Literary Profiling: The First Novel

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was tapped to read an ARC of a forthcoming CBA novel, Waking Lazarus by T.L. Hines, with an eye toward providing a blurb for the cover (providing I liked the book). Well, I liked the book, I wrote the blurb, and I’ll review it here when the publication date gets a little bit closer.

What I’d like to discuss is something fascinating that happened when I first started looking at the ARC. My Writer’s Voice-O-Matic went off the scale, telling me that I knew the author of the book. And the author of that book was none other than my friend Tom, whose novel Critical Incident I had just read in manuscript form.

Now if I were into conspiracy theories, I could have made a good one for the case that Tom had written Hines’ book. Besides the remarkable sameness of technique in structuring the book, there was the troubling notion that Mr. Hines’ initials are T.L., and Tom’s last name starts with L – T.L. – get it? Tom’s book is regionally specific to the Northeast Corner of Wyoming, and Hines’ book is regionally specific to Southeast Montana, and there’s some overlap into a part of Wyoming that’s a relative stone’s throw from Tom’s stomping grounds.

Had Tom gone off and started a career as a novelist without telling me, perhaps wanting to spring it as a surprise on me? I don’t think so. I might not be the first person Tom would tell if he clenched a book deal, but I think I would be in the Top Five.

Then I realized something. Both of these books were first novels. True, Tom’s novel is his second, but he hasn’t been published yet. Therefore, when Critical Incident gets published, it will be his first novel – and he’s still in the process of getting a grip on his writer’s voice.

Hmmm. Two first novels with remarkable similarities in construction. Could I think of any others?

Yeah.

I looked at my own first novel – and that’s where things got tricky. A Death of Honor did not fit the profile I was seeing at all. But my novel Desperate Measures did. And what do you know – Desperate Measures was the first novel I ever wrote, but it was beaten into print by ADoH.

Any other first novels? Well, there were things about Waking Lazarus that I thought were influenced by Stephen King, and what do you know – Carrie fit the profile as well.

So what was it I was seeing? Here’s a look at some things they had in common, with the caveat that it’s been a long, long time since I’ve had my hands on a copy of Carrie:

Single Word Chapter Titles - Hines used single words like Waiting, Drowning, Burning, and Discovering. Tom used one to four words, many with the word “the” – The Fire, The Handoff, The Introductions – and if I recall, some of the titles worked as spoilers for what was in the chapter. I sat out the chapter titles, and I plead amnesia with King.

Lots of Really Short Chapters - The longest probably no more than 2,000 words. There’s something to be said for the form – short chapters make the plot race along. But I think it telegraphs the sense of a new novelist not yet comfortable with really stretching out within the confines of a chapter and letting the story lope along. King did it beginning with Salem’s Lot. Ditto for me with ADoH and every other book except for the ones that followed Desperate Measures in the trilogy, since they had a form they were bound to (and in Precious Cargo, I had one chapter that was one sentence long). Nowadays my chapters lope along at a length of 3 to 5,000 words. It seems to suit me well.

Following Lots of Characters Around Through the Plot - This is a well-established stylistic form, but all four firsts juggled viewpoints through their casts of characters. Hines probably had the smallest cast, but jumped characters to build suspense. Tom jumped around to show the different effects that firefighting had on its practitioners. King and I both fell into the suspense category, and we both had comparatively large casts. Nowadays, King still wanders from character to character. I tend to focus on following one person around (which has led me to kill off some perfectly suspenseful moments for the sake of maintaining narrative continuity), and in the Pembroke Hall books I “took the plunge” (as my old college English professor said) and went First Person.

Odd Narrative Devices - I’ll cite King here first because these all started with his use of italics, caps, exclamation points and other punctuation to stress supernatural urgency IN!!! A!!! VISUAL!!! MANNER!!! LIKE!!! THIS!!! or (sometimeslikethis). Hines uses it supernaturally in a more low key manner, which reflects the difference between his growing style and King’s (which has seen many moments of overkill). I was somewhere in between, using italics to convey the inner thoughts of a character who literally had another person running around inside his head. Tom sat this one out, almost to distraction, showing the thoughts of others in quotes like dialogue. But his editor will sort out those things according to the house style when the time comes.

A Choked Ending - In the race to the end during the final act of the book, there’s a tendency for a new author to falter. There’s a number of reasons for this. They could be still trying to convey information that was better off delivered as exposition in the first two acts, or because (speaking from personal experience here), the words were rushing out so fast and hard that something had to give. I’ll excuse King here because 1) as I said, it’s been many years since I looked at Carrie, and 2), his book had been through an editor by the time I saw it. I’ll cop to this in DM although you won’t see it in print – suffice it to say that the original version of the book was probably 50,000 words longer than the finished product. Hines’ book, which has been through an editor, seemed to have some narrative gaps in the race to the end, but that may have been because the hour was late and I was devouring pages. Tom is the worst offender here, but it’s a draft and hasn’t seen an editor yet, so he’s excused.

Now, granted, not every first novel falls into this pattern. The first exception I thought of was John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, but on the other hand, it’s arguably his best novel, and what he’s come up with since have been pale imitations. And there are many more debuts that don’t fit this criteria. However, let’s factor in that these were the authors’ first published novels – who knows how many drafts of same or other finished novels are sitting crated in their basements because they didn’t make the cut, because they were still honing their craft?

This is not a sure-fire guide to detection of a first novel. I just thought it was fascinating that so many freshman efforts all took so many of the same elements and put them into the same place at the same time. And for the most part, carried that manuscript across the publication goal line.

It could indicate that there’s some kind of hive mind mentality to what we do, or that many of us start in the same place. Or we all saw the same elements as a secure starting point for that first story that we wanted to tell.

It’s by no means a warning. After all, Stephen King got better. His next novel was the redoubtable Salem’s Lot. I got better – my second novel would be my first into print, and it bore not much resemblance at all to the first. With Critical Incident, Tom got better, and no doubt his next will be better still. And there’s no doubt in my mind that T.L. Hines will get better with his next novel, too.

So take heart. Even if you fit this pattern, the road is wide open ahead.

And Tom, if you are T.L. Hines, then we need to have a talk…

Listening:
The county sheriff had a hairlip
Louisiana’s pride and joy
He said politley as he cuffed me
“I never busted an English boy”

(via iPod Shuffle)

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