Cleaning my office a few days ago, I found a fat three-ring binder. To my surprise it contained more than 100 pages of notes, outlines, character sketches, and the opening chapters of a spy thriller. It was the long lost plan for a novel I once intended to co-write with my good buddy Ann Aubrey Hanson.
I was amazed. First, because I thought those notes were gone for good — when Ann and I cooked up this project we were in our early twenties. Second, because I so clearly remembered the setup and opening scene of the story. Third, because I remembered almost nothing else. Finally, because the outline for the novel was horrible.
For that, I take the blame. Ann’s ideas made sense. And the setup was fine. As I remember, the Husband came up with it: A young lawyer jogging in the Los Angeles hills is nearly run down by a careening van. He gets the license number — which he remembers because it matches the world best time in the marathon — and then gets in trouble, because it turns out the van is a getaway vehicle that’s just dumped a couple of dead bodies in the mountains.
But things went downhill from there, because I obviously had no idea what I was doing. The story involved an espionage conduit from high tech California companies to the nefarious Commies in the Soviet Union. Yes, this was a Cold War thriller. Various Californians were forced to become couriers for the Soviets and deliver tech secrets when they went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. And that was the sensible part.
- The jogger injects himself into the police investigation of a multiple murder for no reason besides curiosity.
- Whenever I needed action in the story, I’d have an innocent person discover a conspiracy. Then the bad guys would smear the innocent’s reputation, kill them, and make it look like they had committed suicide. This happened approximately every ten pages.
- Halfway through, I decided it wasn’t just the Soviets who were framing reluctant spies, killing them off and making it look like suicide. A supersecret conspiracy within the U.S. government was also framing people, killing them off and making it look like suicide.
- The massive Soviet espionage operation is discovered by the jogger’s old girlfriend when she goes undercover as a member of the folk group at the church that’s running the Holy Land pilgrimages.
- Three quarters of the way through, I introduced a major new character: a sexy CIA agent.
- Four fifths of the way through, the story descends into a love triangle between the jogger, the sexy CIA agent, and the undercover folk group girl.
- My notes include: “Something must happen. Something must motivate the hero to call somebody. Or something.”
- And… “Other characters include: Someone the hero can call on for help.”
Obviously, the person who needed help was me.
I wrote an outline and sent it to Ann. She came back, sensibly, with character sketches — because she couldn’t help noticing that the plot made no sense and the characters needed personalities and credible motivation for the ridiculous antics I had written for them. She didn’t put it that way, but now I can read between the lines. Between the hand-written lines, no less. All the notes are either in pen or were typed — gasp! — on a Smith-Corona typewriter.
And the most amazing part: I wrote all this a few months before my daughter was born. That’s because I was so naive, I thought that once I had a newborn in the house I could use my endless free time to write a blockbuster spy novel.
Aside from the inadvertent humor and the fact that I cringed nonstop while reading my notes for this un-novel, here’s the main thing: Writing a book takes years of practice, and craft, and false starts. It’s a skill that takes a long time to learn, and everybody has to start somewhere.
So if you want to write a novel, don’t be afraid to take a leap.