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Virgin In The Church
#1, July 2001: The Writing

By Scott Nicholson

(Intro: I sold my first novel "The Red Church" through the slush pile. It will be released as a mass market paperback by Pinnacle Books in June 2002. I'm sharing my experiences in hopes that other writers can learn from my triumphs and mistakes, and, of course, to generate interest in the book. Scott's rule number one: build your audience one reader at a time.)

The writing of a novel is probably of interest only to aspiring writers. The story of my writing "The Red Church" has to go back to childhood. At age ten, I won five bucks and a plaque for a patriotic essay entitled "My Country, My Flag, and Me." I was raised poor, and the fact that somebody would give me money for words definitely made my little brain buzz with more than just the candy I bought. But the important part was being singled out for praise. I could make money and get patted on the head, too. Way back then, I knew I was going to be a writer, even though I took several odd detours along the way.

It wasn't until the summer of 1996, when I was able to get back to college and finally earn a degree, that I realized I'd better get started if I wanted a writing career. And make no mistake, from the very beginning, a career was my goal. It still is. What I mean by a career is that I will leave a body of work when I die and that I will make enough money along the way to afford to tell all my stories.

I didn't have an outline for "The Red Church," I just started writing. All I knew was that I'd completed the last one and it was time to write another. I didn't even have a set of characters, just a vague idea, some mountain legends, and a stubborn streak.

I also didn’t use too many of the tactics that some writers advise. I didn’t draw up extensive character sketches in which I discovered favorite colors and shoe sizes. I trusted the characters’ voices. I let them tell the story. The setting came naturally, because it’s all around me, and I see it every day: my beloved Appalachian Mountains.

Some writers count on being able to write and sell novels from outlines and notes. That's a level of professional I've yet to reach. While working on "The Red Church," I counted on the urgency and curiosity instilled by a sense of "what happens next," which I hope will propel the reader the same as it propelled and sustained me. I’m telling a story around a campfire. If I bore myself to sleep, I can’t possibly expect my audience to stay awake.

I am fairly prolific but it's not necessarily because of speed. I worked on the novel almost every single day, with the goal of completing at least two pages and aiming for four. My record was around seventeen pages, but I have a full-time job and children. I had to be realistic. I just carved a little pocket of time each day, usually when I should have been sleeping.

Instead of doing multiple extensive revisions, I employed two tricks: daily editing and what I call "writing in circles." Each day, I edited the previous day's work. This not only patched up some flaws, it also got me warmed up and back into the story. By writing in circles, I mean that once the manuscript was complete, I went back through and tied up loose ends, found plot points that need exploring or slicing, made sure each character was consistent, and generally sought out and destroyed any noticeable boo-boos. I went around and around from end to beginning, then back, numerous times, circling closer and closer until the story was true to itself.

"The Red Church" was actually the fourth novel I finished. My first three had piled up somewhere around 200 rejection slips from agents and publishers. The writing of the first draft took around nine months in late 1998 and early 1999. I had researched agents until I had a list of about fifteen agencies I was willing to sign with. I had become choosier in my old age, and I knew I was getting better, so I set higher standards. I started querying agents just before the novel was finished, knowing the lag time would allow me a chance to polish the manuscript.

While my queries were being bounced, I continued honing the novel even while starting the next. I had a plan that I would write ten, and if none of those sold, I would take the hint. By that point, I was so hooked on writing and telling stories that I probably wouldn’t have stopped at ten. "The Red Church" finally finished up at around 104,000 words, and my last draft is exceptionally close to what will be printed.

Of peripheral interest, I finished maybe a dozen short stories while writing the novel. One of them, "The Vampire Shortstop," won the grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest. Others appeared in an assortment of magazines and anthologies. I usually wrote my short stories over the course of a day or two, and they didn't really detract from my concentrating on the novel-in-progress. Part of career-building is gaining exposure through story appearances. The other part of career-building is trying different things in order to learn and improve.

The final part is writing your heart out and hoping for the best.

(This article can be freely published or distributed as long as you include Nicholson’s byline and web address.)

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