Friday, July 18, 2008

A Brief History of Writing Fiction - Part 1

I discovered writing in college. At age 19, I decided to write a novel just for the fun of it. I also thought it would make me a millionaire quickly. Little did I know that becoming wealthy through writing novels was going to be a long and winding road.

So here I was attending the University of Texas at Austin Fall Semester, 1987. A Business Finance Major destined to be a banker or President of my own company. I didn't even know I had a creative side. Well, Christmas break of my Freshman year I had three weeks off and was staying with my parents, who then lived in Dallas. (That's where I grew up, by the way, in a little suburb called DeSoto).

While the Christmas season was in full swing, I brainstormed on becoming a novelist. Not to put out great literature, but because I thought it would be a profitable business venture. Back then I was a reader of mostly spine-tingling horror: Stephen King, John Saul, Robert R. McCammon and Dean Koontz. Stephen King was constantly on the bestseller list and every book he wrote became a movie. I wanted his success. I also read Dean Koontz's Watchers and Phantoms and I was a hooked Koontz fan for years. John Saul and Robert R. McCammon were also major influences. I loved reading mystery combined with fast-paced action and edge-of-your-seat suspense. I also loved stories that included monsters or ghosts. I enjoy the adrenaline of being scared or wondering what's making that strange noise in the basement. Just love it!

Anyway, I used to visit book stores and stare at all the cool book covers. Especially the small paperbacks. The artwork always captured my imagination and told me their own stories before even opening the book. I loved opening a paperback and smelling the pages. It was some kind of strange fetish I had, I guess, but it seemed like every time I was at a bookstore, I would flip the pages near my nose and inhale the words written there. Maybe that's how I became an author. I just inhaled the wisdom and creativity of those who came before me. Reading Marvel comic books also influenced my imagination.

So, back to my first horror novel at Christmas break. I started writing it in a spiral notebook. I came up with seven characters--all of them college students like me. The girls were hot and the guys were cool. I gave the book a really bad title called The Degba Dynasty. It was about seven college kids who spend Spring Break at a remote cabin in the Colorado wilderness. While hiking, they come across, of all things, an ancient pyramid in the Rockies that somehow no one has ever discovered. It was hidden in a thick forest where "man was never meant to go." At that time, I thought the concept could work. Now, after hiking near Boulder, and visiting towns like Aspen and Vale, I know there's no place in Colorado that man has never set foot. There are hikers and mountain bikers everywhere. Reality didn't matter back then. I was writing a horror novel for the sheer fun of it. I didn't need to get bogged down with whether or not the story was plausible.

Between Christmas and January of 1987, I defined my characters and outlined the plot. I returned to school for the Spring Semester and was pumped to write out the novel. We didn't have personal computers back then. But the university had a computer lab. I was there when it opened at 8:00 a.m. and they had to kick me out every night at 10:00 p.m. I discovered something about myself. I had a passion for writing fiction, and especially writing novels. I had never even written a short story. I just delved into my first novel and never looked back. I often describe writing a novel as visiting another dimension or a dream world. The fictional people around me seem so so real, so alive. I can see, touch, and hear everything around me. That's why I can stay in writing mode for six to twelve hours, only taking breaks to use the bathroom and maybe eat a little something.

Okay, I digress. The Degba Dynasty turned out to be a fun little story I wrote in about three months. It was violent, scary, and had some great sex scenes. I was a hormonal nineteen-year-old and didn't have a girlfriend, so I was living vicariously through my characters. I was also influenced by movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween. The basic premise was the seven college kids are out hiking and come across this undiscovered pyramid. It's buried underground except for the apex which juts out of the earth a couple stories high. They explore the pyramid's tunnels and discover some strange things in there (I'd rather not tell in case I decide to revisit this story and publish it later). Turns out there's a small town nearby with a bunch of hicks whose main role is to make sure no one ever finds the pyramid and leaks out that it exists. The backwoods hicks turn out to be alien half-breeds who can shape shift into seven-foot-tall creatures, something like werewolves, but with some alien features. I wrote this shortly after the movie Aliens came out. Both Alien movies blew me away and changed the way I looked at the horror genre forever. I was also blown away by one of my all-time favorites The Howling. So, I guess movies, even more than books, influenced my story telling. In fact, I'm often told that as people are reading my novels, they feel like their watching a movie in their heads.

Back to The Degba Dynasty. Once the college kids get caught exploring the pyramid and learn its true reason for being here, their lives become in jeopardy as the town of alien half-breed monstrosities wreak havoc on them. Then the book just becomes an act of survival.

My first version was a slight 120 pages, but I was proud of finishing a first draft of The Degba Dynasty. So proud that I paid thirty bucks to have it bound together with a solid black hardcover. I wanted to hold it in my hands and feel it as a book. Smell the pages. My mom and dad still have it sitting on their book shelf. Within four months I wasn't just a writer playing around with starting a novel. I had completed a whole manuscript. My story had a beginning, middle, and cataclysmic ending. It had romance, humor, scary scenes, tragedy, and incredible acts of heroism. It was horror, adventure, Sci-Fi, and mystery all rolled into to one book. Like I said, I was reading a lot of King and Koontz during that time.

After my real Spring Break was over and I got back to school, I wrote the second draft. By this point I was skipping all my classes and just writing all day long and into the night. My grades suffered that semester. All my finance and accounting professors wondered why my seat was always empty. Who had time to study? I was off in Colorado fighting aliens and saving the planet. I was also having the best time of my life. What more could a lonely, introverted guy ask for? My characters became my closest friends. A bit sad maybe, but I was a small-town kid trying to find myself at a university of thousands of students. I had grown up thinking that money and power were the pathways to happiness, but through my renaissance period my Freshman year, I was discovering that creative self-expression was the pathway. At least for me.

Well, I revised and edited my manuscript all the way until May. I was also reading a great writing book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. I started learning the structure of a novel, as well as improving plot, characterization, and dialogue. I remember that May, the last day of school was approaching. I finished my second draft and the book was even better than before. I had added new characters and scenes and gave more history to the town and why they were hiding among us and protecting this pyramid.

I saved my entire manuscript on one floppy drive that I treated like it was plated with gold. Then tragedy struck. One day I go into the computer lab, slip the floppy into the computer for another writing session, and the computer blips and the screen reads: "Do you want to format this disk?" I didn't know what format meant, so I hit "yes." It deleted my entire manuscript. My only digital copy. Six months of typing--gone. I was crushed. A night of heavy eating of pizza followed. I couldn't believe I had lost my entire novel. Back then I was very new to computers. It was the late eighties and computers were mostly IBM, green letters on black screens, with a single floppy drive. I didn't know about backing up files. I just knew how to boot up and start typing then save to my floppy. So it was a hard lesson about computers and formatting disks, but it turned out to be a godsend. Did I give up? No. A true writer keeps writing, no matter what. Persistence, persistence, persistence.

I had the whole story in my head. I knew the characters by heart, how they talked, their attitudes, beliefs, likes and dislikes. So I went back to page one and started typing. What happened after that amazed me. The story began to flow out easily and differently than before. I was coming up with new scenes that were richer. The plot went off into new, exciting directions. And new characters began to emerge. New villains that were even more sinister. And the title changed from The Degba Dynasty to Skinners. After writing two drafts, the third came out even faster. Just a few months after deleting my manuscript, I had rewritten the entire book and had it saved on multiple floppies. A savvy novelist was born.

Through the process of writing my first novel in college, I developed a belief in myself that I was not only a committed novelist, but destined to one day hold a paperback of my book in my hands, hold the book to my nose, and smell the pages.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! I read through this so fast, listening to your voice tell it so well. I am hooked! I did not know the story about the floppy being erased! You are so great with words, my dear Bri.

    I will forward the blog to my friends, its awesome.

    your Sista, P.