Kait’s collection of Parents magazine had grown to about a dozen issues. She had endured another more aggressive yet unsuccessful procedure. Afterward, she asked me to stash the stack of magazines somewhere in the basement so the cheerful faces of the cover children could be hidden from her mounting despair until happier days. She was beginning to believe that having a baby was a fool’s dream. I jammed the magazines in a plastic milk crate and piled boxes on them. Whenever a new issue would arrive in the mailbox, I would add it to the milk crate. Whenever we would go to Target and happen upon a pregnant woman, Kait would detour down another aisle or wipe her tears from behind a tall winter jacket rack. This was the spring of 2011.
During this time I read three books about novel writing: Plot Versus Character, Your First Novel and Tools of the Writer’s Craft. Each of these how-to books was helpful in its own way. My brain highlighted several lessons of these manuals. When I sat down with scrap paper and pencil to construct an actual outline for my third draft, I was armed with a more heightened perspective of the concepts a well-crafted novel requires.
After several days of brainstorming, I had a recognizable plot structure for the first time. Yeah, a plot structure; recall 8th English when the teacher drew the hump on the blackboard and labeled the differing levels of the incline exposition, rising action, climax and so forth. I had one of those. I also had a proper antagonist this time, Paul. I struggled with how much of an asshole to make him. I wanted Paul to be a decent guy who had only become the antagonist because he was a victim of circumstances. I wanted the reader to sympathize with him. (What’s worse in fiction than flat characters? If the good guy is as righteous as Clark Kent and the bad guy is as malicious as Lex Luther you either ain’t got nuttin’, or you got genre fiction.)
The third draft was such a far cry from the second draft, I could barely hear the cry at all. Furthermore, this draft was extremely bleak. I think I was subconsciously more inclined to write a dark novel because of my own circumstances. My wife was unhappy. I was stressed. As a result I began to develop a case of Vitiligo on my face. Vitiligo is “the Michael Jackson disease” as the dermatologist put it; the “disease” has nothing to do with being able to moonwalk. (I don’t call Vitty-Eye-Go a disease; I call it a condition because it’s not health threatening.) This condition occurs when the immune systems turns its ammunition on itself and attacks the melanin producing mechanisms in the skin. Basically, the host develops patches of white skin and white hair. Several small patches of Vitty-Eye-Go sprouted about my mouth and chin. Fuck it, as they say in modern America. I had a novel to write.
I finished the third draft of the novel in November of 2011 (what is it about finishing the novel in November three years in a row?) In October Kait had a third, more aggressive procedure. This time the doctor knocked her out, although the process was out-patient. We stopped at King’s Restaurant on the way home from Forbes Regional Hospital; I nearly had to peel the groggy girl’s face out of her stew a few times.
Anyway, a few months removed from the latest draft I began to realize how downright depressing the story was. The main character Darin (who was once Duncan, and later, Bruce) was a cemetery groundskeeper. Heck, the novel began in a damn cemetery, where a vengeful Paul and his dying mother was visiting his dead father’s grave. How did Paul’s father end up buried? He was sent there after a teenage Darin set fire to his business many years ago. Furthermore, on the surface Darin seemed the kind of chap parents instruct their children to avoid on the walk to the school bus stop. Happy days are here again! This time around Marcy was a vocal atheist who harbored a hatred for her abusive past. Regardless, she was still the most animated and excitable of the characters, and sometimes a comic relief. She even could make Darin smile. Another character made his debut, Marcy’s best friend, her dog Random. Darin’s boisterous friend Mitch returned. God came back too; He is referenced in one scene as the target of a wrathful Mitch who aims his shotgun’s crosshairs skyward. This scene was a highlight and graduated to Save Me, Rip Orion, as did several other scenes.
I named this third version of the novel Anymore Forever. Sounds charming!
I also participated in a writer’s group. I don’t know whether or not to recommend writer’s groups. In the six weeks I was involved, six to ten people gathered in a conference room at the Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill. Each week the group edited one of the writer’s works. One week the first chapter of my novel was critiqued. I evaluated five other writer’s pieces over the remaining five weeks. Do the math and consider the ratios. However I received enough suggestions and helpful tidbits that I do not regret involving myself. Another tool that a writer must utilize is his internal filter. Some critics fire so many suggestions that one must be able to decipher which to seriously consider and which to cast into the gutter. One group member in particular took grave issue with the physical positioning of the three character in the cemetery in chapter one; he believed I warped physics several times. I didn’t necessarily agree but I kept his comments in mind when I wrote a similar scene in Save Me, Rip Orion.
The good news came in January. Kait learned on a Friday that her follow-up test after her procedure was normal. We celebrated by walking through a snowstorm to an Indian restaurant in Squirrel Hill. I remember the day well. Just five days later she woke me up a half hour before my alarm clock detonated. She told me she was pregnant. I hugged her and congratulated her, and then dozed off again. When I came to, I was thrilled because she was.
I knew I wanted…I knew I needed to write a fourth version of the novel. I needed to make Darin someone for who the reader cheered. I wanted to lighten the dark tone of Anymore Forever. I needed to inject humor—good old-fashioned humor. I needed the next novel to better reflect my usually jaunty personality yet maintain a measure of a brutal edge. What’s more, I needed a theme. But at the same time, I knew I wanted so much of Anymore Forever to graduate to the fourth draft.
After I marked a black X on the calendar the day of September 18, 2012, the baby’s prospective birth date, I knew the time remaining to write and edit the fourth draft was, well, numbered. An idea belted me one day at work. A theme soon followed. An audible “click” echoed amongst the Monongahela River Valley. Save Me, Rip Orion was conceived in a drab office cubicle and quickly began growing in my mind’s womb.