notably, I started writing my first full-length play, which was about a man who was trapped inside his own head. All of the other characters were aspects of his own personality that he hated, and they tormented him while he searched in vain for a way to express his feelings to the outside world. I would work on this play for years without making it say what I wanted it to say. In no way does it resemble Nothing is Right, but it could probably still be viewed as a first draft for the book.
  • After leaving WMU, I helped to form an informal writer's workshop called the Pen & Deuce Playwriting Society. Yes, the name was a dick joke. So was the logo. During this time, I wrote several drafts of the full-length play I had been working on, as well as a series of silent plays that explored pantomime and a collection of monologues about people whose families did not value them who later turned to sex work, drugs, suicide, or mass shootings. I also wrote a sixty minute comedy about a homoromantic BDSM relationship called Jerry & The Clyde. The premise was that The Clyde was dominant but impotent, and that he would humiliate Jerry into having sex with women in front of him in order to prove he wasn't also impotent. When Jerry did not perform as expected, The Clyde beat him with sex toys. Over the years, I have considered revising it and putting it into contests, but at this point I'm probably going to say that there's no way I can make it work within my current views about gender, sexuality, and fetish lifestyles.
  • My partner spent most of a year hospitalized from severe seizures. During this time, I applied to graduate school, created a fantasy world and wrote several stories in it (some of which were good enough to get hand written rejection letters), and wrote exactly one play. Still, I wound up in graduate school for playwriting. I'm not sure why I made that decision.
  • In graduate school, I finally started to understand body language and subtext. It took until my independent study with my thesis advisor for me to be able to comprehend that these things were real and how they worked in the theater. Somehow, I still wound up getting several staged readings and a few productions of my shorter plays during this time. Theater was bad for me, though, because it was too many people all the time. I wrote four full-length plays, at least one of which was passably good, and a screenplay that has been to the quarter-final round in a number of contests. Of everything I did during this period, I'm most proud of the screenplay. Right now, I'm going back and forth between releasing it in screenplay format and rewriting it as a novel. All of my stage plays were basically therapeutic. I am not sure any of them will be revived again.
  • I got in touch with my mother for the first time in a decade. I was relieved to discover that she was consistently taking her medication. I was less relieved to discover that she was still Catholic, but I have since come to terms with it.
  • At the very end of graduate school, I discovered the power of interview-based docudrama. This cut-and-paste style, which only reported true and objective reports of the subjective statements of real people, really appealed to me. I did one about my family's history, but over the course of the revision process, it moved more and more toward fiction. I also tried to write other plays, but found myself blocked up. Three different times I started novels about Clay, but they fell apart at the 20,000 word mark.
  • As I found more teaching contracts, I also managed to find more time to write. I returned to fiction full-time, and wrote a series (about thirty) of creative nonfiction pieces that I dumped out via Associated Content. You might still be able to find some of them on the Yahoo! Contributor Network. They were very rough, but I enjoyed doing them. No, I won't link to them. I wrote them all in the immediate aftermath of my realization that I was autistic, while I was still trying to piece together what it meant and whether I was "autistic" or "Aspergers". The stories from this period were pretty much my way of trying to create a personal narrative of my life that made sense to me. I was also actively trying to get myself some kind of support or help at this time.
  • I also tried to put together a theatrical group, but when it fell apart I decided to stop writing for the stage for the near-term.
  • I wrote four short stories about Clay and released them on Amazon. I also tried to get into blogging, but I lacked the necessary focus. This was also about the time I started disclosing my diagnosis to my family members, so writing on a deadline was a bit much for me.
  • While I was trying to figure out how to talk to my father about autism, I got into a fight with my brother and in the aftermath of it, he basically told me "don't come back until you've solved your mental health problem". This, after years of telling me that my point of view was not valid because I was young and I would grow out of it. After promising to help me pay for college and then going, "Whelp, no" after the bills were already past due. After boxing up my room and moving my little brother into it without consulting me. After five teenage years of coming home and throwing pots and pans and furniture because the house wasn't clean and chores he'd never asked me to do or even told me about were not done.
  • I made a pact with my partner that we would live our next twenty-eight years for ourselves, and that we had spent enough time accommodating my family. I consider the making of that pact to be my divorce from my parents. Our relationship has never been better (mine and my partner's AND mine and my parents').
  • Liz's parents helped us with the down payment on our house. I settled into blogging, mostly by not pushing myself too hard and by reading other autism bloggers. I tried writing a couple of novels, one about Clay when he is in college. It didn't really work because I didn't have a good handle on him yet. I also tried to write a fantasy story in the universe I had been working with back before graduate school, but it didn't feel right.
  • Last February, I decided that I needed to write about Clay as a very small child. He is an expressionistic representation of myself, and I needed to articulate him more thoroughly before it made sense to write anything else. None of the events in Nothing is Right are literally true, but all of the feelings are real.
  • I finished the first draft of my book in May. I wrote three more drafts from the top down, spending about thirty days on each one.
  • In October, I went into the copy editing phase. I "finished" and sent it off to the printer for proof copies on Halloween. When I received them, I went back into editing. I went through three sets of proof copies, but I was done by Thanksgiving and the book was available.
I'm thirty-one, and I have not written a novel. I have written a novel, four full-length plays, a screenplay, an hour long play, a dozen one acts, over fifty short stories, more poems than a hipster can cram into a moleskine no matter how crimped the handwriting is, and over two hundred essays on topics ranging from grammar errors in freshman research papers to transgendered representations of the self in Sam Shepard plays to my problem with self injury when I was younger.

That's what it takes to write your first novel.