THE CARE & FEEDING OF FIRST NOVELS
Making the transition from writing short stories to writing novels was not easy for me.
There, I said it. The words are up there on my computer screen. And now that I’m sitting here staring at them, I realize that they add up to a flat little sliver of understatement that just won’t do.
So let me try again: Writing my first novel was torture. It was a trip to the black hole of Calcutta, an exercise in misery of Poe-esque proportions. And it’s something I’m very glad I’ll never have to do again.
Yeah. That works a little better. And I promise I’m not exaggerating. After my first few attempts in the early nineties, I was nearly convinced that making the run from page one to “The End” of a novel was something I’d never be able to do. I must have started a good half-dozen novels before I ever managed to finish one. Piling up the pages as I worked on each of those books was like running a gauntlet—the more pages in my pile, the more beat-up I’d feel. My plot would become a tiger I couldn’t hold by the tail; my characters wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do; my confidence would wane. I’d read through my manuscript time and time again, looking for a way to fix the problems I saw there, and those pages would keep clubbing at me.
Finally, I’d give in to frustration.
That pile of paper would go in a drawer, or in the wastebasket.
The above is not a recipe for happiness… or success. That was the worst part of the whole exercise. After all, I’d done all right as a writer up to that point. I’d managed to break into the short story markets. I’d graduated from the small press magazines. I’d cracked professional anthologies. I’d sold a collection that garnered a couple of award nominations, and managed to win one of them. I knew that the next logical career step was to get a novel out there.
To tell the truth it was the only logical career step, but I couldn’t seem to get my foot up on it. My earliest novel attempts still make me cringe. Looking back I realize that I made a big mistake—I studied the horror market, which is exactly what every writing book you come across will tell you to do if you want to write a horror novel. Ordinarily, that would be very good advice. But in my case I studied the market too well… so well that my imagination was constrained (if not downright trapped) by the conventions I found there.
I read book after book set in a Middle American small town. Often the central characters were a nice young married couple who’d just moved into the area. Usually they—and the other nice folks in the town—would end up confronting some form of supernatural evil as the story progressed. Visit any local bookstore in the eighties or early nineties and you were bound to find a couple dozen novels like that. Some folks even had a shorthand name for the sub-genre—they called these horror novels featuring nice young couples vs. supernatural bugaboos “Betty & Bob” books ( I think it was Les Daniels who coined that term).
I figured I had to write one of those books if I wanted to break into the novel market. Or follow one of the other publishing trends of the time. One was to write a knockoff of one of Stephen King’s most popular novels. In those days, I read countless variations on Salem’s Lot, novels that substituted zombies or werewolves or teenage wendigos for King’s vampires. Ditto other King novels, like The Stand or The Shining or It. There were a lot of “evil little kid” books, too, most of which took their inspiration from The Omen. Add to that the ubiquitous vampire novels—lots and lots of vampire novels. Not to mention books about creatures in the cellar, demons freed from desecrated Indian burial grounds, things from the sewer, toxified animals on a rampage, flies and spiders, and… well, I could go on and on.
God knows I tried. There was the ghost story set in the Napa Valley that featured the spirit of a dead juvenile delinquent who’d been gunned down by the local authorities. If I remember right, he possessed another young guy in order to take vengeance on those who’d wronged him years before. I even had a Ouija board in there (and a haunted car, too), along with the usual small-town stereotypes and a local sheriff and his wife standing in for Betty & Bob. I think I got about seventy-five pages of that one before I gave up.
I started another one. This time out I wrote about a folklore professor battling creatures from urban legend that were making the leap from myth to reality in a small university town. That one ended up in the wastebasket, too. Next I tried an idea about killer bats in the southwest. Less supernatural stuff there, and less Betty & Bob; that one was more of a monster book. The whole thing went well until I came across a novel called Nightwing by Martin Cruz Smith and realized my idea had been done up pretty thoroughly by an established writer.
I tried a few more ideas, hoping I could channel Robert McCammon or any of the other guys who could seemingly turn out this stuff effortlessly, but the ideas never got past the let’s toss this out on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up stage. In this case, the cat in question was my imagination, and no way was it going to run its scratchy tongue across any of the stuff my brain was dishing up. Every idea seemed like a bad screenplay pitch. And while I kept telling myself that I could write just as well if not better than a lot of the guys who were publishing books that fit the templates I’d identified, there was just something about those ideas and those templates that kept my fingers off the keyboard.
What I eventually figured out was this—I wasn’t going to be able to write a paint-by-the-numbers kind of novel. That approach wasn’t going to work for me. The whole problem reminded me of a scene at the beginning of the movie Enter the Dragon, the one where Bruce Lee is trying to teach a kid how to kick. The kid is just going through the motions; his kicks are all mechanics and no heart. And then Lee whacks him on the head and says, “We need emotional content.”
That’s what I was lacking. When I reread my “Betty & Bob” fragments, I knew down deep in my gut that they were hollow as a carved-up pumpkin. There weren’t any real people on those pages. While there might be some competent writing, there wasn’t any emotional content.
So I gave up playing the game that way. I forgot all about Betty & Bob. I started over, this time determined to get more of myself on the page… along with some genuine blood, sweat, and tears.
Kiss of Death was my first attempt at doing that. It was going to be a horror novel, but I was going to write it my way. My story was going to revolve around three Korean War vets, who—through a shared experience in a horrible battle—came marching home with supernatural powers. I decided to set the story in the late fifties and populate it with the kind of characters found in hardboiled fiction. I wanted to write a horror novel with a dark crime sensibility that would tip its hat in the direction of several movies I loved—think Bad Day at Black Rock, or The Defiant Ones, or Dead Reckoning.
Or Night of the Living Dead. That was going to be in there, too, because the supernatural power my soldiers shared was the ability to raise the dead. One of those men was going to use his powers to raise a zombie army that would slaughter anything that stood in their master’s way. It would be up to the other two to stop him, with the help of a man who had been held prisoner by their enemy and a woman caught up in the events for her own reasons.
The first chapter of Kiss of Death kicked the story into gear the way I’d hoped. For several months, the novel raced right along. I piled up chapter after chapter as I worked my way up to the blood-and-thunder climax I’d planned. When I hit that point, I had 271 manuscript pages.
The time had come for my villain to unleash his zombie army.
The time had come for my heroes to try to stop him.
I figured all that would maybe take another hundred pages. Then I’d hit those two words I was longing to type: “The End.” The way I saw it, I should have been able to write the climax of Kiss of Death in my sleep. I knew exactly what was supposed to happen.
But I froze up. Completely. Solid as a goddamn glacier.
I couldn’t write another word.
I realized, quite suddenly, that I didn’t believe in the ending I’d constructed for my book.
And since I didn’t believe it, I couldn’t write it.
* * *
The problem wasn’t the characters. This time I’d gotten them right. I could see those guys in my head, hear them when they talked. And neither was the problem with the setting, or the writing itself. I thought Kiss of Death was turning out to be a good little book.
The problem was the supernatural angle; i.e. my characters’ ability to raise the dead. I could handle that fine when the supernatural elements weren’t overt. I was comfortable when the shadows fell just out of sight, over there on the edge of the page. I could also handle my character talking about the powers they possessed and the reasons they were afraid of those powers. I could even handle writing about one character that was actually dead during most of the novel. But when it came time for me to turn the spotlight on the all-out zombie apocalypse I had planned for my ending, I just couldn’t do it. As much as I wanted to, I could not make that army of dead guys embark upon the full-scale rampage I’d planned.
I’m still not sure exactly why. It’s too easy to say that I didn’t believe in my zombies (though, strangely enough, reading over those 271 pages now I’d have to say I did I good enough job to make the reader believe in them, even if I couldn’t exactly make the trip myself). And it’s not that I haven’t successfully dealt with the supernatural in my fiction—I have, both in novels and short stories. All I can say is that I couldn’t make it happen in Kiss of Death. Maybe it was the tonal mix of noir and supernatural horror. Maybe it was the cold, hard tack I took with the characters themselves. Whatever the cause, I know that the block still exists after all these years. Just typing the plot outline a few paragraphs above, I was fine until I got to that line about raising “a zombie army that would slaughter anything that stood in their master’s way.” I felt myself tighten up as soon as I typed those words. I didn’t want to go any further… not even in a plot summary.
That’s why my zombie army never went into apocalyptic overdrive.
And that’s why Kiss of Death—all 271 pages of it—ended up in a box in my closet.
* * *
So I kissed off Kiss of Death. I gave up trying to write novels for a while and concentrated on short stories. There were some good opportunities in professional anthologies at the time, and a few of the magazine markets paid better than average rates. I sold a few stories coming in through the slush pile. That was my only option when it came to getting my foot in the door with the better markets. I was still a newcomer—meaning I didn’t receive solicitations from editors, but I was tuned in to the writer’s grapevine and would hear about a lot of projects while editors were still reading for them. I found that if I queried those editors, most would at least give my work a look based on my résumé.
Around this time, I heard about an erotic horror anthology Ellen Datlow was editing. She was calling it Blood & Roses, though I’m pretty sure the book was later published as Little Deaths. I had an idea for a piece about a guy closing in on thirty who was still obsessed by his first love, a girl who’d died while they were in high school. I had an opening scene in mind and not much else—my character had been a pitcher in high school, and as the story opened he’d be playing a game of his own invention called graveyard baseball in the local cemetery, throwing strikes at his dead love’s tombstone with beer bottles he’d emptied while remembering the past.
The idea was pretty creepy and just past bent. I knew it was the kind of material I was built to work with, and I was excited about getting it down on paper. I figured I’d spend a couple weeks writing the story and send it to Ellen.
I worked on the opening section, ending up with five or six pages before calling it a night. Reading over my work the next morning, I discovered that the pages I’d kicked out sure didn’t read like the beginning of a short story. What they read like was the first chapter of a novel. Given my track record, that made me very nervous.
I backed off, but I kept thinking about the story. I was very conscious of the problems I’d had with novels. I was afraid that I’d get out in the deep water and drown if I tried to turn this idea into a novel. But I thought I had something different this time out. My pitcher wasn’t the kind of guy you’d find in a Betty & Bob book. Storywise, what I’d written was closer to the dark suspense stuff I’d been doing.
Those were the stories that had done me some good. If I was known at all, it was for my dark suspense work. So I decided to dance with the girl who brung me, as the old prizefighters used to say. I wasn’t going to change my style to fit the marketplace. I’d see what I could do with the kind of idea that played to my strengths, and I’d worry about the marketplace later.
That only left one problem.
I had no idea how to turn my first chapter into a novel.
So I did what seemed like a logical thing at the time.
I looked for a way to trick myself into writing one.
* * *
First off, I decided to contain my plot. Though the story would hinge on the past, I’d keep the current events of the story in a tight time frame. The entire novel would take place in a 24-hour period. Working within such tight parameters, I figured I’d keep my plot on track because the clock would always be ticking in the back of my head.
Second, I’d tell the story using shifting third-person viewpoint. Each character would have his or her own story, and each story would intertwine. While this might seem to make things more complicated, it actually gave me a sense of security. I told myself that I was really writing four or five different stories, and each of those stories would amount to fifty or sixty pages. That relieved some of the pressure I was feeling. A fifty or sixty page story seemed do-able.
Third, I’d set the story in my hometown. The high school my cast had attended would be my high school. The viewpoint characters would be my age. While none of them was exactly like me, they would all share my frame of reference. I’d write about the class of ’76, and how they’d spent the intervening years winding their way from the days of disco to the early nineties. In other words, I’d be on completely familiar turf.
Lastly, I told myself that I wouldn’t cross the line that had put Kiss of Death in that cardboard box. There’d be no zombies. No monsters. I was going hard-boiled with this one. I was going noir. I might nod my head toward the supernatural, but I wasn’t going there.
It was only halfway through the writing that I realized my decision on that score didn’t matter. Supernatural or not, the book I was writing was really a ghost story.
By the time I figured that out, it was okay with me.
Because this story I believed.
* * *
I called my novel Slippin’ into Darkness. It took me awhile to finish it. My short work had gained notice during the writing, and I began to receive invitations to contribute to anthologies. I didn’t pass up many of them, as I figured every professional credit I could notch would be another reason for an agent to look at Slippin’ when I finished it.
When that day rolled around, I figured I was ready. I’d made enough contacts in the business that I didn’t have to hit agents cold. I could get an introduction from another client, or from a reviewer or an editor who was a mutual friend.
So I came up with a list of agents I wanted to work with. I hit them with query letters or called them. Several were interested in looking at Slippin’, and the manuscript started making the rounds. The only problem was that it kept coming back to me. It took me awhile to figure out exactly why that was happening. Most of the replies I received from agents praised my writing. Several were almost apologetic about not taking me on as a client.
The problem they had was with my novel itself. First off, it was dark. Pretty much everyone told me that it was “too dark to sell to New York.” A few agents had a problem with the characters, too—they didn’t know who they were supposed to “like” in the book. Which always made me want to ask: “Gee, who do you like in a Jim Thompson novel?” But that’s another story…
Most of all, agents didn’t know what kind of a book it was—it wasn’t any kind of horror, or mystery, or suspense they recognized. Elements of all those genres were contained in the book, but it didn’t fall solidly in any of those camps.
Reading those letters from agents, I knew that they were right. I’d look over at the books on my shelf by established writers who’d built careers, and I’d realize that I hadn’t followed their advice. I hadn’t written to market. I hadn’t written a Betty & Bob book.
I’d written a Norm Partridge book. As it turned out, that was something different. And something different didn’t fit into a slot too easily… or a paperback rack designed to hold the latest book out of the great NYC fiction mill.
* * *
I took a break and tried to regroup. I did a rewrite on Slippin’ from beginning to end. I didn’t do this in an attempt to make it more palatable to the marketplace. The story remained dark. But the earlier version did have some plot problems, not to mention a few too many tangents that were overly complicated. I eliminated those detours, tightened up the novel, and then mercilessly carved what was left down to the bone. The version I ended up with after the rewrite was a meaner little machine than the original.
I was happy with the revised version. It did what I set out to do, and I knew that it was as good a book as I could write at the time. Still, I wasn’t really convinced that the new version of Slippin’ into Darkness would be received by agents—or publishers—any differently than the first version.
So it sat there in the manuscript box on my desk, and I got back to writing short stories.
One day Rich Chizmar called me. By this time Cemetery Dance was gaining a lot of attention as a magazine, and Rich had decided to branch out into publishing books. He’d done an Ed Gorman collection and a limited edition of an early Joe Lansdale novel (Act of Love), and he was looking to publish an original novel.
Rich and I had worked together since the beginning. Cemetery Dance had become known for dark suspense stories, and so had I. Thinking it over, I knew that Slippin’ into Darkness was right up Rich’s alley. If it fit any template at all, it fit his. In a way, it was the perfect novel for his new book line.
I sent a copy of the manuscript to Rich, and we discussed the possibilities of publishing it under the CD imprint. I knew that he was looking at manuscripts from other “new” writers, too—guys who were coming up through the small press ranks the same way I was—but Rich didn’t make it a secret that he was very interested in mine. Soon he was ready to make an offer on the book.
Now, I might have just picked up my pen and signed on the dotted line. I didn’t do that. With an offer from a publisher in hand, I took one last crack at getting an agent. This time, I connected. My first agent mostly worked with science fiction and fantasy writers, but she knew a lot of the players in the horror market, too.
Before we signed on the line with Rich, my agent spent about a month shopping Slippin’ into Darkness around New York. Guess what. Nobody bit. People were still telling me that my novel was too dark to publish in a mainstream market. I began to think that the only way I could sell Slippin’ into Darkness to a New York publisher would be to offer a free bottle of Prozac with every copy.
So I went with Rich, who did a limited run of 500 copies in hardcover. The cover price of the book was $35.00. I sat back and held my breath, hoping someone besides my mother would actually buy a copy.
Slippin’ was published in February of 1994. It received good reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Locus (among others). Rich received a lot of orders for the book based on those reviews.
Three weeks after publication, Slippin’ into Darkness was sold out from the publisher.
* * *
Rich had taken a chance on me. If he had been able to snag an original novel by a more established writer—say Ray Garton or F. Paul Wilson—I would have never had a chance. But Rich might have had trouble meeting their terms at that time, and they might have been hesitant to entrust an original novel to a new press. So Rich lowered his sights a little, looked at the next generation of writers coming up, and chose me.
Of course, I was taking a chance too. If I could have gotten a New York deal, I probably wouldn’t have signed with Rich. After all, I would have gotten a lot more copies of Slippin’ out there if it had been published by New York. And I had no guarantees that my novel would sell as well as it did. Rich’s press was still brand new—he certainly didn’t have the kind of built-in audience and selling power that is attached to the CD imprint today.
So there was no sure way to know whether we could sell my novel at all… but we had a hunch. As publisher of Cemetery Dance, Rich had built a core audience of magazine readers who enjoyed dark suspense. Those readers had followed my work since I published my first story in CD #2, and many of them were ready to pony up their thirty-five bucks to see what I could do at novel length.
One other thing: Rich and I were driving outside the lines. We were on a different road than those guys in New York. But the funny thing was that we pretty much had that road to ourselves. There weren’t a lot of small presses (horror or otherwise) publishing original novels by new writers in the mid-nineties. And there weren’t dozens upon dozens of new writers competing for those small press market dollars on the internet.
Nope, that road was open in those days.
For us, the timing was exactly right.
For us, the timing was perfect.
* * *
So the good news was that I’d published my first novel, and it had done well. But the bad news was that Slippin’ into Darkness had come and gone in three weeks; now no one could find it.
My agent and I were planning to take another crack at getting a mass-market deal for Slippin’ in New York, but we decided to wait a little while. Our plan was to submit the manuscript with a few promo blurbs from established writers, along with the best of the reviews the book had garnered. Putting together a package like that made me feel more confident. If anyone else in New York shot me the thumbs down, at least they’d know that they were taking a pass on a book a lot of people thought was pretty damn good.
I kept busy in the meantime. I was editing an anthology with Marty Greenberg called It Came from the Drive-In, which you may remember me mentioning in an earlier essay. For those who don’t, Drive-In was an anthology of stories that played off B-movie themes; I was looking for stories that might have been drive-in movies back in the fifties and sixties.
Many writers were naturals for the project. I sent out invitations to those I could track down. This was all pre e-mail, of course. Over the next few weeks most of the writers I’d contacted RSVP’d by snail mail, letting me know whether or not they’d have time to do a piece for the book.
A few called me. I remember one in particular. I was sitting in my office, working on a short story, when the phone rang.
“Is this Norm?” It was a woman’s voice, bright and cheery.
Yeah. This is Norm.”
“Hi. This is Stephen King’s secretary. Will you hold for Steve?”
“Sure,” I said, because what else are you going to say when you’re hit upside the head by a question like that? I spent the next couple of seconds trying to decide which of my friends was playing a practical joke on me. Then I heard a little click, and a voice came on the line. It was… well, it was obviously Stephen King.
Steve told me that he didn’t think he’d have time to write a story for It Came from the Drive-In, even though he thought that it was a fun idea for a book. We got to talking about some of those old movies that had inspired the concept, and then about Cemetery Dance. I was surprised that King knew anything about Rich’s magazine, but his comments made it obvious that he’d read CD… and some of my work.
“I’ve got Slippin’ into Darkness on tape,” he said. “Next time I go on a trip, I’m going to listen to it.”
“What?” I said, suprised. See, I hadn’t sold Slippin’ into Darkness as an audio-book. I couldn’t understand how King had gotten a copy.
He laughed when I asked him about that. “My son and I had a bet on the basketball finals,” he said. “The deal was that if he lost he had to read your book onto tape for me.”
Now I was laughing, too. A couple minutes later I was off the phone, back working on my short story, feeling just a little dazed. A couple weeks passed as I finished that up and got busier with the Drive-In project. Every once in awhile I’d stop and think about Stephen King sitting in some hotel room listening to Slippin’ into Darkness on a Walkman. The whole idea was kind of surreal.
My agent called to talk about putting together our promo package for Slippin’. Thinking about it, I figured I was crazy if I didn’t ask King for a quote. I also figured that he was probably up to his elbows in such requests, so I might be just as crazy if I did ask. Finally, I mailed King a note. There were probably a lot of if’s in it. As in: if you had a chance to listen to Slippin’, and if you enjoyed it, I’d love to have your endorsement for the book.
Less than a week later, I walked out to my mailbox and found a letter with a Maine postmark. It included the following quote:
Slippin’ into Darkness is easily the most auspicious genre debut of the year. Part horror, part mystery, part blood-tipped satire, it signals the arrival of a major new talent. The generation that remembers The Six Million Dollar Man, The Brady Bunch, and songs like “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” will never be the same after they sample Slippin’ into Darkness. This is, quite simply, a five-star book.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was a sweet moment. When my agent submitted Slippin’ to another New York publisher, that quote from Stephen King was at the top of our list of promotional blurbs.
Now, I’m not saying that quote from King is what finally got me a paperback sale on my novel.
But I’m sure it didn’t hurt.
Copyright © 2005 Norman Partridge.
Copyright © 2007 Norman Partridge