A Different Path

Photo courtesy of Alex Holyoake from Unsplash.com

I had an interesting experience a few nights ago. I consider it to be a writer’s dream. Literally. I dreamt an entire novel in one night. Better yet, I woke up and remembered every bit of it, from beginning to (happy though bittersweet) ending. I reached for the notepad and pen that I keep at the bedside for such occasions and scribbled the notation “when Ed dropped in” so that I would remember to work on it the next morning. The dream was so vivid and compelling, however, that I got up, grabbed my Chromebook,  and typed a synopsis, outline, and what passed for my early purposes as a first, last and middle chapter. I’ve been working on it since. Every once in a while, however, a little voice in my head will pipe up (I call it my “pipsqueak”) and say, “No. You don’t know how to do this.” It’s right. I don’t know how to do “this.” I refuse, however, to let “this” stop me.

The “this” with respect to my work in progress is that it is probably a romance novel. That’s a section of the bookstore that I don’t normally walk through. I read The Bridges of Madison County when it was first published, but that was a long time ago.  For right now, however, I am going to worry about writing the story I am going to tell the best way I possibly can, and not worry about the genre thing. That’s an issue for down the road.

The title of the work, at least as of this moment, is The Lake Effect. It has elements of science fiction (with the sharp edges filed off) that form the bedrock of the plot. Almost all of the book takes place in a tiny village in northern Ohio, with a dip into a small town in southern Louisiana and, for about half of a crucial moment, in rural France. There’s a tough and tender female protagonist who functions as the fulcrum of the novel, and while there is a love triangle of sorts she isn’t Princess Leia and the story will never be mistaken for  Part Ten of Star Wars. There are some quietly suspenseful moments, and there is also a “ticking clock” of sorts, but you won’t find any explosions, karate, or gunfire. Yes, this work in progress is quite different for me. It is uncharted territory, but that’s okay. I’m walking forward with eyes open and hands steady, and fingers typing away.

So why go outside my comfort zone? One reason is that I don’t leave a gift on the table. The gift, in this case, is an entire novel dreamed out and remembered. It may not be the type of story I usually try to tell, but it’s the one I have, and the one that I will give to you one way or the other. The genre is irrelevant. Authors, as we know, actually do jump genres without breaking kneecaps.  Blake Crouch started by writing serial killer novels, jumped to a contemporary western, and then wrote science fiction novels. He had two — TWO! — television series adapting his works in the same year (!) and another one is coming. TKZ’s own indescribably wonderful Laura Benedict recently blurred her own fiction lines, moving seamlessly from the supernatural suspense genre to the domestic thriller shelves, and with superlative results (read The Stranger Inside if you haven’t as yet). Going back a bit, an author named John Jakes wrote a ton of science fiction and western novels which anyone who read them loved. Very few read them. He then turned to writing historical fiction and not only had lines of folks waiting to buy and read the new ones but also had them adapted to television. Think Paul Sheldon in Misery by Stephen King without the alcohol and the crazy fan. Richard Matheson, a much-beloved horror author who King has credited as his major influence, wrote Somewhere in Time, a romantic novel with science fiction overtones which is treasured to this day. There are many other examples. I’m not going to compare myself to all of those wonderful, successful authors (and the others I haven’t named) who have done this. I will, however, use them as models.

Oh, another thing. I am miserable at outlining. A lot of writers are. I have a friend and client, an author who writes novels in huge chunks but never outlines. He emailed me the other morning to tell me that he had written 22,000 words in the last four days and still had no idea where his latest novel was going. I understand. But. I have an entire outline. It has a beginning and an ending and a wonderful middle — usually the hardest part — so I am writing most of the middle first, going, like John Coltrane, in both directions at once while listening to the Top 40 songs of 1944 for inspiration. I’ve changed a few things in the original outline along the way, not because the original idea did not work, but because I thought of something else that worked better. There is a mentality at work — and it’s not just with me — that says if one has an outline you have to rigidly stick to it. No. It’s your outline. You can change it if you want when you want and for whatever reason you want. Think of it as a house that you love but are going to remodel. To go back to Misery, the ending of that book is far, far different from what King originally envisioned. While his original ending appeals to me in a sort of sick, twisted way, I think he ultimately wrote a better book. All he did was change his outline just a bit.

My advice du jour, after saying all of that, is 1) don’t give up the story you have for the story you want. They might both be the same thing; 2) outline. You can change it. It’s yours. You will, however,  have a clear idea initially of where you are starting, where you are going, and how you are going to get there. Just leave yourself free to make rest stops, take detours, and see the sights along the way; 3) if you get an idea in the middle of the night, get upright and commit as much as you can to paper, screen, or whatever. You can change it later, run with it, or put it aside, but once you forget it, it’s gone; and 4) don’t listen to your pipsqueak under any circumstance.

Now please enjoy your weekend, and thank you for dropping by.



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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

26 thoughts on “A Different Path

  1. Mr. H~

    Awesome post~ and a few, “Well, duh, I shuolda knowed THAT already” lines:
    • “…worry about writing the story I am going to tell the best way I possibly can, and not worry about the genre thing…” DUH~
    This’ll help quiet my own OCD pipsqueak from fretting over the differing “what if…” bullets on my “JSB what if…” list.

    • “It may not be the type of story I usually try to tell, but it’s the one I have…”
    DUH~ quit trying to find the next one and work on what’s at hand…

    • And this speaks VOLUMES to my OCD-ness: “There is a mentality at work — and it’s not just with me — that says if one has an outline you have to rigidly stick to it. No. It’s your outline. You can change it if you want when you want and for whatever reason you want…” – that mentality that says I have to know everything first and can’t change anything along the way, like the outline is a finished product, too.

    One question, thogh: What did you eat before bed? 😋

    Have an enjoyable Saturday, Sir…

    • Thanks so much, George. I have a lot of “duh” moments, both inside of and outside of the writing world. The only one that has really stuck is that “nothing good happens outside of the confines of one’s own home after midnight.”

      As far as what I ate before bed…probably a banana and an apple. Hope that works for you!

  2. Maybe since it’s not your normal genre it’ll come across as fresh and exciting to romance readers.

    I totally write down my dream ideas before they fade away. I woke up recently with a many-many-legged, intelligent, spider creature that moves around by pulling its legs in and tumbling like a tumbleweed. Yeah, it was a nightmare I’d rather forget. I’m keeping the creature, though.

    I super-duper enjoyed The Stranger Inside.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Priscilla! And I’ll have difficulty getting the image of that spider creature out of my head. Suggestion: spray your home, inside and out, with a product named “Miss Muffet’s Revenge” from the good folks at Wet and Forget. I haven’t seen so much as a cobweb.

    • If you don’t read the genre, what you can easily end up with is a bunch of out-dated cliches that will make readers of the genre roll their eyes, or you can inadvertently commit a genre taboo so horrific that readers will lynch you online. (It’s happened, and it’s ugly.)

      • Thanks, Marilynn. I’m considering those points as I work through this. I don’t think there are going to be any outdated cliches happening, and as for taboos, I am relying on a couple of beta readers (one in their twenties, the other in their nineties!) to point those out. Then, of course there will hopefully be a New York editor who will overcome their innate reticence to critique the work adversely and tell me where I’ve gone off track. Fingers crossed!

  3. How exciting, Joe. Happy writing. You’re giving me the impetus to open the WIP again after a hiatus, part “other writing chores” and part “vacation of a lifetime.” It’s been sitting around, barely past the introduction because I didn’t know where it was going. I’ll let it lead me around for a while and see where we end up.

  4. What a great gift to you, Joe. I got the idea for the beginning of a chapter once, didn’t have paper with me, so wrote on the inside back cover of a book I was reading. All the best with your WIP. —- Suzanne

    • Thank you, Suzanne, for your encouragement and your memo idea. If you don’t have paper or a book…why, that’s why we have two hands. One is to write on!

  5. Great post, Joe.

    That’s exciting – the whole book in one dream. I’m excited when I get one solution to a plot problem in one dream. I’ll have to try the banana and apple bedtime cocktail.

    Seriously, that dream was definitely meant to be written by you. And I’m looking forward to reading the book.

    I liked your comments on outlining. I guess my “fuzzy” outlines aren’t so terrible after all.

    Let us know when your book is published.

    • Thank you, Steve, and good morning. The banana is supposed to help with restful sleep (it seems to do the job) and the apple, for whatever reason, seems to eliminate acid reflux. I don’t know what I did differently to have the whole kit and kaboodle laid out…I have my own theory, which is that the plot, as unlikely as it will seem, actually happened and is floating in the ether out there. We’ll see.

      Re: “fuzzy” outlines…I think that’s terrific. It’s easier to change it that way.

      If/when The Lake Effect is published I’ll put a billboard up on Route 33! Have a great weekend.

  6. A friend of mine in the early days of ebooks dreamed every detail of her books, and they did very, very well. The subconscious is a very real part of the creative process.

    Many of my books started with a dream premise. A woman on an exploding boat, flames behind her as she jumps off. I woke to wonder what happens next, and I built the rest of the novel from that point. (My icon is from the cover of that book. The flames are from yet another explosion.) I could go on for a long time, but I have company coming.

    Joe, figuring out genre lines and how to write them is one of my things as a former academic and multi-genre writing teacher so I’d be happy to field any questions you have on the subject when it comes time to figure out what your dream baby is.

    • Thanks, Marilynn! I’ll keep your generous offer in mind. Right now I’m calling it a romance with light science fiction overtones, but…who knows?

  7. Congratulations on your dream, Joe, but mostly for remembering all of it when you woke. I have nightly dreams in vivid detail. No matter how many affirmations I recite about remembering everything I dream, it doesn’t happen. They fade faster than I can assassinate the alarm clock each morning.

    Your story sounds intriguing and I’m looking forward to reading it, no matter the genre.

    • Thank you, Suzanne. I think that the reason that I was able to recall the dream in such detail is that 1) it occurred within two hours of my falling asleep and 2) I immediately got vertical and committed recorded it. I might have had a different result if it had happened closer to my normal “get up” time. Good luck!

  8. I, too, once dreamed a novel. (Were I British, I would have dreamt the novel.) It was within the first 12 hours after surgery, and I was still on pain-killing drugs. I simply was not yet in any shape to do anything about writing or notes.

    Then, Alas and Alexa, it was and is gone.

    I remember nothing.

    A novelist’s nightmare. It came true.

    • Jim Porter,

      The few times I remembered my “inspirational” dreams, I diligently started writing them down, only to abandon the effort because nothing made any sense. Dreams may have worked for Coleridge, but not for me.

  9. Joe, no matter what genre, with your insight and wit, your novel will be wonderful. If you need any beta volunteers, that’s my hand wildly waving from the back of the room.

    Granny Smith or McIntosh?

    • Thank you, Debbie. You are very kind, both in terms of your encouragement and the generosity of your offer. I will remember both.

      Gala. The only type I never seem to tire of.

  10. You are so blessed! Twice my subconscious has gifted me with complete scripts, hysterical comedy, and I can still remember them! Never bothered to write them down. however, WKRP in Cincinnati has been off the air for decades! Not sure my subconscious likes me.

  11. Joe I love this and I’m so glad you’re writing this story!
    I write crime, but last year I wrote a short fantasy story. It felt liberating to write something so different and I returned to crime feeling refreshed.
    I hope you let us know how you feel when you finish this story and whether it makes a difference in your other writing. Best of luck!

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