How I Wrote My First Book: the story behind the story [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Anne K. Edwards & Lida E. Quillen
eBook Category: General Nonfiction
eBook Description: Twenty authors tell amazing stories about the efforts that went into writing their first book.
Christine Amsden ~ "My Million Words of Crap"
Darrell Bain ~ "The Story Behind The Pet Plague"
Mayra Calvani ~ "Tips on Writing Your First Novel"
Lee Denning ~ "Two Beginnings"
Ginger Hanson ~ "Ten Lessons I Learned..."
Toby Fesler Heathcotte ~ "The Manuscript from a Mystifying Source"
Darby Karchut ~ "Wings"
Linda Langwith ~ "The Serendipity Factor"
Stephanie Osborn ~ "How a Rocket Scientist Becomes a Writer"
Plus articles from Bob Boan, D Jason Cooper, Susan Goldsmith, Aaron Paul Lazar, Celia A. Leaman, Beverly Stowe McClure, Gerald Mills, Erica Miner, Bob Rich, Dorothy Skarles and Dan Starr.
eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books, Published: 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2011
by Lee Denning
* * * *
I should start at the beginning, my friends. Actually, there were two of them.
In late 2002, I'm approaching a decade birthday. Those are tough birthdays; they raise existential questions. Mine was 'what do I really want to do when I grow up?' To make it more difficult, that question itself is questioned by the Peter Pan reflex--'do I really want to grow up'? So here I am, sliding toward sixty. I've been a construction worker, student, soldier, mathematician, scientist, engineer, corporate type, entrepreneur. I've helped build some nuclear plants, solved some environment problems, started and built a successful consulting company. Satisfying work. Not a bad run. But a lot of the fun has gone out of the environmental business lately. The government has gotten prescriptive in its solutions; creativity has been shoved to the back of the bus. Politicians make crazy noises at each other and some of those noises even get turned into environmental regulations. Ycchh. "Thank God we don't get all the government we pay for," Mark Twain said. The work has become boring; I'm getting fidgety. There's more to life, n'est-ce pas?
Now, let's flash back to the previous beginning. In mid-1970, I'm an Air Force officer, doing a staff job at Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon, during the Vietnam war. The job is neither demanding nor dangerous, and the temptation is to while away the off-duty time chasing nubile young mama-sans and drinking the native beer. The downside of the mama-sans was that a fair percentage were contagious. The downside of the native beer (called "33" or Ba Muoi Ba in Vietnamese) was that you really didn't know what was in it, although it was generally conceded to have a high formaldehyde content. I'm no saint--did a little of both. But mostly I wrote--got about a hundred handwritten pages into a sci-fi novel. Then, after a couple of months in Saigon, I got an opportunity to go upcountry with the Army Special Forces. At this point life got a lot more interesting and I put aside those hundred pages.
So I guess you could say that--one way or another, in one decade or another--boredom gave birth to the book.
After Vietnam, the handwritten draft stayed put for thirty-some years, migrating progressively further downward in the attic underneath the boxes of accoutrements that time-stamp the progress of an upwardly mobile yuppie: grad school, corporate life, small business owner. Yeah, I thought about the story periodically during those years, because it was a really good one: aliens invade the minds of two lovers, distort their realities and pit them against each other in a struggle to the death... while the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. But I had a life to lead... hard worker, decent spouse, good father. And though a few little karmic reminders (mostly movies--War of the Roses, Terminator 2, Mr. and Mrs. Smith--probably because the story was very visual to me) would pester me from time to time, I ignored them. No time for a novel. Too busy. [Insight #1].
(So what's this 'Insight', you ask? The basic purpose of this book is to share the creative process and experiences with prospective writers. So when it occurs to me, I'm explicitly writing down what I've learned writing this first book that I think may be useful to you. Some of it may not; I make no claim to represent a typical writer. These are a few brief words of useful information. Or to some folks they may just be turds. I don't have a problem with either perception, everybody is different and vive la difference. In the absence of magazine-style formatting that would put these 'Insights' in little boxes embedded in the text, I've placed them all at the end of the narrative. Take what's useful and forget the rest.)
Back to 2002, to the squishy decade-birthday question: what do I want to do when I grow up. The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things...I could do a lot of stuff, I tell myself. I have an open mind. But there are two important criteria: (1) the undertaking has to be highly creative; and (2) I have to be able to go to work naked. Yes, there are jobs besides writing that you can go to naked, but history has proven I'm a lousy stock-picker... and the other obvious alternative I'm getting too old and ugly for. [Insight #2]
Now, I suppose I have a reasonable allocation of intuition or gut-sense (mama's genes), but I'm also (as mathematician/scientist/engineer) pretty far into the rationalist camp (papa's genes). So I ponder my existential question both emotionally and with decision-analysis tools straight out of Harvard Business School. Narrow it down to two options: (1) write sci-fi, or (2) build gaming software that uses environmental issues to teach fundamental logic and critical thinking at the middle school level. Then I evaluate the options on a decision grid--weighted criteria, the typical nerd approach. This results in an outcome of 659 points to 613, basically a tie given the subjective nature of the process. What follows then is a little more thought but essentially a mental coin flip, and I'm suddenly a novelist. Whoopee! Time to dig that sucker out of the attic!
I do, sneezing out a lot of dust until I find it. After thirty-some years, the writing is past bad and heading into horrendous. It must have decayed in the attic; I know I'm a better writer than that. The other possibility is that the formaldehyde in Ba Muoi Ba nailed too many of my brain cells in Nam. So what now? Go back to the software development option? I thumb through the manuscript's brittle pages. It's that funny old government paper, smaller than the standard 8.5 by 11. The paper's old, the writing's crummy... but by God the idea is still great, and the plot ain't bad either. [Insight #3] And as far as I know, nobody has written anything close. [Insight #4]
At this point, enter the nay-sayers and devil's advocates, both internal and external. A piece of conventional wisdom for aspiring writers is that the first million words is practice. This is not unreasonable, I think at the time. After all, practice is usually what gets you to a goal. [Insight #5] How many notes did Stern play before doing Carnegie Hall? How many tennis strokes did Federer hit before getting to Wimbledon? But a million words is between six and eight good-length novels, I figure. Jeesh!
Fortunately there's a handy rationalization. I carefully calculate that in the course of a long professional career I've written between five million and eight million words in technical documents. They ranged from dispassionate disclosure of research results to advocacy legal briefs that--haha--sometimes verged on fiction. Sure, technical writing is different than fiction, but you've still got to assemble words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, organize ideas to tell a coherent story. I figure five to eight million technical is more than equivalent to one million fictional. [Insight #6]
So I'm golden... back on track... gonna be a sci-fi novelist, mama! And here we've come to the end of my two beginnings: I trash the old manuscript but keep the idea.
Now... here's the middle of 'my first novel' story...
Monkey Trap is a sci-fi thriller, but it's underpinned with a number of philosophical and moral issues. Chief among these is the observation from Jimi Hendricks that only "when the power of love overcomes the love of power, will the world know peace". So, how to wrap a story around that?
In India, villagers used to trap monkeys by hollowing out a gourd. The hole in one end held a rope that was attached to a distant tree. The hole in the other end was just big enough for a monkey to work his hand into. The monkey's favorite nuts were dropped in the gourd as bait. The monkey worked his hand in to grab them, but with his fist closed couldn't pull his hand out. So he dances around at the end of a tether, madder than hell. He wants what he wants, and won't let go of the bait to pull his hand out. Thus he becomes monkey soup for the village.
There is an answer, of course: let go and save your sorry ass, my monkey friend. Or better yet, shake the nuts out of the gourd into your hand and run away laughing. But monkeys know what monkeys know... just as in us humans, it's a complex mix of genetics and learning. In the heat of the moment most monkeys get trapped. So the metaphorical question is... if you wanted to test a human, what would you use for bait?
And what would cause your trapped human to release that bait?
An interesting premise. [Insight #7] Worthy of a decade birthday. Worthy of some serious effort. So the project is off and running, late 2002.