W. P. Johnson

Archive for August, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Road To Publication. Or: How I Wasted The Past Six Months

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2014 at 1:21 pm
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There’s a fuck load of coffee in that cup.

Now that I am at the halfway point of writing my first novel, A Song For John, I feel compelled to offer up a diary of sorts regarding this process if only for the sake of future readers who are curious about it’s conception. I don’t have any illusions that I’m some sort of authority figure on novel writing or publication, but what the hell, what’s this blog for if I can’t pull the curtain back for people now and again? Part of me likes to think there are a few writers out there that will read this and take something away from it that will be helpful, and part of me hopes that someday I’ll have a few fans that will enjoy reading about the process. You can also read a few other writers and their journeys on the path to publication here and here.

I started writing A Song For John in February. Prior to that I had spent about three years writing and submitting short stories and have blogged on more than one occasion about this process and the reasons behind it. In short, it had become my opinion that no one will buy my book if I don’t have a decent amount of publications under my belt unless that book is completely brilliant (a genius, I ain’t). Plus, I felt I needed the practice that writing short fiction provided. There are numerous arguments and debates on whether or not short fiction is a path to becoming a good novel writer. Some people say that since the two are so drastically different, practicing one does not necessarily make you good at the other (kind of like saying, if you practice drums you’ll eventually be good enough to play guitar). My personal opinion is that both sides are correct. Writing is novel is drastically different than writing a short story. Short stories are all about the economy of words. You only have so many of them to tell a compelling story, whereas with a novel, you have alot of space to stretch those narrative muscles. Think of the short story as a single flight of stairs and a novel as a spiral staircase that circles the same story thirty times, revisiting certain ideas and characters. While one definitely takes more time to complete than the other, in many ways doing both with success can be equally challenging.

I should also note that this isn’t my first book. When I was thirteen I attempted a novel about a comic book superhero and then bailed on it after the files were accidentally deleted. At seventeen I attempted my dystopian future novel ala Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World, abandoning the idea after a hundred pages because I really had no clue what happened next and couldn’t handle the task of world building. At twenty I wrote and finished a 200+ page novel that was a terrible imitation of all things Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis, boxing it up in my desk drawer where it will never see the light of day (and no, I don’t plan on revisiting this novel). In my mid-twenties, I tried another dystopian fiction idea that I still think has some good stuff to it, but again, I hit a wall in the note process and simply couldn’t grasp how to get from Point A to Point B (someday I’ll probably try this idea again when I’m more equipped to take it on). When I was around twenty-seven I tried my first horror novel and managed to get about a hundred pages finished as well as a copious amount of character notes and ideas on what would happen and why. Again, I felt ill equipped to do any of my ideas justice with my writing capability. The idea was shelved, though I still think about it, alot actually, and it will probably be my third book.

When I was thirty, I started performing stand up as research for a horror novel that I thought maybe would be doable. It was also around this time that I began my journey of short fiction writing. Having failed on so many novel ideas, I decided that maybe I needed to practice at something shorter and learn the art of short story writing. The thinking was that if I can’t successfully write a short story, than I definitely can’t succeed writing a novel length work. The quota I gave myself was 30-40 stories before beginning the novel, giving me enough time to research it with the thinking that by the time I finished this many stories I’d be a much better writer and more than ready to write my novel about stand up comedy.

I made my goal of about 30 short stories, though I only managed to sell 20 of them (no easy feat, as writers would tell you). Several of these were to pro paying markets, most were to token or royalty based, and about 3-4 went to payment in exposure markets because I didn’t know better. The rest were scrapped or are currently in submission.

At this point, I was starting to get the itch to begin a novel length work. However, aside from the fact that I still felt ill-equipped to sell a book, I wasn’t sure if I could tackle the comedy horror novel yet. I still needed to spend some time in New York and there were a few odds and ends that I needed to research (urban exploring in particular). Furthermore, I started to get it into my head that a novella might be a good way to work my way up to the full length novel, thinking that if i had about twenty short stories sold and a novella, then selling my novel wouldn’t be the Herculean feat it had been when I first started this. I would have a good “resume” so to speak.

I tried my hand at a longer short story, writing “The God of Dead Dreamers”, which turned into a 12,000 word beast I really didn’t think I’d ever sell (as of now, it recently sold to Shroud). Despite how impractical it was to write a “novellette”, it was good practice at writing something longer and I believed it would be a good stepping stone to a novella length work and that after I finished the novella, I’d be comfortable with the idea of tackling a full length novel. After finishing “The God of Dead Dreamers”, I cleared my desk of anything related to short story work, removing the note cards from my cork board of all the stories I currently had in submission, etc, essentially cleaning the slate for this novella. The ritual of clearing my table like this was quite the release. I suddenly felt unbound to the short story, knowing that when I next sat down to type, I would no longer have to worry about word length, or who I would be submitting it to, making one deadline or shaping it to a themed anthology. Next time I sat down to write, I’d be starting a very long journey with countless possibilities, the kind of things you just don’t find in a 5,000 word story. For the first time in awhile, after 3-4 years of grinding out short stories, I was finally allowing myself to write without restrictions and once again attempted a novel.

Based on a short story I wrote years ago (no longer in print), A Song For John was the novella I decided to try and write. The characters were mostly based on people I knew and the subject matter was music and my band days, something I was naturally familiar with. It took place in and around Philadelphia. It referenced records, guitars, classic rock and roll and punk, with elements of horror and dark fantasy. In short, the novel didn’t really require any research and for the most part I was able to start writing immediately without any kind of planning. The first chapter was about 3,000 words (15-20 pages) and written in a day, after which I immediately wrote a second draft the following day. Following that, I went right into the second chapter, repeating the two-draft process with each chapter.

After about a week of writing, I showed my partner the earliest pages, as she was curious to what it was I was writing exactly (I had a hard time pitching the idea, and it was easier to just show her). The opening chapter introduced my antagonist Fox, a man that traveled from place to place through a hallway inside of his leather jacket, collecting the souls of musicians. Immediately she pointed out how confusing it was, that I was shoving way too many ideas into the first chapter and that she had no idea what was going on.

I was frustrated at first, but looking it over, I started to see that she was right. I was rushing things, writing with that short story mindset that relied so heavily on an economy of words. I wasn’t letting go or taking my time. Instead, I was shoving thirty pages of story into fifteen pages, skipping exposition in favor of just showing the reader things that needed explanation, without ever really explaining things. Fox enters his jacket in one place, and exits another. But what is the hallway inside of his jacket and how and why does he collect musicians? In writing the chapter I had thrust my reader into a fucked up illogical world without stopping to explain a few things, or to at the very least, ease them into who and what this character was.

I went back and started over, cutting certain lines and ideas with the intention of unpacking them later. I started using my cork board as a dumping ground for ideas and plot points, writing them down on scraps of paper with single word reminders: cigarettes, record player, tuning fork, long dark hallway.

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A landfill of ideas.

After writing about six chapters, I started outlining what I had done so far. With three different points of view, the cards took a color coded formation, wherein red represented my antagonist Fox, purple my protagonist Jolene, and blue my protagonist’s father John (and yes, that is the “John” referenced in the title, A Song For John). That way I could see if one color showed up too much, or not enough, giving the narrative some balance. Fox chapters needed to be evenly spaced, but not too far apart, whereas Jolene and John chapters usually were paired side by side with the idea that at some point, all three narratives would collide into the eventual conflict of the story.

Then I hit a wall. Again.

Normally, I think that if I had tried this book ten years ago, or even five, this would’ve been the part where I fucking quit. Without getting too specific, I had written the character of John in a way that was slowly starting to not make any sense to me. I don’t really outline or think things too far ahead because it’s just not how I write, but the problems that arise from that are the same kind of problems you arrive at when you start putting together a piece of Ikea furniture without reading the directions. Sure, you can probably figure it out, but if you fuck something up, you have to take it all apart and start over. In the case of the novel, I started to realize that I was flying blind, and while that led me to some pretty interesting places, it was also allowing me to fly in the wrong direction, giving shape to circle blocks when I needed them to fit in square holes.

I started over. Again. Only this time, I wrote out bios, a family history, and a timeline of all the events that had taken place so far. Seeing things this way allowed me to change and move things around without having to completely rewrite chapters. There’s a reason script writers use note cards to outline their scripts: it’s way easier moving scenes around than it is rewriting the whole fucking script over and over again. Likewise, I found it pretty beneficial at this point to cut up what I had done into little bits and pieces and move things around until the big picture started to actually click and make sense. Once I got the chapters involving John to fit the overall narrative, I was back on track.

Since then, the process has been pretty smooth. Like before, I was able to get into the routine of writing two drafts per chapter and having broken down the plot as much as I did, I rarely hit a wall that made me want to chuck my laptop out the window of a moving car. If anything, hitting a wall became a great opportunity at further developing the plot. The question almost was always “why”. Why is Fox collecting musicians? What does he want? How will he get what he wants and how will Jolene or John react to this? What exactly is the conflict?

Questions like these prove to be great exercises in meditation. Whenever I hit a wall, I just kept the question in my head until I came up with a solution that made sense. I thought of these questions while driving, while it was slow at work, while I slowly fell asleep at night. I would focus on this particular question until it was completely picked apart and solved, allowing me to move forward with the knowledge that I was building something that was structurally sound.

Four months later, I finished the first part of the novel, titled A-Side, a reference to vinyl records. It was fifteen chapters and about two hundred pages. It was also at this point that I realized there no way to make this into a short novella work, and that when it was finished it would become my first novel. I had the whole thing printed and read it straight through, marking it with red ink along the way.

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Why, adjectives, why?

After that, I retyped the entire first part from start to finish, cutting two chapters, consolidating some ideas, and shortening it (this took me about a month). The current length is about 177 pages and is currently with a beta reader while I work on part two, titled B-Side.

As to when this thing will be finished, it’s hard to say. I’d like to think that now that I’ve established a pretty solid foundation to the novel, I won’t be making as many missteps in future chapters simply because there’s less and less choices to be made now that the plot is moving forward. It took me about five months to write 177 pages, but each chapter was written twice, and then the whole thing was written again after I noted it up myself, not to mention all the time I spent breaking down the story with character bios, outlines, etc. A path has been chosen and diverting or making a wrong turn will be all too obvious in the face of what has occurred thus far.

I’m also writing more consistently, writing in the mornings before work, as well as on my days off. Sundays, for the most part, are the only days I sleep in (though I still manage a few pages). On the days I write before work, the first half hour is usually a wash because I’m still waking up, but once the coffee kicks in I’m able to get going again, and with my cork board outlining what happens and in what order, it’s easy to find my place again whenever I get lost. Chapters are also easier to write now that a tone has been established, so for the most part I’m no longer following a two draft process in writing B-Side simply because I don’t feel it’s as needed. When the second part is finished, I will likely keep pushing towards the last part before doing a final rewrite on the whole novel.

After that, I’ll send copies to other beta readers, as well as a professional editor. There are a few writers I know that offer editing services for a fee, in particular: Richard Thomas, Max Booth, and Alex Kane. Once I get notes from them, I’ll do another edit and then send it to a copy editor to make sure it’s grammatically correct (aka, my sister, who does copy editing for a living). Then, and only then, will I start shopping the book.

As for who I’ll send it to, that really depends on who is open for solicitation. Plus, I could always go the agent route (though they’re even harder to score than a book deal). Some presses in particular that I may try are Dark House Press, Kraken Press, Blood Bound Books, Samhain Publishing, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Ragnarok Publications, and Post Mortem Press. If I manage to get an agent, the book will likely be sent to the aforementioned publishers, but it’ll also be submitted to bigger names, like Cemetery Dance.

And if everyone rejects the book?

Then I guess I’ll just write another one.

Until then, here’s to being scary.