It would have been perfect. As stories go, this one would have been fun to write; it would have been real; it would have been grounded.
I came up with the idea on the beach of New Smyrna. It was a gorgeous Saturday. I was munching on candy and enjoying the waves with my sister. It had been some time since I had finished major writing on “Ghosts of Nagasaki.”
I was journaling, just like I am now, and it came to me in little scenes. A college student who drops out and comes to work in a retirement home in New Smyrna. There, at the retirement home, he would meet an old author and they would develop a friendship.
The virtue of this novel idea is that it could be written on a postcard. Not complicated as far as plots go. The novel would have been based on strong scenes and many of the experiences I had already developed in my life working in a home for physically and mentally handicapped individuals.
I was enthusiastic. But did I really want to start another book?
I would eventually outline the book and leave it there. I would spend a few hours on a few scenes but would leave it there.
I have a feeling that some of the novel can still be reimagined as great little short stories.
There are a lot of reasons I should continue with the novel. The novel would have had a strong sense of place and time. It would have taken place around 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. In the background of every scene would have been “For Sale” signs in front of houses and parents worried about their kids in combat zones. It would have had great characters too — perhaps the best supporting cast of characters I’ve ever written. The sister of the main character would work in condominium sales. Before the crisis, she had been making a six-figure salary. Now she would be on the edge of losing her job.
In the first chapter, as the main character is dropping out of school, he would call her to ask for a place to stay and she would be a mess. It would be a really great scene, one that left you disturbed and on edge as the sister fails to respond in any reasonable way to her brother’s requests. You get the sense that not only has she failed to save any money, but that she is highly invested in real estate and about to lose everything. She gives off subtle signs that she is thinking of suicide.
So what happened — scenes like this are difficult to write. They require time and draft upon draft to get it exactly right.
Then there would have been the main character’s friends. One would have come back from Iraq and would be suffering from severe PTSD. Again, great scenes — but ones that could only really be brought to life through research.
Perhaps the most developed character would be Chester Norris, the short-tempered author the character meets in the elderly home. He would be modeled after one of my writing teachers. Somehow, even after close to a decade, I have lodged in my brain many quotable Chester Norris moments. Many of them wouldn’t even be fiction — I would take them straight from what I heard.
I have a horrible track record for doing research. Research killed a lot of my great story ideas. I couldn’t make the stories feel real. I would read about the things I wanted to know about, but in the end, it didn’t feel real. The process of research became something tedious — something unwriterly. When I could get up the energy to do research — book research — it just seemed to make my stories worse.
This novel would present me with one of my first opportunities to integrate past experiences AND field-based research.
I would learn about working in retirement homes. I would learn about surfers (the main character would be a surfer through and through). I would learn about how soldiers dealt with PTSD. The book would be grounded in New Smyrna, in the reality of 2008 — the anxiety of 2008 — and it would have characters that felt like people you knew.
Stay with me. These are the notes I have for the climax of the book. Keep in mind that some of this is just notes.
Chester Norris says to the main character, “Don’t you get it? I’m dying. I won’t live to be seventy-three and you would think the last things I would want to do before kicking it would be to go see my family or go traveling to Cuba. Go overseas and see India. Maybe a titty show! But no, I’m trying to finish this damn story. I’m stuck on whether the soldier’s wife runs off with her lover or whether they end up never talking to each other. Remember I told you it was the best story I’d ever worked on. Well, that’s bullshit! It’s probably the worst. The worst piece of smelly shit I’ve written since I was your age. But I want to finish, because that’s what being a writer is. So my advice to you kid—go surfing, f*** your girlfriend, and when you’re ready to spend the next fifty years of your life doing what I’m doing now, come see me.”
[At the end of the book, the author finishes the story]. The main character asks, “So now you start a new one?”
Chester answers, “No, now I rest.” [The author buys him a ticket to India. “Go see it for yourself,” he says. The author dies several weeks later—or he doesn’t. Someone dies: the sister, the soldier, his friend, the author’s roommate].
Last lines of the book:
I guess there are several ways to interpret it. If he would have kept on writing, he would have lived forever. Or he lived enough in those fifteen days without writing to last a lifetime. Who knows? Maybe he lied to me. Maybe he lost his nerve right near the end and began a new story just as he kicked it. It’s hard for me to know for sure how it ends. And I don’t know. But I also don’t know what didn’t happen. So I pick up a pen and paper for the first time in a while. And where I left Chester is where I begin.
And then you interpret the ending as the main character growing as a human being and a writer. It sounds more like a Lifetime movie than a novel, but trust me: give it seven drafts and it would have crackled!
So, why after all of this work would I give up the novel? Why not simply stick it in a drawer or a USB drive for another day? After looking through my old stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that no unfinished story actually gets better with time. Time on a USB drive is worse than death. It’s undeath. Distance can sometimes make a difference in the editing process and some stories can be reimagined for the better. Sometimes an author’s skills catch up with their ambitions.
But my experience is that mostly these stories get neglected and they weigh you down.
Truly, this is a novel idea with potential. But I have a feeling I can let this one get away. There are other novel ideas out there in the sea. I’ll refashion my game, sharpen my writing tools, and be better prepared when the next great idea comes my way.
In the meantime, I’m going to stick to little projects. Little scenes. Things that take a week, a month, or shorter. My tools will get sharper.
Goodbye, my sweet novel idea. I’ll miss you.