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The First Draft is Complete: Learnings

With almost three weeks left to spare, I have reached the first milestone with the novel. The first draft is complete. That said, I kind of hate it and don’t expect much of it to survive revision. What’s important is that I managed to do it at all.

I started writing it on 1 December 2019, giving myself a hard deadline of 29 February 2020. This gave me a fairly easy target of 600 words per day, which fit in with the rest of my life and work. Even so, there were times when I did not think I was going to pull it off. I found it more difficult to work in smaller chunks, and having to switch between projects. I ultimately ended up having one or two days per week when I could just focus on the novel.

A large component of this experiment was writing without a tight outline. My normal process is to plan everything first, then write. It’s a paint-by-numbers process, but it allows me to remain prolific and hit deadlines. With this novel I had a loose idea of the plot and only a vague notion of who my main character was. I wanted to be able to wander, to discover the world and the story as I was writing. What I actually discovered is that this method doesn’t work for me.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

The old adage “measure twice, cut once” applies perfectly here. As I was writing, I kept wishing that I’d though of things earlier. Better ideas cropped up, so I kept notes on the things I’d have to go back and fix. Had I spent the last three months outlining and doing research, I feel that I could have written the first draft in a month and been a lot more satisfied with it.

A different metaphor: It felt like jumping in a car and driving off, without any clear idea of where I was going. When I did figure out the destination I had to backtrack a lot, resulting in a lot of wasted time and fuel. This is not within my comfort zone, and I’m not seeing any benefit to it.

The First Draft is Complete

I’m going to set it aside until 1 March, at which point I’ll read it and see if I still hate it. When I begin again I’m going to do a total re-write. I will keep characters and ideas that I like, but the first step will be to do the sort of detailed outline that I’m used to. There’s additional research I want to do as well. I’m also going to be consuming more Gothic novels, to help me to better capture the sort of tone and beats I’m looking for, even though it’s a contemporary novel.

Has it been fun? No.

Has it been rewarding? No, again.

But I think that it will be.

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Restoration and Repair

Besides dead malls, my other current obsession, which is slowly creeping into my work-in-progress, is the “restoration and repair” genre on YouTube. People take old junk, from metal Tonka toys to antique radios to padlocks, refinish them, and make them like new. While I don’t quite get why you’d spend two weeks and a hundred dollars give a cheap broken toy a makeover, they’re satisfying to watch. Kind of like visual ASMR.

One of the themes of the book is that civilization is changing. That change feels like a decline. As the old falls into ruin people desperately cling to the past, terrified of the vast unknown that the future represents. It’s very much a Gothic literature trope.

Restoration and Repair

I’ve added a character who does these sorts of restorations as a hobby. He visits flea markets, yard sales, and estate sales and finds these objects that seem ruined beyond repair. Then he takes them home and breathes new life into them. He finds the beauty in them, and painstakingly resurrects them. He doesn’t fear the future, or cling too sentimentally to the past. The character is mean to symbolize balance, and represent hope. He has tools, and knowledge, and is able to adapt to the changing conditions.

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It Was Always Burning

Is there a word for a revelation that’s been sitting in plain sight the entire time? Other than “Duh!”, I mean. Something German, probably. A strongly curated news feed and a steady stream of dead mall videos have been informing my work in progress. It’s also pulled out some deep memories of my childhood, and made me realize that the state of the world isn’t new. This isn’t something that just suddenly happened in the last couple of years, or even the past few decades. It was always burning.

As I was growing up in the 1970s, the downtown area was functionally extinct. There were a lot of empty storefronts. One of the major department stores was in a gorgeous building that probably dated from the 1920s or 30s. It has been two or three stories above ground, plus a finished basement. There was a grand staircase. By the time of my childhood they’d consolidated to the ground floor and the basement. The staircase had been blocked off by ham-handedly shoving fixtures in front of it. Later that basement was closed off, and by my teens the store was gone.

There was a theater downtown that had once been a vaudeville venue. People talked about how gorgeous it had been, back in the day. It was faded and crumbling by the time I came around. As a teenager I went there to see a movie, and a chunk of the painted plaster ceiling fell in. Fortunately I was seated toward the back, under the closed-off balcony. This was something people supposedly valued, home to cherished memories, and it was openly decaying.

It Was Always Burning

We went to the Poconos a few times, to resorts that had clearly seen their heyday in the 1940s and 50s. Paint was peeling. Weeds were winning. There were photographs of the famous musicians and comedians who had played the ballroom, even though no one of note had been booked recently. My grandmother would tell stories. Older members of the staff would reminisce. I was supposed to appreciate the history, while understanding that I had missed out.

A lot of people back then attributed the decline to the rise of malls. It’s the same sort of logic that ascribes the dead mall phenomena to the internet. Things aren’t that simple. When I was growing up a lot of my friends planned to work with their father or uncles or older brothers in factories. Those plants had been there forever, and it was assumed they always would be. By the time I reached high school a lot of those places had shut down, and unemployment was a serious concern. It was always burning.

No one had disposable income to go shopping, or take vacations, or even go to the movies. There was only so much to go around, and retail space was oversaturated. Maybe the town could support a few movie theaters, but not twenty screens. There may have been a customer base to keep a couple of department stores thriving, but not a dozen or more. It was supply and demand, and somehow we keep expecting the demand to rise and meet the supply. That’s not how it works. That’s not how it’s ever worked. Yet we continue to make the same mistakes, attribute them to the wrong causes, and fling ourselves headlong into the downward spiral.

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The Horror and Romance of Dead Malls

Somehow, over the holidays, I stumbled over videos about dead malls. It’s an entire genre on YouTube. A lot of things clicked for me. Is there anything more symbolic of a society in decline than an abandoned temple to consumerism or, worse, one that only has a 15%-20% occupancy rate? Enclosed ghost towns with crumbling parking lots, leaking ceilings, and scars where the signs of formerly prosperous anchor store chains once were. Mall have died for a lot of reasons, including the rise of the internet, the decline of the middle class, and stagnant wages leaving people with little or no disposable income.

The work-in-progress was originally conceived as a contemporary Gothic story. My main character is a woman forced to take a job she really doesn’t like. She’s reached her threshold of tolerance for toxic masculinity, even though her life would be easier if she just gave in to it. For the obligatory crumbling architecture, I settled on an old hotel vaguely modeled after the historic Chelsea. It was once a place where writers, artists, and musicians lived. Now, it’s crumbling after decades of neglect. My protagonist was already struggling with student loan debt. She moves into the residence hotel, in what’s now a bad part of town, more out of financial need than for the romance of the location.

The Horror and Romance of Dead Malls

The Century III Mall outside of Pittsburgh in particular caught my attention. It was built over a slag heap, the waste product of another dead boom industry in the United States, steel manufacturing. Building on top of that wasn’t wise because the ground settled, the foundation cracked, and the mall developed serious structural problems. There’s plenty of allegory to play with there.

Having the once-famous hotel become eclipsed by a modern shopping district, which has also fallen, spoke to me. It was once a desirable neighborhood, and now it’s the poor part of town. I based it partially on my own experiences in Albuquerque, where I lived in a formerly thriving Route 66-era motel that had been converted into studio apartments. I was within walking distance of three mall, one abandoned, one dying, and another recently refurbished by struggling. All of which begs to be used in a Gothic tale meant to serve as commentary on the modern world.

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What is Gothic Fiction?

My current work-in-progress takes cues from Gothic fiction. Instead of an old manor house or castle, I’ve got a residence hotel inspired by the legendary Chelsea Hotel in New York. Rather than literal ghosts, I have a protagonist who can’t help but wonder what people from her past would think about her current circumstances. There are desperate circumstances, a society in clear decline, and abusive authority figures. Everything that I wanted to write about aligns almost perfectly with Gothic tropes.

I got here through doing an analysis of H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature for my day job. His essay was heavily influenced by Edith Birkhead’s The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance. I mean, it parallels it down to the structure and chronology used, a lot of the works mentioned, even in some of the opinions expressed. I’m not saying that Lovecraft ripped her off, because his work was focused on the horror elements, but he certainly used her book as a template.

What is Gothic Fiction?

The Gothic fiction genre, sometimes called Gothic Horror or Gothic Romance, has its roots in the late 18th century. I jokingly tell people that it exists at the intersection of love, death, and architecture. The name comes from the late Medieval building style, with old houses and crumbling castles serving as the settings. While there aren’t always supernatural elements, there’s always the presence of death in some form. Either someone has died, or is about to die, or death is a metaphor for decline and decay (going hand-in-hand with the old buildings in ill repair). Hopefully it’s easy to see how I can imagine a modern story overlaid onto those elements.

Some Example of Gothic Fiction

Below are some example of Gothic fiction. A few might stretch the definition a bit (don’t come for me), but they are all to some degree influential on Cold Sunrise. Where possible, I’ve linked to the free Project Gutenberg versions of these works. Otherwise, they’re Amazon affiliate links.

Thanks for Visiting

Comments? I want to hear them! Questions? I want to answer them! Leave a message below and let’s chat about writing!

Come along on this journey with me, as I fumble around and figure out what I’m doing. Go to the bottom of the page and subscribe to the site, if you haven’t already! Never miss a new post!