The First Novel of a Lonely Writer
Guest Post by David Hansard
When you see someone’s “first” novel on a shelf, what most readers (unless they’re also writers) don’t realize is that the book they’re looking at is almost never the writer’s actual first novel. Most wrote one, two, sometimes more, complete novels that ended up in the trash or on a shelf. When you start a book, of course, that’s not what you’re thinking. You will think your story is special and unique and that you may never come up with another idea that’s so terrific. It almost never works that way, but it helps to think it will. If you don’t believe in your book, you’ll never finish it.
A friend of mine, now a regular New York Times bestseller, wrote three novels that ended up in the bottom of a file cabinet. He eventually wrote one he thought was a Western, and a standalone. The publisher decided it was a mystery, and a series. He’s now about to publish the fifteenth in the series.
Another wrote two that were a (self-described) “mess.” Her third became her first published novel. She’s written three more in the series, and her next will be a standalone.
It is essential that you have the basic ability to write, but natural talent doesn’t teach you how to weave your words together into an 80,000 word–give or take–novel. You get that in a couple of ways. The first is by trying to do it, seeing what works, what doesn’t, and trying again. The other is by reading. Writing makes you a different sort of reader. You will constantly be looking at why a story affects you in a certain way, why you can’t quit turning pages, or why you have to force yourself to turn pages. There are a lot of books on writing, but the ones that benefitted me the most were Ann Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, Annie Dillard’s THE WRITING LIFE, and—at the top of my list—Lawrence Block’s TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. (One of my all-time favorite mysteries is Block’s EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE).
One of the sticky wickets of novel writing is the title. My first, ONE MINUTE GONE, was originally called THE UNIVERSE OF THINGS. A fairly well known crime fiction agent (not mine) told me, “You’ve got to change it. It doesn’t sound like a mystery.” He was right, and I did, a time or two. Finally, working with my own agent, we came up with ONE MINUTE GONE, which relates to what happens in the story. My second in the series, which will be out this summer, is called BLUE-EYED BOY. I’m not planning on changing that one, but until it’s on sale, you never know.
As published, ONE MINUTE GONE is around 75,000 words, 332 pages. The first draft was 125,000 words. One agent who liked it, said, “Cut it in half.” After I did, she didn’t like it as much. It wasn’t that I cut the wrong things, but some of the things I cut made the story lose flavor, and some of the characters weren’t as fully developed and complex as in the longer version. The solution was not to put back what I had taken out, but to make sure that elements critical to character hadn’t been lost. I had to find succinct ways of including those. You can spend a page explaining that a character is fastidious and obsessive. Or you can do it in a few words of dialogue and a bit of action.
Example: Without taking his eyes from mine, he picked a piece of lint from my jacket. “There,” he said, “all better.”
I would like to be able to tell you that having learned your lessons from a first novel, your second will be easier. It won’t. Each story is unique, and each time you will set the bar higher.
One of the best things I did was get know other writers, through organizations like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime (not just for women, though it started out that way), through writing groups, and by going to conferences like Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime. The panels can be interesting, but the real action is in the bar. After all, we’re talking about writers, here.
Writing is not merely a lonely experience, it’s solitary confinement. If you’re part of a community of writers, it’s solitary confinement with a lot of other people who are also in solitary confinement. One thing you will quickly learn is that unlike those in other professions, writers, even close friends, are not usually inclined to share much about a work-in-progress. There’s something about discussing your WIP, at least in any detail, that let’s the air out of the balloon, so to speak. There’s an adage: If you talk it, you won’t write it. While writers may not share the details of what they’re working on, most are still willing to share their daily agony and perpetual frustration, generally over a drink. Or two, or ten. For me, and for most I know, friends who are writers are an essential part of the creative process. Writing is too lonely a thing to do alone.
David Hansard will be here TOMORROW, 6/5 at 7PM speaking and signing copies of One Minute Gone. He will be joined by bestselling author, Matthew Quirk, who will also be signing his latest, The Directive. Books are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.