How The First Novel Was Started

I name names this morning: Al Day. Mary Robertson. James Thayer. That happens when I “sense” my thinking will morph into doing. Each of them. Without exception. Has had a hand in making me a better writer…and with that, hoping it’s not self-delusion, a better person.

Al day has been my novel editor. He understands when the words trump the value and meaning of a thought. He doesn’t take scissors to snip. He takes a machete to clean-out. He understands the word “just” is useless and participles drag a sequence to STOP! He’s good about it, calling me his “coach” and assuming the editing title of “pupil.” He’s also the best at inquiring, well short of inquisition, sharing snippets from other writers—or recommending books—that “Coach, this shades some of you…it may help.” I think of Al this morning. Always in thanksgiving.

James Thayer. For a year, one night a week, I learned from Jim. He’s an attorney. Far more. He teaches a class on writing novels for the University of Washington. I’ve never had a teacher who has the gift of gently correcting what in truth is a burdening paragraph. He’s easy. And yet, he’s as crafty as any teacher…and at the end of that year…I realized I’m the better for his gifts of teaching and affirming. Perhaps the best one-liner ever, one that screeches short of any open conflict, when you know the conversation may lead to a ring and boxing gloves, is to say, “You may be right.” One of my friends realizes that’s really saying, “You are really screwed up.” But, it’s with a smile…and at times, it really rips the fuse out of a ticking time bomb. [Excuse the mixed-metaphor—writer’s license.]

And with no miss-perception, the one who helped me the most: Mary Robertson. More than a decade ago I took a “Writing your first novel” class—a 5-day seminar at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian retreat center in northern New Mexico. First of all there were 12 students, only 3 of whom authored the seminar title: It was Mark and two housewives. The other 9 had published novels.

Mary is really the seed-planter. She said in writing fiction: know what you’re talking about. “For instance, if you are writing about a bridge tournament know the point value of an Ace. It isn’t 2.” She went on, “Everyone in my novels is, at least in part, someone I know…embellished so they wouldn’t get it.” She also said, “Know this. A novel will be of total disinterest if there isn’t trouble, if your protagonist isn’t holding on with finger nails and if evil isn’t about to win.”

But, even more. I honestly didn’t know if I could write. Not false-modesty. Really the truth. I so believed in the value of Mary’s class that I know, at least emotionally down deep, I needed her vote. Life cannot always be self-serving and self-judging.

The last day we each voiced the 6 pages, “of a new novel.” Her eyes scanned the other 9 students, letting them know what they wrote had to be new. Each of the students read. The more I heard the worse I felt. Really. Such outstanding paragraphs and the thought-flow…ah, so impressive. Eleven had read. I looked at my watch, never looked at Mary. She refused to let me off the hook. Her eyes became laser beams, “Mark, quit looking at your watch. It won’t work. You have 15 minutes. Let’s hear what you wrote.” My shoulders sagged in a sigh. I read.

When finished, my gulp was silent. My breath short.

I sensed movement around the table. Two of the students got up and went to the window to look at the desert outside. My self-judgment kicked in with the silent thought, “Was it that bad?” I looked at Mary. She shook her head. More judgment. I looked closer, she had wet cheeks. Before she could say anything, the two who had not written a novel before, demanded, “Mark? What happens? What does the minister do?”

I didn’t know. Truth on the throne. I had no earthly idea what would happen to the minister, who emotionally was spent, driven to despair by…

“He had wave following wave of discouragement, had gotten up and put his pulpit robe over his pajamas. Was 3 in the morning. Went to his garage, took the garage door opener and smashed it with his bare foot. Didn’t hear a voice of pain; knew his heart was broken into a million pieces. Took his key and put it in the ignition…….”

Two weeks later I received a hand-written letter from Mary, encouraging me to “keep writing…keep writing. And. If you pursue your minister in this new novel and the lumps and values of ministry described in your first six pages—because you cannot have one without the other—I will volunteer being your editor.”

There was no way I could stop writing. Mary’s “you may be right” wasn’t the voice of “don’t do it.” Rather, it was the encouragement to keep on keeping on.

Thought of all that this morning…about the first paragraph of the new novel. But even more thought of those who have been the seed-planters. Who believe in me. Who indicated writing should happen.

It may be the new novel will happen. Whether it does or not, though, the best lesson for me is how all my life there have been those supporting, caring, understanding…and verifying through their caring spirit that “hopeless and forget-it” are not part of the daily experience or verbiage. Nope. Al? James? Mary? And so many others…you have touched and graced my life. And continue to do so.

So, Tricia? [My protagonist] Time to get it on…and to think what you’re about to experience is fiction in term of fact, but not fiction in terms of the drama and daunting realities of living today. Go, girl.


About Mark H Miller

Diane and I live in Leander, Texas. This past June 17, 2015 I celebrated the 49th anniversary of my ordination. We returned to Texas after three years in Washington, during which I served as interim minister in Bellevue/Eastgate and Mercer Island. Am planning to begin a 5th novel that will have my protagonist, Tricia Gleason, serve a year in licensed ministry in Snoqualmie, Washington. The novel, "The Lemon Drop Didn't Melt," will find Tricia wrestling with ministry challenges. None of which more daunting than someone wanting her breathing to stop. All the published novels are available on Amazon and Amazon Kindle under Mark Henry Miller. A primary goal in our return to Texas is to make sure grandchildren get lots of attention--here and in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Traveling is definitely an activity that will not slow down. With that, of course, fishing will happen. To that the t-shirt is apt, "I fish; therefore I am." In addition to novels, the book of Blogs, "Voice Of My Heart," is also available on Amazon.
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