There’s a monster in my office, and it gnaws at me.
This monster dwells in the twilight world between life and death, never daring to crawl out of the shadows. It’s too hideous for the light of day; bloated and grotesque, its malformed appendages flap spastically. No wonder I keep it in the dark.
If you ever looked more closely, as several people have, you would see that its individual parts are quite lovely, even if they don’t fit together like clockwork. Were the extraneous bits sliced away and the remainder stitched up neatly, we could see what massive reconstructive surgery might get this creature on its feet.
For now, the monster remains in the shadows. I lock the bottom drawer to keep it from wandering out.
It’s my first novel, The Wine Ghost, in which we consider the terrible freedom of Frank Boyles, the last Baby Boomer. Set in Arizona, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand, The Wine Ghost was twelve years in the making. I wrote at least 350,000 words on three continents to get the present 110,000, and I learned lessons in writing that no classroom can contain. The Wine Ghost is so dense, challenging, and chaotic that it’s unpublishable in its present form, but writers who’ve read the whole thing (and the handful of agents who’ve read the pitch and substantial excerpts) have said it’s a remarkable achievement, despite the fatal flaws.
Here are some of those fatal flaws (from my current perspective):
• The first half of the novel is a nosedive, and readers begin to wish for the final collision 30 pages in. As it is, it takes 60,000 words for Frank Boyles to fall off Japan.
• The upward spiral of the second half provides stronger structure, and it’s less relentlessly depressing than the first half, but the pacing is crippled by chapters up to 9,500 words in length.
• Those overlong chapters end like short stories, depriving readers of thrills, chills, or cliff-hangers that might help them keep turning the pages.
• Even at a slim 110,000, it’s nearly Dickensian in the number of characters and subplots, a ridiculously overdrawn expat milieu that drowns a simple tale of disgrace and redemption.
• Its many stylistic indiscretions (i.e., showing off) brand it as an irretrievable semi-autobiographical first novel from a boy who had read too damned much Cormac McCarthy and far too little Hemingway.
Well, what to do with a monster like this? “Kill your darlings” comes to mind, but there’s still good meat on those awkward bones. I’d be a fool to just delete it.
Five ways I’m putting The Wine Ghost to work:
• plucking out whole works of short fiction
Done and done. From The Wine Ghost, I’ve harvested short fiction (“Dry Wash” in The Bicycle Review, “Coolie Tales” in not from here, are you?, “The Belly Lesson” and “Tracy-baby Tells a Ghost Story” in a for-the-love online litmag) and poetry (“The Algerian Witch’s Abandoned Brood” in Hauptfriedhoff, for which I also penned the foreword). This is good exposure and possibly good advance PR, as long as I credit these appearances in my final MS.
Oh, and as long as I eventually rewrite and sell the book.
• repurposing plot, setting, and character
Check. If The Wine Ghost is to become a viable novel, I must cut 40,000 words of extraneous characters and subplots, and I’ll be damned if they’re going to waste. Almost all of that 40,000 words, including an entire valley and one of the most frightening maniacs I’ve ever written, is going into my paranormal thriller series. A no-brainer, as they say.
• entering first-chapter contests
Consider this: your first novel, like mine, may be unpublishable in its current condition, but you polished the living daylights out of that first chapter, didn’t you? Despite structural flaws in the work-as-a-whole, you might still get some cash out of that first chapter. Dr. John Yeoman has put out a straightforward, thoughtful guide titled “How to Win Writing Contests for Profit.”
Now you know.
• thematic analysis: the rut or the sweet spot?
We make and break patterns in our writing over the years. Sometimes patterns emerge because we’re caught in the loop of trying and failing to get it right, and sometimes such patterns remain because we got it right the first time and it works so damned well. Because we’re swinging for the fences and bursting with things to say, our first novels are perfect for spotting the beginnings of larger thematic patterns in our writing.
The Wine Ghost is no exception. My old friend, developmental editor Zak Johnson, says this: “I think you’ve mined your Wine Ghost for more than you even realize. (the evil uncle from “Dry Wash”) has reappeared as the obscene old man in many of your works … if you do (rewrite The Wine Ghost as a commercially viable novel), keep the original as a relic of the exorcism that brought it out of you.”
Or as a standalone shrine to my daddy issues. Enough said there.
A re-read of that novel may show you patterns to build upon or abandon. Don’t just write it all off as juvenilia.
• just one more draft, I promise
After 30 years as a professional writer and editor, I put The Wine Ghost aside and started submitting fiction in 2009. I have a completed and competitive genre novel making the rounds of publishers, and I’m halfway done with the sequel. I can’t drop that to start draft five of The Wine Ghost, especially knowing that it would take a sixth and seventh draft to get this beast on its feet. I have too much going on. I sometimes want to just strip off everything I can repurpose from The Wine Ghost and leave it like a car on cinderblocks. I’ve moved on, I tell myself.
If only I could. I’ve planted crossover elements in my paranormal thriller series such that it occupies the same time and space as The Wine Ghost. It’s not just the paranormal thriller series, either. I’m constantly laying Easter eggs and setting breadcrumb trails that lead back to the monster in the bottom drawer.
I don’t kid myself that The Wine Ghost will ever, ever make more money or even gain more critical acclaim than a genre book. It’s not that I miss the freshness and urgency of the literary expression that led to my writing The Wine Ghost; I’m a much better writer now than even a few years ago, when I wrapped up the fourth draft.
The dreadful fact is that it’s an important book, the book that called me to write it because it may speak to some teenager as confused and depressed as I was when I first got a little relief by reading Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren or Lord Dunsany’s Pegana tales. It may show some kid a path out of a darkness that almost took my sanity and my life.
This monster gnaws to tell me that I must keep honing my craft in order to do the story justice. Every genre chapter I write, every blog post I submit, every short story that goes over some indifferent editor’s transom — it’s all surgical training to reanimate the monster in my office.
I’m lifting weights here, people.
And it may sound perverse, but I hope you have a monster in your office to keep you moving as well.
Visit it sometimes. Thank it for keeping you working. Promise it that you’ll stop by more often and that you’ll eventually bring it to life and set it free on an unsuspecting world.
It doesn’t hurt to make these promises, even if you don’t intend to keep them.
And don’t worry if you forget to go to see your monster every once in a while.
If your monster is anything like mine, it will come to see you.
Versions of this post have appeared in Blood-Red Pencil and Write Now, Right Now