Ten Years Writing a Novel
How a Learning Novel Helped Me Develop My Storytelling and Novel Writing Skills
I spent ten years writing my novel. I did other things during that time, but from conception to completion it has been ten years.
After ten years you’d think it’s an epic saga that will sell a million copies and be remembered through the ages. Nope. It’s a romantic comedy set in Cleveland. There are no heroic battles. Quite the opposite, in fact: the hero gets beat up and his foe pisses on him while he’s down.
I like the story and I think there are fun and entertaining elements. And it’s done.
Why did it take ten years?
I thought this simple love story story would take a year to tell. That stretched to two years. But once I realized I hadn’t gotten it right, and I was advised to abandon it, I dug in my heels to try again, revising until I learned what was wrong.
This became my learning novel.
And this is the story of how that story came to be. Read on and maybe you’ll learn from my mistakes and find a way to write your own novels .
The brush with death
Eleven years ago, my brother-in-law was diagnosed with a blastoma. He was three years older than me, and I realized I was living on borrowed time.
I first toyed with the idea of becoming a writer in eighth grade. I wrote my first short story the summer after I graduated high school. It was terrible, but I thought I could figure out how to become a writer.
Thirty years later, I’d written a couple dozen short stories, six screenplays, and two and a half novels. None of those stories had caught the attention of anyone in the business. I was happy and proud to have written them, but I had no idea if I’d ever “become a writer.” I was in my mid-forties; thirty years of writing had fallen like a tree in the forest with no one there to hear it.
So I signed up to work with a writing coach.
The writing coach was the P.T. Barnum of screenwriters, pushing his training with promises of a system that would get your next script noticed. His system might even take you down the path to a million dollar script (pre-tax).
I’ll discuss his system in a future post within the context of formulas and story structures. His training consisted of a series of lessons on his formula, and then he worked with his students directly to brainstorm a story concept and he coached us through the writing process for as long as it took to get the script right.
Why a screenwriting coach, rather than a novelist?
Having written both novels and screenplays, and being equally mediocre at both, I chose to pursue screenwriting because my problem was with fundamentally choosing a story to tell, rather than the telling of the story.
Also, a screenplay is approximately 15,000 words; you can write a screenplay in a couple of weeks. A full length novel is 50,000 at least, and can take four months to generate a draft. You’ll need a couple more months to revise it before sharing because the inherent complexity of the narrative introduces numerous errors. (It’s amazing how you forget the details, switch character names, and leave out vital information over the course of writing a novel.)
Once you choose a story, you can crank out a version, clean it up, and have it out for feedback in a month. During the six months it would take to get a version of a novel written (which is best-case scenario) you can have four revisions to the story with a screenplay.
To get feedback on a story quickly, a screenplay wins every time. (Yes, I understand they are different art forms, but the underlying story of character arcs, plot points, and use of setting can be the same.)
…this was the plot of a Flintstones episode.
A good f — k to conceive a story
The coaching was, like sex, fun at first. I brainstormed a hundred ideas, then we kicked them around to find the concept for the script I was going to write.
My idea was about a middle-aged crook sentenced by a judge to return to middle school to complete his education. I thought it’d be a rich source of humor to have a tough guy abused by the savage monsters in middle school. Thanks to a blind spot in my memory, I didn’t realize it at the time but this was the plot of a Flintstones episode. Also, it’s close to Rodney Dangerfield’s movie Old School.
Over the course of my coaching sessions, the story morphed into an amnesia love story in which the bride and groom fight on the altar during their wedding, and the bride hits her head. When she wakes up, she can’t remember the groom who then tries to win her love back before she remembers what he did. (Funny, right?)
We then spent the next twenty months working on the script. I’d write, he’d read, and we’d discuss. I rewrote it monthly, trying different characters, plot points and settings to find the mix that would make my story stand out.
The fun sex of thinking about a story had become the drudgery of creating a lasting relationship (writing a compelling, sellable script).
Spaghetti on the wall
The coach, who had gotten a film produced while still in film school back in the 1980s, had worked steadily in Hollywood with various producers. Or so he claimed.
The coaching sessions consisted of his pointing out things he liked in my script, things he didn’t like, and then we’d riff on ideas for fixing the problems. This happened every other week.
After a year of this, I started to lose faith in the coach. He never ran out of ideas, but we were chasing our tails, and recycling ideas we’d already tried. We were throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick.
At some point, he wondered if his Attention Deficit Disorder might be hampering our progress. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I realized the coping mechanism which resulted in a career for him as a writer might not be the best mechanism for teaching me how to replicate his success.
A mediocre script wouldn’t get me hired, and the story would never be produced.
Comedy King says “meh”
Still, I wanted to believe he would elevate my skill and help me write a compelling script that would sell. It took me eight more months to quit. (I paid by the month, so the total was starting to add up to a serious amount of money.)
Having spent so much time on my story with this coach, and having my dream of being a writer attached to these coaching sessions, it was difficult for me to walk away. I needed relationship advice.
During those months, I’d made a connection with Steve Kaplan, a comedy consultant who presents workshops on humor and writing. He reviewed my script.
He thought it was an okay story with some funny parts, but that nothing made it stand out. The Rom-Com market is highly competitive and driven by stars attached to projects. A mediocre script wouldn’t get me hired, and the story would never be produced.
It’s a long shot, at best, for a script to be produced even if it sells. A great script might get you hired by a producer, but they usually have a bankable project they want you to write, instead.
Steve’s advice was to abandon this story and pick a project that I cared about for some reason. The more personal the better, because I’d put more personality into it. Working from an idea generated and developed in that workshop method resulted in a serviceable story with a couple of comical set pieces. But it had no soul.
The Golden Age of Ebooks
I decided to write the same amnesia love story as a novel, changing the characters and settings to people and places I cared about. I still wanted it to be funny, but I’d have to learn to make that happen with a project I cared about.
The golden age of Amazon eBooks was over (August, 2010 — November, 2011) but I was confident I could write the novel, publish it myself, and see how it fared in the public arena.
The King is Dead…Long Live the King
I found another teacher online: Corey Mandell (CoreyMandell.net). I was certain I’d found a teacher who could help me but I still didn’t know how much I needed to learn.
By the way, I should mention that I have two advanced degrees, but I had never studied writing in school. I thought I was smart enough to figure it out. That was the mistake of a lifetime.
Corey’s approach is to teach the fundamentals of a scene. If you can’t write a good scene, it doesn’t matter if you have a great story concept because no one will turn the page.
We’d learn to write a script (or novel) later on, but not from him. He teaches tools of writing, but doesn’t workshop entire scripts in his online classes.
I learned a lot from Corey. The most important thing was that overconfidence in my abilities left me incapable of judging my own work. Working with him for three years was life changing (in terms of my writing).
He didn’t teach me everything I needed to know, but he taught me the ability to accept feedback, evaluate my own work, and keep learning. That took three years.
…the hero gets beat up and his foe pisses on him…
Taking responsibility for my own learning
I wrote the first draft of the novel about half-way through my time with Corey. Feedback was slow, but I kept looking for more training on writing a novel.
An abridged list of books I read while also working with Corey gives you an idea of how much I needed to learn:
- Rivet your Readers with Deep Point of View
- Wired for Story
- Writing the Breakout Novel
- Writing the Blockbuster Novel
- How to Write a Bestseller
- Art of Storytelling
- Nail Your Story
- Into the Woods
The last two of that list were the best for me, but finding them took time. As I read the others, I put the principles into practice, revising the learning novel and also attempting other stories.
Meanwhile, I joined the local writing club, went to conferences on writing, and attended workshops by Donald Maas and Michael Hauge. As I learned new things, I rewrote that novel.
Revise, Rinse, Repeat
I rewrote the novel six times and got it to what I thought was a complete version in December, 2017. It was named Fugue, and a friend of mine created the cover.
It didn’t do well on Amazon. It got less than ten reviews, a couple of which slammed it. By the end of 2018, I was ready to forget about it and move on.
In 2019, I wondered if the title and cover weren’t the problem. My title, Fugue, used an accurate word to suggest what happens in the story, but it’s an obscure word. It means nothing to most people. Also, the cover looked nothing like romantic comedy novel covers.
In 2020, I brainstormed new titles and got feedback on them. Then I hired a professional book cover designer to create a new cover with the new title.
Finally, this year (2021), I relaunched the novel as The Forgettable Marriage of Lina and Joe. I’m giving away advance review copies. (If a book gets 50 reviews, rumor has it, Amazon’s algorithm suggests it to more people.) That story has its best chance to find an audience.
That’s it. Ten years to complete a novel. End of story.
My brother-in-law has been dead for ten years now. In the time he had, he enjoyed a successful career and was a great husband and father for his family. He is missed, but his impact on those who knew him is still felt.
None of us knows how much time we’ll have on earth. It’s best if you spend the time you’re given caring for friends and family, and pursuing what you love and care about as best you can.
I’m definitely done with that novel this time. From conception to completion has been just over ten years. I’ve learned a lot in that time, and I hope the three new novels I’ve written in the past two years find an audience.
Whether or not they do, I consider myself a novelist now.
And for as long as I’m able, I’m going to write like a mother-fucker.
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