• John Clarkson

Death of a Novel


I’ve been avoiding sending this blog entry for several reasons. First, I’ve never gotten into the blog thing much. It strikes me that amidst the massive amounts of info bombarding us, something I have to say doesn’t really make the cut in terms of “must reads”. Second, it’s a bit painful to write about.


However, a number of you have continued to ask about the third James Beck novel. I had intended to have it into production (at least) by June 2019, and hopefully from there have a pub date. That was a bit ambitious, but I had the finished manuscript and it was in the hands of a new agent and was ready to embark once again on the treacherous publishing path. (The process has become more and more fraught, but that’s the subject of another blog.)


So…what happened?


When I sent the final manuscript (BTW the title was THE BRAVEST BOY IN THE WORLD), to the agent, I also sent it to four readers whose opinion I trust: a fellow writer, two marketing execs, someone who has had great success in developing books and also launching them in broadcast media. All of them James Beck fans.


I had never done that before. Partly because I don’t want to impose on people. I figure it’s better to be involved in the editing process with people who stand to make money for their efforts. So I’ve only engaged in that process with agents and editors at the various publishing houses.


The first two responses pointed out weaknesses that I couldn’t continue to ignore. I realized that there were problems with the book that I had previously tried to barrel through, depending on the story to carry the day. It didn’t work. I emailed the agent and asked her to dump the manuscript and wait for a new version. I told the other two readers to dump the files.


Off and on I had worked on two sequels to BRONX REQUIEM over the course of four years. During that time I also embarked on self-publishing my out-of-print Devlin ONE novels. Of the two sequels, I ended up finishing BRAVEST BOY first. So…in some respect: a couple of years work, 475 manuscript pages, 118,468 words. Gone.


Of course, many people ask me how my writing is going. And when I tell them I dumped a whole novel, they asked why? Couldn’t you have fixed it? Well, I suppose I am fixing it, but starting from scratch. Ask a computer programmer who writes code, or a contractor who builds houses, and you’ll often get the same answer. It’s easier to start from scratch.


Again, as to why…the problems had to do with mistakes in genre and theme. One could write a dissertation on those topics, but I won’t. Just a bit to make this blog a little more worthwhile reading. It might help you understand why a given book doesn’t work for you.


Genre has to do with the kind of story you’re writing. My genre is crime thrillers, but thrillers are a mash-up of genres to begin with (horror, crime, action). I “say” my books are crime thrillers, but that’s really not quite right. It’s a shorthand I use because “crime” sounds somewhat more accurate. Not really. I should just say I write Thrillers, because the settings and plots define the subgenres and that gets even more complicated.


So, what was the genre problem? It had to do with mixing a child in jeopardy plot with a serial killer plot. It didn’t work. For various reasons. On the surface, it should work. These are not contradictory plot elements within the genre. I could point out several books where these elements worked. But in the end, it didn't work for this novel.


The bigger problem was theme.


As to theme, theme is very tricky. Theme has to do with what the story is about. At least on the surface. There’s a ton underneath the theme that has to do with why a writer is writing what he or she is writing. That’s why it’s usually, not sometimes, usually difficult for writers to succinctly tell you what their story is about.


It might sound surprising that someone could work on a novel for months, sometimes years, and not be able to tell you the theme of their work. (This topic could be a blog entry on its own). Ask most writers, playwrights, screenwriters what their piece is about, and you usually get a bunch of plot points. "It’s about A who encounters B, and then he runs in C and D happens, and then A…" That’s not the theme.


The theme of the Beck books is pretty simple to express. The theme is US AGAINST THEM. I could express that in various ways. More interesting ways. And the theme of a specific book will have a nuance or two, but US AGAINST THEM is basically it.


You have four guys (and a few others like them) who are societal misfits. Underdogs. Criminals, rejects, people who are society targets for elimination so to speak. Fortunately for these guys (and unfortunately for their enemies) each of the them is very competent. Their survival skills were honed practically from birth. Beck is a special case within this criminal group. He was innocent of the charge that sent him to prison. So technically, he’s not a criminal. That’s the interesting wrinkle. Beck became “criminalized” in a corrupt, horrible, brutalizing system - prison. He wasn’t raised in a criminal environment, so he had weaknesses to overcome in order to survive prison. He was also more connected to civil society. The combination makes him the most dangerous guy in the group. Beck’s dual view of society provides him with a motive to create his own, more complex, moral universe. That’s why he’s interesting.

So, all the guys are constantly fighting for their survival on one level or another. And the only way they can make it is to stick together. US AGAINST THEM. “Them” varies from book to book. Not the “Us”.


So what was the theme problem with BRAVEST BOY? I lost the “US” part. I tried to write a story where Beck was mostly on his own trying to solve the problem at hand because, for reasons I won’t go into here, Beck wanted to keep the other guys out of it for their own protection.


Sounds interesting, right? In hindsight…NO! Without the rest of the crew, it’s not a James Beck book. It’s HIM AGAINST THEM. Not US AGAINST THEM.


So, what’s the good news?


From every death comes a birth.


I’m 106 pages and 36,633 words into the first draft of the new book. About a third of the way.


Is it going well? I think so. Although on one level I’m always terrified it won’t work out in the end. Will this be the best Beck book ever written because of all the problems I’ve dealt with? I think so.


Stick around and we’ll see.

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JOHN CLARKSON
BOOKS
Author of seven novels, including AMONG THIEVES and BRONX REQUIEM, the first two novels in his new James Beck series.
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