I have a whole bookcase full of old manuscripts and screenplays, but most of them I promise myself can eventually be developed into better books. And why not? Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees took five years of revision before it was published and Pizza Delivery took 13. I have other stories that aren't ready for a readership yet, but may be revisited, even my 300-page screenplay about Batman. I've got a western that I would totally rework and publish if I could just get myself to change its inappropriate title (won't do it), an erotic horror novella that will never see the light of day, a story about a dying hooker that was good for me to write at the time and that no one should have to read, and some other stories that are actually pretty good that I hope to one day rewrite and make available.
But Straw Houses, my first epic adult horror novel about victims of alien abduction, has been picked over for parts and its ashes have been spread over my other works. All Together Now: A Zombie Story stole part of its ending, Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees stole some of its characters (Grandma Juanita was the only character in Straw Houses I genuinely liked, and I transported her to Banneker's world as an apology for first putting her in such a terrible novel), and now The Book Of David has stolen its best scenes and ideas. In fact, that last book is very much Straw Houses 2.0, and if I've finally written a decent long horror story involving UFO lore, it's only because I first devoted a couple years of my life to learning how NOT to write a long horror story involving UFO lore.
So what went wrong? Like an athlete watching old games or comedians listening to past routines, I think authors should revisit their own works from time to time to assess their weaknesses and strategize for future victory. So this post will be a useful exercise for me and possibly interesting to you writers out there as well. And if it's not, next week we'll be back to interviews with authors, publishing professionals, and guest posts by the same. Plenty of useful archives for you to read if me mourning my dead book doesn't interest you:)
Here are the issues with Straw Houses as I see now them on this side of seven years past two years' writing and revising and rewriting and revising:
1. I didn't have a plan going in. Every writer has to decide where they sit on the spectrum between diligent, plodding plotter and fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pantser, free-spirited, I-just-write-it-as-it-comes-to-me-man-cause-its-my-art-man dirty hippie:) Through trial and error, I've learned I do better if I know the ending up front (or at least have a good idea what it might be). I leave open the possibility that the characters will change the ending, and they frequently do, but not by much.
With Straw Houses, I had a lot of passion because I was nine years younger, not yet married or a father, and more of a UFO enthusiast. I was evangelical in my suspicions of conspiracy. I've since mellowed and backed off, having learned the hard way that it pays to be cautious with overly-interesting theories:) But in my enthusiasm, I decided to take an interesting situation: a small town Indiana couple, interracial like Betty and Barney Hill, comes to in their car, parked on a country road, with no memory of the five hours that have just passed. Meanwhile, another man in town is menaced by a UFO late at night that appears in his backyard and speaks to him. The two stories converge because the men are coworkers who confess their separate incidents after a UFO appears above the Harrington courthouse and one of them snaps a picture of it that becomes world-famous.
It's a good set up for a novel. Even now, knowing how it turned out, I still feel the opening was pretty swell. It's got plenty of intrigue and I may yet write at least a short story in which a UFO shows up over the courthouse of a small Indiana town because that is just pure fun. Aside from a few other issues we'll come to, I think the first 100-150 pages of Straw Houses is one of my most gripping openings. Unfortunately, the book went on for another 700 pages and I had no clue what happened next:) I just assumed I'd figure it out as I went. I didn't.
2. The characters weren't likable or, worse, interesting. The main character, Charles Cavanaugh, was a jerk who whined a lot, treated his wife poorly, and didn't have a goal other than to stop being abducted by aliens. That's motivation enough for the protagonist of a short story (Brock Clouser's main motivation in Pizza Delivery is not to get murdered) but not a stupid-long novel.
Charles was a financial consultant at Mitchell and Reynolds Investments because I always thought it was funny that a straight-edge banker be abducted by aliens, which is why David Walters works at the same branch in The Book of David and meets many of the characters from Straw Houses, which is interesting only to me and the handful of other people who read my first attempt:) Charles' wife, Christine, is even worse, and the two of them together were deplorable. They were always fighting.
The couple wasn't fighting because I was ticked at Mrs. Ninja and looking for a place to put it, but because conflict drives stories and I hadn't given the Cavanaughs an actionable conflict, so they turned on each other to keep pages turning:) And, okay, I was contemplating getting married and chose to create a worst-case scenario marriage. Ultimately, the Cavanaughs fought so much I convinced myself and my few readers their relationship was doomed, so there wasn't anything at stake. The other characters were a little better, but not much because...
3. I never established a clear concept or overarching conflict to drive the novel. Whoops:) The number one thing I learned about writing my first long horror story about UFOs is that "realistic" aliens make lousy villains. Fictional aliens to which I can assign a motive and make clear their plan would probably be bang-up antagonists, and I'm sure I'll write about some eventually. But I wanted to incorporate as many details from modern UFO sightings and abductions as possible, and if you've done that research (here's a place to start), you'll notice there is no consensus about where flying saucers come from and what their motives are.
That's fine for an hour-long program of talking heads on the History Channel, but it's not's fine for a long novel. I had the same problem as the film Twister in that my villains weren't worthy villains with a goal that brings them into conflict with the "hero" in a credible way ("You've never seen a tornado miss this house and miss that house and come after you!").
About 300 pages in, after multiple UFO encounters and detailed flashbacks to suppressed memories of alien abduction, my characters began to suspect that the aliens were actually demons. The problem then is the demonic aliens still didn't have a clear plan or motivation other than to mess with our heroes, apparently by convincing one of them that she had alien babies being raised on another planet. Worse, the heroes could now pray the aliens away, which is not an exciting finale to a long novel.
My attempted solution was to hold off revealing that the aliens were demons until the end of the novel after Charles Cavanaugh attempted multiple means of fighting them off. But this just exacerbated the original problem of the villains being without a clear motive, leaving our hero without a real goal until page 750 or so. Even my mother isn't going to read a story like that.
4. I molded the story to serve its theme rather than allowing the theme to emerge from the story. In my mind, Straw Houses was destined to be literature read and studied for ages to come. What a fool I was. Only The Book of David and my other super important and impressive volumes of literature will be studied by future generations:)
About the same time I decided the aliens were demons, which is to say way too far along in the novel to reconsider, I decided they must be the big bad wolf. Oh my God, put on your tweed jacket with the leather patches and light your pipe, I've got myself a metaphor! I had two households being antagonized by a big bad wolf. If I had a third, he could metaphorically huff and puff and blow two houses down, but then also the third, because in the end don't we all live in Straw Houses (Get it? Get it? I hate you, me from the past).
So I added a third house and a fourth major character about 300 pages in for the soul purpose of later killing him and showing that his metaphorical house wasn't built so good after all. At one point the demonic aliens called him on the phone and were all like, "Are you scared? We know your phone number!!!" And this happened because he wasn't tied into the main plot that was already going.
5. I ended a very long book with a total downer ending. This goes hand in hand with my previous mistake as missteps build on each other to lead a writer way off path.
I've always been suspicious of that third little pig in the brick house. Why's he so happy at the end of the story? Both his brothers got ate up and he's all alone. I mean, he's safe, so long as he never goes outside again. I realize I'm reading too much into an allegory, but I maintain that third pig is not a happy fellow.
So, after 800 some-odd pages of UFOs torturing our three households (or huffing and puffing) one character kills himself, one gets shot by a woman who is herself possessed by an alien demon, one character is killed when she attempts to flee the ritual suicide of a UFO cult, and our main character, Charles Cavanaugh, is left all alone to mourn his dead homies and never be happy again. Here's the actual ending:
Only Charles remained. He was the smart pig who built his house of brick, the wise man who built his house upon the stone. The rains came down and the winds came up, and the wolf huffed and puffed, but he couldn’t get old Charles’s house down. Charles Cavanaugh was the wise man living on the rock. Charles Cavanaugh was the clever pig in the brick house and he was doing just fine, thank you very much.
Charles filled his glass to the brim with whiskey and a dash of Sprite. He listened to the roar of the surf outside the kitchen window and the quiet stillness all around him. There were no voices, no other sounds of any kind. There was no one else here, only him.
Charles raised the glass to his lips and began to drink.
Metaphorically, it's true that every character in the story had demonstrated the weakness that led to their undoing, but that just makes readers want to know about the characters who didn't screw up their lives and my 800-page tome would've been better off including some (even if it messed up the three-little pigs motif, which is really better left to James Patterson).
So, from this experience, I learned that as a rule: downer endings are more acceptable at the end of shorter works. Readers are generally more forgiving if they've invested less time with the doomed protagonist. Better yet is the downer ending that's still somewhat happy for at least one or two major characters. Conversely, a happy ending is better tempered with at least a little darkness.
One mistake I made with Straw Houses that is no longer a mistake was the length. The plot problems would've still been an issue had it been a shorter book, though I might've got away with a narrative poem:) I like long horror novels and am convinced there is still a market for them. And there's a very good reason some of my most favorite horror novels have been long.
The most astute critique I ever heard of Stephen King came from a fellow Burger King employee many, many years ago when the Ninja was a teenager. We both agreed King's stories were amazing, and by far the scariest, but he remarked, "Doesn't it seem like if you shook hands with that dude at a party, you'd have to chew through your wrist to get away?" I have thought about that criticism ever since every time I reread King's works, but also when I read other long books.
I've talked at length about my undying love for Stephen King, but my coworker did have a point. There have been a few Stephen King novels when I've wondered if the editor just didn't feel comfortable asking Mr. King to please not review other writer's books in the middle of the book Constant Reader paid for (get a blog, man). And yet most of King's novels are white-hot reading experiences demanding to be read as quickly as possible that are still popular decades after they were written, despite large word counts. So either Stephen King is just super lucky every book (and no doubt, some luck was involved), or there's a method to his madness.
Many of Stephen King's books thrive on details. They have to. He's asked Constant Reader to suspend their disbelief by quite a lot on numerous occasions.
The Shining has a cast of four major characters in a straightforward horror story that can be boiled down to a few sentences or endless 2-5 minute animated parodies. King took 160,000 words to tell his version and it worked and continues to work. King is a master salesman who convinces Constant Reader that his characters are real people because Constant Reader will know everything that's relevant about them. King convinces Constant Reader that the situation those real characters are in is real as well.
Even if it takes King 444,000 words, Constant Reader will believe there is a killer clown in the sewers capable of transforming into their worst fear and Constant Reader will believe because every detail about that fantasy will add up to an argument convincing enough until the lights come on again.
Straw Houses at its longest draft was 182,000 words. A literary agent literally laughed in my face when I told her. Nobody was going to traditionally publish a novel that long by a debut author, she said, and she was right. That's not the same as saying there aren't readers looking for long horror stories. If they've read King (and what kind of jerk loves horror and doesn't read King?), they know those seemingly mundane details add up, like the passes of a hypnotist's golden watch, to convince the reader the story is real and that they should be terrified.
The compilation of all five volumes of The Book of David is 276,000 words. I knew going in it would be a long story because it asks the reader to suspend their disbelief about a whole lot of stuff, the least of which is that flying saucers and alien abductions are real and a practical concern for everyday people:) But I learned my lesson from previous mistakes and published this very long story as five books, which allows for marketing considerations.
Because I only get paid for the fifth book if Esteemed Reader made it through the first four, this insured that I would be forced to keep the narrative focused with built in cliffhangers.
I did a few other things differently in writing The Book of David that I knew to do only because I'd first written Straw Houses:
1. I absolutely had a plan going in. I knew what the last chapter would be before I wrote the first one, while keeping the plot flexible enough to allow the characters to dictate their own actions (sometimes). I didn't have a full outline, but I did have a list of planned events to help me determine where each chapter needed to start and stop to get where I wanted to go.
2. I had a clear concept going in: The Walters family has bought a haunted house. From the first line of Chapter One to the last line of Chapter Five, this is a haunted house story. There are aliens and flying saucers, but the reader is told in Chapter One as well as in the book's description that those aliens may actually be demons. There's an alien with demonic horns on the cover. My cards are pretty much on the table from the start. And the aliens are prominently featured without ever bearing the responsibility of being the primary antagonist. This is a haunted house story with aliens in it, not an alien story with a haunted house in it.
3. Because I knew the ending, I knew some of what the themes were likely to be and allowed them to emerge from the story rather than bending the story to serve the themes. If you read the whole story from start to finish and don't pick up that this is a story in part about addiction and in part about parenting, you won't be bothered because the plot moves right along without your needing to pick the themes up. If you don't think it's thematically relevant that every volume starts with "Do you believe? Do you have faith?" then maybe it isn't. I'm okay with The Book of David being thematically misunderstood so long as Esteemed Reader is entertained and kept in suspense. This is a for fun story, not homework.
4. David and Miriam Walters are both flawed characters, but they're also likeable and they have actionable goals. I know because I used critique partners' and beta readers' feedback to rewrite my characters until I knew they were likeable and I wrote out fact sheets about them to keep them consistent through five volumes of story. I know all kinds of details about them that aren't relevant enough to be in the book. It thrilled my heart when one Esteemed Reader wrote in a review, "The main character David is down to earth and likable which is a good part of what makes this book so enjoyable to read." I couldn't have paid someone to write a better compliment than that, assuring me the book was doing what I wanted it to do.
5. The ending is satisfying, whatever the author's opinion of it does for you:) I didn't write 279,000 words just to tell you the ending on my free blog, but I do feel it's my best ending of all my stories so far published. It makes me smile to think of how I hope Esteemed Reader will feel when they reach it.
There were many other mistakes made in Straw Houses, some of which I'm probably still making because I don't yet know they were mistakes:) But every story I've told since Straw Houses has been better because I wrote that ill-fated novel destined to sit on my shelf of manuscripts that are, sigh, not good enough. Straw Houses taught me the lessons I needed to know to write the manuscripts that are.
That shelf of old manuscripts isn't a graveyard of failed dreams. It's a monument to the heroic efforts made by the stories who went first so future stories could resonate with Esteemed Reader.
The Walters family has just purchased the perfect home if only it weren't located in the small hick town of Harrington, Indiana, and if only it weren't haunted. David Walters is an atheist now, but his minister father taught him from a young age that Satan would one day deceive all mankind by pretending his demons were extraterrestrials. The day the Walters family moves in, they spot a flying saucer outside their new home. Things only get stranger from there. David Walters is about to learn what it means to be truly haunted, forcing him to confront his past, fight for his family, his soul, and his sanity.
This horror story is intended for a mature audience. It's filled with adult language, situations, and themes. It's in no way appropriate for the easily offended or younger readers of BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES.
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