On Writing My First Novel (5 Years Later)

Five years have now passed since self-publishing my first novel, Living on Empty. (Also available at Apple iBooks and Barnes & Noble).  It is a strange feeling. A somewhat abstract feeling was knowing I wrote an entire full-length novel five years ago.  A year’s long journey that came to an end with a finished product composed of around seventy thousand plus words tied together loosely like pieces of grape from a vine. A rough narrative designed to illustrate a young man’s voice frustrated with the burden of living a life unknown. A life where finding the answers is located in the empty.

It all kind of happened because I was broke and bored.

I wrote the story because I needed to tell this story. It came to me in dreams and would not leave my conscious or subconscious. I could not let it slip through my fingers. I wrote the story because I wanted to purge myself of some of the feelings I was having frustrations and hopes and dreams. I tried to purge myself of some of the experiences. And at the same time use all of them to inspire me to write a piece of fiction. I wrote.

Life is Normal

I work a regular job and live a somewhat healthy and uneventful life right at the time of this writing. Other than finding true love, (which is perhaps my greatest adventure, and something I hope I will never lose). Nothing else extraordinary. I am just another anonymous person riding the train next to you. Reading from his Kindle or listening to music via his headphones. Another person whom you might cut off in traffic. Another person, passing you on the street. Or sitting at a trendy restaurant with his wife. Or buying a cup of coffee at my nearby Starbucks. The only difference is I wrote a book. And no one can take that from me. No one.

Emilio was sitting at a small table in The Fish Bowl’s balcony. The table was between the sunshine and the shade. As the earth rotated the shade decreased and the sunshine increased. The chilly winds swept through the piercing sunshine. This is Ohio, after all. He puffed away his Cuban cigar. He ran numbers from several stacks of receipts with his calculator and made notes in a large registry notebook. Also on the table were two cell phones, an old pager, a cordless phone, a bottle of aspirin and a half-used container of hand sanitizer. He wore a marble gray cardigan framed with a big shawl collar. Underneath he wore a well-pressed white dress shirt, with the first two top buttons left unbuttoned. A pair of white slacks, also neatly ironed. On his sockless feet he had on a pair of polished loafers. He fanned himself a few times with his fedora. And then wiped some of his sweat off of his face with a cloth made of one hundred percent genuine silk.

No one else typed the words I typed in the way I typed them. No one else wanted to tell the story I wrote, in the form I wrote it. No one else sat at the computer for hours and hours and more hours. Hours focused on a single task. No other job could or would occupy my time. Sometimes the music was the only sound I could tolerate other than silence. Silence sometimes was my invisible barrier between the world and my imagination.

The Soundtrack of Writing

When writing, I sometimes listened to music. Or went to coffee shops, writing some of my books anonymously among strangers. Sometimes, the silence was my best friend. I would get into such a focused frenzy marathon of tapping letters to form words on the computer screen.  I would then forget to choose that perfect song to help inspire me when writing. Instead, silence proved to be as just as good a companion as classical music, or a favorite film score, or a song with a catchy melody.

Smoke rose from my father’s 1978 Pontiac red-metallic Firebird. I tried to start the car. I turned the key and pumped the gas several times. It wheezed an old decaying coffin-like cough. Clouds of dark black smoke puffed out the exhaust pipe. The sound made me cringe. I thought about recoiling into a fetal position while wishing for renewal. My chest tightened. My eyes watered. But I could not be reborn.

Living on Empty was my first complete story. I had written a few shorts stories before, but nothing entirely fleshed out like this book. An imperfect idea of a young man’s view of what appeared to be the dying American Dream during the 2007 Great Recession.  An attempt to write a novel for my so-called millennial generation.  To write about the struggle we were all going through in our twenties during this time in recent history.  The group for which I was addressing were people born in the early eighties. And not so much those who are now being described as millennial in pop culture as of 2018. We were the inbetweeners: In-between Generation-X and the Millennial punks who know of no world before the availability of smartphones and social media.

I took one last look at what was left of my dad’s car. The orange flames reflected off my movie star aviators. My boots clicked on the asphalt as I took one choreographed step after another. Heel, toe. Heel, toe. I stopped and did a quick Elvis Presley gyration with my hips while spinning my arms around an air guitar. I then pulled out a comb and brushed back my greasy hair. I curled my lip. Uh-huh. Nothing but a hound dog. Uh-huh. Heartbreak Hotel. Thank you! Thank you very much. Jimmy Rodriguez has left the building, ladies, and gentlemen

Curse of the Perfectionist

And yet the last part of my novel. I have come to hate the last part of my book. Not hate. Hate is such a strong word. More that I want to re-write it and improve on what I originally wrote. Maybe one day I’ll re-write it and re-publish my book as Living on Empty: Revised Second Edition. Why not? The non-fiction writers do it all the time. Why can’t I?

Since completing the novel, going through some re-writes, re-publishing, and grammatical editorial reviews, I still find the words exactly as I wanted them to be, so many years later (except for the last part of the novel). The only thing I struggle with is the ending I wrote. A conclusion which I now feel did not accomplish what I intended it to do. At least now I don’t think it did. Alas, such is the burden of creating something new: learning to let it go and be its own thing

Writing after the Novel

As the years passed, I tried so many times to repeat this feat. To write something else. But it has turned out harder to write the second novel than the first I still find myself reading blogs about story structure, writing productivity, and writing tasks to help one become a better and more productive writer.

The slow walk toward becoming a full-time writer is slow. Indeed. More time-consuming than it should be. Ta-Nehisi Coates once said (and I am paraphrasing) “if someone hasn’t written consistently in their life by the time they’re thirty-five, then the probably won’t become a writer.”

I have so many reasons to argue why I haven’t written anything substantial:

  1. My father needed my help for a brief while …
  2. I was depressed …
  3. Getting myself back in shape …
  4. I met this girl, and we fell in love …
  5. and then we fell out of love and broke each other’s heart …
  6. then we fell back in love and got married …
  7. and then I decided I wanted a new job and changed careers …
  8. the new job was where I wanted to go, but I was so overwhelmed and intimidated and let my anxiety overtake me for a while—convinced I would fail …
  9. but soon, I would find a place in this new job (though I still struggle with my on-going social anxiety) …
  10. being too tired to write in the morning …
  11. No time to write when I am at work (apparently) …
  12. being too tired to write when I get home …
  13. deciding to spend the weekend getting all my chores done primero
  14. cooking some fantastic meals instead of writing …
  15. letting my ego tell me I am no good. I am a hack. All my ideas suck.

etc., etc.,

Save for the last one, which is my ongoing inner demon; there is no excuse. There is no reason among those which I have just listed as to why I should not have found time to write. Write an hour a day would have sufficed.

After writing a book, I learned better about the process. The act of writing is perhaps the most natural part. Re-writing, proofreading, receiving criticism, and feedback, and re-writing again and again …(did I mention there is a lot of re-writing and proofreading?) all take longer than the actual writing process. So, getting past just the writing part is probably the laziest excuse of all writing. But here I am,  looking at five years of excuse after excuse for not writing. Five years of not committing enough to see the shit through. Of all the things I listed none of them should have been a reason to prevent me from writing. In fact, maybe some of these things should’ve inspired me.

But I wrote a novel!

I ran outside the house into the rain. Jasmine stood on the porch looking out into the rainy night. She wore a black tank top underneath a dark blue jean jacket. She had on dark blue jeans with a pattern embroidered in the color of tan on the butt pockets. On her head she wore a large gray fedora looking hat. She had it tilted to the side almost covering one of her eyes. She was already a little drenched from the rain. Some of the mascara around her eyes was running. With the porch light her dark skin glistened in the rainy night and her teeth shown pure white when she smiled.

A lot happened in the time between when I finished the novel to now. But in all that time I could’ve have been writing another book. And another. And maybe another.

More stories are swimming in imperfect circles in my head. Several of which I have been daydreaming about while on the train to and from work. Or when in a meeting knowing full-well I should be paying attention when instead all I can think of is the story I want to tell. All this time was daydreaming and not enough time writing.

Not to say I didn’t even attempt to write during these five years. There are probably maybe thousands and thousands of words written on rough ideas. Unfinished stories. Unfinished thoughts. Unfinished yet more complete than before writing a novel. Before writing my book most of my views were mere paragraphs. Or summaries. Now I write until the steam runs out. Going back at it again is still tough. Still rough. Taking a lot of strength, focus, and determination.

If I were to be really petty, I would mention that no fame nor fortune came my way. No newspapers interviews. No rave-reviews. No best-selling list. But to ponder on those things cheapens the experience of writing. Cheapens the accomplishment. And that is why they are petty and not significant.

The Next Five Years

In the next five years, I hope to have completed at least one more novel. And if I can find a way to motivate myself—the number of books I write in the next five years will hopefully switch from singular to plural. I would prefer writing to be my primary form of income in an ideal world.

The plan is to write more often between each waking moment I can get. To ignore the tiredness or the laziness and force me not to lose sight. To not forget purpose. To not give up. I want to live an breath the written word. I want to bathe in metaphors and descriptive scenery.  I want to get drunk on plot and character motivation.

Write like a mother fucker.

Living on Empty.  Also available at Apple iBooks and Barnes  Noble.


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About robisonwriter