Wednesday, May 1, 2013

So Now It's Off To Novels

The novelist (?) with CLOG! on the screen. Getting to it.
This is my first day--and I hope not my last--as a full-time novelist, a day I never even imagined would come a few years ago. This is not to say the effort will be successful in the traditional sense of making money from books, but it already is successful in that I'm doing it.

I've been a journalist for a year short of half a century and I'll still be working in a little of that as a freelancer, but the roles of novel writing and journalism will reverse. In the past 18 months, I've worked for my magazine, FRONT, full-time and pecked away at my first novel, CLOG!, in those moments I could spare. That's not enough, frankly. I need to put time and effort on a consistent basis into novel-writing, since I'm a novice with a lot to learn.

Fact is that I'm in a good position to get writing lessons nearly everywhere I turn. The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, which I founded six years ago, has opened my world to an entirely new group of writers, many of them writing fiction and knowing what the hell they're doing. I've been a sponge. My experience with writers is that, like photographers, singers, artists and anybody else in the creative pursuits, they are generous with those of us who want to be one of them. They patiently--and sometimes impatiently-- read bad stuff and help make it better. They are full of wonderful advice that makes sentences and paragraphs sing. They tell me what to do with my hands, as the photographer might say, or show me how to move without the ball, as the basketball coach might instruct.

I have three novels on the boards right now (in addition to the four books I've had published): CLOG!, which is nearly finished; Antonia Online, which has 250 pages written (but is hardly polished); and an untitled novel dealing with a plane crash I covered as a kid. I'm also working on updating my memoir. Problem with a memoir is that you're not dead when you finish it and there's a lot of living left to do--life has been almost excessively full since Burning the Furniture was published seven years ago. I think these have been the best years of my life, especially the association with Tom Field and FRONT, the magazine that rose from the ashes of the business publication we ran and the local daily managed to kill with its incompetence. But that's another seminar; this is about fiction.

Leah, bless her, never tells me what to do, but her suggestions in polishing up a final rewrite of CLOG!, which I thought was finished, have been revealing in ways that are important. The book had been re-written eight times when she got to it, but her suggestions made it markedly better in every way. Leah is a much more lyrical writer than I am, but we have voices that are so similar that they often sound like family. She knows what I'm trying to say and helps me say it with more authority and clarity. She's a better fiction writer than I am and that works like playing tennis against superior players. You can only improve.

I recently had the opportunity to edit my friend Darrell Laurent's first novel, The Kudzu Kid (Darrell's a newspaper columnist in Lynchburg), and everything I've learned became clear as I worked on Darrell's pages. I'd read his book for a while, then go back to CLOG! and see what applied. A lot did. Scenes became much sharper; characters more complete and well-drawn.

The story was always a good one (square dance and football and clashing cultures and romance in 1963 Western North Carolina), but it needed to be told in a way that riveted attention, none of this "Oh, wait until you get to Page 50" crap, which I'd been guilty of telling people. Readers are patient a paragraph at a time and they're easier to lose than to keep them.

I'll continue learning and writing and trying to remain vigilant about the time I spend on Facebook and Twitter (today's version of looking out the window). Root for me. I'll need that.


  1. You've got my vote, Dan. I don't know much as I'm still relatively new to this world, but if I don't have the answers to your questions, I'll do what I can to find them. Looking forward to the stories of your novelist adventures.

  2. Dan, remember Maya Angelou: A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. Can't wait to hear that baritone barrage!

  3. Go, Dan! And here's something from one of the greatest of all novelists:

    "The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as an executant — no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes."

    Henry James, The Art of Fiction

    No limits -- a pretty good description of the promise and perils of each blank line on each new page of each project, I often think.

    Savor the luxury and learn from the torment -- or vice versa.

    Your readers are looking forward to what you show us next.


  4. Keith: You were the first person to read the new draft of CLOG! 18 months or so ago, when I thought it was finished. I'm in my 9th rewrite and it's a different book, a better book, a much more professional book and I thank you for helping me accomplish that. I'm beginning to catch on, I think, and I can't imagine anything else I'd rather be doing with what I have left of my life than writing fiction based upon what I know, have lived and have seen. I don't want to create any of it from whole cloth because what's true is far too interesting to have to make much of it up--other than people's names.