The first rule about writing a blog about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.
The second rule about writing a blog about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.
Therefore, this blog has nothing to do with Fight Club.
Let’s start at the beginning. Not the wee beginning, but a more recent beginning. A beginning that began just before I read Fight Club for the sixth time. (I thought this wasn’t about Fight Club?) Let’s start after I finished my novel, BEAT, and was preparing for whatever my next book would be. This was, I don’t know, a year and a half ago. The mistake I made is that I didn’t read Fight Club again, immediately, after writing BEAT.
When I wrote my very, very first blog for Murderati, which was also my very first blog ever, I called myself The Newcomer. As part of that blog I said I would check in from time to time to document the journey of my debut year. When I wrote that first blog I was three months away from pub date for my first novel, BOULEVARD.
Since that time I’ve gone through an incredible rite of passage – from being unpublished to being published. I blogged about the excitement of going to my first Bouchercon, then to Thrillerfest, then Left Coast Crime, then RT, then Bouchercon again…meeting hundreds of published authors, soon-to-be published authors, readers, book-sellers and the ilk. I had an amazing debut year.
I really didn’t have much trouble going from the first to the second book. I had a two-book deal with Forge and I had deadlines to meet. And, although writing that second book was a bitch, it was also quite doable, as it was a sequel. I didn’t have to create a new world or write a new protagonist from scratch.
But things change. And I don’t think I’d be doing my job as a Murderati if I didn’t tell the story. Because everyone’s story is different, and everyone’s story should be told. Not necessarily as a map, but as a guide. I’m not writing this for the folks who have written three books or more. I’m writing it for the folks who haven’t been published yet, or who have published a book or two, like me. I don’t know if it’s a cautionary tale, but it is a tale of caution. The caution being that one must not think that getting published opens all doors immediately. There’s a saying in the film business: “You’re an overnight success, twenty years in the making.” After having two books published I find that I am still “in the making,” and perhaps will be for quite some time. That’s okay, it’s part of the process. I’m good with it.
So, BEAT was in production at Forge and it was time for me to think of book number three. I was getting the impression from my agent that Forge might not want another Hayden Glass book, so he suggested I write a proposal for a standalone. I was eager and excited to try something new. But I’d never had to write a proposal before. I sold BOULEVARD as a completed novel and, in the publishing deal, my commitment for the second book was simply written as, “Hayden goes to San Francisco.” My editor didn’t see any portion of BEAT until I turned it in. And he was good with that. How lucky I was!
But now I had to write a proposal. I came up with a cool idea and jumped into the research, which took me a couple solid months. I did a ride-along on a fire-boat in the L.A. Harbor and a four-hour, top-to-bottom tour of a container ship, escorted by the captain himself. I did interviews and read books and got enough to know what the story would be. I wrote the proposal, sent it to my agent, and he promptly killed it. He didn’t feel it would sell. So, I tried again. Had an idea, spent less time on research, wrote the proposal and, again, he shot it down. Then he suggested that maybe my editor would in fact be interested in another Hayden Glass novel. We talked over some ideas—he suggested I make the story bigger, broader, international.
About this time my editor suggested that I write a short story tie-in that could introduce readers to the world of Hayden Glass and help sell both books. So, I took about two months to write CROSSING THE LINE, which was a prequel short story to BOULEVARD. It introduces a younger Hayden Glass, just one year into his job at the LAPD, getting an opportunity to work the Vice Squad. He ends up arresting a prostitute and, while bringing her in, crosses the line. It’s marks the moment his sex addiction first appears. This is a story we gave away as a free ebook on Kindle. It was a nice little detour, but a detour just the same.
Now, months had passed and I still wasn’t writing another book. It took a while to perfect the proposal for the Hayden novel and when I gave it to my agent he loved it. But we thought I should have a back-up, standalone proposal, so I wrote the same Hayden proposal as a standalone with different characters and a few different twists and turns.
My editor loved the Hayden proposal and pushed for it, but Forge didn’t bite. I asked my agent if we should submit the standalone proposal and he told me just to write the book without a contract and we’ll sell it (“for a million dollars!”) when it’s done.
By this point about six months had passed. And suddenly I was writing without a contract.
Most people say the second book is hardest to write. For me it’s the third. And maybe that’s because it’s a standalone. And it’s a tough one. It takes place mostly overseas and involves FBI characters with very specific character traits and job specializations. It has required a ton of reading as well as “boots on the ground” research. For many months I floundered, trying to find a path to the characters, trying to justify story points. Struggle, struggle, struggle.
I wrote the first fifty pages two or three times and completely threw them out. My wife, a wonderful story editor, was relentless in her attempts to keep me on track, to follow that “one-book-a-year” schedule. But she wasn’t seeing the magic on the page.
As 2010 came to a close I got the opportunity to meet for a screenwriting assignment on a 3D, zombie action film. I read the draft of the project they had and I knew what needed to be done to get it working. I met with the producers and director a number of times and then the gig was mine. I realized I couldn’t hold down a full-time day job, write a novel a year and write the screenplay, so my wife and I decided I would quit the day job.
I began writing full-time in January. I knew I’d be juggling the screenplay and the novel, but I still felt I’d get the novel done by June. I tried juggling, but the screenplay took precedence. And I just wasn’t feeling the new story for the novel. Which was frustrating as hell, since I’d spent a good deal of time beating out a detailed treatment for the book, and there’s a ton of cool action and some deep, intriguing psychological twists. It’s a book I want to write, a story I’d like to read. But I just wasn’t feeling it, and my writing reflected that. I didn’t have my mojo on.
So now it’s June. This is when I was supposed to be delivering the book to my agent, according to my “quit the day job” schedule.
I’ve been writing the first ten pages over and over for the past two months.
It wasn’t passing the wife-test.
And then she asked the magic question – “Why don’t you read Fight Club again?”
Yes, why don’t I. It seems I need it.
Didn’t I say this would come back to Fight Club?
I started re-reading Fight Club and I was about a third of the way in when I saw through the mist. I saw the rhythm. The wit. The bite. The grit.
My wife had an interesting idea. “Would you be able to capture your character if the book were written in first person?” Fight Club is written in first person.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I might.” I was having a real hard time getting inside the head of this character, because he’s new, he’s FBI, he has a very obscure field of specialization. First person would force me to make some decisions.
I took those first ten pages and rewrote them in first person. Hmmm. This seems to be working. I was forced to take chances, to make some shit up. But something was still missing.
“I think I’ll write it in present tense,” I said. Fight Club is written in present tense. I’ve written eleven feature screenplays, and screenplays are written in present tense. I “get” present tense. In fact, it was hell getting my head into past tense for my first two novels. Once I figured it out I didn’t want to touch present tense again for fear I’d lose my sense of the past.
I went back and rewrote those first ten pages as present tense, first person, and…there it was. My voice. I found it again.
That was about a week ago and I’m up to page 35, which I’ve already polished. The wife read it last night and said it felt like a novel. Finally, it’s there.
I figure if I can write fifty pages a week I’ll have a strong first draft in three months. That’s seven pages a day, seven days a week. Ugh. Yes, I know, there are those of you out there who can cut that time in half. However, I still have another draft of the zombie movie to deliver. And then I’ve got another one or two screenwriting opportunities on the horizon and I hope to get at least one of them going in the next month or so. So, it is what it is.
The point is, I found my voice again. And I’m indebted to Fight Club for helping track it down. As I said, this was my sixth time reading Fight Club. I read it once a long time ago, then twice while I was writing BOULEVARD, then twice while I was writing BEAT. Whenever I’m lost and banging into walls I read Fight Club.
This is not to say that I’ve stolen Chuck Palahniuk’s voice. That is really not possible. I would never try to become, nor would I succeed at being, a Chuck Palahniuk imitator. But reading Fight Club helps me find my voice, which sometimes gets buried in the muck of everything that mucks us up in life. I get a similar boost from reading Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac.
I think it’s really interesting that I have a touchstone. Something that shakes me to the core, “reboots” my creative self so that I can continue working at my peak performance.
Fight Club is the plumber’s snake that unclogs my drain.
Does anyone else have a “touchstone?” Is there a book or an object you can count on to keep you centered, to keep you writing at your creative peak? Shout it out, baby.