I attempted to write a second follow-up to Holland Bay this summer. It reached sixty thousand words when I realized it was falling apart. Now, the advice to neophyte writers is always, “Don’t give up. First drafts always suck. You’ll never get it done if you quit.” Years ago, one writer going through a serious bout of writer’s block even shared such advice sarcastically as he tried to power through a thorny manuscript. Let’s just say that advice was not well-received.
Ironically, he and I struggled with the same problem. An unworkable story. I can’t speak to his manuscript. I think he may have stripped it for parts and used it elsewhere. I can tell you why the tentatively titled Harbourtown flamed out.
Point of view.
One of my inspirations for Holland Bay was The Wire. But The Wire was one of the first streaming series, HBO On Demand becoming a thing when Season 1 debuted. The Wire had a sprawling cast of characters. If just Season 5, which had only ten episodes as opposed to the thirteen of previous seasons, had been a novel, it would have rivaled some of Stephen King’s thick volumes. Not quite Under the Dome, with a length that would make Proust cringe, but It, The Institute, maybe The Tommyknockers. And that all goes to point-of-view characters.
Ladies and gentlemen, Harbourtown had too many points of view. In scifi, this is almost mandatory if your story sprawls. In crime, people want the author to get to the point.
I took the approach of writing both The Dogs of Beaumont Heights (due out January, 2023 from Down & Out Books) and Harbourtown like a streaming series. Each “episode” would be in three-chapter blocks and rotate through the main POV characters. In Dogs, there were three, with each overlapping enough to make it seem like more without overwhelming the reader. (And then Lance, one of the publishers, may come back and say, “Oh, really Winter? Chapter Five needs to go!” Let me have my delusions.) But Dogs only had three: Branson for the police, Linc for the criminal element, and Roberts for the brass and the politicians.
Harbourtown had four. And really, two of them weren’t working. Branson’s storyline moved forward. The criminal storyline also worked. But I added one of Branson’s fellow officers and continued Roberts’s story. Eventually, it became clear the reader would wonder which novel I wanted to write: The sheriff’s department agitating a depressed neighborhood to make the sheriff’s rival look racist? Or Branson chasing human traffickers? And while we’re at it, Roberts is not a nice guy. He sleeps with a hooker-turned-bartender behind his wife’s back. The other officer has his marriage breakdown and finds solace in the arms of a college student. Neither of these characters is sympathetic.
And then I read Under Color of Law this summer by Aaron Phillip Clark. Clark’s protag is a black detective on the LAPD. Some of his officers voice a seldom-mentioned reason for the increase in officer-involved shootings. I also realized that, while it’s a topic to be discussed, I am not the guy to do it. Plus, when I focused on one main plotline, the other would fizzle. Blake Snyder in Save the Cat once said you can’t have more than one kind of magic in a story. (Then proceeds to make the ridiculous assertion that the original Spiderman didn’t work because Spidey and the Green Goblin had two different superpowers. Um, dude, have you ever read comic books?) You also really should focus on one type of skullduggery in a crime novel.
Mystic River, which is the crime novel that most inspires me (and now I have to go reread it), sprawls. There are protection rackets and the victim of a pedophile struggling with similar urges. But the focus is a murder. That’s it. A murder. It has multiple points of view. You start to love even the most questionable characters (except one. You want to drown that one when the killer is revealed for all the misery they cause.) You get to know a fictional neighborhood in Boston like a real place.
Dennis Lehane told his publisher he could write like this if he had two years to work on a novel instead of one. I don’t have two years to do Harbourtown. And while I’m going to attempt to do this thing for NaNoWriMo, I also don’t have the time to make it as big as it needs to be. I have a day job. I have disabled wife. I have a science fiction series to finish revising and promote.
“Oh, wah wah. You’re busy.”
There’s a reason Holland Bay took so long to write. One, it sprawls like nothing else I’ve ever written. Two, it was exhausting. I took long stretches away from the book to the point where I quit writing at one point and quit crime fiction at another.
So Harbourtown will need to get lean. Which story do I want to tell? Obviously, Branson will be the focus. She is the series. She and the city of Monticello. But who beyond that gets time in the spotlight? And do I need to dust something else off and give this the proper time it needs?