There’s that old clip (several, actually) from Family Guy where Stewie makes fun of Brian for working on that novel since almost the beginning of the series (Well over 20 years ago at this point. Original Meg Lacey Chabert is doing Hallmark movies now!) The digs at how long Brian has been writing this magnum opus get more and more pointed with each round.
And yet, you can tell that Seth McFarland and the other writers have had to deal with friends, mostly literary writers, who moan about the struggle to get that novel out. So, up until about 2011, when the first words of Holland Bay were written, I, too, felt like Stewie. After all, my one NaNoWriMo project, Road Rules, took 13 days. If you know the story, what’s taking you so long. I looked at writers who took more than six months to write a novel the way 99% of the planet looks at George RR Martin for not finishing The Winds of Winter.
And then I sketched out a couple of scenes thinking they’d make a great short story. One had two drug lords waiting for someone to bring a snitch to an abandoned pier so the son they held prisoner could witness his father’s execution before himself dying. When the father didn’t show, they doused the corner boy’s car in gasoline and lit a match. The one drug kingpin looked like an extra on Empire (still about six or seven years into the future when I wrote the scene), and when he drove off into the snowstorm, he turned on not Jay Z or 50 Cent but Bob Dylan. The character fascinated me.
The second involved a cop named Branson, who really should have quit the force years earlier, spinning out in that same snowstorm (which I didn’t know at the time), and having to be coaxed into making roll call for the first time in months. Threads I wanted to pull, but I didn’t know how. Still, a friend of mine in Ireland was in the hospital with some sort of stomach ailment, and I sent them along to cheer him up.
He demanded I weave this together into a novel.
Okay. I spun up three Nick Kepler novels (only one published at that point. The Kindle Revolution had not come, never mind went, at that point) in about six months a piece. I should be able to find that story and at least make a rough draft of it within a year.
Three years later, I had a draft of 105,000 words and a subplot for every minor character that walked on and said hello. It took three loooong chapters just to wrap things up. Plus, I had just fired my agent.
So, I quit.
Apparently, I should have read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which was out back then. It begins with the tale of Charles Bukowski, one of the darkest crime writers many in my circle admire. Bukowski got tired of playing the game, of dancing to his agent’s tune, of hearing publishers want this, that, and the other. He famously said he quit trying. Not quit writing, the way I did. He quit trying.
Eventually, I came back to writing. First, I wrote a fictional rock autobiography, some of which I mined for short stories, but most of which you will never, ever read. I do not need the inevitable lawsuits from real people who show up in the story. It was simply to get words down. A funny thing happened while I wrote this. I ended up having a 17,000-word weekend before dictation was really a thing for writers.
So Holland Bay went back across the keyboard. I got it down to about 95,000 words and maybe six main POV characters. And then it went back in the drawer. Once more it came out with fewer POVs, fewer words. I got a new agent referral. She suggested edits that pared the book down to the 75,000-word masterpiece. Ultimately, she passed on the book. That was 2015. By that point, I had written, as TS Hottle, The Children of Amargosa and three novellas. I felt I’d given crime enough of a chance and put Holland Bay back in the drawer. Well, the Amargosa novels and novellas are done, I’m well into a new arc that will probably take about 3 years to completely publish. Happens when you hand it off to a publisher. And yet, as the pandemic raged, I took a chance and sent Holland Bay first to a Big Five publisher (who would have taken it if I hadn’t put “TS Hottle” on the byline), then Down & Out Books, a well-regarded small press.
So, let’s see. Those first scenes sent to a buddy in the hospital were written in mid-2007. I started work in earnest about 2009, finished in 2010. Got burned out and stopped writing in 2011. Rewrote it in 2013. Rewrote it again in 2015. Sent it to New York in 2017. Got accepted in 2020 by Down & Out. Final edits in 2021.
So, why does it take 5, 10, 20 years to work on a novel? Especially when I’ve managed to do one in 13 days? No one will mistake Road Rules for Holland Bay.
But for the next one? I plotted.