Monday, April 21, 2014

The Last Bitter Hour

The Last Bitter Hour was the first novel I wrote that I actually thought had a legitimate shot at getting published.  In the fall of 2006, I started teaching at my current high school.  I was directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, if I remember correctly.  My wife and I had also formed our own community theatre, so that kept us extremely busy.  I think I write best when my creative juices are maxed out.  When I'm idle, I just can't produce.  I worked on about eight to ten shows a year during that run.  Fucking crazy!  I'll never get to that level of output again.   Yes, I'm older now.  My bones creak.  I have to watch what I eat.  So stupid.

The Last Bitter Hour was my seventh attempt to write a novel in earnest.  I completed about three of the previous ones.  I followed Stephen King's advice (don't I always?).  I wrote everyday.  1,000 words.  It didn't matter what the hell was going on.  I committed to the work and made it happen.  After 100 days, I had 100,000 words.  I still follow the same process when I write stories now.  I spend about a 1/2 an hour first thing in the morning, a 1/2 an hour at lunch, and another 1/2 an hour right before bed.  That gives me the time to draft, review, and revise each day without making it feel like another job.  God knows, I don't need another one.

The book's about an alcoholic school teacher who drives home late from school one night and runs over an elderly man crossing a rural road (that same road haunts Crow Creek, by the way).  The teacher drags the body back to his apartment and hides the old man in the spare bedroom where the teacher's infant daughter died.  There's a bit of "The Tell-Tale Heart" meets Pet Sematary going on in there.  The teacher spends most of the book being punished by a dominatrix.  He believes the pain is providing penance for the guilt he feels for the loss of his child.  (SPOILER ALERT:  The dominatrix eventually discovers the old man and calls the police.)  There are other ghosts and monsters in the story as the novel weaves separate plot lines into the mix that trace the teacher's life back through his failed marriage, dysfunctional college years, and motherless childhood.  When I look back at the thing now (after having written Crow Creek), I can tell that it's just too fucked-up to follow.  I think it has moments of brilliance but is probably better off left sleeping in that box on the shelf in my office.

The feedback I received from one rejection letter was especially helpful.  Back then, rejections usually came as form letters (the publishing world's gone to shit now that everything's electronic), so when an editor checked a box (EXCELLENT PROSE) and took the time to write a quick personal message, I listened.  She said simply, "Stop writing for yourself and start writing for an audience."

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