Thomas Wictor

How a Crappy Novel Became a Good One

Chasing the Last Whale is my second attempt at fiction. Originally titled Invisible Idiot, it was a profoundly crappy novel. I based it on a story I read in a book about China. Someone had invented an instantaneous translation robot that would spit out a written translation of whatever you spoke into the microphone. It was said to be foolproof.

The inventor—an American who spoke fluent Mandarin—called in a prospective buyer, a Chinese man who listened patiently to the sales pitch. Then the buyer leaned over and softly spoke a sentence into the machine. When the translation came out, the buyer burst into laughter and left the room without another word.

Crestfallen, the inventor went over and looked at the Chinese characters, which read “Invisible idiot.” He rewound the tape of the English phrase the Chinese man had spoken, and it was, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

My novel was about a guy who always thought of himself as an invisible idiot. I eventually retitled it Chasing the Last Whale after I saw a documentary about the Inuit. The newly titled, multiply rewritten novel garnered a tremendous number of rejection notices. At some point I went to a writers’ conference in Portland and got the name of a freelance editor. She immediately rejected it, so I gave up on fiction.

For those of you who aren’t writers and aren’t of a certain age, we used to send editors or agents paper manuscripts that were two or three inches thick. After 9/11, postal regulations changed. An editor or an agent would have to take your manuscript to the post office personally, whereas in the past they could send it out with the morning mail. You included a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). It was worthwhile, because it could cost $50 to get your manuscript copied. After the new postal regulations were adopted, manuscripts stopped being returned even with an SASE. It just wasn’t feasible for agents to carry huge piles of manuscripts to the post office every day.


I figured the manuscript for Chasing the Last Whale had been “recycled”—thrown in the trash—but what happened was the editor passed it on to another editor named Jason S. Sitzes, who e-mailed me and asked if I wanted him to edit it for $1500.

What the heck.

So he went through it line by line, wrote me an evaluation that was almost as long as the novel, allowed me a rewrite, and followed up with a phone conference. It was the best $1500 I ever spent, because Jason taught me several tricks of the trade that I’ve used in everything I’ve written since 2006.

I had ability somewhere inside; Jason showed me how to access it. During the first step of the process, he took a machete to my novel. Entire chapters were excised. Cherished dialog and scenes vanished. Some writers get all precious about their “voice,” but when someone teaches you how to golf, they often take your body and manipulate it into the forms you’re supposed to use. Does that mean you’re not the one golfing? No. It means the instructor taught you how to refine the nascent talent you had.

My problem as a novelist was that I could write great little vignettes, but I couldn’t unite them into a whole. In fact, the first draft of Invisible Idiot was a conscious imitation of the novel Lighter Than a Feather by David Westheimer. It’s a brilliant book about the invasion of the Japanese home islands in World War II. The premise of the novel is that the atomic bombs were never invented. The novel has about a million characters, each of whom appears in only one scene. Somehow it works. I’d never read a novel that didn’t follow a set number of characters through a story arc.

But I’ve already explained why my version didn’t work. It was an imitation. Westheimer pulled it off because he’s a tremendous writer. I simply lack the skill. You don’t get Suzanne Vega to sing arias, but her work is absolutely stellar. I simply wasn’t cut out to write like David Westheimer. Like all authors (Yup. I have to call myself that now.) I had to find my own style. Jason helped me organize my chaotic, slapdash approach to long-form writing, and he also drove home the most important point of all: It’s work, like anything else.

Another of my problems was that I’d fallen for that Quatsch about the “lonely battle between the writer and the blank piece of paper.” Hogwash. What I do now is write a synopsis, then an outline that I expand into chapter outlines, then a whole bunch of ideas I want to include in the book, fit them into the chapters, and then fill in all the spaces. The end. It’s as romantic as giving myself a haircut. Once the book is finished, I never re-read it. I’m also never satisfied with it. They—whomever “they” are—tell me that my dissatisfaction will serve me well and keep me producing better and better books.

I can see that. Satisfaction breeds complacency and laziness. I try not to use the same adjective or adverb twice in the same book, which is insane but proof that I won’t get lazy. I once knew a mystery writer named Martha C. Lawrence, who told me, “You write until they take it away from you.” True. It’s one of the reasons I never re-read my books. Things I wrote even months ago make me cringe.

So I internalized Jason’s pointers, and they’ve worked for me ever since. Chasing the Last Whale lay fallow for several years because the book meant too much for me to subject it to another round of rejections. I don’t mean that I see the book as “my child” or anything as fatuous. It’s just a heartfelt story that is very significant to me.

Luckily the self-publishing industry took off while Chasing the Last Whale sat in a drawer in my house, and now I get to publish it without having to grovel to anybody. I’m too old for that shit now, so I won’t do it anymore. Self-publishing appeals to me because I pretty much despise the conventions of the literary world. And I’m housebound! That’s the only good thing about Meniere’s disease. No book-launching parties, no personal appearances, no signings, and no tours. Thank God.

I won’t tell you what Jason S. Sitzes taught me. Though I don’t know if he’s still working, it would be immoral to give away for free what he’s rightfully paid to impart. He acquired his skills through years of experience, and he should be compensated.

My goal was to be a music journalist. Now my goal is to be a novelist and memoirist. I’ve got lots of ideas that I’m pretty sure I can execute. Someone in the industry recently told me that I need to stick to long-form writing, meaning books. Okay. That’s what I’ll do. I’ve already published five books and have two more about to be released. It’s strange that I ended up here. It may have been predestined, as you can see in the Chasing the Last Whale image gallery.

At any rate, I owe it all to Jason S. Sitzes. I have no idea if I’ll succeed, but the great thing is that I no longer care, in a fundamental way. My plan is to write the books I want to write, and if people buy them, I’ll be very grateful. The days of struggling and raging are over. Now I’m just in it for the satisfaction of telling a good yarn and making people laugh.