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A Writer’s Life

A Writer's Life

As a kid, I was always reading. Novels and short stories, non-fiction, and encyclopedias. Hell, I even read the almanacs and dictionaries my grandparents had when nothing else was handy. Some would say the foreshadowing was on the wall – I was destined for a writer’s life.

I would head to the library as a teen and checkout as many books as they would let me for a two-week period. Yes, back then there were actual limits. I learned to read quickly and develop some discernment. If a book was terrible, I had enough in the queue to not continue.

Once a month I would head to the used bookstore and load up on comics.
In short, I was a voracious reader.

When I finished college, I opened my own bookstore and discovered I must broaden my choices even wider. No longer could I restrict my reading to favorite authors and genres. How could I recommend a wider choice of books, with confidence, to customers? I needed to expand my reading world. Every time I needed a new book to read, I chose something new and different. And my knowledge grew.

At the same time, the desire to write was born. At first, I dabbled in poetry.

Then I tried writing a novel.
An action/adventure story.

I had an idea that seemed exciting. And I wrote a few chapters with pen and paper. I transposed it with a typewriter. After 75-100 pages, I needed a second perspective so I approached a local, professional, published author for her opinion. I wish I could remember her name, but it eludes me.

To say the least it was both a wonderful and terrifying experience. She took the pages home to read and when we next met, there were notes everywhere.

The wonderful?
She liked my style and overall concept.
She was confused with some of the direction and wanted to know more. She talked about voice and showed me how to clean that up.

The terrifying?
She asked for the next chapters, and I was stuck. I had nothing but a roadblock. When I edited the story based on her suggestions, an ugly wall of nothingness rose in front of me.

I told myself I would let it sit. Ruminate for a while and the story would come to me.
Much later I came to realize I didn’t have any world and life experience to expand beyond my outline and those first pages. I didn’t have enough of life’s difficulties behind me. I hadn’t experienced enough hard conversations to make believable dialogue. Subconsciously, I think I knew it.

Still, the idea never died. It was just put away in a closet in my mind and a box in real life.

Was it really to be a writer’s life for me?

After I met my wife Jacki, life changed. With her encouragement, I pulled out the beginnings of my story, fired up my computer and began reworking it. And I got a bit farther. Only a bit though. Because of kids and careers and bills and struggles, away the story went.

Fast forward another 10 years, and out it came again. I saw flaws and holes in those pages. I was a bit wiser. More cynical and more hopeful at the same time. Secured in a binder, the printing faded from the original dot matrix printer, I read the pages again and realized there was something there.

But what? I still only had a beginning on paper and an ending in my head. The rest was yet a mystifying blankness. After several weeks of trying to develop a next chapter, I got nowhere and once again, the vault was locked.

Until 2018

I woke up one Sunday morning and decided to clean out my desk. In the back of one of the drawers was THE binder. I opened the cover thinking maybe I would try again. The ink was all but gone. That was a good thing.
You see, the story’s beginning was still alive and kicking in my mind. The ending was still as crisp as the day I imagined it 30 years before. I just needed the middle. I had now the lived experiences to be develop believable characters and voice with dialogue. I had lived in enough places, been to enough cities to be able to create a world someone else could experience from my words. I didn’t tell anyone though. I just started to type.

Every night I had free time, every morning I was home, every moment I could think of, I wrote.

I grabbed a calendar and laid out a fictional timeline. I no longer had the block that stalled me so many years before. The funny thing was, as I randomly chose character names, I would think of a next step and research topics that were unknown to me, I would come across real life similarities.

It was as if something in the universe was helping me write a credible tale of intrigue and adventure. After about 100 pages, I decided to confide my secret to Jacki. She wondered what I was doing in the office all the time. I explained what I was working on but there was also a pragmatic part of me questioning my efforts and mania. You know that little voice that isn’t always so little.

I felt a little like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Obsessed with a secret vision and no one to share it with and at the same time, was I going crazy. Was I wasting my time on some Man From La Mancha fool’s tilt with windmills?

I told Jacki I needed to know if what I was putting down was good, bad, or ugly. And if either of the latter two options, I would need to find a way to stop.

Of course, she told me “no”. Not only was she busy with her own work, but she also didn’t like reading that genre of book.

You see, I made the mistake of telling her I wove some historical events into the tale. And that was all she heard. So, she was initially a hard no. Still, I let her know she only had to try. If it was bad or ugly, I would stop.

Reluctantly, Jacki cracked open the file and read while she drank her morning coffee. Then she asked for more. She wanted to read all that I had done. No other opinion was offered at the time. When she finished those first pages, she asked for the rest.

My wife actually liked the book. A lot.

Now, before you say, “she’s your wife, she is supposed to tell you that”, you have never met Jacki.

She has never been one to mince words. She has never been one to sugar coat situations to make anyone, even me or our kids, feel better. Straight forward and honest to a fault. It was why I asked for her opinion. I had the confidence she would not hold back.

Now the pressure was on. No longer was I hiding away with unknown reasons. I had to finish the tale I teased her with. Back to the computer. And less than 4 months later, the first draft was done. From start to finish, I had a book.

Now, Jacki would re-read it. She had done professional editing of documents through work, has a keen eye for details and was willing to parse through the grammar. I joined an online writer’s group to learn how to move through the process of getting a book published.

And then, I hit my next hurdle. The first lesson they taught was to know the parameters of my genre.

Word count. It was critical.

I researched and found the thriller/action/adventure genre needed to be no more than 120,000 words. My heart left me.

My book had over 300,000 with fully developed characters. I was confused. I had read many books that large.

Just not from new authors.

New authors needed to fit in the box

Jack – stop!! No more editing until I could find a way to pare it down. I needed to find a way to get rid of about 200,000 words without losing the essence and richness of the story and the characters. I took the knife and slashed and burned the pages. I took out chapters that added backstory and depth. I merged chapters where I could. It took another 3 months before I could hand it over to Jacki for editing again.

I have learned the time to look at each word, each sentence, each paragraph with an editor’s eye was not an easy road to travel. It took Jacki another 6 months to finalize the editing, to get it below 120,000 words.
When she was done, I sent it to additional beta readers. Would it still be enjoyable?

I picked people who, like Jacki, were not huge fans of the genre but were big readers. I waited with bated breath. As with Jacki, they also came back with glowing words. Characters that were believable and that you could see in your imagination.

Even a bad guy you had no choice but to root for.

Now, with those things in place and the encouragement of honest others, I was ready to get it to those who would help get it published. It was a writer’s life for me.

That journey is the next hurdle and a story for a different day.