The Twelve Year Novel

I’m sure all you writers out there have heard about methods to write the first draft of a novel in 60 days or 90 days, but in 12 years?! Come on, Jeff, what the heck are you talking about??

Okay, let me clarify: this is not a process or method that I’m recommending to you. This is just the story of my struggles to write my passion project, a literary novel called Such A Dreamer, about a young philanthropist trying to come-of-age and help better the world in seedy, decadent South Florida.

But 12 years—that’s a hell of a long time to stick with a novel, isn’t it? After five years and 1,500 pages, Michael Chabon finally abandoned his doomed, no-end-in-sight Fountain City, and went on to write the hit novel Wonder Boys in only seven months and would later win the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. (Years ago, I read an excellent blog by Chabon himself detailing his failure with Fountain City and the successes that came once he’d abandoned it. I can no longer find the article, so here is the cliff notes version on Wikipedia: Fountain City and Wonder Boys. PS…Chabon still lives with regrets about never finishing FC.)

I think one difference is that Chabon didn’t have an end in sight for Fountain City, whereas I do and always have had an end in sight for Such A Dreamer. Another difference is that Chabon was already an accomplished writer and had received critical praise for his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he began Fountain City. For me, the search to find my literary voice (not unlike the quest to find the Holy Grail) only started in the spring of 2000, when the idea for Such A Dreamer (then under the working title of Only Human) first came to me.

That’s probably where the comparisons between those novels end, as well as any comparisons between myself and Chabon for that matter. His literary accomplishments are my literary wet dreams!

The main reason I haven’t abandoned Such A Dreamer is, aside from that fact I feel it could be an important novel with some meaningful messages, that this story is important to me. And if for nothing else, or no one else, I want to finish it for Jeff Swesky.

As most writers do when they get excited about a new project, I jotted down every note, every idea that came to mind during those first years of brain-storming. I bought a mini-cassette recorder to capture my thoughts while on the road during my long work commutes in South Florida. I made my own soundtrack of songs that I could hear being in the movie version of Such A Dreamer, which only inspired more ideas. In a little over a year, I had over 15,000 words worth of notes. By 2004, almost 30,000 words….of just notes, people. Bullet points, themes, character and scene ideas—no actual prose. I had more material than I possibly knew what to do with!

Another problem, as I had mentioned earlier, is that I hadn’t even found my literary voice yet, my own unique writing style. In 2000-2001, when I started the early drafts of Dreamer, I was reading authors like Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis, and Hubert Selby Jr. Authors with strong satirical voices, who mainly wrote in first person voice and in present tense. Back then, I would mimic writing styles I enjoyed to read. It became my creative writing education. The Palahniuks, Ellises, and Selby Jrs became my teachers. Which, for me, became an excellent way to develop my own writing style and voice over time. In my opinion, reading is just as important as writing as a way to develop one’s craft. My early drafts captured the spirit of this style, but without the polish and pizzazz of the greats.

But for what I wanted to accomplish with Such A Dreamer, the dark satirical style did not capture the voice of my main character, Dane Whitmore. He came off as too much of a smart-ass. He was far too bitter. It didn’t feel right to me.

Around that time, in 2002-2003, I broadened my literary education by reading some of the best classic writers, such as John Steinbeck and George Orwell, as well as discovering more traditional contemporaries, like Chabon and Wally Lamb. I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, James Leo Herlihy’s Midnight Cowbow, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; my three all-time favorite novels. I began to appreciate the beauty in which great stories can be written.

Keeping with the first person voice for Dane Whitmore, I switched to past tense and began to rewrite Such A Dreamer with a different pace and flair, embracing the spirit of the more traditional literary style of fiction writing. I was quite pleased with the new drafts. And the few I shared it to enjoyed those early chapters as well. But as I continued on, the cracks began to show, in both the development of Dane’s character and the somewhat hard to grasp concept. The plot was not evident and, for many, the voice of Dane came off sounding too judgmental or high-and-mighty at times.

Now, many people recommend that you don’t share a work of fiction with readers or critics until the first draft has been completed. For accomplished writers, I agree with that advice. But for someone who’s still trying to find themselves as a writer, getting feedback on early drafts could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. One accomplished writer and playwright told me that it was hard for a newish writer to maintain the first person voice during the course of their first novel, plus the voice can often come across as sounding like the author’s, as opposed to the character’s voice. Which I believe was the case with Dane. Without recognizing it, I was force-feeding my thoughts and opinions to the reader through Dane, instead of letting the reader discover these messages on their own through characterization, setting and plotting.

I didn’t have an easy time admitting to these flaws, but once I accepted the truth, the issues became glaringly obvious to me, and I had no idea how to correct them. But it became a time of great change for me, I started a new job and a new relationship that would lead to both relocation and marriage. Whether I did so willingly or not, I decided to shelf Such A Dreamer from 2004 through 2006.

(Since this trip down literary lane is becoming much more detailed than I had first envisioned, I’m going to stop here and will conclude soon with Part 2. So if I haven’t bored you yet, I hope you’ll return to hear Dreamer’s progression during the 2nd six years.)

For updates on my writing projects and events, please visit my website.

And click here to check out my latest publication, The Method Writers.

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11 Responses to The Twelve Year Novel

  1. Wummer says:

    As an reader of your earlier drafts of Such a Dreamer, I’ve missed them!!! I know it is going to be a huge success!! The time, patience and perserverance you’ve put into this novel is amazing, as you are! I’ll be glad to read some of the draft; it would be my pleasure! I’m proud of you!!!!

    • Jeff Swesky says:

      Thank you, Mom!!! Your love and support over the years with my writing, and life in general, mean the world to me. I couldn’t do it with out that. I love you!

  2. Emilie Doutt Harmon says:

    Hang in there sweet boy, when the time is right , the story will be told the way you need it to be. I am so very proud of you sweetheart. I love you !

  3. The fact that you were a different person back then, from who you are now…and the project hasn’t let you go, only speaks to its’ importance and to your commitment. A book is like a human being, each one different in how they came about and how they got there. Keep going my friend. Keep going.

    • Jeff Swesky says:

      Thank you! It’s nice to hear from a fellow dreamer. 😉 You’re absolutely right, a book is like a human being; a very special, but fragile human being that needs plenty of love, affection, and tender care. Almost like a child, I suppose. I think it’s time for my novel’s bottle! Lol

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