Finishing a Novel


I’m sitting in Border’s in Dearborn trying to restrain my enthusiasm. (It’s not polite to just jump up and down in a bookstore and scare the children.) Just finished the novel! 50,000 words was the target. I sat down here about 2 hours ago at 48,000 and the grand total turned out to be 53,552.

For better or worse, the ending wrote itself. I had a general idea of what the main character was going to face but NO idea how it was going to work out. So I think it was much better to let it write itself.

The surprise for me was that – after his desparate prayers to Jesus save him from an attack by a bunch of demons – he still chooses to believe he was just delusional and heads off for a course of therapy. I’ll post a more thorough synopsis of the book somewhere sometime, my adrenaline is too high right now to keep on typing!

Full Disclosure on the NaNoWriMo Story

In my post about the NaNoWriMo novel I’m working on, I described the plot of the novel. My main character – who is gradually descending into madness – spends his weekends parked in the dark, watching men go in and out of bars, trying to decide which ones he thinks might be murderers.

Those of you who know our family history will probably not be surprised if I admit that the idea of an avenging husband stalking predators at local bars occurred to me shortly after we returned to Ann Arbor after Amy’s death.

I was driving down Ellsworth Road west of Ann Arbor and was at a red light. I looked into the parking lot of a bar. It occurred to me that each of those cars and trucks was about to be turned into a lethal weapon. Most of them would not hit anything, but each of these tons of metal and glass was soon going to be roaring down the street for some unknown number of miles, driven by someone who had just finished their last drink of the night.

Most of the time, the driver would beat the odds and arrive home safely. But every once in a while, one of those machine was going to find a target and some parent or spouse was going to get a telephone call.

Not all of the crashes would result in death. Some would leave a husband or wife with a spouse they’d have to spoon feed for the rest of their lives. Some would leave a family with a mildly injured child to nurse back to health. Some would leave a family with a child who could barely function due to closed head injuries. Who could never move out and live on their own. Who couldn’t hold down a job or have children.

In most cases, the drivers would be fine. Most cars have air bags now and the worst most drunk drivers get is a headache in addition to a hangover. Laws are getting tougher but you can still do more time in jail for white collar crimes than for killing someone on the road. If you happen to be drunk at the time.

It occurred to me how simple it would be to slash the tires on these cars and render them harmless. Or follow each of them as they pulled out, then call the police as the more obviously drunk ones swayed from lane to lane on the freeway. Or to confront the driver and do them some physical damage. I never actually considered doing any of this; the ideas all fell into the realm of “I could understand how someone might…” and “wouldn’t it be a great movie plot if…”.

If I ever do go back and rework this book, I may just drop the pretense of the “wife killed by a stalker” and go with the full-blown “kid killed by a guy who just took driving drunk as part of a normal work night”.

I’m not sure tho. I still don’t think I’m ready to write that one.

The 50,000 Word NaNoWriMo Experience

Picture this: a man has just had a Major Life Experience. He’s a college teacher and one of his students has died of a drug overdose. Nobody’s quite sure if it was suicide or an accidental death. The girl was one of his best and brightest, not a troublemaker, not a drinker, not a recreational drug user. So what happened? The teacher remembers a conversation he had with her about the whole Doors of Perception idea discussed by Aldous Huxley and others back in the 50’s and 60’s. Did that conversation lead her down an experimental path that resulted in her death?

Ideas like that had been strolling around in my head for a long time. The small things we say that might have a bigger influence than we could ever imagine. Have you ever had that experience? You are talking about something and a few months later, the person you were talking to has followed up on it? Started taking music lessons. Or started disciplining their child using advice you didn’t realize you were giving. Or left their spouse because you’d made some offhand remark about freedom and exploration?

I thought that would make a good novel. The title would be “The Near Occasions of Sin” – a phrase from the Catholic “Act of Contrition” prayer I’d grown up saying every night. “I firmly resolve with the help of they Grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.” It always seemed like a great thing to say. But it raised the question: would I even recognize “near occasions”? And how often am I one to other people without even knowing it?

On the other hand, I had no real ambitions to write a novel. I liked very much the idea of “having written” one, but there is a lot of distance between Here and There.

I’d heard about this project called National Novel Writing Month a few years ago and was intrigued. I’ve done a lot of writing over the years, mostly songs and poems. Some short stories, even a full-length novel in 8th grade (the less said about that the better). Lately, I’ve been writing little one-act plays for our church drama group.

In a rash moment in mid-October, I decided that the month of November “wasn’t going to be that busy” and surfed over to to sign up for the “50,000 words in 30 days” challenge. Deadlines are about the only thing that get me moving. Even if I impose them myself.

I hit the ground running and kept up about 1,700 words a day for the first week. If you do the math, 1,667 is a good number if you want to work all 30 days. I don’t. I can’t. So, I had an 11,000 word marathon session on the 15th and another 9,000 word surge just a few nights ago. I’m sitting at 43,000 and feel pretty confident I’ll finish. I’ve posted status now and then on Facebook. Why? OK, I’ll cop to it: I was fishing for encouragement. It’s a pretty daunting task.

So, what’s the novel about?

It’s a mess. Which really feels good. The stuff I’m reading in posts from folks who’ve done it before say to expect that. In fact, expect to chuck it or at best have some kind of first draft.

The thing has taken on a life of its own, again, I hear that’s healthy. Hope it’s true. It morphs and changes and the characters do things I wouldn’t have expected them to do. It’s kind of fun, actually.

My main character, it turns out, lost his wife to a slasher a little over a year ago. He’s also lost his faith in God after having read the latest drivel from the Dawkins and Hitchens crowd. The combination of unresolved grief, loss of his religious moorings and his suspicion that he’s been having terrible effects on the people around him push him over the edge into behavior the rest of us would find either insane or at least unbelievable.

He takes it on himself to patrol a handful of neighborhood bars with the mission of intercepting any man who he thinks might be stalking women, following them home, and killing them.

How does he intend to spot them? He’ll “just know”. He’s read a lot about it.

How does he intent to stop them? This was one of the points where the character surprised me. He teaches English Lit, and in the beginning he thought that just the act of intercepting the men would throw them off and prevent the crimes. His sense of high drama, I guess. But, before long, he makes a bad call and gets the crap kicked out of him, ending with him falling, hitting his head, and spending 48 hours in a coma. After getting out of the hospital, he decides to buy a gun. I never expected that kind of behavior from one of my characters!

He also begins to see things. Demonic things. Why? Well, in my attempt to put in everything plus the kitchen sink, I decided to squeeze in one of my favorite concepts from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape: the best thing demons have going for them is that we don’t believe in them. My character explains the things he’s seeing as: brain chemistry, stress, effects from the bump on the head, tricks of the light, etc etc. Anything he can do to not accept the idea that these are supernatural visions. Because we enlightened 21st century folk know better than that.

There’s a subplot with a fellow instructor he came on to a while back – an overly friendly and attractive blond woman who I might end up making the one who set his wife up. Not sure on that one.

There’s another subplot with his non-church going friend who’s been there from the beginning but is now troubled by the changes in the main character. He tries to figure out what medical condition is causing this so he can get him to a doctor.

He does have kids but they’re over at his sister’s house all the time, I may as well leave them out.

Where is it going? I have no idea. I may steal from another story idea I have in mind: a man is sick and the relatives all do their bit to make him better. The New Age cousin places crystals underneath the bed. Another plays him positive thinking and healing tapes. Another prays to St. Whoever. One advises vitamin suppliments. Etc etc. When he recovers, the fun starts as they all try to take credit and prove that the others are all quacks.

Having already thrown idea from three different stories into this novel, I think I’d better leave that one out.