HOW TO WRITE A COMMERCIALLY-VIABLE NOVEL WITHOUT SELLING YOUR SOUL? GREG FARNUM PRESENTS HIS NEW NOVEL AND WRITING CAREER
Copyright © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
On October 1, 1997, I sat down to write a novel. I didn't quite know what it would be about, I just knew I had to write it.
Why? Because for years I'd been having the odd poem published in little - littler - micro magazines, occasionally a short story as well - enough to continually renew my hope that someday I would be able to publish books, books that would gain me more readers than I could ever get from appearing in magazines like Beatniks from Space, books that would yield enough money to finance the writing of other books and allow me to say farewell to the jobs that fit me like a succession of cheap suits. But by 1997 that hope was getting a little frayed around the edges: my book of poetry had been simultaneously rejected by all of the publishers I'd simultaneously sent it to, my book of short stories had fared no better, my store of gray hairs and unread manuscripts was growing larger, and I was in yet another job that felt more like a sentence than a vocation. Maybe I was just no damned good. More to the point, maybe I was neurotically out of step with the world around me - so willfully blind to the tastes and preferences of publishers, editors, professors, critics and readers alike that my compulsive scribbling was equivalent to some poor soul's need to wash his hands fifty times a day.
Out of this dismal mire came one faint glimmer of light. A few of the fifty some people I had sent my book of stories to actually wrote back - and they were complimentary about what they had seen. A couple of these folks even gave me a reason for rejecting the work. It was this: books of short stories weren't commercially viable. Well, there were plenty of short story collections in the Barnes and Noble and Borders stores near my house - wasn't that commerce?
Then I got my third reply. It was the most complimentary rejection yet and it ended by saying that publishers were wary of taking a chance on a new writer's book of short stories if he hadn't already published a novel first. A light went on. Sure, like all of the advice you get about publishing, it wasn't a hundred percent, but I felt it fit my situation to a T. My course was set - I would write a novel.
I could think of plenty of things to write about, but the catch was I also had to get it published. It had to open doors for all the deeply-felt and rejected manuscripts gathering dust while waiting in the wings. Now, I felt I was accomplished enough as a writer to simply mimic some of the commercial "product" I saw on the book store shelves but - and here's where that neurotically out of step thing comes in - I knew I just couldn't do it. Pile up a hundred stones, collect a thousand beer cans: I'd undertake any long and tedious task if it would enable me to get my work before the public, but I couldn't fake a novel. Writing is just too important to me. I had to find something that would seem commercially "viable" yet would still hold my interest while writing it.
A film between you and everything you see hear taste feel - the words of William Burroughs more or less. It was a phrase that kept running through my mind. The dominant element in that film, as I saw it, was technology. Not technology as Venus cum Santa Claus, emerging miraculously from sea foam and bearing gifts, but a set of choices made by powerful organizations and then sold to the rest of us with the aid of the persuasive power of that very same technology, and what they were selling was not just products but a complete worldview - an alternate reality, so to speak.
So there was my story. The publishers could say it was science fiction. William Gibson was much talked about then so I picked up his latest book, Idoru, and read it. Though his computers seemed to owe more to magic than to technology and the plot sometimes seemed a bit diffuse, the idea of an artificial star (his Idoru) appealed to me. I would use it. But Ron Goulart, the prince of hacks, had preceded Gibson here by two or three decades. Years before, I had read Shaggy Planet and several of his other science fiction novels. They were quick, tightly plotted, humorous mysteries set centuries hence and filled with people and things that weren't quite what they seemed. My novel, I told myself, would be tightly plotted, it would be filled with people and things that weren't quite what they seemed, it would be a mystery and it would have some humor in it. Mine, however, would be set in the near future - the very near future. The time shift would enable me to exaggerate and thus highlight facets of the present, my real subject.
Which brings me back to October 1, 1997. I was sitting in the passenger seat of our '89 Honda, my wife Connie taking a turn at the wheel, as we drove from the Detroit area up to Northern Michigan to visit her relatives. I had everything I needed to begin except the sine qua non of stories - people and a situation to place them in. I was jotting down notes - notes about a story - along with stray observations. The latter largely just to keep my pen and mind moving. A large billboard next to I-75 with a picture of Christ and the words "Are you on the right road?" Omer, the smallest city in Michigan, letters falling off the sign in front of its only restaurant. And of course cars, many cars, seeming havens of mobile metal and plastic but each linked to larger grids by invisible waves. Of course! This is it. This is the place where my story will be set. At least one of the places. But the main character, how does he get here? As the questions became more concrete the answers came more readily to hand.
Back home, I sat down with my notes at the kitchen table and began to write - in longhand as we didn't have a computer. The next day at work I typed up what I had written the night before. I had the first page of my novel. That became my routine; I would work at night then type it up the next day at the office, generally at lunch time or at the end of the day, while also taking time to revise the previous day's typescript. There was no longer any question of merely completing a formal exercise, I was passionately involved with the story that was taking shape, and feeling - sometimes uncomfortably - the feelings of the characters I was attempting to portray.
Seven months after I copied down the words of the surrogate Jesus on the roadside sign my novel, The Event, was done.
After that, a large chunk of my spare cash went towards postage. I stopped counting the rejections but the number fifty comes to mind again. Then one day I got a letter from a new publisher named Domhan Books. They quoted a line from my cover letter where I called the novel fast paced and exciting, adding "we agree."
I haven't yet tried to place my other books; I've been too busy helping my young publisher publicize this one. I feel I owe it to the book, which now exists as a presence somewhat independent of me, its characters and incidents taking their place alongside the characters and incidents - fictional and real - that make up the story of my life.
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At this point the easiest way to get a copy of the book is by going to the Domhan Books web site,www.domhanbooks.com, and clicking on it. That will take you to the Barnes and Noble web site, www.barnesandnoble.com, where you can buy the paperback. If you go directly to the Barnes and Noble site without going through Domhan first, only the Rocket e-book version of the book will be displayed. Distribution will be more widespread, and less curious, in the near future.
Easier still, perhaps, is simply to leave the computer altogether and walk into a Barnes and Noble store and order the book by its ISBN number, 1583455531.
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