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How To Finish a Novel In Only Sixteen Short Years

Updated: Sep 30, 2018

It was August of 2001. I had a notion to begin writing a novel. It was called The Little Red Boat. It was a story about two friends who went off to college together.

Set in the early 1990s, the story began in a nothing little town in northern Minnesota, far away from anything exciting. I didn't have a name for the town yet, but as far as my protagonist and his best friend were concerned, none of that mattered. All that mattered to them was that they were on their way out ... all the way to Los Angeles. Jamie Sullivan was the star of his high school basketball team with scholarship offers from multiple colleges. His friend Angel had an academic scholarship to go to school in L.A.

I typed the first words:

"The roar of the crowd was deafening ... "

Yikes. What a cliché. That line would remain intact up until the book's very first reading by someone other than myself, almost sixteen years later. I don't want anyone to think that I spent the last sixteen years of my life writing this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the story was always there, ruminating, fermenting, developing in ways I couldn't have ever fathomed.

That summer, I wrote a lot. All of it bad, as it turns out. I didn't know how bad it was at the time, but I would eventually discover just how bad it was. I wrote a page here, a paragraph there ... a disjointed, non-linear collection of unrelated thoughts, all scattered about. I thought I was outlining a novel, but all I was really doing was creating a mess.

The story, however, had been conceptualized. I just wasn't any good at writing yet. A big problem, yes ... but certainly one that could be overcome. I eventually took on smaller projects: essays, short fiction, satire, etc. I even wrote a novella, which I was very proud of. Someday that will be rewritten as well, but today it lives somewhere in the recesses of my mind, ruminating and fermenting in the same place where my little red boat has been floating around for a decade and a half.

About two years ago, I sat down at the computer and I started typing:

"The roar of the crowd was deafening ..."

And just like that, I was off and running. I had a few days off from work after the holidays. So every morning when I woke up, I put on a pot of coffee, made some oatmeal, opened up my laptop and went to work. I didn't reference any of my old notes. I didn't need to. The story had been mulling around in the back of my mind for so many years that it honestly felt as though I was writing the life story of my own alter ego. I felt as though I had gotten to know Jamie Sullivan pretty well over the years, so telling his story felt effortless.

I had written over twenty five pages by the time I had to go back to work. I knew that this time I was in it for the long haul. So every weekend, I would get up, make my coffee and oatmeal, sit down at my computer and type away. I usually would read a few pages, or sometimes a chapter, to get into the flow. Then I would pick up right where I left off and before I knew it, I had written four chapters ... then five ... then six.

About two weeks ago, amid another holiday vacation coincidentally enough, (funny how life has a certain symmetry to it) I finished the book. The whole experience has been surreal, to tell you the truth. In many ways, it hasn't even sunk in yet.

Over the past week and a half, I have been working with a professional editor. She edited a few chapters to begin with, to see if we were a good fit. I liked the edits she made and now she has agreed to edit the entire manuscript. She finished the first half last week and sent it to me for review. I had a lot of edits to approve and a handful of rewrites. The rest of the manuscript should be ready soon.

So ... if any of you out there are thinking about writing a novel, I have the recipe for success: just let the idea sit around in your head for a decade or so ... and then after that, the rest should be a piece of cake.

Oh yeah ... remember the first line? The cliché that had remained intact for almost sixteen years? It's gone. With the help of my editor, that cliché has been usurped:

The place was as raucous and alive as I could ever remember it being. Our modest high school gymnasium only held a few hundred people, but that night it felt like Madison Square Garden. That’s how I remember it, anyway. Not that I’d ever been to Madison Square Garden.

To be honest, I had hardly stepped foot out of our tiny town of Red Falls. Not many people had. That was the kind of town we lived in … buried up in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota; no one ever came or left; nothing ever changed. Once in a while, someone new would be born and once in a while, someone would die … usually of natural causes. Other than that, it stayed pretty much the same, year after year. People used to say that the only thing that ever came out of Red Falls was the Red River, but that was about to change.

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