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.