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The second in a series on writing a debut novel. Join the journey to publication with Blogcritics.

A Debut Novelist’s Journey Part Two: Varney the Vampire

This is Part Two of an ongoing series detailing the journey to a completed publishable debut novel (specifically, mine: The Apothecary’s Curse, to published in October by Pyr). As promised, I’m fast-forwarding from my childhood ambition of being a novelist  to the very beginnings of The ApotheGalleyCat Varney the Vampirecary’s Curse. 

Like many would-be novelists, I never had a problem starting a new work. I have half a dozen or so “works in progress” on my hard drive as we speak in various states of completion. Back in 2012, I actually (more or less) finished the first draft for novel I called “Lake Effect.” I was pretty pleased with it; so pleased that I entered it in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel of the Year (ABNA) competition. I made it to the third round, but knew in my heart that novel was only a draft and had very little chance of making it. (Which, of course, it didn’t.)

So, the novel went back into the nether regions of my hard drive and editing it landed with a priority of “2” on my “to do” list. One bright morning in late September 2012, I got an email from GalleyCat  (MediaBistro’s book publishing industry publication). It was a call to participate in reconstructing a purple-prose-laden Victorian horrible ho
rror novel called Varney the Vampire. Each participant would be assigned one page to rewrite in the style of choice. The result would be a Galley Cat/Smashwords mashup anthology of poor old Varney’s adventures.

Okay, that sounded fun, so needing a distraction, I opted in. Soon thereafter, I was assigned a page, and promptly forgot about the entire enterprise. The day before the entries were due, I got a reminder email from GalleyCat. Being a generally responsible sort (and not wanting my page missing from the mashup, thereby creating a vacuous, albeit one page, hole in the anthology), I commenced writing (or rather rewriting) my page, and emailed it hours before the deadline for inclusion. Since I was writing all things House, M.D.I decided to create a rather House-ian take on the whole vampire thing.

Several weeks later I received an email that said “Congratulations! You’ve won!” You know those emails; they’re the ones you usually flag as spam. I didn’t remember entering a contest of any sort. Except. Upon closer examination, I noticed that the email was from GalleyCat, and I made the connection. I’d actually had no idea that the mashup was a contest of any kind–just a fun exercise. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I’d won second prize: my choice of any MediaBistro course in the catalog.

Cool. I love MediaBistros classes. I’d taken editing and copywriting classes through MB, and they althought they’re great, they are generally quite expensive. So I looked through the catalog and voila. I saw it right there in front of my novelist-wannabe’s eyes: “Twelve Weeks to Your First Novel” Woo-hoo! I’d ogled that course listing many times, trying (and failing) to justify the $750 price tag. Perfect! Now where did I put that “Lake Effect” manuscript?

The course was video chat with the instructor Erika Mailman and my fellow hopeful novelists to be, and weekly assignments. Fast forward to the first class. Ready to really dig into “Lake Effect,” I explained the novel and its status. And then came the bombshell. “Nope. We want you to start from scratch. New novel. From concept to outline to first draft. No discussion. Full stop.” (Okay, so she didn’t put it quite that harshly, but still!)  Damn! There was a method to her madness. The point was that she wanted to train us to write from an outline (whether or not you stuck to the outline). She wanted us to think about structure, plot, through-lines, etc. And, she argued, reverse-engineering an already complete novel was not a productive exercise.

So, square one. Damn!

Most novelists (or would-be novelists) keep a file not only of their works in progress, but ideas for new stories. Inspired by reading, movie-watching, perusing Amazon or Goodreads for good plots that can be pilfered and re-imagined (and the occasional really, really original concept). So, I plunged into my deep file of “novel ideas,” flipping through page after page of one-paragraph concepts. Thrillers, romances, post-apocalyptic tragedies… Finally I came across this:

Hero is a doctor from the Victorian era. Wife has cancer and he experiments with a series of chemicals that he theorizes (and had read) would give her months more of life, if not cure her. She dies, quicker than he expects, and in despair, he injects himself with the same potion to kill himself. He doesn’t die—in fact it doesn’t affect him at all—apparently. He lives on to see the new century and falls in love again, but he realizes that he’s not getting any older as his wife, and then children die. H e runs away to his family’s retreat in the country and lives as a hermit, terrified to expose himself to those who might know him. He lives alone, waiting and hoping to die. A female passerby has a car accident near his retreat and knocks on his door. It changes both their lives.

Hmm. Definite possibilities. Let’s go with that one. In the end, only a bit of that concept made it into the finished project, but significant bits. And so began the journey of writing The Apothecary’s Curse.

The next entry in the series will have me grappling with turning my concept into a viable “elevator pitch” (the bane of my novelist’s existence to this very day!!!!). Please feel free to ask me questions about the process of novel writing, and I will absolutely try to hit on them in future entries in the series. So stay tuned!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called “Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton,” The Apothecary’s Curse The Apothecary’s Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books.

Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA’s HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as “The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture,” “The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes,” “The Hidden History of Science Fiction,” and “Our Passion for Disaster (Movies).”

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