I finished writing my first novel – about a journalist who spends three days within the quarantined city of San Francisco – in 2013. I had developed it from a short story I wrote in 1994,almost thirty years before!
The short story, A Little Reality Never Killed Anyone, is about a group of teens in some kind of dystopian world who play dangerous truth-or-dare games to conquer their fear of living day-to-day. It’s not very good. I’m not just saying this to be humble or self-deprecating, it’s really not good. (One magazine that rejected my submission wrote – and I’m paraphrasing, only slightly – “We’re not interested in your story. We only publish good writing.”) But, it was one of the first and few short stories I ever wrote, and I will always cherish it as one of the many, necessary steps I took in becoming a novelist.
So, why thirty years to write my first novel?
First, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. A story of a few pages length is one thing. A book of 200-plus pages, with real character development, detailed settings, and a cohesive story arc is a whole other realm of organization and creativity. I must have written a dozen or more outlines, trying to figure out how to connect all the different elements that were swirling around in my imagination.
Also, I had a number of strong characters with very distinct experiences. So I wrote three or four first drafts, each from the perspective of the various characters (written in first person). Yet, none of the early drafts worked because I couldn’t coherently tell the story of all the characters from the point-of-view of only one of them. I also tried approaching it as a collection of stories connected by a common thread, like Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, or Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. But that merely complicated what had already become a daunting task.
How about writing from the omniscient or detached viewpoint? I thought to myself. I wrote one such draft that just didn’t sound right; the story called for a more intimate narration than that.
In 2004, I took a course in the writing of research papers. (I had a vague plan of getting a degree in the field of linguistics.) I wrote two pretty good papers, if I do say so myself, both of which had an unintended journalistic voice to them. And there was the answer to my dilemma: write my novel from the point-of-view of a journalist, from the outside, looking in. It was quite astounding how everything fell into place with that realization.
The second reason (or excuse, depending on how you look at such things) was the single greatest challenge that I think every writer faces – Life. It can sure get in the way. Working to pay the bills and a difficult first marriage, to name two things. But, and this would be my first piece of advice to any aspiring author, it’s amazing how much you can produce with only one hour a day dedicated to writing and only writing. That’s all. An hour a day.
Lastly, the greatest deterrent to the completion of my first book was, simply, fear of failure. I’d spent (or wasted, depending on how you look at such things) so much of my life chasing rainbows (like a linguistics degree) that when it came to doing the one thing I felt I had a certain amount of skill in and true passion for – writing – I became incapacitated with the fear of it not working out, of failing, and then where would I be?
Well, it did work out, because I realized the only way I would fail is if I didn’t try.