Saturday, May 28, 2011

Look Out Below

Since I've already tweeted about it - and despite the fact that I'm still tinkering with it - I may as well go ahead and make The Official Announcement (drum roll):

After nearly 4 years of writing, I have finished the first draft of my book.

Mind you, the whole thing is still a giant, near-unreadable, steaming pile of mediocrity which reads like the diary of a high school girl (which is only OK if it's about sparkly vampires) but, dammit...


Unbelievable, I know. I'm still coming to grips with it being finished. I keep thinking I've got more to work on but, short of starting over from the beginning and editing it down into a second draft, I'm done.

Nearly 4 years of thinking about this thing literally every damn day and now? Nothing.

So weird.

Anyway, if you're a normal, rational person, you're probably thinking to yourself, "Four years writing a book? WTF, man? That's longer than you were in Japan in the first place! What took you so long?"

Well, couple'a things:

First of all, I've never written a book before.

Turns out that's a lot bigger problem than I thought it would be. (A lot, a lot.)  Trying to write a first book with no real outside help is frustrating, confusing and, at times, pretty damn scary. Thankfully, there are hundreds of books (and, by god, I've read them all) dedicated to reminding the aspiring author that he/she is not crazy and that's it's perfectly normal to blow several years of one's life on something that may never be finished - much less read by a audience of non-family members - and that the terror one feels when staring at a flashing cursor at the top of a blank screen is just the thrill of being a writer and not your body's survival instinct kicking in to tell you you're attempting something wholly unnatural.

So, hooray for self-help books.

Second, when I first started writing my little "book o' amusing Japan stories" when I got back to the U.S. at the end of 2006, I thought I was writing a book about my entire 3½ year stay in Japan. (I also thought the book would only take a month or two to write, a prospect so hilarious to me now that I'll be over here, curled up in the corner sobbing happy tears.)

Since I had helpfully narrowed my topic down to "every single thing that happened to me when I was in Japan for 43 months", I now had to deal with the epic process of sorting all the notes and journals and photos from my time overseas and then outline and start writing the book. (It may sound like I had a clear direction when I started but I didn't. Was totally winging it.) It also meant I had to start a blog.  And a twitter account.  And "build a platform". And all these other things that seemed really important at the time but were, in fact, not writing.

Still, every now and again, I'd actually find the motivation to write something.  Unfortunately, the more I wrote, the more I realized I needed to put in there.  If I wanted to tell this story, I'd need some back story.  And if I wanted to include this anecdote, I'd need to explain some cultural differences between Japan and America.  And if I wanted the reader to enjoy this part here, I'd need to give some history not only of Universal Studios Japan but the company Universal itself. It was really turning into an awful lot of work.

Sadly, it would take nearly 2 years and several tens of thousands of words before it finally dawned on me that, if I wanted to cover everything I'd hoped to write about, the resulting book would be so mind-bogglingly gargantuan that I feared people would be unable to lift it much less read it by the pool.  It was an important discovery to make but one that posed a lot more problems for me.  What to keep?

For a while, I considered turning the book into just a collection of short stories highlighting all the really funny events that happened during my time in Japan but I felt like I would just have to sacrifice too much of what I really wanted to share with the audience. Gone would be all of those little moments which, while not strong enough to support a story on their own, really made my experience in Japan what it was.  I simply HAD to tell the whole story, just maybe not all at once.  Alas, the giant book I'd already outlined and had written a large chunk of, became four. One book per contract.

I also decided that, if I wanted to get on with my life anytime soon, I should just focus on the first book, starting the story in the year or two before I went to Japan and ending around the conclusion of my first contract. My rationale was that, IF the first book actually gets printed and IF people actually read it and IF a handful of those people actually liked it enough to want more, THEN I'd write the next book.  Or the next three. (Do you hear that potential agents and editors?? THREE SEQUELS! Already outlined and partially written! Ka-ching!)

And, if the book ultimately failed, fine. At least I'll have saved me a few years of my life and a large part of what's left of my sanity by not writing the sequels. Plus hey, I can say I wrote a book. Neat.

Well, having a narrower time frame to write about made things a lot easier. Things slowly started to fall into place. One day, I settled on a title:

Happy! Fun! Doc Brown Life!

While that title might not make a ton of sense to people who don't know a lot about Japanese pop culture, I think it's perfect. (Though, I'm always open to suggestions.) I'm still working on the subtitle but I'm sure it'll be something along the lines of "My First Year Working in a Movie Theme Park in Japan". (Not sure how Universal Studios would feel about being in the title.)

Oooh, but I DO have a great tagline for the top of the back cover.  Get this:

Playing characters he looked nothing like
In a language he didn't speak
In a country he couldn't understand.

Goosebumps, huh?? Oh man, it even makes ME want to read the damn thing!

Anyway, more time passed. More stalling but, ever so occasionally, more writing. Then, one sunny afternoon in spring while going for a walk, I found the perfect ending. (Which you'll just have to wait until the book comes out to read.)

I immediately ran home and typed it up.  Now that I knew where the book was going to end, a lot more things started to fall into place.

Progress slowed when the realities of living in the same city for a lot longer than originally planned started to intrude. Suddenly there were part-time jobs to deal with, new apartments to move into, a serious relationship to maintain. But I kept writing. Anything I could think of putting in the book, I shoved in there. I'd worry about making it funny and pretty in the second draft. (Like Gandhi said, "throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks." Or was that Mother Theresa? Whatever.)

Even more time passed. More stalling, more writing.

Then, about 2 months ago and just shy of my 37th birthday (April 9th, if you guys want to get me a gift next year), I finally admitted to myself that, as noble as writing a book was, I couldn't continue working 2 jobs to stay in a cost-prohibative city like Seattle to pursue a pipe dream that's already cost me so much time, energy and money. I either needed to finish this damn book and take a much-needed break from it or just say I tried, close the laptop and get on with my life.

Well, I couldn't quit and I couldn't promise to stay in Seattle until I was finished so, instead, I simply set a deadline of being out of Seattle by May 31st, completed 1st draft or not.  Whether I left in triumph or defeat would depend on how hard I worked over the next few weeks.

I went and bought a wireless headset mic to use with my Dragon NaturallySpeaking and got up every morning before sunrise and either typed or transcibed until I had to go to work. On some days, I even had the energy to write after work.

And then, not that long ago, it finally happened. My writing caught up with the ending I'd written 2 years before. That was it.

It was done.

And it's fairly freakin' massive, too.  I don't have the exact page count because the initial file became so large and unwieldy that I had to break it down into several smaller sections lest my copy of Microsoft Word would creek like an old rocking chair every time it tried to open it but, as for a word count?  Well, let's see... it has... a grand total of... carry the one, subtract the glossary and... oh god... no, that can't be right. Hold on... oh my GOD...

257,858 words.

Ho. Lee. Crap.

Uh, to give you an idea how massive this is, take a look at this list showing the word counts of popular books.  Out of all of those books listed, only FOUR of them are longer than my first draft: two Ayn Rand books, "Middlemarch" and "War and (friggin') Peace".

Oh man, this second draft is gonna be some work...

But, that can wait! Right? The important thing is: the first draft is done. Right? Right?? (Please say yes.)

So! What's next? Well, I've decided I'm going to take the advice of seasoned writing vet (and fellow crafter of hernia-inducing manuscripts) Stephen King who once wrote:
"You can have a couple of loads of double-ought buck up your cockadoodie bumhole if you don't get out of here!"
Oh wait, wrong book.

Actually, in his fantastic book On Writing, he wrote the following:
If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered—why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book—at least every one worth reading—is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions.

Now let’s say you’ve finished your first draft. Congratulations! Good job! Have a glass of champagne, send out for pizza, do whatever it is you do when you’ve got something to celebrate.


You’ve done a lot of work and you need a period of time (how much or how little depends on the individual writer) to rest. Your mind and imagination—two things which are related, but not really the same—have to recycle themselves, at least in regard to this one particular work. My advice is that you take a couple of days off—go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle—and then go to work on something else. Something shorter, preferably, and something that’s a complete change of direction and pace from your newly finished book. (I wrote some pretty good novellas, “The Body” and “Apt Pupil” among them, between drafts of longer works like The Dead Zone and The Dark Half.)

How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneadings—is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, aging and (one hopes) mellowing. Your thoughts will turn to it frequently, and you’ll likely be tempted a dozen times or more to take it out, if only to re-read some passage that seems particularly fine in your memory, something you’d like to go back to so you can re-experience what a really excellent writer you are.

Resist temptation. If you don’t, you’ll very likely decide you didn’t do as well on that passage as you thought and you’d better retool it on the spot. This is bad. The only thing worse would be for you to decide the passage is even better than you remembered—why not drop everything and read the whole book over right then? Get back to work on it! Hell, you’re ready! You’re fuckin Shakespeare! You’re not, though, and you’re not ready to go back to the old project until you’ve gotten so involved in a new one (or re-involved in your day-to-day life) that you’ve almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of your every morning or afternoon for a period of three or five or seven months.
Or, (ahem) 4 years.

So, I'm taking his advice.

In other words, I've quit both my jobs and am in the process of selling most of my stuff so that, in 4 or 5 days, I can start a time-constraint-free, cross-country, multi-hyphenated drive across the U.S. of A. towards my old stomping grounds of Florida. I don't know how long this drive is going to take or if any of my job leads will still be valid by the time I get there or even if my 13-year-old car will make it but, you know what? I don't care. I've earned this trip. I NEED this break. And I can't wait.

In her book The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron wrote "Leap, and the net will appear."

I've spent too long standing a safe distance from the edge.

Here's me leaping.