Last June, I began writing my first novel, a thriller about nuclear terrorism. I finished the first draft a month ago and sent two copies to people I know who are avid students of fiction writing. I just got back one copy covered in handwritten notes. The other is still out, Wade Duchene.
When I mailed the manuscript, these were the first two people who had seen the novel aside from my wife Mary. I encouraged the reviewers to be critical, stressing to them that I'm already a published author and understatedly handsome man. My self-esteem is not in jeopardy. They could be brutally honest about weaknesses in the novel. I wanted them to be as tough on the manuscript as the first prospective agent or publisher who pulls it off the slush pile.
This was, of course, a pack of lies.
When I encouraged tough criticism, I only did so in the belief that my novel contained no weaknesses.
Somewhere in the mail, the book acquired some significant flaws. I've been hearing about them at great length over the phone and dutifully taking notes.
Most notably, as it turns out, a man and woman in bloom of first infatuation would not stop to make out when they're minutes from nuclear catastrophe. Even if the man is a decent guy beset by incredibly hard times and she is a beautiful and ballsy college student with corrected vision -- thinly veiled author's wife alert! thinly veiled author's wife alert! -- the imminent death of thousands is a mood killer. It's hard to enjoy having your esophagus grouted by the protagonist's tongue when his skill set is perfectly suited to saving the world.
So I'm now working on the second draft.
One of the things that kept me from writing a novel was the nagging suspicion that I might prove myself a bad novelist. By spending almost 43 years successfully not writing novels, I have kept that dire possibility at bay.
In 1989, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to first-time novelist Mark Lindquist, who had thanked him for being an inspiration. Although Vonnegut makes clear he did not read Lindquist's book, he offers this encouragement:
The fact that you have completed a work of fiction of which you are proud, which you made as good as you could, makes you as close a blood relative as my brother Bernard.
My new goal is to finish the book, making it as good as I could, and become Kurt Vonnegut's blood relative.