Monday, September 8, 2008


The pointy-ear hat helps keep the brain warm, essential for writing--right?

I started writing my first novel in 1975, while a senior in college. I was pulling an "A" in my Creative Writing class, mostly thanks to stories that were barely fiction, just true events with a few names and places changed. The prof said I ought to consider becoming a novelist. "Yeah, right," I replied--I was going to an engineering school, with the goal of getting a degree in computer science and landing a job like the one my cousin in Florida had, a job that had him spending nights on the beach in Bermuda watching the submarines go by (alas, although I had a pretty good twenty-six-year career in the telecom industry, I've still never been to Bermuda).

Still, I decided to try my hand at a novel, so I got some long sheets of newsprint, stuffed them into my ancient Royal upright typewriter and went to work. About thirty thousand words into the story, things had gotten so far out of control that I pretty much gave up. The characters just wouldn't do what I wanted them to, and the story was veering off into exactly the kind of macho-heroic-fantasy that I was trying to lampoon. Years later, I'd realize that I was making Rookie Mistake Number Three: starting the story at the beginning and expecting that it would somehow find its way to the ending that I had in mind.

In any case, graduation and work intervened. The thirty thousand words went into boxes that languished in my car, then a succession of apartments, and then my significant other's house, and finally went up the flue when I bought a house with a fireplace. I dabbled in painting, got into motorcycle riding, got married... for the next twenty-four years, the only writing I'd do would be at work, and stamped "COMPANY PROPRIETARY." I thought about fiction from time to time, but never did anything beyond daydreaming.

Until... the end of October, 1999. I had just returned from a Corporate Meeting From Hell, one of those week-long, off-premise lock-downs that has everybody coming home saying, "I'll quit before I go to another one of those." My flight was late, I was in a crabby mood and all I wanted to do was sit in front of the TV and be a vegetable. So I went downstairs and joined my daughter, who was thirteen and very much into anime, and watched an hour or so of Japanese cartoons. Afterward, for reasons I still can't explain, I found myself thinking, "I could write a better ending than that cartoon did."

You should never have thoughts like that, especially just before going to bed. I tossed and turned all night, writing and re-writing a "better ending" in my head, until I finally got up around six in the morning, knowing two things: first, I wasn't going to get any sleep until I wrote my "better ending" down; second, my "ending" now had nothing to do with the anime--it was apparently the ending to some other story entirely. So I got out the computer, wrote the story down, and then called in sick to work and went back to bed.

But if my little scene wasn't the ending to the Japanese cartoon anymore, what was it the ending to? I spent the next five years finding out. It was a lot like growing a crystal in a jar of saturated solution--my scene served as a seed, and the story grew around it as thoughts and experiences just sort of stuck. I threw a lot away, rewrote a lot more several times, and constantly moved stuff around in what was probably the most inefficient way to create a book ever invented.

By the time I found myself with an actual novel, I was retired, which meant I had a bit more incentive to try and sell the thing (living on a fixed income causes you to think of everything as an opportunity to make a few dollars). So I spent a couple more years collecting rejections. Then, in the spring of '06, I received an email from Twilight Times Books containing the words every would-be author longs to hear: "we are pleased to offer you a contract..." And so, after nearly two more years of editing and revising, I am on the verge of holding an actual novel in my hands. Wow.

It would be pleasingly symmetric to say that the novel I finally sold tells the story I was intending to write back in 1975. Alas, that story remains unfinished; The Last Protector is an entirely different book. But I have started working on my first novel again, under a different name, and this time starting with a sketch of the story and an ending (actually, I've got about five endings so far). So maybe I'll finally finish my first book this time.

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