Your First Book Attempt Might Be a Loveable But Unreadable Monster
Sometimes the lessons you learn from writing a book aren’t quite what you expected
I’ve heard that a lot of writers have a similar origin story: They’re reading a novel and suddenly stop. “Holy crap,” they say, “I can do better than this!” Then they close the book and sit there, or they fall down and lie there, dazed.
“I can do better than this,” they whisper. “I really can.”
This is my story. It happened with a book my mother gave me called The Strumpet Sea. I don’t remember the book, but I think it was about a strumpet and a sea.
By the way, what’s your book? Which one made you cry out to the universe, “I can do this!”?
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I just looked up the definition of “strumpet” and shocked myself. “Strumpet” can mean “prostitute.” What the hell, mom?
I don’t remember sex workers in that book. I remember lots of water and a boat. Could I have been so naive that I missed the whole point of the novel?
You’re looking at the good soldier who defended Creedence Clearwater Revival to the death, shouting, “‘Proud Mary’ isn’t about marijuana! It isn’t about anything but a riverboat and a river!”
I believed my favorite band was just like me: high on life and nothing else; drinking only Mountain Dew; and they were all saving themselves for marriage, especially my straightedge virgin hero, John Fogerty.
I was also the kid who thought the Doors’ “Light My Fire” was about a lazy woodsman. “Light your own fire,” I thought. “Or maybe you don’t know how. Loser.”
So yes, I might have missed the point of The Strumpet Sea.
But I didn’t miss my calling, given by the Lord:
“Dan, thou shalt write a book better than The Strumpet Sea. Also, light not thine own fire, or thou shalt go blind.”
I don’t know what God meant by the blindness thing, but I understood the first part. So I set out to write a book.
I called it, “The Baby’s Song.” It was about a character digging a tunnel from her basement to the neighbors’ basement and stealing their baby.
While misreading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, I was certain she’d written the book for young men who are striving to be famous. She writes, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I said in my heart, Exactly, then I said out loud, “Mom and dad, I need money and a room of one’s own.”
We compromised. No money, but they helped me construct my writer’s room.
I had a little walk-in closet, and that became the place. My father and brother built me a sturdy plywood desk. Though it didn’t have a back, since the wall was its back, it did have a flip-down hatch for sealing in serious writers. I dragged the family’s old recliner in there, the chair famously known as “the brown chair,” “the fart chair,” and “the booger chair.” It became the Throne of Story, and yes, it was still a useful handkerchief and butt filter.
I closed myself into the writing room. Killed the light, because who cares about future eyes — I cared about being dark and mysterious “Right now!” I lifted the desk’s lid, plunged into the old brown chair, closed the lid, and then began writing my masterpiece.
I made sure to disobey every basic writing rule:
Write what you know
My main character was a 70-year-old woman. I was 20, and a dude. I’m not saying a 20-year-old man-child can’t write about a 70-year-old woman. I’m just saying I couldn’t.
Have a plan
I wrote without an outline. Yes, writing in the literal and figurative dark.
Get a writing group
I drew faces in Magic Marker on the walls. Most of them were drawings of a certain sad young man with little monsters crawling all through his head. Much later, when I birthed myself from the walk-in womb by moving away, my mother tried to paint over my drawings. But the magic of the marker boys was strong. They kept bleeding through, their sad faces saying, “I weep, therefore I am.”
Everything in moderation
My writing schedule started at 4:30 a.m. I ate Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and black coffee. The coffee was to punish me with wakefulness because my stupid body loved sleep. I pummeled myself with melatonin supplements at night and coffee in the morn. Uppers and downers.
I wrote with all my might in that dark chamber of farts and secrets.
But I never read over my work. Only writing is writing. Nothing else counts. The writing clock didn’t start until I was forging ahead, word by word, and if I stopped, the clock stopped. Therefore, if I ever wanted to meet my time-quota and get out of there, I couldn’t afford to look back.
As a consequence, I didn’t know the book very well. And it became so long, I said things over and over and didn’t remember. Writers don’t remember.
I meandered toward The End, writing and forgetting and writing. I probably wrote five or six books in one. It was all the same book, echoes of it, a nesting-doll novel. A set of sextuplets in the womb of the psychotic old lady who swallowed a fly.
I was a prisoner of my writing schedule. I recorded it on the desk itself, the starting and ending times. Yes, like the engravings on tombstones. Except I didn’t include my name. Numbers only. It didn’t take long for the numbers to cover the entire desk, turning it into a lovely prison cemetery just for me.
While I wrote, I braced my feet on the wall under the desk like Captain Quint of the Orca, bracing to reel in a hugely realistic shark.
I pushed until the drywall buckled. A soft crunching sound. Not unpleasant. Like cracking the knuckles of the house.
Eventually, I made a hole. It started small, a mouse door, perfect for the perching of a big toe, then it grew to the size of a cat door. I could perch my whole foot.
One foot through the wall is very bad, I figured. It’s a long way from no foot through the wall. But the distance from one foot to two feet through the wall, is inconsequential.
So, I put the other foot through, making the hole as spacious as a dog door.
I didn’t tell anyone about the hole. I didn’t have to. My parents discovered dusty footprints trailing through the house. Drywall dust. They followed them. And when they found the hole beneath my desk, I became their prime suspect.
My sister hated me for not getting in trouble. I was too old to be sent to my room, and that’s where I was all the time anyway. Also, I was a depressed artist. You don’t punish those. Not if you want them to finish their masterpiece and rescue the whole family from their oppressive middle-class existence.
One fine day, shivering and malnourished, I emerged from my cell. I held a USB flash drive that was so full of book it was sparking and smoking like a ghost trap.
I carried the memory stick in the palm of my hand with the gravity of a priest cradling the finger bone of Saint Peter.
I moved through the house solemnly, slowly.
“Where are you going?” my mother said.
With zeal, I uttered, “Staples.”
I drew a deep and majestic breath. “I have finished the book.”
Mom was excited, but not enough. No one could have been excited enough. She’d have to die from excitement. I would revive her, saving her life so I could kill her again with my news.
If you’re thinking of the Pietà, reversed, you and I are kindred spirits.
It took a long time for Staples to print the thing. I waited, pacing like a 1950s father in the waiting room of the maternity ward:
Bring me my baby son so I can feel what it feels like to feel emotions.
The Staples midwife delivered my book from the nethers of their biggest copier and set it down on the counter, warm.
“Is this a book?” he said, his socks knocked off.
I almost wept for joy. He gets it.
“Yes,” I said, “it is.” I hoped he would take our wonderful conversation to its logical conclusion, saying,
“That makes you an author, doesn’t it? Some kind of author genius? Captain of the written word? A story lord? A sort of human angel walking among us like a mortal man, and yet, you are so much more?” he didn’t say. Instead, he said, “Yikes, that’s a lot of pages. You’ll need a box.”
That’s the kind of writer I am. Most writers need big folders or satchels.
I returned home and spoke: “I, Dan, have finished my book,” then I instructed my family to gather around the dining room table.
“Does that mean you pay for the hole now?” my sister said.
The Lord inspired someone to shush her.
“Everyone sit,” I said, “and close your eyes.”
They assembled at the table and waited. I unboxed the book in the entryway then called out, “Your eyes closed?”
I carried my book toward the dining room, pausing at the door.
“Are they closed?”
“No,” my sister said.
“Our eyes are closed,” mom said. “Hurry up.”
I peeped into the dining room and saw their eyes were closed.
“Ready!” they howled.
Keeping careful watch over their eyes, I crept into the room and stood beside the table. I lifted the book into the air. I was Rafiki lifting Simba; Moses lifting the Commandments; Arnold Schwarzenegger lifting the rock to smash the predator’s face.
Then I dropped it.
The book landed on the table with a terrific BOOM! causing my mother to shout, my father to jump, my brother to say, “Whoa!” and my sister to say, “Shit!” and get in trouble, and hate me even more.
“The book!” I shouted. Maybe I screamed it.
“Wow,” they all said. Even my sister. After all, it had been a big BOOM. A BOOM as big as a year of darkness and solitude, big enough to explain my singleness, and the madman numerals all over the desk, and the hole, and the faces on the walls, and the white dust following me, as if I was the Pig-Pen of death, casting clouds of pearly white bone dust everywhere I went.
What happened next, I hadn’t expected.
They all leaned in to get a closer look. No title page concealed the novel. It started immediately on the topmost page.
And they were reading.
I saw their greedy eyes flashing back and forth as fast as a polygraph’s needles.
“No!” I cried, then I rescued the book, snatching it up and clutching it to my chest.
“What,” they said, “we can’t read it?”
“No,” I said, of course not. “It’s not ready!” I couldn’t believe them. How could they be so far from understanding?
Rough drafts are unreadable, containing dangerous secrets that could undermine the author’s vital overestimation of himself.
“You spelled ‘azure’ wrong,” my sister said.
With that, I rushed away with the book, gently lowered it into its box, then I carried it up to my room.
Once it was safely hidden beneath my bed, I entered the writing room and started a second book.
I would make this one twice as long. And when I dropped this one on the table, it would kill them all, especially my sister, then I would bring them back, and we could celebrate me, their hero.
Concerning the first book, I really did mean to read it. The longer I waited, though, the more I suspected its secrets were too dangerous. Perhaps lethal.
It’s been 20 years. The book in its box has followed me from house to house, and I’ve begun to realize I’ll never read it.
But I need it.
“The Baby’s Song” is a reminder to me of three valuable truths:
One: You must never give up.
Two: You must always write to The End.
Three: Even if your book is unreadable, you can still use it to scare the crap out of your family.