Monday, March 3, 2014

#JIHADI is my entry in the 2014 #ABNA contest


As near as I could make out, the biggest of all the find-the-great-undiscovered-novelist competitions was the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, or ABNA. She knew that.

In 2011, with my novel JIHADI several hundred light years away from being finished, I muttered to myself that I had to, had to, had to complete the novel and submit it to the contest. The mandatory one-sentence pitch goes here: JIHADI is a novel about an American citizen who is accused of terrorism. 

Entering the contest was a therapeutic as well as a literary goal. I'd been working on the first thirty or forty pages since 2007. Dark whispers abounded that I would never complete the book. This wasn't anyone else talking, mind you, but the eager, demonic voices within my own addled skull. 

I logged on as a first-time participant in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) frenzy, with the aim of creating an editable first draft of the book. Although I generated the necessary 50,000 words to become a NaNoWriMo "winner," I found, upon further review, that something like 30,000 of those words were total crap. 

Worse: That busy November, I only got to about the 25% point of the plot. The book was still messing with me, just as it had been messing with me for the past five years. The whispers accelerated and intensified. I did, however, take a major victory from NaNoWriMo. I now had a daily writing regimen in place: 500 words a day minimum. I kept that up. Just to show the book who was boss.

Undaunted by my novel's failure to materialize, I set a new goal: getting the manuscript complete for the next ABNA contest deadline. I muttered to the novel again, darker this time: This had to, had to, had to wrap up by February. Did it understand that? Hmm? Did it?

Daily word count or no daily word count, that didn't happen, either. 

Mind you, I loved where the book was going, and I got great feedback on the first half of the novel from my endlessly patient stable of beta readers. Yet there was something wrong. The ABNA goal was in jeopardy yet again, and one bleary dawn, I understood why. The manuscript that had taken over so many of my early-morning hours was, I realized at last, something of a prima donna. 

It froze up at key moments when it knew full well that forward progress was essential. Having reached the halfway point of the plot, it permitted me to generate only unreadable, practical-joke-level garbage text, stuff that I refused to believe had anything to do with my keyboard. These waves of sewage flowed in and out for days. It occurred to me that they were not accidents, not parts of a cycle I could ride out. They were deliberate sabotage.

My book steadfastly refused to cooperate with clearly stated deadlines, and its intransigence seemed limitless. 

By hand, I wrote the book a little note, which I left next to my computer: "I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Help."

I kept flinging my 500 or so words a day at the refrigerator, and despite all the treason, all the passive aggressive obstruction, some of those words stuck.

Illegally, I entered the 2013 NaNoWriMo party, expanding the exact same book I had been working on the previous year. (Ssh. They may still send a hit squad after me for that one.) I told the book we would work on whatever she wanted to work on, in whatever order she chose. That appeared to improve the mood swings and the antisocial behavior. 

I hit my 50,000 new-word total that time around, too, but with far less crap in the various files than the previous year. I didn't quite wrap the book by December 1, though. If you're keeping score at home, I was looking at a manuscript well north of 80,000 words. And I wasn't done.

They were good words. Beta readers kept cheering me on. The end was in sight. Maybe. 

Assuming that there were no more temper tantrums, no more fits of pique or pained silence from the book, I felt that I, at least, knew how to fill all the remaining holes. The only question was: Would the novel cooperate?

By now, I had stopped muttering to her about what had to, had to, had to happen. Instead, I took the book out to lunch, ordered her a nice lobster salad, complimented her attire, and begged my novel to tell me what the hell she wanted me to do. 

She didn't have to enter any stupid contest if she didn't want to. That was out of my control. I knew that. But wouldn't she please, please, take a moment to think about whether we were destined to be locked in the delivery room together for the rest of our freaking lives?

A lengthy silence followed, during which much lobster was consumed and many glasses of sparkling water were silently reordered, via my novel's sudden, vigorous, silent glance at a passing waiter. Finally, the book dabbed its pretty lips with a napkin, gestured for me to pay the check, nodded twice as though to say, "Let's get to work," and took pity on me.

We finished the first pass on the manuscript in December of 2013. I hesitated to call what I now had in my hands a "first draft," since by that point I'd been doing research, taking reams of notes on scenes, and writing scores of abortive initial drafts for six years or so. Yes, I know this is not the way you're supposed to write a novel, and I don't think I'd ever recommend it to anyone, but it's what I did.

In late December, I set about editing her. She was bloated, inclining dangerously toward 125,000 words, the ABNA upper limit. Glory and praise to Allah the creator and sustainer of all things, she cooperated when I proposed a daily workout-and-diet routine. 

By the time the 2014 ABNA contest period opened in mid-February, the novel had undergone a complete makeover, lost 9,000 words, picked up a come-hither gleam in her eyes that I didn't recall seeing before, and begun issuing terse orders about certain essential revisions to the denouement. 

These orders came from my novel with a briskness and a sense of vigorous purpose that made me think bitter thoughts I dared not speak aloud, and even now cannot bring myself to type in their original form. My unspoken musings concerned whether the timing for this period of unreserved, complete, vaguely fascistic engagement might have been adjusted to accommodate a target date of, say, late 2009. I didn't dare push my luck, though, so I let all that go. 

Glad I did, because she rocked my world. The book, having demonstrated that she, and not I, was the final authority, permitted me to circulate a February draft that the beta readers greeted with enthusiasm. 

We crossed the finish line together, the book and I, despite all our past differences. I uploaded everything to the ABNA site well ahead of the deadline. 

There are certain relationships in life from which you grow, and to which you do not wish to return under any circumstances.

All of this is, I suspect, more information than you wanted about my personal entanglement with this moody, tempestuous, exhilarating woman (as you've gathered by now, she seems like a woman to me, though I don't recall her starting out that way). She presented herself, at last, in the form of 116,508 joyous and/or bitterly negotiated words. That weird gleam was still in her eyes when I hit SAVE.

I had to set down all I went through with her over those six long years, not for you but for me. Now that JIHADI is finally in the hands of the Amazon judges, she is on her own. 

My cat Paprika, who permits me to work in a room that I like to call my study but that is actually her home, saw me through all of the darker discussions with the novel, all the trauma and dysfunction and glory that preceded that long-awaited, satisfying ABNA upload. To Paprika I am most grateful. To the novel I bid a fond farewell.

Update! JIHADI: A LOVE STORY has just made third round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition.
You can read an excerpt from the novel here.