The Craft 001: In the Beginning

I write novels, and I write screenplays, but I think in novel form. I have never mastered the art (or the understanding) of short fiction. I have had exactly one short story published. Conveniently, I have taken it and made it into Part One of my latest novel project. However, I love the long-form essay, and have published numerous creative non-fiction articles.  Essays satisfy my left brain needs, while also drawing from the right and more creative side.

What is the process when one sets out to write in long form? 

There is no “set” process, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something. Every writer approaches their craft in their own unique way. For instance, Stephen King writes his first drafts longhand on a legal pad. That, to me, is astonishing, considering many of his novels push 700 pages or more. But, it’s a truly organic way to be in touch with your source material…which is, in plain speaking, your creativity. There’s something about words flowing from your brain, along the length of your arm, and spilling out onto the page in (hopefully) sentences and ideas that make some modicum of sense. Long-hand is not for everyone, especially in this, the Electronic Age.

I tend to create my first draft in one long, non-edited purge. I don’t worry about linear plot details (which come in the re-writes), or deep character details.  Those come as I’m writing. I keep a second pad of paper handy to make notes as I go. Many writers consider this “seat-of-the-pants” writing. Outlines have never worked for me.

Oddly, my stories always seem to come to me first as an eye-catching title. I imagine the title being an enormous box that I carefully unpack as I go. I learn a lot in creating this way. But again, it’s my way, and I was never taught that it was the correct way.  There are certain “rules” in fiction writing, but nobody ever said you had to follow them.

Take the “Hero’s Journey” model, for instance. It has been touted as the real way to create compelling fiction. I beg to differ. It’s good as a guideline, but if everyone starts following that model to the letter, we’ll end up with a universe of unimaginative stories. The Hero’s Journey hasn’t always been around, either.

The study of hero myth narratives started in 1871 with anthropologist Edward Taylor’s observations of common patterns in plots of hero’s journeys. Later on, others introduced various theories on hero myth narratives such as Otto Rank and his Freudian psychoanalytic approach to myth, Lord Raglan’s unification of myth and rituals, and eventually hero myth pattern studies were popularized by Joseph Campbell, who was influenced by Carl Jung’s view of myth. In his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

But what model did writers use prior to that?

My goal is to blog my current novel project from inception to completion.  Then I will blog the process in landing an agent and, hopefully, finding a book deal.


straylight-magazine-cover-scan_page_11In November, 2016, I submitted a short story (the only one ever published, as mentioned above) to Straylight Magazine, which they generously opted to publish. I knew, however, that it was an incomplete story, and it has lurked in my mind like a night thief, waiting for me to take notice again.

It’s a fictionalized account of my childhood. It had first existed in essay form, but no one found it credible enough to be “real,” and so fictionalizing it was the best way to proceed. Before that, it was the first chapter in a memoir that I had written more than a decade ago, but never found the courage to submit for publication. It’s along the lines of Angela’s Ashes, though American in origin instead of Ireland. In retrospect, I’m thinking it’s because, like the essay that came after, it was too real, and therefore, not believable.

There’s a reason fiction exists.  There’s also a reason that it’s rumored that every piece of fiction ever written contains more autobiographical stuff than an actual autobiography.

The other day, I was reading late at night (The Cartel by Don Winslow…an awesome book if you’re into that sort of thing) when an unknowable something flashed across the screen of my mind, and it looked an awful lot like Where to Stand in a War, the essay-cum-short story. I grabbed the legal pad off my bedstand (yes, many writers DO keep a notepad handy for exactly this kind of insight), and made a note to go back and look at it.

Which I did the next morning, that building of adrenaline inside me telling me that I had something solid, that intuition or whatever it was that sent that information to my conscious mind, saw it as an excellent project.

Re-reading it brought me to tears. And I knew – suddenly? finally? – that it would be a novel, then realized that it would become a trilogy. Along with that flash of insight came the working title:


Titles have always been my favorite thing, and I find them in poetry, in song lyrics, in Shakespearean sonnets. And then, like a stream-of-consciousness lightning bolt, the next two titles made themselves known to me. This is how you know you’re working from a place of true creativity: it comes together without having to force it. I liken it to other intuitive insights I’ve had, several of which saved my life. I have trusted my intuition the things we lost cover 1since I was old enough to know what it was. It has never, ever, led me astray.

The main character, one of five Irish-American children, was the same boy who’d been written about in Where to Stand in a War. He was the young protagonist of both fiction and essay. He is exceptionally sensitive to the world around him, to pain, to loss, and to life. As fate would have it, he is born into an exceptionally brutal family. The original first lines of the memoir read:

The first thing I learned as a child was that my mother wanted me dead. I spent the next thirty years trying to fulfill her wishes.

Those lines didn’t make it into the short story. They weren’t necessary. The exposition carried the story just fine. But I wanted somehow to have that short story as the opening of the new novel. Last weekend I sat down and resculpted it.

Before my mother passed several years ago, I read those lines to her, explaining that they were the first lines of my memoir. True to form, she called them “the stupidest thing [I’ve] ever heard!” and went on to berate me for being alive.

She had never changed her ways. She seemed to believe that the world owed her, and owed her big, and we – her children – would NEVER live up to her expectations. Despite the fact that I was the first child in my family to graduate high school (with honors), and the first to put myself through college because, let’s be real here, we weren’t worth the money she’d be out if she helped pay for it. Her response drove home the fact that no one on Earth would ever live up to her unbelievable expectations, in spite of the fact that I truly did spend my first twenty years trying to please her, before realizing it was impossible.

The novel was started on September 3rd…ironically, it was exactly thirty years to the day of my sobriety. See, not everyone is able to see that they are self-destructing through addiction. I certainly didn’t. So many years drinking and drugging myself into oblivion. I had no idea that a child who suffers such extreme abuse over a prolonged period of time develops Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When one experiences a traumatic brain injury (which cPTSD is said to mimic in some ways), self-destruction is but one symptom of an enormous problem.

On August 31, 2016, I experienced a total and complete emotional meltdown. It was severe enough to land me in jail and then, less than twenty-four hours later, an in-patient treatment center where I was to spend the next eight days. While there, I was FINALLY placed on a medication regimen that saved my, and probably others’ lives. While it was a horrible experience, it was necessary. That’s what I took away from it. I was both suicidal and homicidal, and “death by cop” was a viable option. Once medicated properly, those options faded away.

Now, nearly a year later, I find myself wishing to break open the rotted crust of the past and dig through the horror and pain and tears so that I could get closure.

Someone once asked Stephen King why he wrote such horrific stories. He responded – and I’m probably mangling his original response – that the monsters in his books would never be as terrifying as the monsters in our real lives. And he was right. I read his books because it made me feel less alone, that those monsters he wrote about were characters based on my own family.

Cillian Darnell is our protagonist, and he barely survives his home life. The new hook line became:

He is seven when he kills his father.

He doesn’t escape unscathed, though, and who does? He gets knocked around pretty spectacularly and he’s in a sort of fugue state when he does the deed. What he doesn’t realize until later is: he has survived with something other about him. This otherness makes him constantly wonder if he is alive or dead. It’s a question so many people ask themselves at some point in their lives.

The late Freddie Mercury put it like this: Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?

What that otherness is, I won’t say, because I don’t want to give the whole plot line away.

I wrote another 4,000 words on it last weekend, but am not satisfied with how it turned out. The newer stuff doesn’t hold the same potency that Part One has. This week, I will likely go back and delete-delete-delete, starting again from the beginning of Part Two.

This is how we go deeper. This is how we make ourselves look very closely into the mirror to describe every hoary detail.

The trilogy is in the genre of supernatural thriller. Cillian must figure out what’s wrong with him, but first he must escape the evil clutches of the foster family he’s placed with after his father’s murder. He is labeled by the system as a “killer,” “psychotic,” and “sociopathic.”

Is he, or is he simply broken in all the right places?