The Process of Writing That First Novel

Often, my many adoring fans have asked me what gave me the inspiration to write my first novel. Well, actually, I should probably mention that when I say “many adoring fans” I’m referring to my stuffed bean bag frog named Elmer who really doesn’t care why I started writing, but I figured that starting with that wouldn’t cause you to be all that interested in what I had to say later (note to editor who doesn’t exist: remove this last aside before allowing this blog to go to print). Anyway, years ago, when I was a very young adult, I decided that I was going to sit down and write my first novel. It wasn’t “officially” my “first” novel as I had written probably five before it, but it was the first serious novel that wasn’t designed to go right into a drawer to remain until the end of time.

The novel was Innocent Until Proven Guilty, which you may remember as the novel that fought in there up to the last round for the Pulitzer Prize, right before losing out to some novel about some guy who realized something at the end of the book that somehow seemed really significant. Okay, the Pulitzer people weren’t considering my novel for the prize, but they could have been. If they’d ever heard of it. Which they probably never have. But I’m digressing again, and I fear my medication may be wearing off soon.

So, as I was saying, early in my adulthood, right about the same time I was in the Army in Germany, I decided to write my first novel about corporate intrigue and murder, or it might have been about corporate murder and intrigue; I kind of forget. But anyway, it involved a corporation, a murder and intrigue. And not necessarily in that order. But considering that I had never worked for a corporation, had never murdered anyone (not that anyone can prove…although you cops sure tried but boy did I get over on that one…oh sorry, the meds again), and really didn’t know much about intrigue other than have an overly active imagination, I figured it would have been a pretty easy novel to write. And it was.

But one of the things they tell you when you first start writing is that you should write what you know. Well, we kind of went over that. Three strikes there, but I’m okay with that. They also say that a writer’s first novel is almost always about the killing of his or her parents (kind of a growing up kind of novel). But my parents died long before I started writing that novel, so that didn’t seem all that necessary. So this was basically a raw attempt to just show that I had an idea of what I was doing.

One of the interesting struggles of writing a first novel is to actually get through the process of finishing that first novel, which while it sounds kind of obvious, is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. When I started writing it, I had a general idea of where it was going, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: There was a second shooter on the grassy knoll. No, wrong secret. I mean, I had no idea where I was going the entire time I wrote the novel and I sort of let the story tell itself. And it did. Wonderfully. Even after I finished it, I kept thinking that somehow I cheated because the damn thing practically wrote itself. The characters came to life and did their own thing, the plot developed all on its own, and everything sort of fell into place. For the longest time, I was convinced that I had written what is often referred to as “that one novel he had in him”, convinced I’d never be able to do it again.

There are a few authors out there who I often think of as an author who had one novel in him or her. Alice Sebold is an example. She wrote a brilliant novel (that was turned into an semi-okay movie) called The Lovely Bones. Since then, she’s written generic stuff that hasn’t resonated anywhere near as well as that one novel. And there’s a reason for it. The Lovely Bones was one of those novels that needed to be told. She just happened to be the one to tell it. But even as I read it, I kept thinking, wow, this is a great book, but I’m not sure I’d really want to read anything else she has to write, thinking this was definitely a one-hit wonder. And it was. Now I could be wrong and next year she may come out with the next War and Peace, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any sooner than James Frey is ever going to become best buddies with Oprah Winfrey again.

Anyway, so what I discovered was that after the book was finished, I was ready to start tackling my second novel, and I did. But as I wrote the second one, it took a lot longer, and I realized then why Innocent went so easily. I had already written the novel in my head before I sat down to write it. When I finally did write it down, it was like I had been one of those wandering minstrels telling the story of the Iliad before someone figured out how to invent actual writing. Then it was jus a matter of doing it.

Sometimes that happens. Most often it doesn’t. Most often, I’m plotting out the whole thing chapter by chapter, constantly struggling with where the book needs to go next. Other times, I sit down and a novel comes out. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever truly figured out the science behind it. But I do know that I love to sit down and write novels.

Right now, I’m working on a rewrite of a novel I wrote years ago (the third one) that takes place in 1991. Strangely enough, the first edition was written in the 1980s. It took the future happening before the novel actually found its time and place.

Writing is strange and can be that way. It’s why I love to write. It was either this or be a male prostitute because those were the only two skills I was good at: Writing and charging people money. What? Were you thinking of something else?

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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