My First Novel

It was November, 2004. (Oh god, how is it that long ago?!)

Georgia Tech had opened a new student bookstore for that school year which was an upper level of a Barnes & Noble, replacing the previous one which was shockingly dank and cramped. So, it was a welcome change. The store’s first level was a normal store for the public and, as with most of their stores, it had a coffee shop.

I had made my way over to this coffee shop to meet with others participating in an online writing… thing, I had learned of called NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month.

The goal was simple: over the course of the month of November, you wrote 50,000 words. They didn’t have to be good words, in fact they probably wouldn’t be good words. In fact, remove the qualifier of good/bad from your mind for this. Just put 50,000 words on paper, that’s all.

That meeting, as I recall, was a group of six or eight of us. From various walks of life, mostly students but some staff for Georgia Tech as well as person or two who simply lived nearby. I think I met with them once or twice more, but then school got busy gearing up for finals and I never finished my novel that year.

I’ve tried to do NaNoWriMo a few times over the years. Three or four times I think, though most of it was over a decade ago. Up until this year I always felt that November has never been a good month for it for me. School as I mentioned was gearing up for finals, or work always seemed busy, and then there was the Thanksgiving holiday… there were always plenty of excuses that enabled me to tell myself I didn’t have time for it and to give up.

This year, after a nudge from my brother Adam, I decided to give it another go. And, well, it turns out a pandemic was a fantastic for removing my barriers.

This year I “won” my first NaNoWriMo, and did so in only 22 days. I churned out 60,000 words for my first novel. As noted above, the novel isn’t good.

Look, it IS bad.

I’m not saying that to get anyone to try and convince me otherwise. I am saying that because first drafts should be bad. Over the coming weeks and months I’ll go back over it and work on improving the writing to passable or possibly publishable. I’ll fix typos, adjust grammar, rewrite sections, etc. I don’t know if I’ll ever share the novel. I think I will, but who knows?

What has been amazing to me is that now that I have written the story, and experienced the work that went into it, I can fully realize and recognize that it’s possible for me to do it again.

Covid-19’s impact on my day to day schedule definitely played a part into this. And I don’t mean working from home, I wrote this entirely off the clock. But instead by how it had cleared my schedule of being out of the house. But that clearance has made me see, I really could get up everyday and write for an hour before then getting ready and going into the office. Or I could do it at night. Or at lunch. The point is I now have done it and can see past the endless excuses life presents us as reasons not to do a thing.

While I am excited I did a thing (I’m referring to the writing of a book.) I’m more excited by the realization it led me to in regards to using my time for projects like this.

As this blog can attest, so often I sit down to write something and after a few sentences or paragraphs it gets abandoned, or it gets written and sits in my Drafts folder waiting for me to get around to editing it. And now I have seen that I have time, and I can no longer tell myself I don’t.

So, one of the things that motivates me when I undertake bigger projects – stats. It was that way during 2012 when I lost a bunch of weight, and it was that way for this. I created a Google Sheet for tracking my writing. It involved tracking each of my writing sessions, and for those sessions I would enter three things: The date, the current total word count when I was finished with the session, and the rough time I spent writing (in minutes, for ease of calculation.)

Around the third day I added a second sheet to my tracker that did a roll up of sessions into days. Did I need it? No, not really, but having it gave me a better view on a daily basis. And that daily view is more easily parse-able from a distance.

On the sessions sheet, I had it do some all-up calculations:

  • Words to Goal – Sure I could see my total and it was a single piece of arithmetic to calculate, but I had 75,000 words in my head so I wanted a quick look “how far am I from this count”?
  • Total Time: Tracking the total time spent writing, converting minutes into hours and minutes.
  • WPM: Words per minute. One thing I realized early on was I really had no mental model for how fast I was writing. So i was curious to see my words per minute as I wrote. I stuck pretty close to 30 words per minute with some varying levels.
  • Avg. Words per Session: Again, I didn’t have a benchmark to go against, but I was curious how much I was writing each time I sat down.
  • Projected Times: I had two of these, one for 50k words and one for 75k words. Both of these were very simple, calculate word count needed for each goal, then divide by words per minute. Easy peasy. Again, just a barometer for me to see a finish line.

Along with the tables of information I created three graphs:

  1. Tracking word count after each session for the straightforward progress (in the graphic above)
  2. Tracking daily word count, compared to a rolling 3-day average and my cumulative averages
  3. Tracking daily word progress against a trend line so I could see if I was falling behind my trend

How much did these charts help? Some! Were these sheets overkill? Quite possibly but I’m not questioning them so far.

I definitely had days towards the end where I was flagging, I was now confident I would finish and it was about getting across that line. Seeing I was lower than average by a lot motivated me to do another writing session for even just 20 minutes.

I wrote the entire thing in a piece of freeware called FocusWriter. Available for any platform (Windows, Mac, Linux) and is largely a basic word processor with some nice features. This tool worked best for me because it allowed me to write and be offline, or at least not have a browser window open. I opted for a black background with a neon green font color as the display style because, well, I liked the retro and distractionless design.

I am well aware of the fact that the browser is a blackhole for my time if I am not careful. I’m too tempted to click on another tab or check email or check tweets, etc.

I also discovered that I couldn’t really write while watching TV or a stream or anything. I could have it on mute (such as I did for part of the Election week coverage) but I really struggled to write while having an aural input other than instrumental or electronic music.

So What’s Next…

Inevitably people ask when they can read it, which I think is endearingly optimistic. The answer is: I don’t know. But, I have outlined what I think the next steps are for how I want approach fixing the novel.

This is my very rough roadmap to editing I’ve laid out for myself:

  1. Easy pass – Run spellcheck and fix obvious grammar issues. I wrote the novel without the autocorrect features turned on, time to pay for that choice. But, I didn’t want the squiggles of words or phrases distracting me from my writing. The other thing I’ll do during this pass is flag bigger issues. Does something not make sense? Is something awkwardly written? Is something a detail in the book which is important needs to be in line elsewhere? Anything that needs fixing but isn’t a low effort immediate fix will get flagged for later. (Est. time: 1 week)
  2. Flagged issues – This will be a longer editing pass as it will require more work. This is when I work through the flagged comments I’ve made and try to unravel what I was thinking during the haze of November. (Est. time: 3 weeks)
  3. Overall Edit – One more full read through and edit, this is just an overall review without any specific agenda other than improving overall quality. I think I will have this be two-three passes. (Est. time: 2 months)
  4. Alpha readers – IF I feel the story has merit, I share it with a handful of alpha readers to give it a read and start giving me feedback.

I am sure better writers than me will look at this list and think I’m doing it wrong. Please know I am not soliciting feedback on this process from the general public. I may change the method once I start down this road, we’ll see.

Part of this process is also asking myself what’s next. Is this a real book? Do I try and find a book agent and get published by a big publisher? Do I self-publish? Do I do something else entirely like a Patreon and a podcast of the story?

I genuinely don’t know. 

As of this moment, I am leaning toward the idea of self-publishing and exploring non-standard monetization strategies, but I have no idea if I will. I’m not looking to be Tom Clancy as far as authors go, just have a new side hustle to supplement income (being optimistic here) and share stories.

We’ll see. I am aiming to share the story with those Alpha readers in January/February, but that is also possibly wildly optimistic. After that, I have no idea when I expect to put the story in front of an audience.

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Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

The book’s title is one which caused me to do a double take when I saw it. Gun Machine is such an unusual flopping of word order. Isn’t it supposed to be “Machine Gun”? In so many ways, this juxtaposition is a perfect lead in for the novel.

I’ve never been a big comic book fan. My readings have always been the mainstream ones, Batman, Spiderman, and even… Richie Rich. Look, as a little kid, I really enjoyed the Richie Rich stories. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. Being that I’m not a comic book guy, I never really knew about Warren Ellis until just a few years ago. I think it was Boing Boing which introduced me to him, and since then I’ve followed him online and subscribed to his blog. So when I heard about his new novel: Gun Machine, I knew I needed to add it to my already towering stack of books to read.

Yesterday, taking advantage of a quiet morning I sat down and submerged myself in the Gun Machine. We’re introduced to John Tallow, or ‘Tallow’ as he’s most frequently referred to in the novel, is a cop with an unusual love of history and books and a loner. He also goes out of his way to be a loner. He never even met the wife of his partner over the 18 months they worked together. His cop car is loaded down with books, papers, and print outs such that it actually occupies much of the car’s back seat. We learn that Tallow is a cop who’s over it, or quite nearly over it.

Opposite Tallow we’re introduced to ‘The Hunter,’ a mystic or mad man — we’re never quite sure — who lives in New York City alongside Tallow. Where Tallow lives in the daylight, The Hunter exists in the shadows of the city going so far as to map and track CCTV cameras such that he can travel the city with minimal exposure. He sees the city in a disorienting hybrid of reality and some pre-civilized grass-covered landscape and repeatedly we see him deal with mental discord as some anachronism rushes through the opposite setting such as a car careening through a pastoral valley. We’re unsure for much of the book what exactly the story and truth around this mysterious person is, and Ellis masterfully unfolds his story alongside Tallow’s own discoveries. What we learn quickly is that The Hunter is a masterful killer with no conscience to speak of.

The intersection between Tallow and The Hunter is the book’s titular reference, a room filled with guns. Not just a closet or workshop but a full apartment unit which has its walls covered with guns arranged in interlocking patterns.

After Tallow’s partner and he answer a call concerning a naked and armed apartment resident, a fateful shotgun blast reveals the room of guns. Here is a wonderful trailer for the book below narrated by Wil Wheaton and drawn by Ben Templesmith. The video is an excerpt from the novel where the room of guns is discovered and described.

Joss Whedon has said that, in his mind, Serenity was one of the main characters on Firefly. I find myself feeling the same way about the gun room in Gun Machine. So central is it to the plot and the story, so important for how it holds this plot’s web together, it would be a major fallacy to overlook how crucial this room is. Even after the room itself is disassembled and collected for evidence, Tallow reconstructs the room using photos such that he can recreate the effect the room had on him. They lay out photos and printings of the guns, papering walls and the floor in the CSU building, such that he is able to do “cop voodoo.” The Hunter was forced to watch as his creation was disassembled, repeatedly he considers storming in and simply killing the people disassembling his masterpiece, only to stop himself out of a desire to remain unseen.

The discovery of this room reopens hundreds of closed cold-case files. An event which, even when the police force had the manpower, would prove daunting. During a time where the cops are strapped for people and money (which is always it seems) it becomes a political chess piece. Tallow’s lieutenant despite her apparent fondness for Tallow, saw his diminishing will for the job and decided to hang the albatross of a room around his neck and let him be the fall guy for it. One man versus hundreds of cold cases versus a true bogey-man of a serial killer. We discover that despite her expectation that he will fail, she supports him and even the Captain of the precinct supports him even though he expects failure and the case to be the executioner’s axe.

The discovery of the room also leads Tallow into a web that goes beyond just the 200 murders, it uncovers a larger plot with more important players. But, despite that, it is still central to these two men – Tallow and The Hunter.

The city that Ellis portrays is a grim, bloody, animalistic city. Tallow listens to the police scanner while he drives and thus is constantly awash in the horrible things happening around the city. There are stories of rapes, murder-suicides, robberies, and more. It’s a city vastly darker than the glamorous New York so often shown even in the cop shows on TV. This is a city that I would be terrified to go out in lest I end up on the wrong end of a mugging.

Gun Machine by Warren EllisThis sort of mystery is the one I most enjoy where it isn’t a matter of finding the key to solving it, it’s a matter of focus. We, as a reader, know we have the frame and perspective, it’s only as Ellis carefully shows us what we’re looking at does it snap into focus.

It’s a quick read, with 280 pages, I finished it in a single morning. The narrative moves quickly and I definitely felt the pull to continue at the end of each chapter. I encourage you to read this book if you like mysteries or enjoy Ellis’ graphic novels.

It’s also worth noting that the rights for the book have already been sold to Fox, so perhaps we’ll see John Tallow face the Hunter on TV. I could see it being the basis for a crime procedural series, or maybe just a movie. But we’ll see if it pops up in the next few years.

Let me know what you think! I tried to keep this review spoiler-free despite the constant tugging for me to dive deeper into the plot. Shoot me an email 🙂

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Header image from 1yen on Flickr.