NOTE: The following is a transcript of the second part of a self-interview with Jay Leonard Schwartz, author of O Little Central Florida Town Of Bedlam. The interview is taken from a podcast to be released in the near future. The author—that’s me—discusses his new novel and its development. The first part of the interview can be found by clicking here:
Jay: OK, so now let’s move on and talk a bit about the process of your writing the novel. You said before that the book didn’t start out as a novel. Is that right?
Jay: Yes, as I mentioned, I began this book mainly as a writing experiment. Ultimately, it took on a life of its own as a novel—which was a pleasant surprise to me, to say the least, considering how it all began as sort of a bit of therapy.
Jay: Therapy? How so?
Jay: Initially, I began writing because I was recovering from an intestinal bug and became bored with an academic project I had originally started. Later, I returned to this material as a distraction from the local coronavirus-related lockdown. It’s often said that laughter is the best medicine—and I can ceertainly attest to having much fun writing this work.
Jay: So this wasn’t some sort of personal challenge to write a novel.
Jay: Not initially, no. It seems that it did end up that way, however. So yes, I guess you can argue that eventually I did it for the experience and as a challenge. However, in truth, my initial motive was more about being constructive and making myself laugh.
Jay: What would you say was the hardest part of writing your novel?
Jay: Beyond keeping track of all the characters, I’d say there were two issues that I had to contend with which proved a struggle. The first was just finishing the work and the second was the editing process.
At some point in the drafting process, I had begun to outline some of the past chapters and possible concepts for future chapters, at the very least to keep track of where I had been and where I was going. Moreover, at both the beginning and the end of the document I was working in, I had tons of notes on ideas that I wanted to throw in, especially concerning character development and future story lines. These pages—some of them representing elaborate to-do lists—were very useful in helping me to fill-in the many blanks that existed from my not writing in a linear process.
Jay: So cohesion was an early problem, then. I would imagine this created quite a lot of continuity issues, right?
Jay: Tons! However, to be honest, addressing continuity was something I had decided to worry about in the second and third drafts. The point of the first draft is always to just get it done!
Jay: Fair enough. Would you say, nonetheless, that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry?
Jay: Yeah. Shit happens. Once I figured out how I wanted the main conflict to be resolved at the end of the book, a problem arose in that I had to connect three disparate timelines. In part, that’s why I consider the book to more of a saga than just simple narrative. Some days, I worked on the middle and some days I worked on the end. On other days, I had to go back to the beginning to correct things for continuity’s sake since I constantly was coming up with new ideas.
In this respect, I couldn’t simply jump from the middle to the end, even though I had written up some of the end parts. Therefore, the more I connected the middle to the end, the more I had to be creative at playing fill-in-the-blank. As I wrote, I constantly faced this issue of having to create one more event to move the story forward to its conclusion. Given the different characters and their locations, this process of typing up all the loose ends felt like a never ending process. Every day, I asked myself, “Will I ever get to the end?” Thankfully, I eventually did and am still amazed at how many chapters and personally-amusing story lines I was able to come up with as I went a long.
Jay: The other big challenge you mentioned was the editing process.
Jay: Yes. The process, if taken seriously, is really a very humbling and educating experience, but also exhausting.
My professional background is in the field of teaching English as a foreign language, both as a teacher and teacher-trainer, as well as my being a materials author. In this respect, I spend a lot of time teaching syntax and writing skills, to a large extent. Despite my knowledge and experience, I was constantly faced with questions and issues about punctuation and my own stylistic habits arising from my experience writing nonconformist and poetic-license-infused poetry, prose and lyrics.
Jay: I guess it’s safe to say then that writing educational material does not compare with novel-writing.
Jay: Not at all! To make matters worse, my creative process has always involved my free-writing whatever is in my head just to get to it out on the page—a process I always refer to as mind vomiting—and my worrying about editing later. In fact, to me, the editing process, with regard to coming up with second and revised drafts, is just another part of the creative process. I don’t really think of that as editing in the traditional sense.
Jay: So what was unique about the editing phase to you?
Jay: From my experience writing educational materials, and on the advice of previous editors, I am used to drafting without any auto-correction and then proofing the work myself. Grammar checkers, although useful for spot checking, also tend to confuse issue with far too many subjective suggestions on style. Moreover, checking an entire document many times over is enough to make your head spin and shake your confidence in terms of your never really being sure if you clicked the options change or change all instead of ignore or ignore all.
It’s important to remember that in the education idiom, especially for writers, mistakes should always be considered learning opportunities. Understanding where to put all those pesky commas will prove enormously time saving the next time around. In the meanwhile, you need to swallow your pride and confess your ignorance. People who choose to cry “poetic license” or “freedom of speech” to mask their ignorance are just setting themselves up for further embarrassment. In one very real sense, even the most polished manuscripts are not perfect, but calling a temperamental turd in denial an artistic endeavor is just plain stupid.
Jay: Of that I have no doubt. Would you suggest any particular reference material or tips for other writers?
Jay: Well, let’s just say, in this respect, that I’d like to thank William Strunk Jr., E. B. White, George and Charles Merriam, and Noah Webster for their invaluable contributions to my editing efforts. From time to time, I did take a gander at the Chicago Manual of Style—which is an education unto itself.
I would also like to pass a long the following tips to all aspiring writers as they undergo this special form of error-correcting purgatory. Firstly, try to take note of expressions you overuse and, of course, common mistakes you tend to make. If need be, take the time and go through the process of checking every their and they’re, it’s and its, and your possible overuse of the word then. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but you need to get a good idea of your personal regular slips. Secondly, remember that you are writing for someone else to read your work. This means considering the mindset of your reader. It’s good to keep in mind that you’re not writing for yourself! I’m not suggesting that you censor yourself, but rather you consider what the reader might need to know in order to fully appreciate your special way with words.
Jay: What are your thoughts on poetic license in this respect?
Jay: I’m all for it—but that battle-cry shouldn’t be made simply to mask ignorance. Moreover, I hate the idea of having to include a style-sheet in the preface of a work just so that readers, or editors, can decipher your original sin of simply not knowing better.
Look, I’d say there is certainly a lot of conventional advice about what you should do or not do as a novel writer. On one hand, I certainly advocate your doing things your own way. On the other hand, rabid readers do have their own expectations; some of them are low and some of them are high. While it’s true that you can’t please everyone, it’s also true that positive reader feedback is vital in getting everyone to buy your book. In this respect, getting an extra set of eyes, or two or three, to read through your work before you press the publish button is useful.
However, a word of advice: choose your readers, or b-readers as some are called, carefully. A lot of friends might wholeheartedly accept to read your work as a favor, but end up keeping you waiting forever to finish cause, you know, they have a real life.
Also, if you feel nervous that some religious fundamentalists might be offended with your content, it’s probably best if you don’t ask one to read your manuscript, just to be sure. If you’re honest about the content of your novel in your marketing efforts, then such people would never touch your work anyway. Seeking out someone in your target audience is a much more constructive.
Jay: True. Would you suggest hiring an independent editor—especially someone into self-publishing?
Jay: Well sure, if you have the means. When in doubt, hire an expert, assuming your budget allows. A big problem, however, is vetting the thousands of self-professed editors, many of them also who moonlight as life coaches and SEO experts, who really only have basic proofing skills. On the other hand, a real problem is trying to wrestle control from an ego-centrist line-editor who simply wants to rewrite everything in his or her own style. To me, that is a literary-related crime of identity theft.
Jay: How long did it take for you to write the novel?
Jay: On the whole, including revisions and editing, I’d say it took about a year and a half. However, the half was pretty much writing it as a writing experiment, not as a novel per se. The concept of it being a novel evolved. At some point I was thinking of it being a novella, but then the more the characters and subplots took on a life of their own, the more the process screamed for it to be a novel.
Jay: Can you describe your writing environment?
Jay: As is my habit for the past six years or so, I wrote the novel on my laptop while sitting on my couch in the living room. I long ago gave up a traditional writing space and desk. I’m just more comfortable on the couch. I had years of sitting at a desk in a studio or office and I can’t say I was any more focused. Also, I had the same problem with posture and neck pain, even with expensive office chairs. So for me, it’s just lots of pillows for support and comfort that is paramount. Sometimes I play music in the background and sometimes I don’t. A lot depends on how entertaining it is to write that day. I also look out my window quite a lot, just like I did back in school in that 12 years of misery.
Jay: I can relate! How would you describe your writing flow?
Jay: Initially, it was not really about momentum. I just started describing characters and their backgrounds with as much detail as I could. When I exhausted the ideas I had—you know, the ones that sprang to my mind as sort of an experiment in improvisation—then I just stopped writing. Later, I as got more into writing plot lines, most chapters just began to follow this organic arc of dealing with the issue of that particular chapter. I guess you can describe it as conflict and resolution. In this way of writing, most chapters eventually reached their natural conclusion.
Jay: Almost episodic, I guess you would say, but working within a longer narrative.
Jay: Yes. However, the problem was that the more I got into writing the action-packed sequences of the book, the more their respective chapters seemed to drag on—especially because I felt that it was unnatural to simply break up the action into two chapters. Again, I wanted to keep this sense describing an event within a chapter and then ending it in its natural conclusion. I guess you can criticize this technique as it gave rise to a pacing issue, but again, I thought more of each chapter as an episode. Yet, unlike a TV show, there was no 30-minute or 60-minute limit I had to adhere to.
Jay: Hollywood should take note!
Jay: Also, the bulk of the novel was written during various lockdowns and self-quarantines because of the coronavirus pandemic. On some days, I wrote all day and into the night. I can do that if I’m really enjoying myself. One day, I think wrote about 6000 words, which is crazy. Most days I’d hit about 2500 to 3000 words per day.
Other days, I wrote less, obviously, but I really didn’t want to push myself. As I said, part of this was an exercise in self-amusement and self-distraction during the first coronavirus lockdown. In the past, I’ve written a lot of education-related material and, trust me, when I wasn’t having fun writing, it really was a torturous drag. What’s the point of doing something you love if you don’t enjoy it? I think such an experience ranks below being a masochist.
Jay: Well perhaps we should enlist the help of a sadist to answer that. Is there anything that surprised you about the writing process?
Jay: Yes, a few things, actually. I started writing these totally absurd character sketches with full knowledge that I was a bit insecure about my writing descriptions and action. That’s part of the reason I began the experiment—to work on these skills. So, it really amazed me when later I found myself fully engaged in the crafting of these suspense-filled and action-packed sequences, and moreover that I was writing them straight, meaning with very little of my usual humor-infused notions. That really amazed me!
Jay: Me, too! Adding comical affect after the fact is never a good idea.
Jay: Another issue was when it dawned on me that two characters, as their story lines just evolved, should develop a romance between them. Again, I wasn’t sure I could write romance and that my efforts might yield something that was intentionally awkward—sort of like a porno film scenario before sex. Later still, it was also an issue when it became obvious that the direction the characters’ relationship was headed just demanded that I write a marriage proposal.
Jay: How did you manage that?
Jay: Well, thankfully, I did it by simply personalizing the event to my own experience—and to be honest I was quite pleased with the result and even touched by it.
Jay: Lastly, I would like to ask you what you feel you have learned from the experience and what’s next. Can we expect another novel from myself anytime soon?
Jay: Most of all I think I’ve learned to appreciate some strengths I apparently have that went completely under-appreciated. By the same token, however, I also appreciate how much I’ve learned about the process of novel writing and the education I’ve received from my efforts, especially in regard to editing. Next time around, this whole process will be much easier—I hope!
Jay: Certainly, there is much to be said about your efforts to self-actualize yourself as a writer, if not as an artist.
Jay: For sure. In fact, one of the projects I’m working on, on the academic side of my efforts, is about self-actualization and it hopefully will relate to teachers of the arts. I’m not sure if it will evolve into a book or an online course or both. However, it’s based on a many articles I had written and released in a magazine I used to publish for teachers of English as a foreign or second language. They relate to humanistic teacher-training and reflective-teaching methodology. That’s just another whole hat that I wear career-wise.
Jay: Sounds interesting, but not very absurd, especially as a self-described dadaist-at-large. Is there anything else in the works for fans of your artistic and creative side?
Jay: Yes, there are a few projects in the works. Firstly, I hope my band, the Transmystic Blues Sniffers, will finally release an album of my more hardcore, anti-establishment and in-your-face songs. That CD will surely spin a few heads! I keep referring to the album as sort of a retro-regressive punk and alternative rock.
Jay: Wow! I’m not sure that even makes sense!
Jay: Well, that’s exactly the point! Also, I hope to revisit and finally complete an unpublished musical comedy which is similar in someway to my novel. It’s about a dystopian society that gets turned upside down by a free-wheeling drifter. It’s also a social satire and very absurd, but it also has a lot humanistic undertones—more than my novel actually. The project has been stalled for a number of years because of the the difficulty of getting the music notation correct. However, I’ve finally enlisted someone who is now helping me to review the music compositions so that it can be published, hopefully by year’s end.
Jay: And what of the world and characters of O Little Central Florida Town Of Bedlam?
Jay: Well, there is another work-in-progress that is based on some characters from the novel—but it’s purely at the idea stage for now. It might be related, but not really a sequel. It would probably be more of a prequel, but it will exist in a different form—and it might contain other ideas I had written up but edited out of the novel. Time will tell.
Jay: Jay, thanks for sharing your experience and insight with the audience and me. On my own behalf, I’d like to wish myself good luck with my novel. I hope it’s a big success and changes the world—or at the very least gives someone a good laugh, albeit a confusing one. Thank you.
Jay: Indeed! Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Thank you—me—us—everyone!
The novel, O Little Central Florida Town of Bedlam, is available now online from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle eBook formats. Get your copy below: