Friday, September 21, 2012

On Writing Your First Novel: Part 1

Since publishing The Yellow Bar, several people have asked how I did it. I will start with the complete interview I did with author Timothy Hallinan last month. This is Part 1, which I call Inspiration. In the following segments (to be written) I will tell you about My Writing Process, and How I Published My Book. And finally, The Cruel World of Self Promotion. I do not claim to be an expert on any of these subjects, however, I'm sure you can learn a few things by reading about what I did right, and the stuff I did so totally wrong. Hopefully, it will inspire you to finally write YOUR first book. (Because it's there inside you and it needs to come out.)

And now, on to Tim's interview:

How would you describe The Yellow Bar in, say, 100 words or less?

You can read the standard promo on Amazon, so let me be a little abstract. It’s about some nice people, the Reynaldo family, who live in 1940s Philippines. Their sweet rural life goes to hell when they are caught between two warring giants, America and Japan. It starts with the Japanese invasion and ends with the destruction of Manila. It’s about: Love. Family. God. War. Luck. Survival. The Reynaldos teach us how to make lemonade when life throws lemons at you. (And when it’s time to throw those damned lemons back, so hard that it knocks teeth out.) Fate comes in two parts; what life gives you and what you make of it. The Yellow Bar is also a reminder that we all belong to the same family of man, and that hating and killing our different brothers are the stupidest things we can ever do.

The Yellow Bar is such an accomplished book that it's hard to believe it's your first.  What other writing have you done?

I am ashamed to say that most of my writing in the past consisted of developing course books for English language learners and the occasional rant to the local newspaper. (I did spend 15 years as a local “shock jock” on the radio, which to me is a sort of improvisational writing.) These are about the only things you’ll see from me in print. However, I always knew I had a novel in me. One day The Yellow Bar just popped out. 

What first inspired you to write the novel?  What was the first idea that grasped your attention? 

I lived in Manila in the mid 1980s. Some of the happiest times of my life were when I just sat around and talked to family and neighbors. Filipinos like to talk, boast, gossip, and most of all, weave a good story. So do I, so we all got along just fine. Back then, there were still many older people who had lived under the Japanese occupation and the battle of Manila. They told me stories (always with a smile and maybe a tear) of how they survived the war. Hair-raising tales like: How the Japanese Bayonetted My Baby, or, What Auntie Alice Did When a Hand Grenade Came Through the Kitchen Window. It was amazing how they told these stories without a trace of bitterness. This is because they believe in God and forgiveness. This is because they are Filipino.

My father in-law, Felipe (Pepot) had the best stories of all. He was a short, jolly man and he also had the voice of a foghorn. He was loud. When he was speaking English he liked to punctuate with invectives that he had learned from the GIs in the Yellow Bar:

“... and when the bombs started falling, GODDAMIT it was hell!...”

The Japanese Kamikazes had lived in their house during the occupation. As a child servant in his own home, Pepot saw how how these pilots lived and how they prepared to die. He told me how the family had saved themselves at the end of the war by selling homemade liquor to the American GIs. From him I learned that my mother in-law, Maxima (Imang) had been forced to work in Japanese parachute factory as a child slave laborer. I remember thinking that someone should write a book or make a film about these stories.

Fast forward to 2010. After a long absence, I attended a family reunion in Manila. Most of the immediate family now live in different parts of the world. While we were there, I realized this incredible family history was fading away, that the stories would soon be forgotten. No, that couldn’t be allowed to happen. I started writing the book on my third day in Manila. It took me a year and a half.

Did the scope of the story give you anxious moments?  If so, how did you deal with the anxiety?

First I had to make a choice. True story or a work of fiction? I chose fiction for several reasons, the main one being that it gave me artistic license to change a few things. Secondly, by making it fiction, I wouldn’t accidently offend a family member. (Remember, they have butterfly knives there!) Other than Pepot and Imang, I made sure not to use any other relative’s name. Besides, if this was going to be a war novel, then somebody was going to die!

Call me a pacifist or call me a sissy, I didn’t relish killing anyone. I avoided choosing who for as long as I could. This was a mistake because the longer I worked on the book, the more real the characters became to me. Who wants to kill off good friends?

Another problem reared its head when I was about a third of the way into the book. The Tagalog words. At first they had seemed quaint and exotic and I used them liberally, but then they started to get in the way, making the Reynaldos seem a bit removed from you and me. That was the last thing I wanted, so Kuya Dading became Uncle Dading, etc. Rewrite and rewrite again.

The biggest bump in the road was that The Yellow Bar is an historical novel. I got anal retentive about the war facts being absolutely correct. It meant some serious research, which slowed down the writing of the story. I wasted days just searching for how parachutes were made in Manila. (Hint: Google. Buried very, very deep in cyberspace.) I read diaries and army reports. I nailed a 1935 map of Manila up over my computer. Slowly I became an expert on World War Two Philippines and the Battle of Manila. I had to. My next novel will not be historical.

Did you plot the book in advance or find your way through as you wrote it?

Yes, I did an outline with pencil and paper. It had three columns: Before the War, the Occupation, and MacArthur Returns. I placed “events” inside them, hoping to link it all up. But not everything was plotted in advance, some of it just came out of nowhere. For example, Eric Lawson, the gay hotel manager, was originally going to be a cameo, an inside joke based on a friend of mine. Well damn, he kept popping up and making himself useful. Imelda the smutty maid also just fell from the sky.

The book goes back and forth among first- and third-person viewpoints: little Pepot, a boy of ten when the story opens; then to an omniscient third to describe historical events, and much closer third-person narratives centered on Pepot's Aunt Pinky; Eric Lawson, and the eight-year old orphan girl, Imang, who goes through hell and grew up to be your mother in-law,  When did you decide to use multiple viewpoints?  What were the benefits and challenges (if there were any)?

Yes, the story bounces around several narratives, which is exactly what I didn’t want to do. It can be dangerous. I first started the novel with Pepot’s voice alone and almost immediately ran into problems when I wanted to create the background of the main characters and the history of colonial Manila. I didn’t want to say, “My Auntie did this... My Mother told me that...” It was a waste of words and conflicted with the flow of the story. Also, Pepot’s narrative wouldn’t allow me to go into important detail of the war itself. Who was Pepot, a genius boy scholar? My secret solution was to go into other viewpoints but (in my head, at least) they would really come from Pepot himself. You see, Pepot, my late father in-law, passed away in 1993. As far as I’m concerned, he is now omniscient and knows everything. By doing this, I feel the novel keeps the same language, the same nuance and style. I do not recommend multiple narratives to other authors, but if you have to, here is my cheat: Limit the first person narrative to one character only and make the other viewpoints as unobtrusive as possible.

By the way, my next book will be totally in the third person. Lightening doesn’t strike twice.

How did you feel when you'd finished the first draft? 

I was pretty satisfied. It had a strong beginning, middle and end. I put it away for a week and then reread it. There were some problems. Some things had been written twice. Some of my characters didn’t have clear definition or motivation. Some had too much. So I rewrote. I sent the draft to a friend of mine, Sue Bonnington, a senior editor for the Jakarta Globe newspaper. She found my biggest sin- I am a “drama comma queen.” I love commas, semi colons and long dashes. I use them whenever possible, way too much. (Sue says it’s because I write like I talk.) The second draft was about getting rid of unnecessary punctation marks. I’m sure there are still 100 more I could erase, but I won’t because I love them.

It was also during the first draft that I was advised cut out the prologue: Lola Suzy Tells You the History of the Philippines. To make the book start faster. Ouch. It just killed me to edit out 5 pages of stuff I thought was good, but yeah, doing so did give The Yellow Bar a quicker start. Tell you what- any one who gives me five stars on Amazon will get the prologue free of charge! Ha ha!

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Well, I hope they were entertained. I hope they learned a few things. There is no hidden message in this story which is obviously against war. Perhaps one thing we should remember is that no matter what part of the planet you’re from, we humans have so many small, silly things in common. For example, I am from the American south and Filipinos share many of our southern traits: We drink, we over-eat, take afternoon naps, and leave the Christmas decorations hanging up until February. What is there to hate?

All comments and questions welcome.

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