Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, October 18, 2017, 9:45 a.m.
The process of writing what will be my eighth novel, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, has been unique, not because I’ve tried some original new method, or suddenly awakened with some master plan that had earlier eluded me.
It wasn’t a master plan. It was a rapidly changing plan. “Evolved” might be a bit misleading.
Almost a year ago, the first draft was almost completed. At that point, I went off my rocker. I started missing my former profession, that of a beat reporter who traveled around the country writing about NASCAR. I thought about how much the sport changed from 1993, that being the year I, uh, picked up the beat, until now. I also thought about its rise and fall during that period.
What if a charismatic modern kid came along? What if his background matched that of the great drivers of the past? Thus was Barrie Jarman created. In six months, I wrote two short novels, Lightning in a Bottle and Life Gets Complicated. They were fun. They were funny. They appealed to my lingering NASCAR readership, with whom I could more readily connect.
Meanwhile, deep in the electronic recesses of this laptop, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell sat untouched, an orphan novel without an ending.
While I was writing Life Gets Complicated, I started editing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Three times I went through it, cleaning up its inconsistencies, fixing typos, and shaving extraneous portions. That’s been the hardest part of writing fiction for me. It’s hard to take out sections that might be entertaining, thrilling, and/or funny but don’t happen to move the story alone. Over the three edits, I shaved out (and saved for possible future use) about 12,000 words.
Meanwhile, the ending I couldn’t quite get settled in my mind disappeared altogether. Current events interceded. The new ending reflects what has happened in the country since the 2016 elections.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is about four people – Mickey Statler, a sportswriter; his daughter Marcia, a college student; Dylan Wannamacher, a prep-school English teacher and budding novelist; and Milo Hirley, a rebellious student at the school – who unwittingly become involved in a national conspiracy that involves drugs, businessmen, politicians, and elements of law enforcement and the military.
It all began with the type of mild question that flows out of one’s mind while he’s watching the news: How come so many people get shot by the cops? Then came another: What if it’s not an accident?
My first five novels – The Audacity of Dope (2011), The Intangibles (2013), Crazy of Natural Causes (2015), Forgive Us Our Trespasses (2016), and Cowboys Come Home – were all complicated and written in third person. The two Barrie Jarman Adventures, Lightning in a Bottle and Life Gets Complicated, were simple, freewheeling, and written in first person. The stock car racing novels were fun. The other five were challenging. More work was involved. Once Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is out, I may go back to a lighthearted style. At the moment, I suspect that the Barrie Jarman Adventures are ready for hiatus, though I could write ten of them if the market would support them, which I suspect it won’t. In the absence of a real-life Barrie Jarman, stock car racing continues its decline. I’m thinking seriously about a baseball novel, but the novel itself would be funny, not serious.
Now I’m going back to top off Chapter 43 of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Mickey and Dylan are talking about what’s wrong with the world. Little do they know the danger that lies ahead.
Most of my books — non-fiction on NASCAR and music, collections that include my contributions, seven novels, and one short-story collection — are available here.