September 27th, 2013 is the day I typed the first word of abridged, my debut novel. Twenty five months later, on October 22nd, 2015, I sent the final draft to my editor. As far as I’m concerned, this bad boy is done. It’s time to move on, to stop tinkering with Solomon and Max (the two main characters). All that’s left is proofreading, and then I’m handing it off to Kindle Direct Publishing and Createspace. They’ll turn my word document into something tangible, an actual book someone can hold in their hands. Digital versions will also be available for reading tablets, for those that prefer new school over old.
I learned a lot in writing this first book, both about the writing process as well about myself. When I first began, I thought it would be easy. I would plan everything out in detail. I’d work off an outline, rarely deviating from it. At approximately 1000 words per writing day and about 20-25K words per month, I’d crank out the first draft in about four months. I’d spend another four to six weeks making some simple revisions, and then joyfully move on to the second novel. I would also have the ending laid out before the first sentence was even written.
All I had to do was figure out which story to write. I originally had six storylines in mind, each in various stages of conceptual development. But if I had to rank the ideas, abridged would have placed last among the six. But I went with it anyways. This post explains how I ended up selecting abridged and what happened once I did.
Picking the biggest boulder, I expected to jam a few fingers trying to move it along. Friends who know me know I don’t take many things seriously. Here’s an example. In my last “real” job, I lead all the marketing efforts for a four hundred million dollar casino. That’s like real responsibility crap. But in looking back, I really could’ve cared less about things like marketing strategy or promotional profitability, i.e. the stuff I was paid to do. No, it was other things I looked forward to when I arrived at the office, things that actually got my heart racing.
I enjoyed walking into my VP of Finance’s office, dropping an air biscuit and then leaving. On the way out, I’d tell one of the labor analysts sitting in a nearby cubicle that her boss wanted to see her in his office ASAP. It’s a true story. I’m not proud of such juvenile behavior. Wait, actually I am. Pranks are great. These are the things I remember from my suit and tie days. I wasn’t really into all that corporate stuff. The good thing is it only took me 18 years to come to that conclusion. But I digress. The point is I could have picked from a half dozen, fairly well-baked storylines in which to write my first novel.
The first idea focused on the intersecting lives of seven people in a fictional, dilapidated casino located in central Nevada. It’s an industry in which I spent eight years working. But I didn’t want to be the casino guy writing about gambling, so I tossed that plot back into the pile. I also considered a comedy, a genre in which I felt quite comfortable, as the real-world example above would indicate. But I didn’t go that route either. Instead, I went with an idea that would be foreign and difficult. It would force me to explore some dark and uncomfortable themes (more on this below). I thought that if I could pull off finishing the hardest novel to write, any following book would be a cakewalk. Did I jam a few fingers? No, try more like severing an entire hand. I learned the hard way that a massive rock is a heck of a lot more difficult to move than a small pebble that’s just begging you to pick it up and playfully fling it across a pond.
abridged was a real pain in the ass to write. Although I never considered stopping, it took a lot longer than four months. Some chapters were extremely difficult to complete. One took over a month to finish. But now that I’m done with it, I can’t wait to move on to the book two, what I hope will be the literary equivalent of depositing stale wind in an enclosed space.
Writer’s block was something that occurred much more often than I would have expected. The outline for abridged consisted of thirty-eight detailed chapters (thirty-nine after I split one of the later ones into two, sort of like what they did with The Hunger Games movies). Each chapter had specific things that had to happen. Detailed notes kept me on track. So if I knew exactly what I had to do, writer’s block shouldn’t affect me, I figured. Yet it happened, a lot.
There are a ton of good writers on the internet, offering great advice in a variety of blogs and articles. Early on, I tried a lot of their suggestions. Exercising or going for a walk. Carving out time in the mornings when you’re fresh. Eliminating distractions. But what I found most difficult was getting my mindset into the right mood. abridged is a story about relationships. It’s about how friendship and loyalty help two people deal with a horrific tragedy. Um yeah, it’s definitely not flatulence. I had to force myself into really somber moods.
After some trial and error, I found my “go to” in form of an itunes playlist and a collection of DVDs and movies saved on the DVR. Three or four songs in a row or a half hour in front of the basement TV, and I was ready to start hammering away on the keyboard. Here are the mood songs, some of which clearly date me as an old fart:
The Cranberries (Zombie)
Carly Comando (Everyday)
Beethoven (Moonlight Sonata)
Evanescence (My Immortal)
A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera (Say Something)
Crash Test Dummies (Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm)
Matchbox Twenty (Unwell)
Creed (One Last Breath)
Soul Asylum (Runaway Train)
Candlebox (Far Behind)
Collective Soul (The World I know)
Soundgarden (Black Hole Sun)
Live (Lightning Crashes)
The Cinematic Orchestra (To Build a Home)
Domestic Problems (Beautiful Girl)
Gary Jules (Mad World)
Christina Perri (Jar of Hearts)
Five for Fighting (100 Years)
David Gray (This Year’s Love)
** Practically everything by The Fray is depressing.
As for the movies, Hollywood has done a nice job producing a vast library of tearjerkers. Google “saddest movies of all time” and you’ll find solid lists of flicks that’ll wipe a bright smile off any face. I had a few special gems, five independent films that barely made a dent at the box office. Collectively, these five movies made less than $22 million. As a basis of comparison, J-Lo’s The Boy Next Door made $35 million last year, and that’s just domestically. Ironically, three (arguably four) of the five films are considered comedies. If you’re happy and feeling good about yourself but would rather feel like crap, stream one of these movies on Netflix:
Liberal Arts (written and directed by “How I Met Your Mother’s” Josh Radnor)
Beautiful Girls (my favorite movie of all time)
The Skeleton Twins (with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Must be funny right? Uh, no)
Take this Waltz (with Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman. See Skeleton Twins comment)
Disconnect (about the world today in the digital age. No smiling emojis in this film)
I knew turning it off, as in getting abridged out of my head, was something I had to consciously focus on. Imagine the voice of Dolores O’Riordan (lead singer of The Cranberries. She’s also the same age as me) piping in through your earbuds as you spend six hours on a chapter that takes place at a funeral. And then the alarm on your iPhone goes off, reminding you that it’s time to pick up your son from school and take him to soccer. Clear the gloomy thoughts, fast.
I remember reading an interview with Gillian Flynn, my idol. And it’s not because she’s a phenomenal storyteller. It’s because she’s kind of weird, in a good way. Plus she shares sweet nuggets like this (from a Crown Publishing blog post about the writing process):
“I write for a long time, and then I stop. I’m a staunch believer in pottering about—I’ve had some of my best writing epiphanies when I’m doing things that have nothing to do with writing. So I may play a round of Ms. Pac-man or Galaga. I rock at both. The high score reads: GIL GIL GIL GIL BXN (my husband) GIL GIL RFN (my husband pretending to be my cat). I should add that I dominate the scoreboard because, while I legitimately rock, I also cheat. After videogames, I may take some time to manage my Netflix queue.”
Stopping – That was important for me as well. Whether it was 2:30 a.m. and time for bed or because Homeland was about to start, I always stopped and did something else, even if it was for just a few minutes. Stopping cleared my mind of abridged and filled it with other thoughts. Gawker and Deadspin are great pit stops. Sometimes, even just a headline is enough to completely alter my mood. The one trick that worked the best was the Volvo commercial presented at the top of this post. It’s only 76 seconds long and I’ve watched it several hundred times. No exaggeration. Yet its efficacy has never waned. (If you Google “Jean Claude Van Damme Timecop Splits” you’ll find this physical artistry).
In the end, I’m happy with how abridged turned out. The manuscript evolved a lot over the two years. The first draft weighed in at a clunky 129,000 words, or roughly 515 pages. My editor put me through the ringer. I cut some scenes that I swore were essential. I killed off a few characters that I thought were untouchable, including one guy loosely based after myself. He was kind of an idiot though, so removing him actually wasn’t that hard in the end. The final document sits at 68,000 words. I essentially cut half of the book. Freaking half! That blows my mind. Sometimes I think I wasted a lot of time early on, but I know that the experience will make me a better writer.
What else? Oh, there are two sex scenes in the book. I’m satisfied with how these turned out too, although I learned another important lesson here as well. When writing such scenes, make sure you close and lock the office door. Because when your wife walks in and asks what you’re doing, it’s an awkward conversation to have. I think I would have preferred her walking in on me actually watching porn.
I hope you enjoyed some behind the scenes of abridged. It’s in my editor’s hands now, but I hope I’ll get it back from her soon, without too much more red ink. I’ve already started on the idea for the second book. I haven’t put too much time into it yet, as I really want to get abridged onto Amazon’s “bookshelves” as soon as possible.
I’m trying to find the right words to describe this next book. But it goes something like this. It’s about a typical seventeen year old girl in her last year of high school. Right now, her name is Courtney. She has an older sibling in the peace corp. and a much younger, five year old brother. The father is an executive at some Fortune 250 company and the mother is a former state senator. A sudden, unexpected event will turn Courtney’s world upside down. That’s all I can say for now. I wouldn’t quite classify it as Young Adult, although it might draw some slight influences from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars – but only if Amy Schumer and Aziz Ansari had gotten their hands on the final draft. My goal is to have the outline finished by New Year’s Eve of this year. I think I can do it, so long as I don’t run out of gas.