One Novel at a Time

Tonight: a dilemma.

I am torn between two projects I want to start; one of which is nearly five years old and exists piecemeal in various files, scraps of paper filled with my left-handed chicken scratch, and a notebook (wire bound, college-ruled) filled with scenes, character sketches, and what I like to call questionnaires (more on this later); the other one is a relatively new tale that is complete as a short story, but deserving of a longer format. Decisions, decisions.

Any writer will tell me just pick the one that moves you, that makes you want to get up in the middle of the night and write if you have to. The problem is I am charged about both of them. And a long time ago I learned the hard way that I can only work on one novel at a time. Sure, other writers are capable of penning two or three novels at the same time, and often those novels are all quite good; but I work how I work. One novel at time. Maybe it has to do with being a recovering alcoholic–the whole “one day at a time” thing. Or maybe it’s because I have only one child. Whatever the case, I have to choose. And soon.

The problem I face breaks down further. And here it is: Novel “A” (the five-year-old half-written gem) is essentially a contemporary fantasy story set in our world and one I created (am still creating?), a world in which one family is exiled from, only the protagonist, a young woman, doesn’t remember that world since she was too young when her family fled.

Novel “B” is from a short story I wrote recently this past year. The short story is 20-some pages long, but I felt, once I finished it, that I was only skimming the surface. The tale takes place here, shifting from the past (World War I, the 1940s, and the 1950s) to the present. In the story a scholar wants to obtain a fabled manuscript written by a famed reclusive writer who took up residence in the third floor flat of a home in PA. The scholar’s search leads him to an old woman who knew the writer when she was a young girl. The old woman reveals the source of the dead writer’s inspiration and it is nothing the scholar is prepared for by the story’s end. I rather like the old woman, and her younger self. And the more I thought about it I wanted to write the story from her point of view, rather than from the scholar’s who, as a stranger, is too far removed from the history surrounding the dead writer’s life.

Wow. Did I mention the questionnaires I create for my work? When I am writing notes and brainstorming I often write questions that I feel need answers before I go too far ahead with a novel. It can be anything that comes to mind. Say for example you have a character who is otherwise independent, strong-willed, a regular pillar of the community. What scares him or her? What does this person fear most? Do others know about it? That sort of thing. Well, one of the questions I wrote down while I brainstormed about Novel “B” went something to the effect “Who should tell this story?” I think I just answered my own question.

Come to think of it, I hope Novel “A” can wait a little longer. Novel “B” needs to be written sooner than later. So, I am going to sign off and get back to work. But before I do why don’t you leave me your thoughts about the writing process. Are you an orderly type of writer who has all of his proverbial ducks in a row? Or are you more like me, thriving on the chaos of a more organic approach? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way in any of this.

One more thing: if anyone out there has any tips on researching history of the early 20th century and how it impacted local communities (WWI, the Great Depression, etc) I am all ears…I have a vision where I want Novel “B” to go, and I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on U.S. history; but, like most writers no matter where they fall in the spectrum of experience, I am still learning…Just like I did tonight.

Dracula and Frankenstein Walk Into a 7-11 Convenience Store

So, I recently published Little Flower of Luzon, a novel about a man in his late 30s who falls for a 17-yr-old Filipina, and their ensuing relationship that turns out to be as ill-fated as they come. Little Flower of Luzon was a labor of love as I mentioned in a previous post, but that novel was different from anything I’ve written in that it is realist fiction, a far cry from what I am used to writing. Or maybe that’s not what I mean. Some elaboration may be in order.

More than 30 years ago, before there was an internet, back when a mega-chain bookstore amounted to the likes of B. Dalton Booksellers, Walden Books, and that other one whose name escapes me, I used to go to, of all places, my local 7-11 convenience store that sold paperbacks. These were the days of Stephen King’s Cujo, The Stand, etc. At my local 7-11 I even bought a copy of Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn. In my little town there was a library, but the books there, the books I was interested in, at least, amounted to 1950s and 1960s era sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My local 7-11 store was within walking distance. So was the library. There was something about the smell of new paperbacks (yes, I admit here that in the dead of the night, I sometimes sniff new books in my collection. Go on, admit it. You do too.).

These were the days when I was 11 yrs old. By the time I reached my 13th birthday, I was making the trek to our new local mall located several miles from my home. My choice there was Dalton’s or Waldenbooks. I spent many afternoons bouncing between the upper and lower level of the mall, trying to decide which paperbacks I wanted to buy. It made my friends furious, but then they never loved books the way I did.

By the time I was 11 years old I had a paper route. Some weeks I went home with as much twenty dollars. Sure, I spent some of that money on the staples an 11-yr-old needs: soda, chocolate, bubblegum, the occasional comic book (this last staple was frowned upon by my parents, believing that a boy like me was better off using my imagination to conjure images of characters within a novel or a short story, their surroundings, etc. rather than having someone provide images for me…fast forward those three decades or so later, and I find myself chastising my 12-yr-old son about reading a book versus playing the xBox; but, that is tale for another time)–but the bulk of my hard-earned money from my paper route was spent on books.

From a very early age I was interested in what-if novels. The very first books I ever bought–with money my parents had given me for the book mobile at my grade school in Camden, NJ–were Dracula and Frankenstein. Both editions were paperback. It was autumn, crisp, dry wind whipped up red, gold, yellow, and brown leaves from the ground, and Halloween was not far off. It was one of the best days of my life.

So what’s all this have to do with my latest novel? If there’s a point then it is this: a writer never sets out to write in a specific genre. That sort of categorizing comes later. I know little about psychology, but I like to think, as a writer, I know something about the human condition. And I know that when a story needs to come out, regardless of whatever comfort zone a writer prefers, it will pour forth; reaching beyond what we are used to is scary, to be sure, but the end result is something far more rewarding. A story, any good story–any good story that the writer believes is true enough that his or her desire to get the story down trumps anything else in life–is a story worth writing.

One night I tried to explain to my son how it works, this writing life. I told him how, for me, ideas stew for some time before I write them down, how I write character sketches or scenes that have nothing to do with the story I intend to write just to flesh out a character more fully, how I often hear dialogue in my head and, every so often, verbally render those conversations just to hear what my characters sound like.

“So, you’re crazy?” my son asked that night.

Maybe I am, crazy that is. But I would have it no other way.