Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On my 12-hour novel

As you recall, last Friday I wrote a 17,000-word novel in 12 hours. Some thoughts on the process follow.

I can't believe how someone like Barry Malzberg or Arthur J. Burks have been able to write more in a day. (Remember this: Malzberg wrote a 60,000-word novel in 16 hours.) Writing for so long feverishly was very, very tiring. I got my back sore and my stomach almost started to cramp. And those guys wrote with a typewriter, not with new laptops! (Okay, Burks may have dictated.) And how's anyone been able to continue producing those lengths for days and days in a row?

But I proved myself that something like this is indeed possible. You have to remember that the Finnish 17,000 words should be something like 26,000 words in English, as we don't have the "a's" or "the's" or "from's" or any of those in our language. So, the NaNoWriMo challenge of 50,000 words in a month mutates into 35,000 words in Finnish.

Yeah, okay, NaNoWriMo? What's the point writing 50,000 words in a month, when one can do that, say, over a weekend? (Maybe one of these weekends I'll do exactly that.)

There's just one point: how could those guys I mentioned above write stuff that they were able to sell? I haven't as yet tried to read what I wrote last Friday, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to sell it. Well, maybe to a ultra-cheap paperback publisher like Vega Books or PEC or Epic, but not anywhere else. (And in this day and age, the answer is simple: nowhere.) Some of the early pulpsters were able to do only one copy and sell it. Arthur J. Burks was one of them. He is said to have written a story in a bar, walk to the office of a magazine and come back to the bar with the money in his hand. I'm sure I'll have to go through my story many, many times, before I'm happy with it.

Is it just experience and practice? As you know, I haven't published any fiction commercially. My two short novels are self-publications and my few short stories have come out in fanzines. I have two novel manuscripts sitting in the office of a publisher, but so far nothing has happened. So one might think I could do a better story in one sitting in, say, 2020, after I've written more of this stuff.

Wait. I'll be almost 50 by then. Even at 38 I got the feeling I should've been in a better shape for the writing session.

Someone might ask, why I wrote the thing in 12 hours. Why didn't I write it in 16 or 18 hours? Because I was going to step in a train at nine p.m. and leave to Oulu (a city in northern Finland, many, many miles away). I could've started earlier, but I had met a friend of mine over a couple of ciders and beers just on Thursday night and had gone to sleep a bit too late. My bad. I could've started on 8 a.m. or even earlier had I slept more. There were also some interferences during the day: a friend of mine called about our trip to Oulu, I had to go the post office to post some books (it took only 15 minutes at most, since we live very near the office), I had to buy some food and prepare the dinner, since I'd forgotten to buy a microwave dinner. So actually I had only 11 hours to finish the novel.

I posted the progression on my word count in Facebook. I seem to have written the first 2,000 words in one hour and then almost 3,000 words in two hours. Then I seem to have slowed down, but the overall writing speed was 1,500 words per one hour. I got into problems in the last pages: I wrote: "15 203 words and I'm stuck in a dead end. One hour and twenty minutes before the train leaves." Then I wrote: "Still 30 minutes and I'll have to come up with a sad ending. [As befits a private eye novel.] 'Everything was in vain.' 'Stuff that dreams are made of.' Oh, I already used that one."

I wrote the last lines in six minutes. I got them done 25 minutes before the train left. You can imagine I left in a hurry. And I was sweating like a pig during the last two hours. (A friend of mine actually came to pick me up and he laughed when he saw me having just stepped out of the shower: "Are we leaving or not?")

The story, the style? You can pretty much guess the style is hardboiled and pulpy. The main character of the novel is my private eye hero Joe Novak. He gets mixed up in two intrigues at the same time: an old Nazi comes to Los Angeles to avenge the wrongs Novak did to him during the WWII, plus a beautiful young lady asks him to bodyguard her when she's trying to recover a lost Inca treasure from the bottom of the sea. The story is set somewhere in the mid-sixties. I'm not sure if the two separate storylines mingle together seamlessly - I'll have to read the whole thing to find out. But of course this kind of thing is easier to write with 1,500 words per hour than serious literary fiction, even though it is very difficult to keep various things going at the same time. (Someone might actually say that that's what's difficult.)

There's just that the book got a bit too violent and grim. I had had the storyline about the German Nazi avenging the wrongs in my head for a long time, but I had been thinking that there wouldn't be much violence and the book would be more about the sentimental and sad feelings about how revenge isn't going to do anyone any good and how these old men (I was thinking I'd set the story in later times, say in the 1980's) aren't actually able to fight anymore. But no. The story got totally out of my hands, with lots of explosions, shootings and sadistic violence. Which kind of makes me sad - this is not the book I meant to write.

But I'm not complaining. I did what I set out to do: write at least a 15,000-word novel (or novella) within one day. I was able to do it and am sure I'll be able to do it again.

(The book in the picture is an Epic Book from the early sixties, just to show which kind of publisher would possibly touch the manuscript I wrote.)


Ali Karim said...

WONDERFUL POST, WONDERFUL YOU STUCK TO IT - great work, and sometimes Richard Stark wrote that way, because Parker was an impatient guy

Well Done!


James Reasoner said...

At 26,000 words in English, this is as long as those Ennis Willie books just reprinted in SAND'S GAME.

Juri said...

Me and Ennis Willie. :)

Who was Willie's publisher? I seem to forget. (And am thinking of ordering the Willie book from Ramble House.)

Ali: thanks!

James Reasoner said...

Ennis Willie's novels were published by Merit Books, except for one that landed with another publisher (I don't have the name of that one in front of me and can't remember it).

jurinummelin said...

Seems like I can't edit my old post anymore, but here's some news related to this: my novel is finally coming out from a new publisher working via Lulu: