A Story Only I Could Tell

I was more than a little intimidated when thinking about writing a novel. For no other reason than not knowing where to begin, I decided to follow the old adage to "write what you know". My life has been a full-tilt whirlwind; a comedy, tragedy, and love story all wrapped into 50 years. Throw in a few musical numbers and I had a full arsenal of material to draw from in crafting a tale. So what story should I tell? My triumphs as a lead singer in Jersey Shore cover bands? How about the night I got drunk with Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Bob Dylan? Or what about starring in a never-released feature film?  These are all good sources of material, but for my first book, I wanted to write something similar to what I like; mysteries and thrillers. Lockdown is pulled from my experiences in the Navy while stationed aboard the USS Miller, and fits into the same genre as those suspense novels I enjoy reading.

I had the basic story of Lockdown outlined.

I had started jotting notes down about the events of June-1985 shortly after leaving the Navy almost thirty years ago. Over the years those notes turned into paragraphs and eventually short chapters of a story emerged from my head.  I held on to the notes and when computers became a part of our lives, I transferred all of my (Murder on the Miller) documents to electronic files. That’s where they stayed—getting copied and backed up—until 2013.

I wasn't getting any younger and a family member, my Uncle Bill, lit a fire in me to get the book complete. I’ll keep his comments to myself, but suffice to say, it was the push I needed to really focus on what I’d begun. The book was nowhere near a complete or compelling story. I had a basic premise, in fact over the previous 25-plus years, I had the basic story of Lockdown outlined. The problem? I had nothing but a meager foundation of only ten or so chapters and roughly 9,000 words. I was not decided on if it should be a true account of the Miller events; would I chronicle a memoir; or could I craft a fictionalized story? I chose the latter route; mainly because telling a fictionalized version of the story allowed me to really exaggerate certain aspects of the truth; it gave me latitude to expand on theories of what truly happened outside of where I was confined during the ordeal. Additionally, when I started thinking about the Miller story, I intended to write a screenplay. I thought a movie would be a great way to tell the story; however, the story needed to be embellished—there wasn’t enough action. I imagined scenes cascading from one to the next and I actually outlined twenty original scenes flow from opening credits. I found myself stumped by how to get past a certain point AND how should I end the story? The true-events ending was not very exciting.

My Construction Process:

For the writers out there who let the creation of a novel just flow out of you, I hope my process doesn’t offend or sound too off kilter. I relied heavily on spreadsheets to write my novel. In fact, using a spreadsheet made the process faster and easier to be creative. This article helped me think clearly. The basic notion of scenes flowing, one to the next, meant needing to identify locations, and characters in the scene, and timing of each scene that would match up with the overarching timeline. I created a spreadsheet to list all of the necessary information to write a scene—I did this before writing any of the action. To keep the project out in front of me, I also had cells with targets for word counts and page lengths to know where I was in reference to a completed manuscript. This analytical method, a worksheet approach, enabled me to craft the entire framework way early in the process. With the spreadsheet in hand I was able to imagine (like a movie) the action progressing through scene after scene like a storyboard.

There was also another major factor I decided to do early on. I wanted to tell the story from three different perspectives. In my spreadsheet I called this POV Voice; I learned later that this is called Multiple Viewpoints and I needed to keep each viewpoint consistent to not confuse the reader. Tyler would be in the main protagonist’s POV, and the captain, Henry Jorgenson’s POV, would be a secondary protagonist. The third POV was from the antagonist; this POV became for me the most interesting and satisfying character to write. The third POV is an unknown person and could be any of the characters we meet throughout the book. Tyler and Jorgenson are written in third-person present tense, while the unknown POV is in the first-person present tense. By the way, I didn’t understand any of this author jargon before I started this project.

So here I was with a crude outline and many ideas about what I wanted my novel to be. And… now what?

Like many (or most) self-published authors, I work. I have a very demanding professional job working for a great company that requires my commitment. I do have some personal time for hobbies and this novel was just going to be that; a hobby. I was not able to devote much more time than a few hours on weekends, and perhaps some time during long overseas flights for business. My pace of writing was slow, but I was determined to keep going. That’s when a colleague suggested I hire a ghostwriter.

I was not at all familiar with what a ghostwriter does. With the guidance of the internet I did my research and decided that getting this story to the finish line would be accelerated if I did look into it; enter Stephanie Hornsby.

Stephanie came on board my project in late 2014. She agreed to help me fill the gaps in my story. We worked together on content, structure, and (most of all) on grammar, punctuation, and tense. Tense, tense, tense!!! What a help. I was lost in the sauce on tense. We developed a process where I would give Stephanie the scene, character-descriptions and backstories, anything I had written, and what action I wanted the scene to convey. We did this scene by scene. She would fill in gaps and add a basic storyline where it was missing. Here’s an amazing fact—Stephanie has never been on a navy ship, she was not familiar with the military terminology, and she’s never been around any of the stuff I was writing about; so what she was able to put together as a basic storyline was wonderful. I would then take the scenes, add the navy terminology, input dialogue, and embellish. Our process worked great and in little more than six-months I had 80,000 words complete. I give Stephanie a lot of credit for helping me establish a voice in my writing.

Okay, I have a first-draft manuscript—just a little tweaking and I’ll be ready to publish, right? Wrong! As you writers know, I was only moderately complete at this point.

The editing process was painful and long.

Time to edit the novel. My editing process was a big struggle. (For my next book, I will focus heavily on getting the right editor, with the right vision for my work, and the right working relationship with me.) It’s hard for me to gauge whether I was the difficult one in our relationship, but I didn’t have a functional editing process. There was no guiding-light and helping hand in finishing this book. The person I chose turned out to be a very different person at the end of the process, than I thought she was in the beginning. I will not say she did not help make my book better—she did. In fact I believe the story is MUCH better as a result of those grueling six months of editing, and I do give my editor the credit for the better product. I just wish it hadn’t been so painful.

What did I learn while editing? The biggest takeaway is that my first finished draft was so far from complete that I feel like I rewrote the entire story and some—I did rewrite 75% of that first draft. The arch of the main characters all changed (improved) during editing. Before, these people were one-dimensional and in some ways shallow. Editing allowed me to infiltrate their emotions and devise (I think) much better conflicts throughout. What if this happens and what if that goes that way? I detailed more of their backstories and was able to create depth and influential perspectives on the action. Speaking of challenging the action, while editing, I worked not just on describing what was happening, but also what’s not happening. I was able to expand the emotional essence of the main characters, and gave the supporting cast much fuller roles in the story as a result. One thing I did to accomplish this was to create backstories for all characters that appear in critical scenes. Although I did not use most of those backstories, I was able to draw dialogue from the histories, thus giving the reader a deeper experience, even with minor characters. The editing process was painful and long—I was on my own and only able to commit weekends to the project, but the positive outcome has made the book a better read. Oh and while editing I added 15,000 words to the manuscript, ballooning it to a total of 97,000 words. At this length I felt more confident in advertising the book as a military-mystery-thriller.

So what is the result? In retrospect I’m pleased with the process I followed in completing Lockdown and haven’t decided what will be different in writing the next one. I do know that my spreadsheets help; the method is giving me a great sense of the next novel’s structure (I’m working on the next Tyler West story). I’m also very pleased with the Lockdown—I know it’s not perfect, but for a first novel, I’m giving myself a big pat on the back. I must point out to anyone familiar with the true story; this a not what really happened, and I am not suggesting it is. This is a fiction. I’ve drawn from many aspects of the truth, some of the action resembles the truth, but most of my invention is just that; a tale, full of sound and fury, that is a construct of this author’s imagination.

SB

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3 Comments on “Lockdown : A Novel Idea

  1. Good job Scott. I am impressed. Can’t wait till I get hold of the book & start reading it. Best wishes in your many more writings to come. Cheers 🙂

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