The Accidental Novel

Hey, folks. Good news. For me at least. I now have seven stories that have been accepted for publishing in magazines. One is in this month’s Scarlet Leaf. You can find it online. In the meantime, take a look at this.

The Accidental Novel

            I never meant to write a novel. I never even wanted to write a novel. Novels are long and intricate and take a sustained effort. Much longer than I could ever maintain. Novels are written by smart people or people with something to say. What could I possibly say that would interest someone for 250 to 300 pages?

            Sure, like everyone the thought has flitted through my brain “I should write a book” and just as quickly flitted out again. I had lots of ideas even, but again I thought, how could I sustain them to novel length? It never even occurred to me that I could write a short story. I don’t know why. I enjoy reading short stories. It should have been obvious to me. But there are many things that should have been obvious to which I was oblivious. But that’s for another time and another story.

            It all began with my love of ballroom dancing. I’ve been dancing for nearly 40 years. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I dabble as a hobby rather than make it a focus. To become really good, I would have to work at it. Then it wouldn’t be fun anymore. I want to keep it fun. An outgrowth of this is my enjoyment of Dancing With The Stars. I don’t really watch much TV. I don’t have a favorite show or anything like that. If I turn on the TV, it’s usually to watch a movie. But I make a point to watch every episode of DWTS. It’s frequently campy and awful, but always entertaining. Since I have a decent knowledge of ballroom dancing and definite opinions about DWTS, about five years ago, maybe more, I started writing a little critique of each show. These were very tongue in cheek, little about the actual dancing but more my opinions on the format, the performers, anything that came to mind that was related. If you want an example of what I wrote, check it under DWTS on the blog.

            I sent out these reviews by email to friends who also watched the show and would understand. People seemed to enjoy them. I got favorable comments. One lady said she had to stop reading my posts at the library because it made her laugh out loud. She was also the one who kept telling me I should start a blog. I kept telling her I had no interest in a blog.

            Short stories weren’t totally foreign to me. I wrote a few in high school as English assignments. In college I took a creative writing class for which I had to write a 5 page plus story. I was not quite satisfied with my result, but the teacher thought it was excellent. I got an A. That story has since been lost in the sands of time. But about three years ago I had a dream. The protagonist of my college story came to me and complained that I had gotten his story wrong. He proceeded to tell me the correct story. I woke up and was amazed at the detail of the dream. I got up in the middle of the night and wrote down everything he told me. That became the story “It Went Down Like This.” It’s on my blog. I’ve shown it to “People Who Know These Things” and gotten favorable comments such as “breezy” and “delightful”. You know, nice things. It became for several years a little noticed file in my computer.

            My father had died shortly before that. As I cleared out his house, I went through all his souvenirs and mementos. Many were meaningless to me, so I threw them out. But I also got a chance to review his photo albums again. The pictures brought back such nice memories. It was a very life affirming experience. I also found a bundle of letters to him from Mom when he was in the Army. There were about twenty letters covering his first three months in service. I don’t know why he saved these and no others. I was unsure if I should read them. On the one hand, they were private correspondence. But on the other, both were dead, so I didn’t feel like I was violating privacy. I’m glad I read them. I got a glimpse of my parents as two young people in love. The letters were endearing, sometimes annoying, a few times even heart breaking.

            My folks had told stories as I was growing up about their courtship. I had lots of family all around who kept the family history alive. Those people are now gone or scattered. I hated to think of such a nice love story being forgotten. So, I wrote “A Love Story”, also on my blog, using the oral traditions and the letters. I meant to send it to family members on Facebook. As usually happens when I get on Facebook, things when awry. I accidentally posted the story to everyone I know. I got lots of feedback on what a “lovely story” it was. I was encouraged to write more. A friend said I should send stories like that to magazines. The thought had never crossed my mind. But I was intrigued. Write short stories? Maybe it was a possibility. I did have a few ideas. But what do I know about writing? Would I be any good?

            Well, sixty stories later I still don’t know if I’m any good, but I’m having a great time. And that’s the point. I don’t care if I’m the next Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King. I write stories for my own pleasure. Since I’m not trying to support myself by writing it’s not a problem. I’ll do it as long as it’s fun.

            One of my early stories was “Best Summer Ever”. It was a kind of coming of age, teenage summer love story. It was from an idea I had as a teenager spending frequent weekends at Atlantic Beach, NC. That’s where the story is set. It’s just the latest iteration of an old trope. I didn’t explore any new ground or new ways of looking at it. I just wanted to add my version. I am happy with the story and it’s on my blog, I think.

            I have a good friend who reads my stories and helps with editing. She has made me follow the rules of paragraphs, hyphens and Oxford commas. I also value her opinions of my work. In discussing the story one day, she offered that she wondered about the background of the female protagonist of “Best Summer Ever”. I reviewed what little background I put in the story. She said she just wondered if there were more. I said that I could write a story about her, but that would require me to channel a 15-year-old girl and I didn’t think I could do that. She replied that I probably couldn’t. Well, that sounded like a challenge. So, I wrote a prequel to BSE. I named it “A Pretty Girl”. The two stories fit together well, and it gave me the idea of coming back and revisiting favorite characters. That led to the two Duchessa stories and the two Escape stories.

            I had left BSE with the comment that the next school year was going to be interesting. Re-reading the story one day I wondered what was going to happen next. Some of my stories I consciously create, building on a template of what I want it to be. Other stories, the ones I enjoy most, are from my subconscious. I tap into it and it pours out on the page, often surprising me. This was to be one of those times. I pulled up a blank page, wrote that Robbie was entering the school and then I opened up and let go. As promised, “Gordo” was a wild ride. Suddenly I had a trilogy. Now I had two stories from the male viewpoint and one from the female. I felt like the ladies should have equal say and “Gordo” only covered half the school year, so I finished out the school year with “Heroes” from the female viewpoint.

            My editing friend said I may have a YA novel on my hands. I reminded her that four short stories are not a novel and I had no desire to write a novel. I intended to leave it at that.

            My touch of OCD kicked in as I realized I had an outcome left hanging in the previous stories. Robbie’s relationship with his brother was not worked out. I wrote a story to reconcile them. As I neared the end of the story, I found that Robbie was not ready to forgive his brother and I couldn’t force it and be true to the story I was writing. The story became “Unforgiven”. I continued trying with another story which became “Finding Forgiveness” and the brothers found a way to co-exist.

            My friend then asked me what’s the deal with Kylie? He’s just background setting, like a lifeless prop. Does he have a story? So that led to “Survivor”. Then I wrote about Robbie finding the girl who would be the love of his life in the midst of a school shooting. That became “Love Among the Ruins”. By this time, I was eight stories in with this group of kids. I had to admit that my friend was right. It was looking like a YA novel.

            So, I kept going. There was “Requiem” as the group held a memorial service for one of their number who committed suicide. Then “Wedding Bells” as a couple got married. Then I backed up and wrote “Senior Year” to fill in a gap. Then there was “Act of Mercy”, the first few pages of which are autobiographical. Then “Kylie and the Spooks” and would it up with “This Perfect Moment” in which 32-year-old Robbie looks back over the past sixteen years and assesses how good his life has been. Looking over it I realized I had left out one important story. It was the hardest to write but I pushed through. It was the story of a character’s suicide. I wrote it first person present tense, so I was inside his head. As I mentioned, it was difficult. I call it “Fade to Black”.

            So now I have sixteen chapters and nearly 100,000 words. Yep, it’s a novel. I’ve entitled it “I Guess It’s Called Growing Up”. That is a comment someone makes in the last chapter. When it poured out on the page I immediately knew it as the title of the book. I’ve shown it to “People Who Know These Things” and gotten favorable reviews and urges to send it to publishers. I’m still editing it, but maybe one day it will find a home with a publisher. It would be cool to have a book, but that’s the last one. I have no intention of writing another novel.

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