A Novel Idea: A Novel

On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend in 2007, The Curmudgeon was sitting on his patio enjoying the nice weather when the book he was reading gave him an idea for a short story; that’s often the way such inspiration arises. The novel was Indecent Exposure by Tom Sharpe, the best and funniest writer you’ve never heard of, and it was about the incompetence of the government of South Africa during its apartheid period. Among other things, the government in the novel was unhappy with white policemen having sex with black women, so at the suggestion of a psychiatrist, they attached electrodes to the testicles of police officers and showed them photos of naked black women; if the policemen got aroused, they received a shock to those aforementioned testicles. It worked, and more: not only did the white policemen no longer have sex with black women but they also lost interest in sex with any women at all. For this and other observations about South Africa, Sharpe, a native of Great Britain, was given a courtesy ride to the country’s border and invited never, ever to return.

The novel inspired The Curmudgeon to contemplate a fictional account, just a short story, of one of his pet theories about why urban government in the U.S. so often doesn’t work very well. The idea was to be satirical and funny but not to tell jokes. It would require a deft touch, but it would be a challenge. So decided, The Curmudgeon took out a notebook and jotted down some plot ideas before returning to his reading.

The Curmudgeon is able to recall so precisely exactly when he had this inspiration because he had been to a radiologist the day before for a test and received a call at home from his doctor’s office only an hour later telling him to go out right away for another test and moving up his next appointment from three weeks away to first thing in the morning on the first business day after Labor Day. He was pretty certain he was going to be told he had been diagnosed with, well, you’ve read about that before in this space.

In other words, it wasn’t going to be an ideal time to try being funny, and he knew it. Consequently, the idea sat for nearly a year, with The Curmudgeon occasionally returning to his notebook to add new ways of bringing out the point he wanted to make in the story. Over time, that list grew…and grew. The following August – eleven months after the idea first bloomed – he broke out a fresh notebook and started writing. Three days and sixty-seven handwritten, double-spaced pages later, he stopped because he knew he wasn’t even halfway through all those ideas he had accumulated and his short story was about to reach a point where it was no longer short.

In fact, it was starting to look more like a novel.

The problem was that as novelist, The Curmudgeon thinks he’s a pretty good short story writer. He’d started a novel in college that he never finished, started another while in college and finished it after graduation, started and abandoned another while still in his twenties (and twenty-five years later succeeded in saying everything he wanted to say in that novel in one of the best short stories he thinks he’s ever written), and then started a novel in his late thirties and finished it in his early forties knowing that he had no interest in ever writing a novel again.

Why not? Novel writing is, to be honest, not a whole lot of fun. The ratio of creativity (the fun part) to drudge work (typing, editing, polishing, refining, editing, polishing, refining, editing, polishing, refining, – you get the idea) in writing a short story is far, far more favorable than when writing a novel, so The Curmudgeon was hesitant to turn his short story into a novel. For that reason, he stopped work and spent the next month just thinking about it, about whether he could salvage his idea as a short story or if it needed to be told as a novel, if told at all – and if he concluded it was the latter, did he really want to embark on what would probably be a two-year project that would prevent him from spending much time on the short stories that are his first love?

It took a month, but ultimately, he decided he liked the idea too much to let it go and that he would plunge ahead and pursue the novel. As he suspected, it took nearly two years, with an occasional week off now and then when inspiration struck to crank out the first draft of a new short story that he could come back to when the novel was finished. He likes the final product but doesn’t love it but has decided that instead of just letting it sit on his shelf with his other work that’s never been published because that’s not why he writes, he would share it.

With you.

Dickens-style.

You learned about this in school, about how many writers, like Dickens, wrote novels that were serialized – that may be one of those verbifications The Curmudgeon dislikes so much – in newspapers. New installments would appear weekly, and the writers were paid by the installment (which is why, come to think of it, that in addition to being exceedingly boring, Dickens’ work is also exceedingly long).

Because he prefers writing short fiction, The Curmudgeon naturally gravitated toward writing his novel in short sections, piecing together all those little ideas he had for advancing his story’s theme (okay: did his use of the word “theme” give you an ugly flashback to an unpleasant high school English teacher? If so – sorry) into a more cohesive story. As a result, the finished work is actually fairly short for a novel – more along the lines of Animal Farm than Great Expectations.

So beginning this Sunday and then each Sunday for the next nine or so months – he was serious when he said a lot of short sections – The Curmudgeon will post a chapter, or section, of his novel Taking Care of Business (and no, it’s not a behind-the-scenes look at the 1970s Canadian band Bachman-Turner Overdrive); some of the sections are pretty short, so he may occasionally post two at a time. The longest sections are no more than four or five pages, so they shouldn’t be onerous, and many are only a page or so. On the left-hand side of the screen on which you’re reading right now is a heading that says “Pages” and beneath it is a sub-heading that reads “Taking Care of Business.” There, The Curmudgeon will list all of the sections that have already been posted with a link to each and a list of the characters and a brief description of each as they appear in the story (there aren’t that many characters that appear more than once or twice) because you may be reading – if you stick with it – over such a long period of time.

And he guesses that means he’s also committing to continuing writing this blog for at least the next nine or so months.

And he surprising himself even as he typed those words.

Happy reading:   see you on Sunday for the first installment of Taking Care of Business.

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