My non-fiction writing career progressed well during 2011. It promises to continue moving forward in 2012, and beyond. In addition to publishing The Swords of Wicked Men: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil in 2012, I have plans to begin researching and writing two new works. In January 2012, I will start researching a history of the American environmental movement tentatively titled This Earth of Majesty: Reflections on American Environmentalism. If all goes according to plan, I will finish that project in early to mid-2013. Although I do not have a publisher lined up, ideally I will find one and see the book published sometime late in 2013 or early in 2014. I also have plans to write a history of the stories behind famous criminal procedure cases. That work is still in the planning stages, so I have not yet written an outline or a book proposal. I will probably launch that effort during the summer of 2012.
Despite my success in writing and publishing non-fiction, I still yearn to expand into fiction. Fiction is much more difficult to publish than a history or political science book. With non-fiction, depending on the subject matter, a ready-made audience exists, and each previous book helps to convince publishers to gamble on producing the next non-fiction tome. With fiction, however, publishers and readers do not care much about the writer’s credentials. They want a good read. Fiction requires the author to build a story that will captivate the audience on its merits. It requires interesting characters, a compelling plot, excellent pacing, and superb writing.
Because so many wannabe fiction authors produce dreck, it is imperative that a writer secure the services of a literary agent. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to convince a publisher to read the manuscript. This situation creates a Catch-22. To secure a reputable literary agent, the author needs to persuade the agent that the author has produced a publishable and highly marketable literary work. The most effective way to demonstrate this ability is to point to at least one published work of fiction. It helps to have a proven track record. To get the first work of fiction published, however, the author needs a literary agent to pitch the manuscript.
Argh! It is the classic chicken-or-the-egg problem.
Having said that, I am ready, willing, and able to proceed. I know it will be a tough road. Fortunately, I have two fiction manuscripts in various stages of development. The first is titled Up From Clay. Loosely based on the true story of my childhood friend, Will Morris, who died in 1993 at the age of 27, the book has been 18 years in the making. I am not exaggerating. I found an old copy of the manuscript in a desk drawer. On the last page I found this notation scribbled in the margin:
First draft written:
Saturday, September 4, 1993 - Monday, July 4, 1994
Second draft written:
Monday, January 1, 1996 - Thursday, July 25, 1996
Third draft written:
Friday, October 25, 1996 - Monday, December 30, 1996
Fourth draft written:
Monday, March 24, 1997 - Monday, July 14, 1997
Fifth draft written:
Monday, January 5, 1998 - Sunday, January 11, 1998
I started writing the sixth draft on Monday, November 21, 2011. I would like to finish this version early in 2012 — the end of February is the goal at the moment — and start shopping it around to literary agents shortly thereafter. Back in the '90s, I sent the manuscript to three or four agents. After they rejected it, I moved on to another project. This time, I am resolved to persevere no matter how stinging the rejection or how long it takes.
The second manuscript is a part-fiction, part-memoir titled Dreaming Out Loud. Two well-known books about stroke patients — The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and My Stroke of Insight — tell the story from the patient’s perspective, but they say little about the perspective of the patient’s family. In fact, I am not aware of any narratives, apart from self-help guides, that delve into the trials and tribulations of living with a stroke patient. Dreaming Out Loud is different.
In December 2003, my 64-year-old mother suffered a debilitating ischemic stroke. Her doctors told us she was too impaired to lead a normal life; she would be forever relegated to a nursing home. My wife and I refused to accept this prognosis, so we brought my mom to live with us. I have now written a book that begins on the day she suffered the stroke and ends with her death 38 months later.
The book is not all heartache and sorrow, nor does it spout out the usual clichés about the nobility of suffering. Our family has its share of misadventures and dysfunction. For example, one morning, we find a strange black dog has entered our doggie door in the middle of the night and jumped into the bed with my mother. On another occasion, I am escorting mom as she drives an electric scooter inside Wal-Mart. I leave her for a moment to get something from another aisle. When I return, she is gone. A frantic store-wide search reveals she has wandered the aisles looking for a bra.
The book also covers the day-to-day aspects of living with an ailing parent. In some chapters, our family wrestles with picking a nursing home, finding physical and speech therapists, and arranging hospice care at the end of mom's life. When all is said and done, the memoir should provide useful insights for families struggling to care for an elderly loved one. In a time when the population is aging and decisions about coping with disabled parents are becoming commonplace, I hope this book will show families options for what they should (and sometimes should not) do under these circumstances.
As soon as I finish revising and polishing Up From Clay, I will turn my attention to Dreaming Out Loud. Ideally, that book will be ready to make the rounds by autumn.
To help in my new-found desire to move beyond non-fiction, I decided to enroll in a writing course through the Evening at Emory continuing education program in Atlanta. Taught by Julius Thompson, a published novelist, the introductory fiction-writing course lasted eight Monday evenings beginning in September and continuing until shortly before Thanksgiving. I figured I could brush up on my writing skills and perhaps glean insights into finding a reputable literary agent and trolling for publishers. In addition, it couldn’t hurt to hobnob with my fellow students, some of whom were certain to be more advanced in their fiction-writing careers than I.
Julius has published a series of novels, some of which are based in Atlanta. You can find out more about his background and writing career at this link: http://www.jtwrites.com/
He taught me many things, and confirmed a few things I already knew but had forgotten. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was about chasing my fictive dream.
According to Julius, a novelist creates an imaginary universe, a “fictive dream,” if you will. That universe must be created according to certain rules. In some cases, such as in romance novels or the science fiction genre, the rules are fairly fixed and rigid. In other instances, especially in literary fiction (my own choice of a field), the rules are much more fluid. For every writing requirement taught in school, a great novelist can break the rule as long as the action propels the reader ever forward through the fictive dream. That is the most important lesson of all: The novelist creates a fictional universe, and anything that keeps the reader inside that universe and interested in the story should be pursued. It should go without saying that anything that pulls the reader away from the universe or bores the reader should be avoided.
I have tried my hand at writing fiction for 30 years now. I have never been skilled at chasing my fictive dream. I understand writing non-fiction because the facts and the research drive the narrative. Creating a fictive dream requires a different set of skills.
I am conscious that my time for chasing my fictive dream is finite. I will soon wave goodbye to my forties. One year from today I will turn 50 years old. When I turned 20 years old, I knew in my heart I would be the next Pat Conroy. Alas, it did not happen. I did not possess, and never will possess, Conroy’s ability to weave a fictive dream. I set aside those plans and went in another direction beginning in my thirties. I am proud of my modest achievements to date, but they are just that: Modest achievements. I want to move up from my current plateau to the next level in my writing career, such as it is.
I am okay with not being the next Pat Conroy. I can live with that. I remember reading a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Bob Dylan. When someone said to him, “oh, you’re Bob Dylan, as in the poet ‘Dylan Thomas,’” the singer reputedly said, “no, I’m Bob Dylan, as in ‘Bob Dylan.’”
I love that rejoinder. The issue is not about comparisons. Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself. Be an original. That’s all one can ever be, anyway. The question is not whether I can be the next Pat Conroy. The question is whether I can be the best fiction-writing Mike Martinez I can be.
We shall see.
Now it is time to return to fiction. Perhaps I do not have the writing chops to create an imaginary universe and move it forward. My skills with language, plot, and character development are rusty. Still, I will never know if I have the "write stuff" until I try. I can take classes. I can study the works of the masters. I can play around with outlines and story ideas. The bottom line, though, is that I must get busy with the hard work of crafting a story and putting it together into a readable, coherent whole.
I plan to get started in 2012. Stay tuned as I chase my fictive dream.