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How I Wrote a Novel, And How You Can Too

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Five years ago I was performing comedy on a cruise ship. I was eating alone, bored and and wanting to go home. As happens during many similar moments of ennui, I decided to relieve the tedium by writing something, anything -- a joke, a story, who cares? Not having a clue what to write about, I looked around the restaurant. I saw a thirty-something woman who resembled a young Kathy Bates, attractive, chubby, eating alone, and I wondered who she was and how she got there. She looked like she wasn't having the greatest time or particularly enjoying her food. So, I decided to write about her. I opened up my laptop and wrote:

"On a beautiful moonlit night onboard the elegant cruise sip Seafarer off the coast of St. Croix, as she sat alone in the Island Waves Grill staring at her half-eaten salmon filet, Lucy Dixon thought, I may vomit."

The name "Lucy Dixon" just popped into my head from nowhere; for all I knew she was named Natalia Liebowitz. I continued writing -- about how this woman felt about her food, what she was wearing, how she possibly ended up on the cruise, and so on. After I had several paragraphs, I decided to amuse myself and concocted an entire fictional history for her, a person I never met and still haven't. I just kept writing and writing, having no idea where this would end up or what it would amount to.

Before I knew it, having never even previously written a short story, I had concocted a tale of why this woman was traveling alone: she was a very talented musical comedy actress with periods of success and years of failure, currently in career Siberia while caring for her mother for three years after a stroke, and she decided to take a cruise by herself. The cruise turned out to be a disaster, and I ended "Chapter One" with a catastrophic event at sea that put her in extreme jeopardy, one that would make me want to return to the story so I could learn what happened. I told you I was just amusing myself.

Then, in "Chapter Two" or whatever it would end up being, I decided to go back into her life to begin to construct how she got there. I went back into her high school years and, using my own amateur theater past as a template, wrote about her life as a star of high school musicals as one of those loud, brassy girls always cast in parts usually played by middle-aged women, like Mama Rose in Gypsy or Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. High school drama departments are full of girls like these, so writing this part was a cinch since I had lived it.

After I finished that part, I decided to return to the cruise ship since I had left her there in a state of emergency. I wrote about that and how she survived the life and death predicament I had put her in. Then, in Chapter Four, I went back into her past yet again. This present/past/present/past structure continued as I wrote, slowly inventing for myself the story of this anonymous woman I had seen in the restaurant. I only wrote when I felt like it, and would periodically enjoy returning to the life story of this woman I had basically made up out of thin air. Along the way, I began to really enjoy the process of writing in long form for the first time in my life, and enjoyed creating situations for "Lucy," making them amusing, and creating other characters who just appeared as I wrote. I didn't plan on including characters like a Moroccan doctor or an alcoholic Texan; they just showed up. Really. Lucy looked around, and there they were.

I also enjoyed writing ridiculous metaphors and playing with literary devices I had observed in other novels, concocting the most ridiculous ways I could describe things, like the city of Venice smelling "like the water from the floor of a flooded porn theater." Since I'm a comic, I wanted to make myself laugh.

I kept writing, since after I had 100 pages I figured I might as well keep telling her story until it either ended itself or I lost interest. Since they always tell you to write what you know, I used many elements from my past, such as my days as a struggling actor waiting tables and doing singing chicken telegrams. The story that started off as a description of a lonely woman in a cruise ship restaurant turned into a saga of the life of a struggling performer and all the things a young actor endures on the road to fame. It also became about the serendipitous events in one's life, how we continually find ourselves in situations that we had no idea would happen, and how much of our life experience is a series of flukes and coincidences.

Three and a half years later, to my astonishment, I had the first draft of a novel, with no idea whatsoever whether or not anyone would be interesting in reading it at all or whether it was nearly 400 pages of paragraphed garbage. I decided to solicit people to read it and tell me if I had anything worthwhile at all. Several people read the manuscript, reported back that they really enjoyed it, and that they kept wanting to know what happened next. I knew I had something. Based on their suggestions I went back and wrote two revisions, which was really fun because I knew I was making it tighter, funnier and more coherent. Things happened in those revisions that I had no idea would happen.

Eventually I found a literary agent who turned me onto a great editor/book doctor, Martine Bellen, who took the project on. She helped me restructure the story and cut about 80 pages, deepen the characters and clarify the situations. She was invaluable, and there's no way the book would be as good as it is, and it's good, without her. If you have a manuscript, I would highly recommend you shell out the dough and hire your own editor. You will have to spend money. It will be worth it, if you're indeed serious about putting out a quality product. The book business is so tight and competitive they are not interested in seeing anything that isn't a finished product ready to go. With bookstores closing left and right, they don't have the resources they used to.

Now the book exists, people are reading it and loving it, and to my astonishment I'm a published author. I've had my own comedy specials and been on Broadway and in films, but I'm more proud of the book, You'll Be Swell, than anything I've ever done. It's a great beach read, it's hilarious, it contains no politics whatsoever, and it will make you smile. If you have ever had any interest in musical theater or dreamed of showbiz success, you have to read it.

If you want to write a novel, here's what you do: write. Just write, with no worry or care about how it will come out. Write, write and write. Keep at it. Pay attention to every sentence and why it is there. Read other books to find styles you want to emulate, then adapt those styles to suit your own voice. Once you figure out how you want it to end, write to that conclusion. If you think you have something, give the results to people you trust who are going to tell you the truth, and take their advice and make changes. You don't need people to tell you how fabulous it is, you want real constructive criticism. Then get someone to help you whip it into shape, and start sending it around to try to get someone to represent it. I won't even go into how much fun that isn't. And you can always publish it yourself. There are tons of places to help you.

Just write. You may have nothing, but you may have a great book on your hands. My novel isn't Gone With The Wind, but it's funnier.

Jim David's first novel, You'll Be Swell, is Available on Amazon and Amazon Kindle, Itunes, Sony EReader, Nook and Barnes and Noble.com.