Abandoning The First Novel To Write A Newer Novel?

Several years ago I set out to write my first novel within a year, following a broad outline and writing several pages a day. A year and one week later, I had finished writing the rough draft in 2008. Alas, a rough draft it remains to this day. My first novel about video game testers and a weird-but-pissed-off ghost became a sprawling mess. Several attempts to revise the rough draft convinced me that I needed to split it in half in 2009 and turn into a trilogy in 2010. The plan for this year was to start revising the first book in the trilogy as a stand-alone novel on July 1st, kick it out the door to find an agent, firm up the outlines for the next two volumes, and move on to the next novel.

As July 1st quickly approaches, I’m no longer enthusiastic about revising my first novel. It’s becoming a labor of love with no guarantee of success. Big projects that fall under the labor of love category are best put on the back burners and revisited when I’m a more experienced novelist. A first novel that happens to be the first book of a trilogy was also a hard sell in the traditional publishing world. Although I have some success in publishing my short stories in print and reselling them as reprint short story ebooks, I’m not yet ready to embrace the uncertain future of being an indie ebook author. What I needed was a shorter, less sprawling novel that I could write this summer and kick out the door in January 2012.

Yesterday morning I woke up with a vivid dream about finding food inside carved out pumpkins left on the doorstep of a hut on a tropical island, a big storm fast approaching, an old man talking gibberish, and a creature howling for blood from deep inside the jungle. The dream didn’t dissipate like most dreams do when I woke up. Most of the details were still vivid. I sat down at the kitchen table to write a one-page summary, divided the summary into six parts, and added a half-dozen questions to flesh out the story further. When I got finished, I knew I had the basis for a 6,000-word short story—or a 60,000-word novel that could sell.

Stephen King had written several non-horror novels that didn’t sell when a friend challenged him to write a short story from the female perspective. He started writing a high school shower scene with a teenaged girl freaking out from having her period and the other girls making fun of her, got stuck on the details and threw it out when he realized that it wouldn’t fit the 3,000-word limit for the short story markets. His wife, Tabitha, fished the pages out of the wastebasket, liked what she read, and told him to finish the story. He turned the story idea into a novel and submitted it to an editor who had previously shown interest in his work. This became his first published novel, “Carrie,” that started his career as a novelist.

Could I transform this one-page summary into a novel that could start my career as a novelist?

The first step is to creating a fully realized outline within a month. Having written the sprawling rough drafts of a first novel and 1/3 of a second novel, I don’t want to create something new that will be impossible to revise. I need to keep a tighter focus on writing the story this time around. I also need to do some research since I know nothing about the people, culture or mythologies of tropical islands. Since my writing niche is Silicon Valley fiction, I need to incorporate that into the story. I was recently reminded by my non-writing tech job that software engineers often take their laptop on vacation to remote into the server at work, and one disgruntled wife tossed her husband’s laptop into the Sea of Cortez while on a Mexican cruise. An engineer going through Internet withdrawal is a horror story all by itself.

The second step is to write a minimum of 500 words per day for the next four months. This goal is on the low side of what I can write daily. Since I’m still working two non-writing tech jobs (swing shift during the week and early mornings on the weekends), writing 500 words isn’t a problem. Having written numerous flash stories of 500 words each, the hard part isn’t writing the 500 words but revising the 500 words into something meaningful. Unlike my sprawling rough drafts of previous novels, I’ll be going back to revise a previously written section where necessary to improve the story.

The third step is to finish writing the rough draft. I did that for the first novel after a year and one week, but didn’t for the second novel after three months. With a tighter focus than my last two novels, I need to get this one done.

For better or for worse, I’m looking forward to writing my new novel this summer.

Letting Short Stories Lie Fallow

This summer I took a break from the boring admin task of keeping 35+ short stories in circulation by letting them lay fallow after coming back with rejection slips. My tracking spreadsheet turned red over the last three months as I revised my first novel. A few recent short stories that garnered positive feedback from editors were kept in circulation. All the rest I didn’t bother with when they came back.

Although it took me a year to write a 120,000-word, 700-page rough draft manuscript of my first novel, it took another year to figure out how to revise it. The next draft after a three-month break had split the book into two volumes and removed all the material that didn’t work or wasn’t developed enough. And then I got stuck. I spent the remainder of the year on a speculative fiction bender that saw many of my recent short stories being accepted for anthologies. Meanwhile, I kept waiting for my novel manuscript to revise itself (not surprisingly, it didn’t).

What was the problem? The rough draft was crap. Unlike the rough drafts for many of my short stories, it wasn’t even brilliant crap. Just plain old crap that I couldn’t motivate myself to finish revising. The nagging doubt that haunted me was that the manuscript was too long for a first novel, and, even if it was split into two 80,000-word volumes, was still a hard sell for a first time novelist.

The solution to this problem became clearer over the summer: 1) revising a novel is hard work and not for the faint of heart; and, 2) I’ll need to write a shorter novel to increase my chances of finding an agent and/or publisher.

I spent three weeks summarizing each chapter on a notepad and outlining the first volume in Post-It Notes on a poster board to visualize the overview of the story. This is what I should have done a year ago. I started revising each chapter as many times as needed until it was good enough for me to move on to the next chapter, and update the outline—now spread out on four 30″ x 20″ sheets of mouse-colored paper pinned to a wall—with a breakdown of each chapter. I’m averaging two finished pages a day. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish revising the current draft by the end of the year.

Another reason to let short stories lie fallow is that many literary publications affiliated with universities don’t read the slush piles during the summer. If you sent a bunch of submissions at the end of the school year, don’t expect a response until September or October. Waiting for snail mail responses in the dog days of August is a painful exercise in patience when checking the post office box every week.

If you’re dependent on writing to pay the bills, taking the summer off to focus on a big project wouldn’t be wise. If you’re writing only fiction, you’re not making that much money anyway. (I’m lucky to get $20 USD here and there over the last five years.) The long-term payoff for fiction writers is having a successful career as a novelist. As much as I love to write short stories, I had to get serious about revising my novel this summer. If you’re successful enough to make a living from writing, you need a paid vacation anyway.

Now that summer is almost over, it’s time to get those short stories back into circulation. With The Iowa Short Fiction Award accepting submissions until September 30th, I’m reviewing my first collection manuscript as a way to focus my attention on the 32 short stories therein. I should have that done within the next 10 days. I’ll be assembling my second collection from October to December to submit for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series next year, reviewing all 21 speculative short stories that I wrote in the last year. The boring admin task of keeping so many manuscripts in circulation has returned.